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If you ask writers, “Should you write to the trends?” you’ll receive vastly different responses, each delivered with passionate conviction. With such a variety of opinions, which should you listen to? What’s right for your novel?
There are a lot of pros and cons to writing to the trends. Both sides have their merits. I will do my best to represent both perspectives before sharing my own.
Let’s clear things up…
First of all, what is a trend? In the world of publishing, a trend can take many forms. It can be a recurring theme or genre (e.g. zombies, alien invasions, paranormal romance), a common plot element (love triangles, rebellion against oppressive societies), or more broadly and less distinctly, a culturally-shared attitude or mindset (such as the recent swing toward seeing “smart” as “cool”, when the exact opposite was true a decade or two ago).
Writing to the trends can take any or all of these forms. You may write a novel in a popular genre, and/or use recurring plot elements, and/or cater your story to the current attitudes of society.
On the surface, the appeal for writing to the trends is obvious: (1) It increases your chances of getting published. (2) It increases your chances of becoming a bestseller.
Let’s look at each of those points in a little more detail.
Publishers are highly aware of trends. When a subject is hot, they’ll be on high alert for relevant manuscripts. They want to publish what sells. That should be obvious; publishing is a business, after all. And a shrewd writer will keep this in mind:
You can only become a published (much less bestselling) author if you write what people want to read.
Just think about that for a minute.
If your book comes out in the midst of a trend, it’ll be more readily received. For example, fairytale retellings seem to be popular right now (e.g. The Lunar Chronicles, The Wrath and the Dawn). If a new fairytale retelling were published today, fans of The Lunar Chronicles or The Wrath and the Dawn would be eager to read it, because they already have an appetite for that kind of fiction. They’re in the mood. Most likely, they’ll be hungry for more… for now.
If I were to leave this post as it is, it would sound like a glittering, concrete argument for writing to the trends.
Throw the confetti! Throw the popcorn! Let’s go get published and grow RICH!
Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple.
First of all, predicting what publishers are looking for is not always as easy as it sounds. If you judge the trends based on what’s currently in the bookstores, you may already be too late. The process from acceptance of your manuscript to placement in the bookstores is not instantaneous – much less the process from ideation to first draft to seventh draft to agent querying to publisher submissions to (hopeful) acceptance of your manuscript!
In other words, if you identify a trend while it’s hot, write a book to fit it, polish it until your fingers bleed, then submit the manuscript to publishers… the trend may already be over, from the publishers’ perspective. And then you will have wasted potentially years of your life and no small share of blood, sweat, and tears.
To catch a trend, you have to catch it quick. You have to identify it at the beginning of its cycle, or have the keenness of mind to predict a trend before it fully forms. (That, or you have to be a really, really fast writer!)
Now, let’s get into the real problems with trendy literature.
What’s popular comes and goes. Maybe people like stories about four-footed cannibals right now, (they don’t; I made that up, if it wasn’t obvious), but in a few years, four-footed cannibal stories will become cliché and quickly forgotten as one of “those” books. The trend will only be hot for so long before it goes out of style and loses its appeal.
The YA dystopian genre is currently in this stage. Sparked by The Hunger Games series, (and yes that was a pun, thank you for clapping), the recent explosion of society-fighting teenagers (typically female, 16-17 years old, with one or two male love interests) was kept alive for as long as The Hunger Games movies were being released in theatres. But, the trend has been slowly, gradually dying. And now that Mockingjay Part 2 has hit the theatres, finally wrapping up the series, let me just give you a free tip:
Dystopians are dead.
The trend is over. It’s as cold as President Snow’s heart. Please, don’t write any more dystopians. Unless your story is completely and thoroughly separate from the now-spent genre (in other words, no 16-year-old female heroines, no – ahem – love triangles), then you will probably be wasting your time.
It’s not like I can stop you from sticking out your tongue at me and writing a dystopian anyway. But you can’t say I didn’t warn you.
This brings me to my next point. Trends – especially genre trends and recurring plot-elements – can become confining, even formulaic. The result may be a manuscript that feels cliché, hackneyed, and negatively familiar, not to mention the limits it places on your creativity and imagination.
“But, Brianna,” you may be arguing, “what about what you said earlier? ‘You can only become a published (much less bestselling) author if you write what people want to read.’ I don’t want to write something nobody likes! I want to write a story that masses of people will deeply connect with and enjoy. How do I do that, if you’re telling me to ignore the trends?”
What if I told you there’s a third option? What if I told you it doesn’t have to be black and white, yes or no, do follow trends or don’t?
And here’s where we launch into my perspective on the matter.
The third option
I said earlier you need to write “what people want to read.” But how do you know what people want to read?
Trends usually begin with a starter series: something that becomes wildly popular, something that works, something that publishers scramble to replicate. (E.g., The Twilight Saga for paranormal romance, or The Hunger Games for dystopians.)
But how do you predict that first spark? How do you predict which book will start a new trend?
The answer: You don’t.
There’s no way of knowing when a new book will become popular. There are countless stories of obscure authors who simply wrote the story on their heart, not expecting anyone to read them, but to their surprise the novel deeply resonated with audiences and became a huge success. (Lisa Genova with Still Alice and Andy Weir with The Martian are just two examples of this. Google it – you’ll be amazed at the authors’ stories you’ll find!)
Why does this happen? For two reasons: (1) Stories that are written out of a place of passion will always be better, because the authors are motivated to work hard and pour their heart into their work. (2) Stories that are written outside of the constraints of trends and publishers’ wants will often be more original, fresh, and genuine.
I think you can see where I’m going with this. “Write what you want. Follow your passion. Etc., etc.” And yes, that is the ultimate point of this blog post.
But what if your passion is currently a trend? What if you thoroughly love zombie survival stories, and that’s all publishers are raving about?
Well then, go write a zombie survival story, for goodness’ sake!
My point is, write what you love. If what you love is trending, then your passion will undoubtedly shine through your work, and you may write something that rises above your genre – something that won’t be forgotten once the trend has frozen over. If what you love isn’t trending, write it anyway. Who knows… you might start a new trend. Or you might not. Either way, you will have been honest to yourself, to your story, and to your readers. And isn’t that what matters most?
All that being said, it doesn’t hurt to be aware of the current tastes, trends, and attitudes of society. Don’t feel obligated to pander to them, but you may find that with slight adjustments, you can make your story more relevant, and thus more sellable. Only do this, of course, if it makes sense for you and your novel. It may not be necessary at all.
At the end of the day… it’s your novel, and nobody else’s. No matter what you write – whether it follows a widespread trend, fits an established niche, or starts something totally new – you have a far better chance of writing something great if it’s something you enjoy.
For further reading:
“Understanding cultural trends can help you write a bestseller” by Robert Wood: https://www.standoutbooks.com/cultural-trends-writing-bestseller/
“Fool’s Gold: Why You Should Ignore Trends and Write What You Want” by Dario Ciriello: http://blog.janicehardy.com/2015/08/fools-gold-why-you-should-ignore-trends.html