Monday, March 26, 2012

The Trend Games

This weekend, like so many of you, I went to see The Hunger Games. (It's good; go see it if you haven't already!)

The hype around this movie has been insane. It's everywhere. Like with Twilight, as big as the book was, a movie adaptation makes it even bigger. Teens who don't usually read suddenly pick up the book in anticipation of the movie. Adults who don't read YA want to see what all the fuss is about. These types of readers are rarely changed for life. They likely won't pick up another YA until the next HUGE THING gets optioned for a movie.

For writers, something similar happens. There are YA writers who suddenly decide to write in the movie's genre or Adult writers who give YA a go because YA breeds the biggest hits right now. The problem with this mentality is that the book world and the film world are two different things.

There's an episode of Scrubs in which, on a slow day at the hospital, the gang sees an announcement on the news for a Sars-like epidemic. Suddenly, the hospital is flooded with hypochondriacs who think they have symptoms of the disease. This is what movie adaptations of popular books is like.

It's no surprise that I love Harry Potter. I love it not only because the books are well-written and the story is timeless, but also because of what this series meant to literature. Yes, Young Adult existed - just barely - before Harry Potter was published in 1998, and (as I've pointed out before) there were certainly popular YA titles in the late '90s and early '00s. But it wasn't until the overwhelming, Beatle-mania-level popularity of Harry Potter that YA became a legitimate force in literature, complete with its own section in the bookstore and bestseller list in the New York Times

Unfortunately, there is one thing I can't quite forgive J.K. Rowling for, and that's her creation of "the trend." More than in adult fiction - and perhaps because teens themselves latch onto trends more than adults - the YA market is often built around one huge concept. Before Harry, YA was full of stories about teens finding their voices. Some novels took more chances than others, some were darker, some were genre fiction gems, but for the most part they were contemporary stories that came of age with the term Young Adult itself.

Harry showed the world that YA could go beneath the surface of what being a teen is like. Taking us to a land of magic and showing us the powers of family and friendship, YA was able to become a more nuanced genre. The formerly quiet Young Adult market needed a while to get a hold of what Harry did to it, and once it recovered the timing was right for Twilight to take over. In the book world, The Boy Who Lived was so five minutes ago by 2005. While the rest of the world enjoyed our wizards, we book dwellers found vampires. Not the vampires adults were used to. YA needed their turn with them, so enter Twilight. For better or worse, YA was all about cute dead boys and the girls who loved them. As followers of the publishing industry, you don't need to be told what happened next: Paranormal Romance Overload.

After a few adaptations of the books that started our obsession with vamps, werewolves, and all those paranormal dreamboats, the book industry was once again ready to move on. So in the midst of the later Twilight books and the early Twilight movies, readers moved on to the next next big thing - The Hunger Games - and it's been all dystopia all the time ever since.

Which brings me back to the The Hunger Games movie. Despite claims of following agents on Twitter and reading industry blogs, it seems every querying writer who writes in a trend consciously ignores our insider knowledge that the market is too saturated for them to join the club. The justification that I most often see in queries is "because of the success of the movies..." What trend-hoppers don't realize is that the popularity of a movie does not effect their likelihood of getting - or not getting - published. That's not to say movies don't help immensely with sales of already-published books within the genre. They also can help start trends within the movie industry. But, we don't work in the movie industry.

When a book like Harry, Twilight, or The Hunger Games becomes so big that it single-handedly creates a trend, the next logical step is for that book to become a movie. Writers should think of film adaptations as the equivalent of your parents joining Facebook. Millions of people were already enjoying it, but anything exclusive or cool about it is over the second it crosses over to a different audience. Books start trends; films end them.

Twilight wasn't fantasy and The Hunger Games wasn't paranormal romance. The Next Big Thing won't be in the same genre as the current trend, so jump off the train, start something new, and be what's next.

18 comments:

  1. Here here, to that advice!

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  2. "Be what's next" - I like that. Very nice. I guess part of the problem is so many people are trying to jump onto the gravy train and make a pile of cash. Or, to be a little more forgiving to my fellow writers, they are being inspired by what they read and see.

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  3. I want to make "Be what's next" my motto!

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  4. "Books start trends; films end them."

    Oh good, the dystopian trend is on its way out? I hope so. Like mildly amusing episodes of Star Trek, but 6-18 hours long...

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  5. My problem with the dystopian future is that it creates a disconnect for the reader by casting aside all the rules and conventions of the society they've spent their entire lives in. The primal wish fulfillment plays well from a Tyler Durdenesque "We all start at zero" perspective, but for only so long. Sure it's fun to imagine the Kardashian sisters going hungry because they don't have the hunting skills to survive in a world with no money, or greedy wall street bankers struggling in vain to build a fort to hold off the zombie apocalypse. But these ideas border on revenge fantasy and beg the question: Who are we really angry at? Is it the people who have the materialistic success we all secretly desire? Or is it the society that bestowed these gifts upon such unworthy recipients?

