The Next Big Thing

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“Everybody’s talkin’ bout the new way of walkin’
Do you want to lose your mind?”

The lyrics above are part of “Walk Right In,” first recorded, apparently, by Gus Cannon and The Jug Stompers in 1929.  Yes, I’m just that old.  Okay, seriously now, when I sat down to write this article, that was the song going through my head.  The reason is that everyone is always talking about the next big thing, but the problem is that by the time it’s been identified, it’s not really new anymore.  It’s too late to lead the pack, though maybe not too late to get swept along in it.

The fact is this, in life or in fiction…you want to be a leader, not a follower.  Sure, there are some genres that are struggling right now more than others, and knowing that you might decide to work on your fantasy novel rather than the multi-generational saga currently calling to you.  Deciding what to focus your attention on is a necessary part of the business, and one of the reasons it’s good to have an agent on your side to brainstorm and do career planning with you.  However, you need to keep in mind two things: 1) where your strengths lie and 2) you never know when family sagas will come back into vogue or whether yours will be the next Roots or Steel Magnolias or…well, you’ve got me, I’m not much for sagas and can’t quote you chapter and verse.  The point is, if a saga, or a thriller, or a science fiction extravaganza is where your heart lies, if it’s where your strengths lie…not just based on your opinion, but those of critique partners or professionals around you…you should go for it.

What you don’t want to do is write something that doesn’t speak to you just because you think you should.  This generally leads to lifeless prose and a novel that doesn’t truly draw anyone in.  If the writer isn’t engaged, how can he or she connect with the reader?  The books that are hot right now were bought a year ago…minimum.  Books that are bought today won’t be out for at least a year for full manuscripts, longer for debuts and, of course, for books sold on proposal that still need to be completed.  So, what you’re seeing on the shelves now is a representation of what was being bought months and months ago.  If you do want to keep up with who is selling what to whom, the place to look is the trades, like Publishers Marketplace, Publishers Weekly, Locus, SF Scope….  Feel free to jump in with others in the comments section.

But remember, it can be easy to become obsessed with this.  By the time you hear that fallen angels are hot, chances are many publishers already have their fallen angel titles on the market or in the works.  This means hot for selling to consumers, not necessarily for selling at that moment to publishers.  Like the above lyrics say, you might lose your mind trying to chase trends.

Now, I’m not saying that you should be deaf to the markets, either.  If you’re writing within a genre, it’s important to know what’s intrinsic to that genre.  You wouldn’t write a fantasy novel without magic, would you?  Or a science fiction novel without science?  (Well, except maybe for post-apocalyptic fiction, where technology has been demolished.)  You wouldn’t write a mystery without some sort of puzzle to solve.  However, you might have a murder mystery within a fantasy framework or a romance set in a science fiction world.  It’s important to have an awareness of which market you intend to be your primary.  Publishers can only put one thing on the spine, which helps bookstores decide where the books should be shelved and readers decide whether your book suits their tastes.  Books that are not quite one thing or another pose a bit of a problem.  There can be quite a bit of genre blending, but in the end, it’s the focus of your novel…is it saving the world or getting the girl, for instance…that decides it.

So yes, know your work.  Know your strengths and weaknesses.  Know the market.  But to quote some more lyrics at you, “Don’t go changin’ to try and please me” (from the master, Billy Joel).

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23 comments to The Next Big Thing

  • Lucienne,
    great point. I got chills when I saw you cite Billy Joel at the end because when I read the Gus Cannon quote I thought it was from “Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me”! Maybe that emphasizes your point that trends (and ideas) are cyclical but you can’t predict the pattern. Everytime I try to pay attention to anything to do with Twilight I find myself saying “but didn’t we do this already–and better–with Buffy?” Sigh.

  • Lucienne Diver

    (*grin*) I did a gymnastics routine when I was a kid to “Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me.” Great song, but boy am I glad video cameras weren’t as prevalent back then!

