Commenters Cry “Bull!”

A comment came in yesterday on last week’s post about not writing to trends. It wasn’t the first comment to doubt my veracity, but it had the most zing, so I wanted to jump back in and talk a bit more about it. Let’s dive in and see me get thrashed, shall we?

“So stop worrying about trends. Write the books you need to write. Authenticity and enthusiasm are priceless.”

This is absurd.

First, one agent’s trendy knockoff is another’s authentic innovation.  There is no consistency or objectivity in this area.

Meyer’s vampire books were (in my opinion) directly inspired by season two of Buffy… but that fact is quite lost on her audience, most of which never watched Buffy.

Second, literary agents aren’t literary and they aren’t agents. They are salesmen, and they want what all salesmen want: something that’s easy to sell.

This being the case, forget incest-filled Gothic novels.  Instead, give any “literary agent” a whiff of a memoir to be ghostwritten for Sarah Palin six months from now.

I predict it will get snapped up in a blue blur, never mind the fact that not a word of it exists yet and therefore its merit can’t possibly be judged.  What matters is the certain, easy, and lucrative sale.

Agents who encourage new writers to “be authentic” or “write the books you need to write” are just wasting everybody’s time.

Jason makes some completely fair points. Yes, literary agents are salespeople. And we work on commission so do we want things that are easy to sell? Absolutely. But what I find a bit dispiriting about this comment is the notion that we’re only in it to make a buck. Trust me, if I wanted to be rolling in piles of cash, I probably could have found a more direct route than going into book publishing. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we do this because we love it. While there are people out there who do sell things just as cash grabs, I sincerely believe that more often than not, agents mostly work on material they legitimately feel passionate about, and not just for its financial potential. Naïve? Stupidly optimistic? Perhaps. But it’s something I see borne out in the agents I know, and not just the ones here.

What has come up a few times is the feeling that I’m completely wrong about not writing to a market. And hey, I’m totally fine with people disagreeing with me. But since I very much agree with myself, I thought I’d talk a little more about this. Yes, we can look at people who saw things selling and jumped into the fray and made a buck. A thriller writer who tried their hand at young adult, a romance writer who made a quick buck back in the day with chick-lit—these examples are out there. “I tried so hard to sell what I wanted to write and couldn’t do it. Then I sold something else.” Well…okay. But how sustainable is that long-term? And how satisfying is a career writing books you don’t love? At some point, won’t the reader catch on? Won’t the books become rather lifeless if you’re writing them only to grab a buck?

Here’s the thing—maybe Stephenie Meyer’s book was derivative of the second season of Buffy. I don’t know—I never watched it. Even if that’s the case, there’s a giant difference between derivative and calculated. If there’s one thing I never doubt about Meyer, it’s her own enthusiasm for her books and her characters. I don’t want to suggest that one should never experiment in their writing. Maybe someone has been doing adult novels for a long time, sees the success of the current young adult market, and wants to give it a go. Wonderful! They have to do it because they’re excited about it, though. I maintain that readers are savvy enough to see through blatant attempts to cash in.

An awareness of the market is necessary, but the most successful books aren’t ones that follow trends. They’re the ones that create them. Go ahead, write to a trend. Get a nice deal. Or go out on a limb, write a great book, and aim for personal and creative satisfaction and the better chance that you’ll break out in a real way. Your call.

14 Responses to Commenters Cry “Bull!”

  1. These are great points. The question I have is: How do publishers know that there’s a trend worth initiating, that is to say, what kind of research do they do to know more about the reading public’s tastes? (Research is my day job so it’s a particular interest of mine.)

    Once I started the process of looking for an agent/publisher for my middle grade novel, excited about what I thought incorporated a timeless and tried and true “trend” based on my conversation with teachers, and influenced by my own inspiration and twist, I started to read how “overdone” this trend was (fairies, not vampires or werewolves). I had no idea it even was a trend when I started writing, but simply a familiar character I wanted to do something different with. I still love the story but am struggling to decide whether or not to make the changes that such trend aversion might dictate. I’ve moved on to writing another book, but I have to admit that the whole subject stokes some frustration.

  2. Rowenna says:

    I think there’s a huge difference between “write to trend” and “write something marketable.” Just because a writer takes the time to consider the audience, think about whether anyone aside from him or herself wants to read the story, assess whether the book would be saleable, doesn’t mean they’re writing to trend or a sell-out.
    You’re devoting months to a project, so in my opinion, you need to love it enough to keep working, with no gaurantee that it will sell. I also think it’s true that you can’t merely write what you love with no regard for the reader. The reader has to be able to engage, too–but isn’t that just good writing? There’s a middle ground–to write the story you love and that other people will love, too.

  3. Robin Weeks says:

    I think this is one reason why the best writers are readers, first. If you’re out there reading what is popular–and enjoying it–you’re more likely to write something that can also become popular, because you’ll write what you enjoy. Your inherent tastes can be informed by the tastes of your potential readers.

    What is sad is to see a writer try to chase a trend in a genre she’s never enjoyed. If you don’t enjoy vampire books, don’t write them… unless you can come up with a twist that will make it enjoyable for you.

