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Are genres a trend?

So I just read a tweet by a lit agent who said, “Sci-fi and fantasy are hot right now. Which means the trend is over.”

As a writer and reader of sci-fi and fantasy, this tweet made me want to break through a brick wall, Kool-Aid Man-style. “How can an agent, a professional in the industry I’ve been busting my butt to become part of all these years, talk about my passion in such a cavalier fashion?”

Given the amount of fantasy novels photographed and Instagrammed in the #BooksArentDangerous campaign last week, I seriously doubt the verity of this agent’s statement.

It basically dismisses not only my desire to read immersive, inventive, epic new fantasy, but dismisses my livelihood. And it leads me to the question: are genres considered a TREND in publishing? I mean, obviously there are times when one genre is overselling others, and it flip-flops around, but it never occurred to me that agents (and publishers) may look at a book’s genre and immediately dismiss it based on their belief/assumption that that genre is old hat and no one’s interested.

That makes no sense to me, as a reader. SFF has been my favourite genre since age 6. That’s never going to change, even if a parade of sub-par trope-filled titles endlessly hit the NYT bestseller list over the next decade. I will ALWAYS be a fan of fantasy and sci-fi. For all the other genres I enjoy reading, I have my favourite authors and favourite types of stories, but I will never say, “Ehh, I’m sick of SFF. So. Played. Out.” I may say that there are, for example, too many YA fantasies out — and still being published — about teens training for competitions; that’s a trend that feels as worn as vampire-sexy-times. But that doesn’t mean I’m sick of fantasy in general, or that SFF needs to stop BEING A THING.

Even if time travel is a trend within fantasy that’s “over,” do I give up on that? I wrote a manuscript with time travel in it before the (current) trend began, and am trying to get it out there now that the trend is probably way past its prime. Does that mean shelve it? Maybe, but I’m not doing that yet. Does that mean give up completely and pretend I never wrote the thing? Hell to the NO.

I’m curious what others think about this. If you read a similar statement from someone in the industry who said the genre you write in is “over”, would it bother you? Would you stop writing that genre? Would you even consider changing your path?

Probably not. It’s one person, and yes, maybe this opinion is shared the industry over, but as everyone is keen to point out, you should never write to trends because they fly like bullets. Write what you want to read, in the hopes that others will want to read it as well. Regardless of “what’s hot.” Regardless of what film producers are hoping to turn into the next big blockbuster because original screenplays are sadly considered “too risky” these days. Write what you would be ecstatic to find on a bookshelf. 

If you think about it, publishing is a bizarre industry. In most industries, the designers/engineers/creators are buildings things that are needed, for market, to fill a requirement. We are told to write what we’re passionate about, because that will show in the writing, and the whole don’t write to trends thing. And yet we have to rely wholly on the agents and editors who are looking for very specific things that fit what they feel will be the next big wave in the industry. So we can’t aim for a specific requirement to fulfill; all we can do is place our hopes on the fickle winds and wait and see whether they’ll be carried onward and upward, or torn apart.

But back to the agent. That agent must know what they’ve said isn’t going to change most writers’ minds, and yet they still said it — why? Because they’re sick of SFF in their inbox? That’s absolutely fine. But it seems somewhat irresponsible to diss an entire genre to the Twitterverse. Why not just say, “I can’t sell fantasy right now, so please don’t send it my way”? Maybe others are selling it and this agent’s missing out. Who knows.

All I know is I’m weary of trying to second-guess and wonder what the industry wants or doesn’t want, loves or scoffs at, and Twitter has lately been doing its best to steal my joy about what I do. Some pros in the industry out there have no qualms about tweeting snark like, “Oh YAY, another (fill in the genre) in my slushpile. *rolls eyes* FORM REJECTION.”

I’m not finding that useful. Twitter a great tool for connecting, but when you’re still in the writing/not-yet-published stage, it can be a minefield of hope-shattering shrapnel. I’m choosing to keep my joy in what I do, and I will be a rebel and keep on pouring my heart into sci-fi and fantasy because it makes me happier than just about anything.

 

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What I Learned As A Publishing Intern

This should really be called, “What I was reminded by being a publishing intern,” but I’ll get to that in a minute 🙂

It’s certainly all happening this time of year. NaNoWriMo began two days ago (if you’re involved, let’s be buddies! :)), this is a #WriteMotivation month and yesterday I returned from a month-long part-time internship at Black & White Publishing in Edinburgh. It was a fantastic experience. I’m so grateful to the wonderful staff there for having me!

Edinburgh is gorgeous any time of year.

I’ve worked in three publishing companies in various roles including assistant to director of operations, subscriber services, accounts payable, and QA at two magazine publishers (VoxCorp, Inc., in Nashville, TN; and Future Publishing in Bath) and one book publisher (Walnut Grove Press in Nashville). This was my first chance to get a proper look at how book publishing marketing and submissions work from the other side. It strengthened my desire to work with authors, be it developing stories from the editorial standpoint, or within a literary agency. I was reminded what a competitive industry publishing is, particularly in the UK where there are so fewer companies than in the US.

