Debut Analysis for Aspiring Writers

After two and a half years of following reviews, I’ve developed a few ideas about today’s publishing scene and I thought I’d share them with you. This is going to be fantasy and science fiction-centric, because I haven’t been following the debuts of other genres long enough to come to any conclusions. I do think the gist of what I’m trying to say will cross genres.

Also, please bear in mind that I’m no expert. These are simply the conclusions I’ve come to that govern the ideas I choose to pursue as a writer. If you think I’m dead wrong, please say so in the comments. I am willing to be convinced.

1) Write something entirely new. You can’t write about elves anymore. Elves were popular during the Tolkein revival of the 80s. When they started to become overdone, we saw the pseudo-elves of the 90s: the lyra, the eika, the other. Call ‘em anything but elves. We all knew they were really elves, and we all winked and nodded.

You can’t get away with that anymore. Writers from the 80s can still write their elf stories. Writers from the 90s can still write their pseudo-elf stories. You have to come up with something new. A few of you might get away with spoofs or twists, as Lisa Shearin and Jim Hines did with elves and goblins, but it has to be both new and fabulous.

Aspire to do with Tolkein did with elves, and what Anne Rice did with vampires. Invent a new genre!

2) If you don’t want to come up with something entirely new, ride the wave of a trend. However, you need to be near the crest of that wave in order to succeed. For example, vampires have been popular, and they continue to be popular with established authors. However, there are fewer and fewer debut vampire novels coming out. It’s all zombies these days.

You also have to be quick to ride that wave. Early last year, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came out and became a bestseller. They’re even making a movie of it. Nowadays, other zombie books are popping up, but those were the lucky authors, the ones who happened to have zombie works already in the making. Deborah Blake tells me that she recently heard at a convention that agents are interested in zombie romance. If you happen to have a zombie romance lying around, now is the time to get it in front of an agent.

One thing you can do is see what’s popular at the movies, and then write fast. If you go to a popular movie and get inspired, get it done yesterday, and get it submitted. And be aware that lots of other people will be inspired as well. If the movie is the start of a trilogy, all the better. Your novel, assuming it is published, will come out at the end of the trilogy and you can ride success all the way to shore (assuming the movie sequels don’t bomb). A year after the last Pirates of the Caribbean came out, I saw a handful of shipboard fantasy debuts. But I’m already not seeing them anymore. The authors who jumped on this wave now get to ride it.

3) If you’re not quick, find a rising tide instead. The elf fantasies of the 80s were part of a tide. They endured for years and years before people started talking about “cookie cutter fantasies.” That’s when we started seeing pseudo-elves. Now, the phrase is starting to be “cookie cutter urban fantasies”. Expect pseudo-vampires in the near future. Heck, they’re already out there.

The problem is, telling the difference between a wave and a tide can be difficult. We have no moon of popular culture to guide us. If you wait and see, the wave might crash on the shore.

The big exception I’ve seen to all this is in novels written for children. I still see Young Adult and Middle Grade elf stories, and everyone knows how popular YA vampire romances are becoming. In my observation, YA tends to follow adult stories, and MG follows YA. Because of YA and MG, we get to constantly expose a new audience to the popular waves of yesteryear. They read Lord of the Rings and want to read more elf stories. They read Twilight and want to read more vampire stories.

What have I done to follow my own advice? Well my own 80s-inspired elf story is now trunked. I have considered retooling it for MG (actually it would be an entirely new novel), but I just haven’t been inspired enough to contemplate it. I spent too many years on it as it is.

I also have an epic fantasy that doesn’t go anywhere near elves. Instead, I deal with a pantheon of gods and, my protagonist is dark-skinned. Plus, it takes place in ancient times, rather than medieval. I’m hoping gods in fantasy aren’t a tide that has already passed.

Plus, I have a Jane Austen fantasy. There aren’t any zombies in it; it’s a spy novel. Jane Austen has been a tide in recent years, and I’m obviously hoping that continues. The Pride and Predudice and Zombies movie will probably help Jane Austen fantasies, unless it plunges the entire genre into a parody.

And while I continue to submit those, I’m working on something entirely new. I’ve taken the concept of time travel and have given it my own little twist. I’m hoping recent time travel historical successes (including The Time Traveler’s Wife, which is on my to-read list) makes my novel viable. And I’m hoping my twist is as cool as I think it is.

So what do you think? Am I dead wrong? Am I attempting to read tea leaves? Was this topic really worth a thousand words? Did I take my oceanic metaphors too far? Please share in the comments.

20 thoughts on “Debut Analysis for Aspiring Writers

  1. Trend-following can be risky, but it’s not something I’d write off totally. The thing writers have to remember is that if you’re going to follow a trend (or a rising tide; I’m lumping them both together for the sake of brevity), it has to be something you love. If you’re only writing, say, a vampire novel to hop on the vampire train but you’re not really into it, that’s going to show in your writing. If you’re into something that happens to be trendy, go for it. But don’t just follow trends for the sake of following trends.

    Aside from that, I think that even if you are writing in a trend, you need to make it something new, make it your own. Find something to set your work apart from the other vampire novels. It could be a plot twist, it could be a worldbuilding detail, it could even be a unique style or voice. But if you’re going to do what’s trendy, don’t just wear that trend right off the rack. Combine it with something else and make it your own.

