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GIRL TALK with Jamie Sobrato
Chasing Trends in Your Writing - March 2006

     
Jamie Sobrato   Cindy Procter-King  
Jamie Cindy


Jamie: As commercial fiction writers, we face the never-ending dilemma of how much to let market trends affect what we write. On the one hand, if we have a passion for writing sexy space cowboy stories with an inspirational twist, and there's no market for those stories, made clear by our having been writing and submitting such stories for the past ten years with no success, then it might be time to take a look at market trends and see what's selling, then figure out something that we can get enthusiastic about writing that is also marketable.

But on the other hand, if you are chasing after every latest trend as fast as you can, and you keep getting rejection letters with comments like, "not unique enough" or "too much like what we're already publishing," then you may need to look inwardly and figure out what it is you have to say as a commercial writer that everyone else isn't already saying.

It's a difficult balancing act, walking the line between what we love to write and what the public seems to want to read. How do we find that balance?

Cindy: You've got me! I clearly haven't figured it out, considering I've published just one book and the truly "commercial" (ie. might make you some bucks) publishers weren't interested in the story. So, first, I'd like to caveat this convo by making it clear that neither you (I'm assuming...) nor I (let's hope not!) have anything against small press or e-publishers. However, for the purposes of this column, we're focusing on traditional, buy-the-product-in-a-bookstore, pays-advances type of publisher. Because small press and epublishers would probably love a sexy space cowboy story, so that "market" actually/hopefully/maybe/ kinda exists.

Jamie: It comes down to how we define marketability. While there is a market, small or large, for every conceivable type of story, the problem in publishing is always how to make that market aware of the product, and books are notoriously hard to advertise effectively. I would say a reasonable definition of marketable is "appealing to a large enough cross section of the public that a large publisher will want to buy it."

Cindy: Hey, that definition works for me! I knew there was a reason you're my critique partner—these odd little niblets of brainiosity you toss out now and then. Okay, now that we've defined marketability, let me say that I think it's nearly impossible not to get affected by trends these days. Writers no longer work alone in our grungy garrets—

Jamie: Speak for yourself!

Cindy: Are you arguing the grungy, or the alone? You know, I understand that you don't work "alone," considering those "voices" running rampant in your head, but I was referring to the fact that we don't write in little cubicles with a dozen other writers surrounding us in their little cubicles. We're "alone," (okay, maybe with kids torquing around in the background) in our lovely offices/kitchen tables/corners of the bedroom, but we can easily connect to other writers and to what's happening in the market through the Internet, email listservs, as well as attending conferences and listening to editors and agents speak about current trends. The trick, I think, is to only chase a trend if it's something you're also actually passionate about writing. Or...if you can bend what you're passionate about writing just a wee tad to fit the trend, then, yeah, the chase might be worth it.

Jamie: Actually I was saying I do work alone in a grungy garret, but anyway… Another pitfall in chasing trends is that by the time you write the book, the trend may be fading. Or if you are not as in the know as you think you are—

Cindy: Well, of course I'm in the know! What are you imply—

Jamie: —you might be jumping on the bandwagon of a trend that's dying already.

Cindy: All right, yeah, yeah, sounds familiar...

Jamie: So you really have to be sure of what you are doing if you take off after a trend in your writing.

Cindy: Like, if you happen to have a crystal ball handy and can foretell if and when the trend will end, good for you!

Jamie: But let's say you want to write an action-adventure chick lit novel, and you are sure your book will be the cutting edge of a new trend you are only starting to see hints of in the marketplace, and you know you can write fast enough that you'll get your story in the hands of editors very soon (assuming they don't let it sit in their slush pile for a year), then you may be in a great position as far as chances of selling your story. Assuming you write it well. But all these qualifiers I've added to this paragraph really emphasize how difficult it is to write to the latest trends, no?

Cindy: Actually, as much as I hate to admit it, yes, they do. I mean, the trick to riding a trend well is to catch it on the upswing. However, because most of us do not possess crystal balls, the best way to ride a trend is to create one. Seeing as we're talking chick lit, to write a BRIDGET JONES, as it were. You know, not now, but back before no one else, or very few elses, were doing it. Because some could argue that the "classic" bad job/bad boyfriends BRIDGET JONES style of chick lit novel is currently flopping around the marketplace like a dying fish. Meanwhile, Young Adult novels are enjoying a huge resurgence. Erotica and erotic romance are booming, and paranormal is coming back. Of the three, in my opinion, Young Adult is the biggest "trend." It felt "gone" for several years and now suddenly it's like it's been reinvented. It's more hip, less about teenage romance and more about the empowerment of young women who may or may not get the guy. And previously unpublished writers as well as writers already established in romance or chick lit are selling YA by the bucketload.

Jamie: It's fun to watch trends and speculate about what the next big thing will be, but ask any editor and they'll nod vigorously about the fact that everything in publishing is cyclical.

Cindy: And they'll probably admit that they have no freaking clue what the next trend will be! Or which one will cycle around again. I mean, trends are largely determined by what book buyers are clamoring to read, right? In some ways, editors are just as much at the mercy of trends as we writers are. Although sometimes they are slow to admit a trend is on the upswing....

