When Goths Discovered Brown

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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

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19 comments to When Goths Discovered Brown

  • I thought I looked pretty good in those pink leg warmers, no wait *cough*, I was wearing parachute pants and pastel skinny ties.

    Thank you for the post Misty, I always enjoy reading your posts and the perspective you bring. I love the advice of being your own trend-setter.

    I’ve been trying to bring back the fedora for years and then Mad Men came on and helped it a bit–I’m not sure it’ll ever really come back, but I love wearing them.

  • Very cool post, Misty. I love the look of steampunk, but am not particularly interested in reading whole books set in that world. I like it as a flavor (as in Pullman, say), an aesthetic, and my next book uses it as such (so I hope there’s a little life in the trend yet). I wonder what’s next…?

  • Alistair, thank you! I look forward to seeing that fedora sometime!

    AJ, I think that’s part of the problem. People are writing books that are so vehemently Victorian, they get bogged down in the props and forget to bring their characters to the fore. It can’t just be about the zeppelins. 😀

    As for what’s next, I’m hearing rumors about zombie romances and that makes my skin crawl!

  • I have an idea for a novel series and have gotten sometimes conflicting feedback from editors at various houses when I discuss it wiht them. The way I originally envisioned the first novel, it was going to be set in 1938, but several editors said it would be hard to sell because of the historical aspect. They advised me to set it in contemporary times instead. But I had an opportunity to sit down and talk with David Hartwell from Tor and his final advice (after a discussion on the pros and cons of historical novels) was to write the book in whatever way I felt most passionate about, because in the end that passion would shine through more strongly than any other factor. I thought that made a lot of sense.

  • First — I *adore* fedoras. There is something about the way they frame the face of a man with an angular jaw. That shadow tilting down over his cheek, letting light illuminate a square chin. (Happy sigh.) Wait… This post wasn’t about fedoras was it?

    Oh, yes! Trend setting and riding the crest of a wave. Misty, you and I have talked about this before. A few years back I was told by an editor, “Vampires are dead. *NO* one is buying vampires.” And then Stephanie’s Twilight came along and breathed new, glittery life into a dead subject. (koff koff)

    Sometimes trends come in multiple waves. And sometimes pub houses are so eager to get something (*anything*) into print to ride that wave, that they let crap go out. And they kill the wave’s momentum. Sad, that.

  • Unicorn

    Are you still sick, Misty? Because this post was even better than “Searching for Ashbless” :) As for zombie romances… so I’ve stuck needles into just about every domesticated creature, I’ve had my arm up rather unmentionable places in cows (ever heard of James Herriot?), I’ve mucked out countless stalls and stables, I’ve been covered in more or less every kind of blood, mud, dirt or muck, but I have NEVER heard of anything half as gross as kissing a zombie. EEEEWWWW!
    Thanks for the post, Misty!
    Unicorn

  • I don’t think I could write fast enough to join a trend in publishing. I’m still amazed by those who can. You have to get a manuscript done in just a few months otherwise, by the time its run through the process, a year or two has passed and so has the trend. No, I’ll just be the pokey little puppy (or the tortoise, chose your childhood story) and take my time with what works for me. I don’t know any other way.

    Zombie romance? Really? I get vampire romance — I mean vamps can be eternally young, pretty, and free. But zombies? Are there really enough necrophiliacs out there to warrant an entire sub-genre?

  • Yes, Zombie erotica is here. I’ve heard readings of it from a new anthology. And no, I’m not making this up. I’ve never really tried to write to a trend — I write the books I want to write. And as a result, none of my books has ever been a bestseller. How’s that for a business plan? On the other hand, I do enjoy what I do, and I can safely say that I have loved every book I’ve written.

  • I’m with AJ in terms of the steampunk look. I love it. I think it is so cool! I watch “Warehouse 13” because of it. I wanted to do a steampunk costume for halloween. But I’m not really interested in reading it. There was an episode of “Castle” (a crime drama with Nathan Fillion) a few weeks ago that had a steampunk club in it. The costumes were gorgeous!

    I do write what I want to write, partly because I know that I should write what I know stuff about (or want to know stuff about enough to do adequate research on it!) Maybe I’ll write it well enough and do all the right stuff and then get lucky and hit a trend the right way. I think my WIPs fit into the publishing world, or where it seems to be going, but who knows.

    And Zombie erotica creeps me out.

  • Eden Studios had an anthology out a few years ago that had a couple zombie erotica shorts in there, so it’s definitely out there… Course, as far as I’m concerned romance with dead things has been out for a long time, it’s called vampire romance. Don’t care how you spin it, it’s still a dead body. It just doesn’t stink as bad. 😉

    My wife and I were also pirate fans before PotC came out and even had a pirate wedding on a replica of the Santa Maria in Columbus, Ohio. Actually, I was writing Arrgh! Thar Be Zombies! before the first Pirates was announced. The hope when it was announced was that the book could come out at the same time… Made the deadline, but didn’t happen. Didn’t happen with PotC 2… or 3… Ah well, this be the problem with small press RPGs. A falling market and a couple bad monetary hits really knocks you out of the game for a while. It’s a testament to their tenacity that they are back. I’ve seen other companies fold. I’m just glad the book’s out and it’s been well received so far.

