Last week, the internet’s hackles were raised (I know, there’s a surprise – the internet got upset about something! Oh noes! Run and hide!) when, after Tor.com hosted its month-long steampunk celebration, a few fairly big name authors expressed their weariness with all things steampunk. Skirmishes broke out all over. “There are no well-written steampunk novels!” said one side. “If you don’t like it, don’t read it!” countered the other. There were accusations that steampunk is only pushing white privilege on an oblivious reading public that ought to be paying better attention. Delicious snack cakes were even recruited into the fray, although somehow I never got my hands on any of the chocolate cupcakes with the white squiggles on top. But I digress…. As far as I can tell, the brouhaha ended pretty peacefully, with few casualties. So I’m not here to either deride or defend steampunk, or any other genre. What sparked my thoughts during all this was the problem of trends.
We like to be like each other. We can’t help it. For those of us who are old enough, think back to the eighties – can you give me a better reason that we were all wearing pink leg warmers? We wore them because our friends did, and they wore them because that girl in the movie looked so great wearing them. Even those of us who were socially a bit outcast had certain trends we followed. I spent a year wearing Raybans and men’s pants a size too big that I bought at Goodwill and belted up, because it was similar to the New Wave look, and read hard science fiction because the guys I was friendly with all liked it, too. Trends happen when we all want to be doing the same cool thing.
When I started writing Mad Kestrel, there was no Pirates of the Caribbean movie, no Jack Sparrow. I’d been a pirate on my own time for a while, attending Renaissance faires in pirate garb with a few of my friends who shared my love of the buccaneers. We were often told that we weren’t properly expressing the Renaissance spirit, but we just giggled. “We were pirates when pirates weren’t cool,” we told each other. When the movie came out, of course, all of that changed. Jack Sparrows started showing up everywhere. (You haven’t lived until you’ve watched three Jack Sparrows try to outswagger each other at a Renaissance faire, let me tell you.) I suppose I could have gotten my nose bent out of joint about it, but it didn’t matter that much to me. What do I care if people want to play in my sandbox for a few years? The current fondness for steampunk strikes me as much the same situation. Women are enjoying wearing corsets and bustles, and there are goggles and gears and leather straps everywhere you look. (And zeppelins – sorry AJ! *laughs*) But steampunk as a fashion will trend out again when something else catches the costumers’ fancies. This is just how these things go. The people who love it will continue to dress that way, and the people who only did it because it was the hot thing will move on to something else.
The same thing happens with publishing. Someone sells a book that fills a gap, a subject no one has written about before (or in a long, long time) and the reading public goes nuts, sending the book into multiple printings and the author running to her desk to write another one, quick. While she’s writing, four other authors suddenly get word from their agents or editors that their books, similar to the first author’s book, are now the hot thing. The authors who’ve been reading trade mags religiously and keeping their ears to the rails are now rushing to write something just like those, to join the trend. They might pull it off, or they might not, but they run the risk of missing the crest of the wave. What if instead of attempting to jump on a trend, those authors focused their attentions on the stories they really wanted to tell? They might end up starting their own trend down the road. Who wouldn’t love to be the next Stephenie Meyer or J K Rowling?
Steampunk found its way into the mainstream. On the heels of some really superb storytelling in steampunk worlds, people saw it coming and rushed to write their own novels stuffed with gears and Tesla coils, without giving enough energy to understanding the reality of the sandboxes they wanted to play in. (Not to mention missing the whole point of the ‘punk’ attribution at the end.) Sure there’s some lousy steampunk work floating around out there – there’s some amazing work as well. It’s worth the search, but like any trend, you might have grown tired of it. That’s okay. Turn your attention elsewhere for a while. Trends happen. No one can predict with real accuracy what will be a hit, nor can anyone tell how long a trend will last. It’s a matter of what tickles the market’s fancy. Trying to jump on a trend is difficult and complicated and rarely worth the effort. The thing is, genres don’t entirely go away. The steampunk trend may die down but there will still be authors writing steampunk novels. Would you rather be known as the person who wrote something just like what fifteen other people did, or the one who wrote that completely original book? Instead of gambling on writing what you think will sell, what might be the next big thing, just write your story. The one that makes your heart sing. Don’t worry about whether it’s the latest thing, or what genre it might be. Write the best story you can write. Be your own trend-setter.
*If you’re wondering about the title…