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).