  • *puts his novel about a quirky Southern girl who can read minds falling in love with a protective vampire who growls her name when she is danger – back on the shelf*

  • Sometimes events happen — Michael Jackson dies — and within days to months there are books on the shelves about him, his life, and his death. Now, I understand how they can rush something out, but my question is — If they can capitalize on a moments notice, why not do so with other trends? Why does the business model of producing a book lag so far behind the trends when the publishing industry appears to be able to accommodate such things? Is it simply a matter of quality over quantity?

  • Lucienne Diver

    Stuart, it’s one thing to capitalize on a media-storm event…all the promo work is done for you, so you don’t have to worry as much about feeding the publicity frenzy. For fiction, well, some books =are= rushed to press. Bestsellers are a good example. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books are put into the pipeline just as soon as humanly possible. When the mash-up craze hit, a lot of mash-ups were fast-tracked. However, the books need to be written, edited, promoted, put into catalogues…. Bumping something up in the schedule means bumping something else back. I don’t really think that’s the way to go. If we flood the market when a trend hits, then it washes everything away and nothing stands out!

  • This is why I just write what I write. There’s no telling what’s going to be on the rise two years from now–probably 2012 apocalypse stories, actually–so you may as well write the story that pops into your head. It may not be what’s big right now, but by the time you write what’s big now it may not be big anymore by the time it’s ready for publication. Everything’s cyclic. It’ll come back around eventually. And who knows, you could be at the head of that revolution. Stranger things have happened. :)

  • Great advice, Lucienne, and yet so hard to follow. We all want to catch that next wave, whatever it might be, and yet we also want to write what we love. It seems to me that the biggest books often are ones that defy expectation. For instance, when Terry Goodkind came out with Wizard’s First Rule, no one had been saying “Oh the market is ripe for a big fat fantasy.” J.K. Rowling seemed to take the markets by surprise, too. And before Susanna Clark, I don’t think that anyone was saying “What the market needs now is a neo-Victorian fantasy set against the backdrop of the Napoleanic Wars….” As you say, trying to predict this stuff, much less “write to the market” will make you nuts.

  • Hi Lucienne. So true! Especially >> 1) where your strengths lie. I wish I had seen this years ago.

    Many times in my career I’ve been behind the wave, or in front of the wave, and either trailed the pack to be washed out in the foam or hit the shelves before the market was ready for my product.

    When I was coming up with the premise of Jane Yellowrock (sitting in Starbucks with Kim and then with Misty, my two favorite people in the world) I deliberately devised a world that was current, for urban fiction, background character (vamps) who were huge, a main character who skirted the popular were-creature, but wasn’t. I did all that for the UF market, which was just startign to crest. But the voice of the character, the tone of the books all came straight from hardboiled mystery. My strengths. I think for once, I caught the wave at the right moment, and I have you to thank for that. Well, you and my pals!

  • Lucienne Diver

    Daniel, I think anyone who’s planning a 2012 novel that hasn’t yet sold might actually be too late! For the most part, publishers have already booked their 2011 schedules, so a novel bought right this very second (unless it’s fast-tracked) probably wouldn’t come out until 2012, not leaving much time on the shelves before 2012 isn’t future, but present, where we’ll either know we all survived or not much care .

  • Lucienne Diver

    David and Faith, you’re so right. It’s a novel and the voice in which it’s written that captures readers. Genre will only say whether or not it’s up someone’s alley, not assure that they will like it, so the important thing is to write with heart and real feeling. If the stakes are high and the plot and characters gripping, whether they’re vampires or Interpol agents, you’ll have ’em hooked.

  • Hello, Lucienne. We’ve only met once before (it was 2007; I was strangling David in a restaurant in Saratoga,NY, during WFC), but I’m glad we’ve crossed paths again.

    Great advice on where, when, and how to prioritize currents trends. I’ve heard similar advice from editors in New York — no, not similar: identical. Editors know it, agents know it, and would-be writers need to know it, too. It’s great that you’re here to give sound business advice to go along with the rest of the group’s sound writing advice.