Jamie: For a while paranormal books, for instance, are wildly popular, then the market gets overpopulated by them, often quality declines as publishers rush to chase after the big trend, and then readers tire of that type of book. Sales decline, and suddenly you can't pay anyone to buy your paranormal romance. The same can be said of every subgenre.

Cindy: Exactly. I believe the readership is still there, but it shrinks to the point of non-marketability—as we've defined it (see beginning of column for you inattentive types). That's when small presses and epublishers can do well. Small presses and epubs picked up the paranormal slack when it couldn't be found in the commercial publishing marketplace. Now paranormal is becoming commercial again, and so the big, traditional publishing houses are jumping on the bandwagon (however long it might be rolling along), and the paranormal manuscript that's been sitting under your bed for years might suddenly find a slot. The same could be said about erotica. Once formerly only seen for sale on epublishers' websites, erotica and erotic romance are now making huge headways into commercial publishing. That trend is on the upswing...but does that mean a writer should hop on the erotica bandwagon?

Jamie: Only if it’s a trend they can really get into. Any subgenre can only appeal to a select group of writers, and stretching to try to write, say, erotic romance, when you are the kind of person who thinks sex should remain behind closed bedroom doors both on the page and off, is not a good idea.

Cindy: Agreed.

Jamie: No matter how badly you want to sell a book, and no matter how much you think you can force yourself to write sexy just to sell, your real attitude will come across in the story one way or another. It often shows up in the heroine's attitudes about sex, which are subconsciously the writer's attitudes if he or she isn’t careful.

Cindy: Ah, you're so politically correct, including the guy writers!

Jamie: So maybe she has to justify a one night stand with some convoluted reasons for doing it, or she worries too much about looking "slutty" by hopping into bed with a guy, or whatever.

Cindy: Again, I find myself nodding in agreement (not that anyone can see me nodding—rest assured, I am).

I do want to say, though, that there's no harm in a writer trying to write sexy because she knows "sexy" is currently hot in the marketplace. However, if, during your writerly experimentations, you find yourself uncomfortable with what you're writing, then back off big time. Just because a trend exists doesn't mean it's for you.

Jamie: I absolutely think writers should experiment as much as possible, and if a trend is hot that you've never tried writing before, why not try it? Just because you haven't written a really sexy book, for instance, and are a little apprehensive about trying it (because, of course, what will Grandma think?!), doesn’t mean you wouldn't do a great job with a little practice.

Cindy: Or a lot of practice. You know, like acting out the sexy scenarios before you write them <wink, wink>.....

Jamie: Of course! That's the number one benefit of being a romance author—sex is considered research! Whether the subgenre is erotic romance or paranormal or romantic suspense, you have to feel a passion for it in your gut to do it justice on the page.

Cindy: Passion in the gut? I feel the need to make another idiotic response, but I'll restrain myself. Because, you know, I think we're in agreement!

Jamie: Could it be?! Both of us agreeing so quickly?

Cindy: It's amazing, it might never happen again, so we'd better take advantage of it (just like a clever writer might take advantage of a trend—oh, what a marvelous segue!) Okay, in summation (don't I sound smart?), trends are all well and good, and writing to trends isn't necessarily a bad idea. Writing to a trend just might get you a sale. But when editors and agents themselves have no idea what the next trend will be or how long the current trend will last, there's no blinkin' sense in writing to a trend unless you also love the genre you're writing. Because then you're writing from the heart, and if you happen to catch a trend, so much the better. But if the trend dies before you make your sale, you still have a book you love, and all you need to do (yeah, right, all) is wait for the trend to cycle back again. Then you can catch it on the upswing and land on the New York Times list! (Hey, I can dream).

Jamie: Ah, such wisdom, Cindy. Such clarity of thought. I'm glad I could lead you to all these brilliant observations. Heh.

Cindy: Ahem. Yes, Jamie, where would I be without you?

Jamie: Awareness of trends, and experimenting with them, can only help us get to know ourselves better as writers, and that is never a bad thing. The longer you write, the more you try new things, the more you will know exactly what it is you should be writing. And whether it's part of a trend or not, finding your niche and excelling in it is the key to setting yourself apart as a writer.

Cindy: And setting yourself apart as a writer is the key to success, whether that's making your first sale, or breaking out from category to single title, or switching genres as an established author. Now if only I could find my damn key!!!

©2006, Cindy Procter-King & Jamie Sobrato

~*~

Jamie writes steamy romances for Harlequin Blaze, loves to waste time on the internet, and kind of wishes she had her nose pierced...or not. Her favorite guilty pleasure is watching bad Sex and the City reruns (though she’ll never admit it—oops, she just did), and she's been known to frequently laugh until she cries. You can visit her website at www.jamiesobrato.com.

Cindy writes romantic comedy for anyone willing to read it, loves to waste time updating websites, and desperately wishes Jamie would pierce her nose so she could tug her around by it. Cindy's favorite guilty pleasure involves back massagers, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and bathtubs (no, she won't get more specific).

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