9.05.2018

Out of Fashion

Popular interest in many subjects waxes and wanes in cycles, and the publishing industry follows suit. I raise this point because I sometimes receive submissions that, however well executed, I know will be a tough sell simply because of the genre. Yes, it is possible that a publisher will buy a drug-runner thriller these days, but the odds are long. That was so 90s.

One primary reason that authors embark on book-long quests in vain is because that is the sort of book they once enjoyed. A child can get wrapped up in the westerns written by Zane Gray, and when the time comes to write that first novel, the fondness for the days of frontier justice can resurface. Countless hours can be spent reliving the glory of horsemen riding up and down prairies. At the end of all that effort, though, you find what you knew all along—that is, if you frequent bookstores. No one reads westerns these days.

That is not to say that legal thrillers or bodice rippers are verboten. You just need to realize that you have to go beyond what authors were spinning out when that market was hot. An analogy can be drawn to rock ‘n’ roll: I might enjoy listening to a song that re-creates 80s pop, but I’m still going to feel that it sounds dated. Slavish imitation doesn’t work in any era.

You might think in terms of a hybrid. That was the origin of a hugely successful wave: the werewolf romance. Science fiction is employed liberally in dystopian novels. Mixing genres does pose a marketing risk—because publishing professionals want a label they can sell—but if you emphasize one above the other, the approach can be regarded as fresh.

You can also set out to write the finest in genre. Larry McMurtry’s sprawling Lonesome Dove not only was twice the length of the typical western, but it wove in a timeless romance. Patrick O’Brian raised the naval saga game with a high level of technical expertise. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall soars head and shoulders above most historical dramas. In other words, if you are willing to put in the hard work, the book will shine in the way any well-wrought novel stands out.

Exercise: The first step toward excellence is knowing what is ordinary. In any field, you should assess the competition to see what niche you can create for yourself. Can you add regional cooking recipes to your mystery, for example? Or, go the titanic route: make the book so colossal, so chock-filled with story elements, it will become a monument of its kind.

“Style is the perfection of a point of view.”
—Richard Eberhart

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine






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