  • Really? It should be obvious that the next big thing is Egyptian mummies in space.

    Thanks for this reminder that I should stay true to my authentic self. :)

  • Sarah Hoyt

    Er. It would be helpful if I had any degree of control over the “attack novels” (TM) Mostly I just try to type them as they come in. I think I’m getting better. But as far as “I think I’ll write x” uh… not so much. I write what needs to get written.
    And then I worry obsessively that I’m away ahead of trends or way behind them or — being me — kind of to the side and wondering why everyone else is fascinated by something over there.

    And Moira, too late. I’m just finishing my Egyptian mummies in space opus, which I started at eleven am this morning. 😀 (I’m joking, I’m joking.)

  • Hi Lucienne,
    I can’t wait to meet you at the RWA agent appointments.
    Are you seeing trends in the stories romance editors are buying right now?

  • Oh, darn, Sarah. I had it all planned out and everything!

    Captain Amenhotep creaked his dusty head in my direction. Anger lit his eyes like hot coals. “Chart a course for Isis 8,” he rasped.

    The ensign’s bony fingers obediently tapped the control screen. In moments, the ship was speeding through space.

    And I was screwed.

    😉

  • Sarah Hoyt

    Moira,

    Not that way. I was literally screwed down. Well, at least the lid of my sarcophagus was. I tried to pound the lid, but my arms were tied crossed over my chest, and the strips then went around and around my chest. Which, by the way, let me tell you, had been wrapped by someone with absolutely no consideration for my double-D cups. It hurt!
    I managed to rub my face against the inside of the lid, till I removed the stuff they’d tied over my mouth. I swear a gold scarab beetle fell off as I did that, glinting inside the coffin. “Let me out, you dust-brains,” I yelled, then realized I was using what was probably scarce air that had to keep me alive till I broke free. That was it. I would have to use my head. I tilted myself so my sandaled feet pushed against the back of the coffin, and I put my forehead against the front. This wasn’t easy because my sandals felt metalic. Had these critters put gold-sandals on me? Well, at least if I escaped this, I’d have a fortune in found gold.
    I pushed. Hard. And felt the screws give.

  • Lucienne Diver

    Moira and Sarah, too funny!

  • Lucienne Diver

    Nancy, editors don’t really guy genres, they buy killer stories with great voices and protagonists that readers really connect with. Some genres might be harder to break into than others, but a great novel will rise to the top of whatever field.

  • Lucienne Diver

    It seems that great minds think alike and agent Rachelle Gardner covered this same topic last week on her blog, for those who want a second opinion: http://cba-ramblings.blogspot.com/2010/06/write-from-your-heart-or-follow-trends.html

  • Thanks, Lucienne.

    I was beginning to feel I was being stubborn instead of feeling I was writing to my strengths. I write what interests me, knowing that my heart will be in it. Haven’t you read a novel that seems as if the author was just grinding it out for whatever reason drove her/him to produce a lukewarm creation?

    Maybe I’ll make my own trend, right?

  • Bahaha, Sarah. I cry mercy. It’s either that or I start brainstorming how such a thing might *actually* work.

    Glad you liked it, Lucienne. :)

  • Okay, Moira & Sarah, now you have to write them! I’m all gripped now. Both sound like a hoot.

  • Lucienne Diver

    Roland, well, I have to admit, sometimes it is just being stubborn. That’s why critique groups and partners are so great. Writing is a lot like a relationship. You love the project you’re working on, so you may see it with rose-colored glasses, which is why it’s good to have another set of eyes on it to let you know if you’re going astray. It’s like having friends pull an intervention when you’re in a bad relationship.

    That said, it is a subjective business, and if advice doesn’t feel right to you deep down, put it aside. I’ve gone out with submissions where one editor loved the plot, didn’t care for the storyline and the next said the exact same thing in reverse. Publishing is really a matter of talent and taste, which is why I always recommend that writers have agents, because we’re right there in the thick of things day to day and know various editors tastes well, so we’re better able to target submissions to the editors most likely to appreciate them