Why Not To Chase Literary Trends, by Jack Heath
Someone recently asked my if I’d thought about writing some dystopian teen fiction. ‘You know,’ they said. ‘Now that The Hunger Games is so popular.’
I’ve been writing dystopian teen fiction for twelve years, but that wasn’t the asker’s most significant oversight. Similar questions have been voiced over the years. In 2008: ‘Shouldn’t you be writing about vampires, if that’s what the kids are into now?’ In 2004: ‘Teens aren’t looking for sci-fi at the moment – why not produce a book about wizards?’
If you’re a teen author and you’re thinking about chasing a literary trend, allow me to present three reasons not to do so.
1: You will never catch up. It takes me about three months to write a manuscript, another three to edit it, six months publisher to turn it into a book, and then another six months or so for readers to hear about, purchase, and finally read it. That’s considered fast, and if you think what is popular now will still be popular in 18 months, you may not know what a ‘trend’ is. (Although, if you’re desperate to get ahead of the curve, the extraordinary author Patrick Ness recently told me that ‘mer-people’ were totally the next big thing. Disclaimer: his tongue may have been in his cheek.)
2: No-one likes the second author on the bandwagon. Pop quiz: what do Mark Walden, David Wellington and Jo Nesbo have in common? Answer: they are each great writers who published novels which were huge improvements on the trend-setters in their genre (Harry Potter, Twilight and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo respectively) but were far less successful. It doesn’t matter if your book is better than The Da Vinci Code; if it’s in any way similar, readers will rebel against it. While they may think they want a book which resembles the last one they liked, in reality they only liked it because it was new and different.
3: You will not be any good at it.This is the hardest part to accept, but it’s true. If you’re not a fan of vampires or wizards or post-apocalyptic worlds then you are unqualified to write about them. You can’t replicate appeal that you don’t understand, and if you don’t love the book you are writing, you are doomed to write a crap book. I accept that my own philosophical blend of sci-fi, action, horror and crime will never be mainstream, but because that is what I crave as a reader, I have no choice but to write it. If I tried to write about dragons instead, I would reduce my sales, not increase them, because I don’t understand how people can find dragons interesting.
So what can you do instead? You can stop looking at what everyone else is doing, and focus on what no-one is. If you can think of a book that nobody is selling but that you would like to read, then that is the book you should write.
Maybe it’ll be about mermaids. Good luck with that.