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    • Yes, very well said. I do think some long and enduring trends (the “tides” I mentioned in my oceanic metaphor) can inspire lots of ideas that can be followed but like you said, they have to be new and different.

      For example, I tried to make my elves different by making them more like brownies, slightly cranky, and no more long-lived than the rest of us. I also gave them a magic system that I’d still like to play with someday. I have never seen anything quite like it.

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    • Love it! I got slightly steampunky in my spy fantasy, but it was all real science. So I’m not sure if real science counts in steampunk. :)

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  2. Good topic. This reminds me of what I’m told film execs are looking for when they select scripts/concepts: something entirely new that they’ve seen before. :) In film the advice people generally give to “aspirings” is write what you’re passionate about and don’t worry about the trends, because by the time you start marketing, the trend may be on its way out. I think the key really is originality. Be original and you’ll get noticed.

    What do I know, though? I’ve never sold a novel or a script. :)

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  3. I think you’re right on, too. And not just because you quoted me :-) This all ties in pretty well with what I’ve been thinking.
    For instance, I love urban fantasies, especially those that have something “different” about them. And I didn’t want to write about vampires (that book is shelved for now) or zombies (ugh) and have no interest in steampunk. So I set out to write an UF with new and different paranormal characters that no one had seen before.
    I’ll let you know how that goes :-)

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  4. This is a really interesting post. I agree the best idea is to definitely write what you’re passionate about (not just try and ride a trend), but to do it with originality.

    I also agree with Raven that often trends are already passing by the time a new book makes it into print, so it really needs to be something you care about not just a an attempt to cash in.

    There’s a phrase that gets bandied about a lot by publishers and agents: that if something is good enough, it will eventually get published. So, theoretically, if we write what we love, well, and with originality, we’ll eventually get our stories published.

    (Great blog, by the way … I’ve been lurking for a while…)

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    • Well, I’m glad I inspired you out of lurkerdom! I like your attitude. Sometimes getting that novel good enough is the trick. I’ve been submitting and polishing one novel for just over three years now. Time for round three!

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  5. Aspiring authors are told to write what they love.

    It’s excellent practice for becoming a more skilled writer, but, in my observation, it rarely results in publication.

    Nowadays, I study the market and make my best guess, because you really have to be psychic about trends, which I am not, or extremely lucky to hit one.

    What gets published is what publishers believe will sell and they believe that’s the same old thing, but a little bit different. Or whatever trend they see coming.

    To start a trend, now that would be awesome!

    But, do you realize the odds?

    I’d love to become a bestselling author and start a trend.

    Not for the fame or money.

    But, so I could write whatever the heck I want and not ever have to worry about this crap ever again!

    ‘Cause, I can’t write within genre/subgenre conventions to save my life and I hate trends.

    I may love what started the trend, but I hate all the knock-offs which follow.

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    • Maybe you can combine the two approaches. Pick a popular genre that you love, and then try to come up with an idea you love (and characters you love!) within that genre.

      In my observation, if an author can come up with a character that I love, It doesn’t matter what the genre is.

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  6. Sorry for the long silence. The family vacation kind of sucked me in, and it didn’t help that I didn’t have the WiFi access that I expected. (Kinda thought it was default on all cable modems–guess not.) Anyway, I’m going to check out your comments now.

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  7. Expect pseudo-vampires in the near future. Heck, they’re already out there.

    Oops? I don’t know, I think the more I read and heard and thought myself that nothing new could be done with vampires and that they were tapped dry, the more I wanted to whittle them down to some core concept and then take that and run with it. What I ended up with is probably too different to be called a vampire, but it does beg the comparison and I’m sure I won’t be the only one drawing it.

    I agree with everything you’ve said. There’s a trick to discerning if a trend is meaty enough to become a rising tide, if there’s enough room for twists and variations, but I’m sure I don’t know what it is. I also think angels and demons, and their various permutations, are a persistent rising trend in urban fantasy/paranormal romance.

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    • You have some great points. If you were to take the original vampire legends, you would probably end up with something that even I might be interested in, as long as it didn’t involve undead sex. Yuck.

      I also agree with you — unfortunately — about the persistent rising tide with angels and demons. They can be done in such a way that it doesn’t trample all over Christian beliefs, but the trend seems to be to do exactly that in order to be edgy.

      You know a rising tide by its endurance. Back in the 80s, if I had finished a publishable elf story in a reasonable amount of time, I might have been able to ride that tide. But I didn’t.

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  8. (Late to the topic.) I’m afraid I subscribe to the `write what you love’ method just because I write so slowly that not only would the tide be out by the time I finished my novel, but any clams would be dug, and the starfish probably dried up in the sun. Unfortunately for me, writing what I love means old style Gothic (aka Woman in Peril) stories involving elves. That’s two major cliches mixed together. Um. Which might make it original, I’m not sure.

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    • I hope I didn’t just crush your dreams! But when people approach me about their self-published books, lots of times it’s elf stories.

      A Victoria Holt-style elf story might be something different! Focus on standing out from the crowd. And don’t take what I say too seriously. I’m just another reader, when it comes right down to it. And honestly, I still like elf stories, especially when they’re mixed with a healthy dose of wonder, as J. R. R. Tolkien managed.

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