    It’s funny, we usually do things on the forefront of a trend, but steampunk kinda snuck by us and we’ve only recently started looking into it. My wife decided to be a steampunk adventuress/”Wellsian” time traveler for Halloween this year, so I had to come up with gear for her. Did pretty good with the junk laying around the house. Anyone interested can look at the pics: http://s24.photobucket.com/albums/c9/DanSJVDavis/Steampunk/

    Honestly, I think I would get into steampunk because I like to use my ingenuity to come up with things that seem maybe like they could work. It’s fun to flex my creative muscles in another direction once in a while. I’m also considering writing something with odd ultra-tech, but I’ve got so many things on my plate at the moment that I’ve no Idea when I’d get to it.

  • Pea
    I loved that Castle episode too, partly because it felt a bit like an in-joke. There were parts of Fillion’s previous and wonderful show Firefly that felt a little steampunky, albeit a Western version, no?

  • They do seem to nod to Firefly from time to time. Like the Halloween ep where he dressed as a “space cowboy.” 😉

  • AJ> Yeah, it felt that way, though it was more sci-fi than steampunk to me, but that was before I had heard of steampunk, so maybe if I went back and watched it, I’d see more of it. I also liked a Castle episode from last year where he had a Halloween party and went as a “space cowboy” and he was dressed as Mal. All of that said, I still won’t buy the Nikki Heat novels. :) But check out Warehouse 13 if you like that kind of stuff. HG Wells is a character (and a woman–it’s a long story) and the tech stuff they have is modern steampunky kind of stuff–it’s fun and fluffy, but worth the watch. (It runs during the summer on Syfy. I know season one is on netflix!)

  • Ed, personally I’d be terribly interested in a series set in the late 30’s – not long ago, I was coming off having watched “Carnivale”, and it occurred to me that the 30’s would be a great fantasy setting. So I agree with David – and I want to read the books when you get them written!

    Faith, a couple of weeks ago, we were at the faire, and a little girl walked up to Bleys (who was dressed in black head to toe) and asked him why he wasn’t sparkly. He looked at her with that solemn face he has, and said, “I’m a werewolf.” *lsugh*

  • Thanks, Unicorn! Nope, not sick anymore, but I’m still talking in a husky, Bonnie Tyler voice from the laryngitis, so maybe that’s it. *grin*

    And yes, there really is both zombie erotica *gag* and zombie romance. Most of the romance has been in the YA world, but I still can’t wrap my brain around it. Just….yeach.

  • Beatriz

    Misty, why is it always zeppelins? *ducks and runs before poor AJ kills her*

    And that shirt? Shiny! I think I need one for the next Con.

    Great post. Thanks for reminding us, whether it is in our garb, or our writing, to set our own trends.

  • Sarah

    Hear, hear! Not to hijack the thread to a different topic, but your point Misty reminds me of how irritated I was with the latest season of Project Runway. The winner was praised to the heavens for being “on trend” – all I could think of was “Sure. But that just means that in six months everyone will be saying ‘Her? OMG! Her work is so, like, five minutes ago.” While the guy that lost for being too weird will be wowing people for starting a new trend.

    By the time I get clued in to a trend, it’s half over anyway. I was just starting to say “ooh look at the pretty clothes” when critics were starting to question if Steampunk was almost played out. My only hope, and my hope for other writers, is that we’ll write what’s good, not what’s “on trend.” As Charles Lamb (I think?) said, “Damn the age. I shall write for eternity.”

  • I’m a huge fan of the steampunk look, with a leaning toward the Weird West subgenre. Emily, I’ve watched “Warehouse 13” from the start, and you’re right – it’s got the perfect touch of steampunk without being bogged down in it. I wonder if one could call “Firefly” a Weird West sci-fi…

    And I won’t buy the Nikki Heat novels, either. I tried reading the first one, from the library, and…it didn’t impress me. 😀

    Beatriz, you are already setting a steampunk trend with your new look – even if we did create it together, it’s always going to represent you to me. *smile*

    Sarah, that’s exactly it! People who love trends are always going to say nonsense like that, even while they want the next new thing. It’s enough to make you crazy!

  • Young_Writer

    Misty, my guy friend wears a fedora to every mixer and carnival he can!
    Anyways, I like pirates. It’s just that whole outlaw, good/bad guy thing they have going on. And today leg warmers switched to impossibly tight jeans and brand names. Not comfortable. 😉