  4. EEV says:

    I guess it all comes down to expectations. If you want to write a blockbuster, you have to consider your audience and you’re as much a salesman as the agent who’ll represent you. But if you don’t mind publication, or if your only goal is to reach a niche audience, then write what your passionate about. If it’s that good, people will notice someday, even if years late.

  5. Josie says:

    I see Twilight as a retelling of Snow White – from the apple on the cover to the seven interesting folk living in the wood ready to take her in and protect her. She’s pursued by someone called the Hunter, and you could count Victoria as the Wicked Queen. Even Bella’s physical description matches: pale skin, dark hair, etc.

  6. Dawn says:

    I agree with Jim here. Maybe you can make a buck (or several) following trends, but I don’t think it will sustain a career. Readers will notice, because there’s always something missing in those novels written from a formula rather than from the heart.

    I know publishing is a business, but from my perspective, it’s an incredibly generous and community-driven one. And, I don’t think you can doubt the intentions of the professionals who make it their life’s work. I’ve been impressed by the wealth of information that folks are willing to share. From agents during the querying process to blogs and interviews, the enthusiasm for the art is undeniable.

  7. Bethany Neal says:

    First: Hey! I watched Buffy AND love Twilight.

    I think it’s a hard run when a human girl’s vamp BF doesn’t try to convince her she’s too good for him. I mean, there’s the whole you’re 17, I’m 147 thing, and the wicked awkward I used to eat people during Prohibition conversation. But I have to say, season 2 of Buffy is my absolute fav and I don’t see the connection between it and Twilight. Edward never attempted to murderer anyone in Forks that Bella cared about…

    Second (and more on topic): Writing to a trend or audience (for me) is creative suicide. If I’m not writing for myself, it’s going to be a hair-pulling-out disaster that’s just not worth it. And I don’t think there’s an agent out there that would advice a writer to put themselves through that. At least I know mine wouldn’t. (Thanks, Stacey :) )

  8. Nicole T. says:

    I don’t think it’s agents so much as editors. And even then, I know that not all editors are going to be scrambling after every trend that comes along. Having said that, I do find trends annoying because even if agents and editors are cool with something else, they’re still keeping their eyes open for yet another book in that area. I think a good example is urban fantasy. While the kiddies had their vampires, a lot of adults hit the urban fantasy market hard. And though not every agent is actively seeking, I know I’ve seen a jump in agents with “urban fantasy” injected into their list of “what I’m looking for.”

    Maybe I’ve just negated myself with all that, but in the end I don’t really see it as the original commentor saw it. I think trends are just a trickle down effect that the rest of us have to deal with – or in most cases, ignore. I don’t doubt that agents love their job and get a kick out of landing a sweet deal with a big publisher for a brand new author. But trends are bothersome and even I worry from time to time about how it might effect the way an agent looks at my query letter.

    Then again, it doesn’t seem to matter what I query – I worry about the way agents look at my letter no matter what. 😛

  9. Heather Gordon says:

    Well, first off, I was a huge fan of Buffy- and when I say HUGE, I mean that I carved chopsticks into stakes and carried them around with me… I was like 8 years old, so don’t judge- and I also love the Twilight series and I can’t say I see the connection between the two. The point is that if we look hard enough at any two works in the same genre we can find similarities- that’s why they are in the same genre.

    But this is what I really think about the whole trend-writing thing. I began my first book about two years ago, after I had been through an incident that very nearly took my life. The book I began was going to be a memoir, and I have no doubt that if I had chosen to finish it, it would have been a very popular story. However, I found that when I started to write it, I felt as though I was doing a forced, homework project. I think I began it as a way to help me cope with what I’d been through because writing has always been my emotional outlet. But then, I decided that even though my story was heart-wrenching and interesting, I was selling out by writing it. So, I discarded 20,000 words and started over. Instead, I wrote an urban fantasy novel about vampires. Needless to say that is not really a trend for me; I’ve always been a supernatural lover. I found that when I wrote what I enjoyed reading, the process was pratically painless. And I think it even helped me cope in some way. So, when I tell people that I wrote a book that has vampires in it, they always laugh and tell me that I sold out as a writer. I just smile, because that’s exactly what I didn’t do.

  10. Day Day says:

    LOL. I’ve read the Twilght books and I thought they were completely aweful. It’s like she took the best part of the Lost Boys, Fright Night, and any real good vampire movie and tossed them out the window. Yet, it works for her. People love those books, but a part me believe it has a lot to do with the marketing. So many times things are spoon fed as great work of fiction and people buy it believing it is because 20 other people said that it was. How many times have you seen a book hit the bestseller list before it even hits the bookshelves and I’ve heard more agents say that following trends is a good thing more than not. However, I do believe you should write what you know, what you can control, and what you love.

  11. I have never heard of a non-celebrity writing a book for a quick buck and succeeding. Writing, editing, querying, etc. These things take a long time. I don’t see how someone could do all of that if they didn’t love the story, if they weren’t fully invested in the characters. Maybe I am too optimistic but I believe the proof will be in the pudding or in this case the book.

    Also, I read Twilight and watched Buffy and I don’t understand the comparison between the two either.

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