There were a lot of interesting fly-on-the-wall things I was privy to, such as seeing potential models for a book cover design, marketing techniques, approaching booksellers, book signings (one that I attended, more on that in a future blog), and some seriously delicious gingerbread cookies 🙂

Here’s what I learned from a writer’s standpoint though, as writing is, after all, my biggest goal, first and foremost. So here are a few items that stood out, with regards to submissions:

1. Synopsis: Many people didn’t even include one, despite it being in the company’s submission instructions. Following instructions can win you massive brownie points 🙂 And the synopsis itself – if you can get it down to 2 pages, perfect, because I want to know right away what happens, the overall story arc, and the end – without loads of details or side plots/secondary characters’ lives magnified. Now that I’ve seen how a good, succinct 2-page synopsis can work, I’m determined to shorten and tighten mine. I didn’t fully understand the power a good synopsis can wield until having read dozens.

2. So. Many. Prologues. They do work in some books. In Harry Potter And the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone, we get a glimpse of Harry as a baby and the characters who worked to get him to the Dursley’s, hinting at so many things to come that we wouldn’t fully understand until future chapters or future books. This worked, at least, for me. This wasn’t called a Prologue, but is simply Chapter 1, and maybe that’s why. It wasn’t forced on me as being outside of a narrative I’ve not yet even entered. On the internship, I read countless submissions with prologues that made no sense to me, even after reading the first 3 chapters. I’m not sure why, but people seem to think that in order to make their story’s present have significance, something external from the main narrative needs to be described. I don’t think this is the case, in most stories, but that’s my personal feeling for it. When you read submission after submission with some Big Things hinted at in an enigmatic setting between characters not mentioned again for over thirty pages, it begins to drag on and doesn’t–in fact–stand out the way an author might think, “I know what’ll catch their eye!”

3. Just bad writing. To put it bluntly, the majority of submissions were full of poor (or missing) punctuation, spelling errors, bad sentence syntax, misuse of apostrophes, and sadly, screwy formatting. Something as simple as indenting paragraphs (and not halfway across the page….one tab’ll do!) can really just put me right off a story. These are such simple mistakes, for the most part. So okay, not everyone is a grammar freak and adheres to all the rules about fragmented sentences or the list of words not to begin a sentence with – but to my mind, this is all relevant to specific context. Things like separating or indenting new paragraphs, learning how to use commas and apostrophes, and not capitalising random words for No good Reason, would put you in the 5 or so percent of manuscripts that are easy and worthwhile reading. A mistake here or there didn’t stand out to me, but when it’s clear someone doesn’t understand the difference between a comma and a period, it’s another on the NO pile.

4. First page – For it to grab me, it either has to:

  • give me a situation or emotions I can relate to/sympathise with;
  • give me an immediately likeable or interesting character (good or bad); or
  • give me an intriguing idea.

Those are three pretty simple ideas, but if you can do one of those three on the first page, I’m hooked. By the end of the chapter, if you’ve done one really well, I’ll keep reading. If you’ve managed all three, even better! I’m taking this and applying it to everything I write from now on. It sounds like, “DUH! Total given!” but reading sample pages over a whole range of genres, that’s the first thing that struck me: why do I care?

Agents harp about this repeatedly on blogs and Twitter. “Why do I care?” Query Shark asks that all the time. So you’ve got a 16-year-old girl with divorced parents, facing the struggles of high school. So what? We want readers to care about our story immediately. There’s no point in saving all the goods for Chapter 4. The slushpile reader/agent/publisher may never get that far. Give me one thing, even the tiniest glimmer of appeal, and I’m good.

Most of the pages I read had a first page, or even chapter, that was like reading a newspaper article. Just the facts, ma’am.

“John Doe worked in the city, and had a beautiful wife and three kids named Sue, Pete, and Bob. Bob liked to play with tanks, Sue was good at swimming, and Pete preferred to watch TV. John’s wife, Anna, worked in accounting and was considering retiring early. On Saturdays, the family often….”

You get the point. Snoozeville. And I was shocked at how many submissions were like this. Most of them. I feel bad being critical at all, as a writer myself. Believe me. The first few days of the internship, I wanted to give every single writer whose submission I read a huge hug and a box of cookies, and sit down with them and say what I thought. It’s not that I’m any expert by any means, but it certainly made a few well-worn writing tip-cliches come to life for me. By the internship’s end, I was feeling like a lot of writers out there sit down to write a story when they’ve read maybe 3 books in the past 5 years. Because it seems easy. Because they can do it from home. Because their brother-in-law said they’d be good at it.