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    1. It's rare that I like a dystopian beyond its concept. That's why it works so great for Star Trek. Visit a planet, get a taste of what our world would be if X, develop it for 20 minutes, move on. A whole novel or even series built around one of those What If fantasies? Ehhhh.

      "My problem with the dystopian future is that it creates a disconnect for the reader by casting aside all the rules and conventions of the society they've spent their entire lives in."

      I really like that. Dystopians can work if a writer fully explores all the new conventions that would arise in their new world. But I don't see that a lot. One of the best-selling dystopian series on shelves right now doesn't stand up at all! Hole after hole. Sometimes I think writers are building their dystopians backwards. "It would be cool if the world was like this," and then they grasp for some reason the world would ever become that way.

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  6. I was writing YA long before it became such a trend (unfortunately wasn't querying for a long time, but I was still writing), so it surprised me when I found out how many writers nowadays seem to be writing to trends. My eyes usually glaze over when I'm participating in a contest or bloghop and I see the genre listed as "YA paranormal" (romance or otherwise) or dystopia/post-apocalyptic. I write YA historical and some soft sci-fi because that's what's always come most naturally to me, not because I'm hoping it'll be the next trend.

    As a name nerd, I think it's kind of similar to people who suddenly claim they loved such and such an oversaturated name no one had ever heard of (or at least hadn't regarded very highly) until about 5-10 years ago. Sure some people will write in a trendy genre or choose a massively trendy baby name because they were interested in it on its own merits before the trend started, but it seems like most of them are stretching the truth just a bit. IF you want to be remembered as a writer for all time, that means writing a good story you want to write, not trying to copy a huge trend.

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  7. I can't write for trends. I do write paranormal romance and fantasy romance, but that's because it's what comes naturally to me and I sort of resent all the people who don't really like writing for that genre, but do or did anyway just to write what was popular at the time and make the whole thing harder for me.

    If I wanted to go along with trends, I'd definitely write for young adults right now and sometimes I wish that I could, but it's impossible for me. It's just not how I think.

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  8. Love this post. It's kind of funny... I can't describe how annoyed I get by the influx of similar books favouring the newest "trend"... but at the same time, if I'm liking the trend, I gobble that stuff. up. Nom.

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  9. I would like to add an "amen." Also, it's probably the contrarian in me, but I lose interest in a property or conceit once it becomes really popular. I almost didn't read the Harry Potter books because of it, but fell for them in spite of the over-commercialization. I'd much rather read something that is great for the sake of it being a great story than so-so because it fit with the in-crowd of the moment.

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  10. It's a good summary of the trends, Sarah, and good conclusion to leave the current hot trend and write for the next trend. Alas, I have a feeling that publishers and editors and maybe also many literary agents don't wish to take risk on unproven concepts and trends. It's more comfortable to marjet for the current hot trend, because you know that many YA readers already embraced it ... but there's no way to know if they'll embrace a new trend. So it's risky for everyone .. authors, agents and publishers .. to go with unproven possible new trend.
    Case in point, I was aiming to hopfully open a trend of YA fiction set in China and Asia, being something new for YA readers and also educational .. cause they can learn about new culuture. So far, that supposedly possible new trend turns out to be risky.
    But thanks again for your posts.

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    1. Publishers, editors, agents, and even writers have no control over what becomes a trend. Readers decide that. It's our job to know when the market is ready for a shift, and right now it is. We have no way of knowing what will be the next thing, so we have to take chances and we do. Everything is a risk in this business. No writer should go out with a project hoping to become a trend. It's too impossible to predict. Just focus on writing the best book you can and hope someone else sees in it what you see.

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  12. While I agree that writers shouldn't mold their work to fit a particular trend, I would caution against advising writers to avoid genres just because they've already been trended. I disagree that films end trends. If that were true, we never would have seen Twilight or True Blood because Buffy already had that genre covered. Ditto Hunger Games vs. Brave New World, 1984, etc. Trends come and go, but they generally boomerang back after awhile. I think the important thing for writers to focus on is what the heart of the story they want to tell is. If it's powerful and the writing is legitimately good, it'll sell no matter the genre.
    (Sorry about the multiple entries. I ought to make better use of the "preview" option).

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    1. Thanks, Jory. I agree that writers shouldn't avoid genres just because they are trendy, but they should be aware of the difficulties involved in getting it published. "Trend" and "genre" are two different things. While there were several vampire stories and dystopian before Twilight and Hunger Games, in the modern YA, those books reinvented those genres and made them trendy. By definition, trends come and go. Genres are constant, but since YA is such a new sub-genre of fiction, it doesn't fall under the same "constant" that adult fiction gets to benefit from. Right now it's very trend-based, and while I think that will change, it's a reality new writers breaking into YA need to be aware of.

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  13. Thanks for the great post! So how do I convince you that my work is the next new trend? - Kyle S.

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