Emailing rejections was hard, but I think I have a better appreciation for what agents/editors deal with. I can understand completely now why my first sets of queries were totally ignored. Something really needs to stand out, and what that is will obviously be different for different readers. Another intern was working at the same time as I, on different days, and some of the things she liked, I thought were boring or needed more work than was going to be practical. And vice versa, no doubt. But some things just stand out immediately. The author might rely on a key phrase or two too often, or might have a few grammar ticks to be made aware of, but overall, you know right away whether you feel confident in the author’s ability to lead you through this believable world.

Princes Street at night

One author compared himself to Steinbeck, Douglas Adams, and Dickens in his cover letter. It can be helpful to be told up front what sort of readership you might appeal to, but there are good ways and bad ways to go about this. I’ll leave it to you to guess how I felt about this way 😉

Well, that’s my long-winded roundup. It was a worthwhile and lovely experience, I met some great people, and really feel like I gained an insight into how a smaller publishing company works. From the writing side, it was just good reading experience. They always say that reading everything you can get your hands on is integral to being a successful writer. I read genres I never go near, stories I’d never have picked up, and it all opened my eyes. So, thank you, Black & White! And I hope some of those submissions I read get their time in the limelight they so definitely deserve 🙂

Monday I’ll be back to blogging about #WriteMotivation and my NaNo progress (such as it is, so far), using Meredith McCardle’s borrowed questionnaire to log where I’m at in the process 🙂 If you’re doing NaNo, I wish you success this month!

I’ll also be holding a blog giveaway contest after reviewing one of Black & White’s titles in the near future. And the lovely Alexandra Diane has tagged me in a blog hop, so I will get to that, too (sorry for being late!) Busy month! 🙂

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From the Other Side

Hello!

So I missed out on last week’s #IWSG first Wednesday of the month post, but I’m posting it now and that’s just going to have to be okay. I might be kicked out of the group, but I still think it’s a great idea. (If you aren’t familiar, it’s the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. I’d like to be a confident writer, but everyone’s got insecurities. It’s great to go on a little blog tour and read about others who are in similar boats and encourage one another).

Pack your bags! We’re going on a guilt trip! (Actually, the lovely Flushing Ferry in Falmouth)

As any unagented writer can attest, querying brings insecurities out of the woodwork. Just thinking about it makes my stomach turn. Yesterday I began a month-long work placement at a book publisher in Edinburgh, and it was a fantastic first day. It was awesome to be on the other side, and as this particular publisher receives submissions for fiction and non-fiction across the spectrum as they’re opening their gates to a variety of genres, I got to wade into a submissions pile for my first time ever.

Boy, was it eye-opening.

I felt incredibly guilty writing NO on any of the submissions I read. I longed to just sit there and correct grammar and spelling, suggest structure changes, word replacements, etc. and return them to the authors to encourage them to make some tweaks. Unfortunately, that’s not part of the job. I wish it was!

Out of the 12 I read, I think there were 2 I wanted to see more of. The pacing, voice, ideas, and character fell together with excellent writing. That was it. They weren’t in my favourite genre or about immensely likeable characters (well, one wasn’t; it had a Silence of the Lambs feel to it about a lorry-driving serial killer), but they were just well-written and hooked me right away.

Then there was a mixture of Nos and Maybes. The Maybes didn’t grab me, but they seemed to be well-written; perhaps just slow to ignite. If I’d had more than 3 chapters to read, maybe I’d fall in love, but likely not. But not a definite no as they had promise.

The Nos reminded me of one of my insecurities. Querying is painful, and I realise, different than writing directly to a publisher, which I have not done. I’d prefer to be agented, to find someone willing to work with me. Knowing what it’s like to work hard on your dream and then send it off to a complete stranger, one who might likely be an intern like me who scribbles notes on the page and then sticks it in one of three piles, it made me very sympathetic. That’s the harsh reality.

It also simply emphasised how you really need to shape up those first three chapters (well, the whole thing, really, but…) to zing the person who’ll be reading it, whether it’s an agent, a slushpile-reading intern, or a publishing assistant. It needs to smack them in the face and go, “You can relate to this, or you find this idea exciting, or this character interesting.”

I think that might be one of the three things that does it. Either you relate to the situation or emotions, you’re drawn to a character, or the idea itself (or the way it’s presented) is intriguing. Preferably all three, but if you get one of those right, I’m likely to read on.

It’s not rocket science, the notion of what gets you past the slushpile, I think (this is all speculation; obviously I’m no expert having had ONE measly day so far). It’s just finding the way to hit at least one of those three targets.

Anyhow, yesterday’s experience made me a little less insecure, like I can approach my work with even more dedication now, knowing how it looks from the other side. The stories that did hook me had one thing in common (besides good grammar and spelling): they had excellent pacing. It made me see what I’m up against, the range of talent and ideas and execution from blah to fantastic. And somehow this has encouraged me, though you’d think it would just as easily discourage me. I’m glad it didn’t 🙂

Have you had an experience that helps you understand your writing insecurities, or at least gives you perspective on them?

 

 

 

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