Thursday, March 27, 2014

Saying Things I Shouldn't: Why good-old, dependable sameness is hurting readers

Disclaimer: I am currently gestating a small human. So my usual levels of Snarkiness and General Low Tolerance are even more amped up than normal. I'll try to be nice but my apologies in advance if anything outright offensive creeps in here.

Second disclaimer: I am but one reader, but others I have spoken to recently are feeling the same way.

Third disclaimer/ request: Hey, comment on this post and tell me how you feel? I'm genuinely curious

The other day, I was visiting Barnes and Noble's significant YA section when I had a terribly sad realization.

There wasn't anything on the shelves that I wanted to take home with me and read. The same was true of many other areas of the store. Everything I picked up felt very been there, done that.

Now, I'm not going to make any sweeping statements about how "YA/ publishing is dead" or, "everything out there sucks", because, though I've heard them elsewhere, neither of those are true. But I do think there is a fundamental problem in the industry, and I don't know if there's a fix for it.

See, as much as industry folk say not to chase trends, we are ALL guilty of this. Writers, agents, editors, pub house sales teams, the people who buy books to put on the shelves at bookstores... we ALL do it. A few years ago, the shelves were full of paranormal romance (still are, frankly), and sometime roughly after TWILIGHT I grew sick of it. I still bought a few books here and there, but when I came across something Fresh And New, it was like seeing the light after being stuck in a cave for ten years. It was like finding an oasis in the desert. It was like a cookie after months on a diet. (Okay, I said I was pregnant... food is a big deal to me right now). Books like THE SCORPIO RACES and ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD and ACROSS THE UNIVERSE opened whole new worlds to me (killer ponies, light horror, and sci-fi, specifically).

Then came THE HUNGER GAMES, and I, like much of the rest of the book-world, fell in love with that place and time. But the problem I started to realize was that I didn't want to read any other dystopian. After finishing the HUNGER GAMES series, I was good and pretty much done with it.

And yet, when I walk into B&N, the shelves that aren't filled with paranormal romance are now filled with dystopian books.

This gives me, as a reader, that overwhelming sense of disappointment as I stare at the shelves, looking for that new, special tale to take me away. Because when everything is the same, nothing stands out. And for me to spend ~$20 on one book these days, it better be good.

My tolerance for trying new writers is also pretty low now unless I already know them from online or their cover grabs me and won't let me go (see: THE SELECTION, a semi-dystopian I likely wouldn't have picked up if it weren't for that gorgeous cover). This is because the writers that I already follow have new books coming out in their series, or new series altogether, and at least with them I can get excited about those books, those new worlds for me to explore.

And of course, there's where this leaves me as a writer. I've always tried to pursue the elusive Originality in my own work, writing the books I felt were missing from the shelves. But how fresh is too fresh? And am I taking it too far? I admittedly have trouble narrowing down genres on my own books. My latest, if I could get away with it, is a YA western fantasy romance. But there aren't any shelves out there that have that label, so I've got to narrow it down.

It also makes me feel like the odds are simply unsurmountable. I'm swimming against a current of dystopian and contemporary romance and still perfectly comfortable in my little pod of fantasy and timeless love, but if I can't find the kinds of books I want to read on the shelves, is there any room there for the kinds of books I want to write?

There's already so much working against us writers. So many people I know and admire have overcome at least the Agent Hurdle recently, and some even the Book Deal Hurdle, and here I still sit, five years after finishing my first MS, feeling like I never did anything at all. Wondering if my writing is too weird for the industry. If I just don't have the spark.

That, I think, is why (aside from growing life), I just haven't had much energy to write lately. I'm having an existential creative crisis.

There ARE a few books I'm excited about coming in the next few months/ year, and I won't miss the chance to get someone else excited, too. (In no particular order, and forgetting a few, I'm sure):

THE ONE, the last book in THE SELECTION series-- it's like the Bachelor, but with a prince instead. Oh, and rebels.

TALKER 25, by one of my earliest online writer friends and former co-Alliterati, Joshua McCune. Dragons, that is all.

NEVER NEVER by Brianna Shrum, a fellow Pitch Wars survivor from 2012. The story of how Peter Pan and Hook became enemies.

WINTER, the final book in the CINDER series, by Marissa Meyer. Sci-fi fairy tales at their finest.

DAUGHTER OF THE GODS, by another of my earliest online writer friends and also former co-Alliterati Stephanie Thornton. Ancient Egypt, Hatshepsut, drama... LOVE.

HONOR AMONG ORCS, by yet another good writer friend Amalia Dillin-- a fantasy with orcs and romance!

You may notice a theme. I know most of these writers, but also their books are pretty original.

What do you think? Are publishers turning you off as a reader by playing it safe? Or do you want more of the same once you find a trend you love?


  1. First of all, TALK 25 sounds SO COOL. *Wishlists* I'm also looking forward to ONE, because I loved THE SELECTION so much (The Elite was kind of disappointingly love-triangle-ish for me), and of course DAUGHTER OF THE GODS is a must buy/can't wait. I loved beta-ing that book and I can't wait to see how Stephanie has improved it since.

    And. I don't think you're wrong about sameness. I think it is definitely a problem. Certain types of stories get hot and then everyone tries to find THEIR money maker in that genre before the NEXT thing gets hot and we see the same thing happen all over again in a different genre. It's not really all that different from the movie industry, in that way. Superheroes are hot, so everyone is making superhero movies. And while for the moment, I'm totally okay with that, and thrilled, because I absolutely LOVE superheroes and comic books, I am totally tired of seeing Batman and Superman and Spider-man get a reboot, and if Marvel's franchises (Spider-man isn't in-house, unfortunately) devolve into that same sameness, too, superhero movies are going to get really old really quick.

    This is why I think that small presses have an advantage, because they're a little bit more nimble, and able to break out of the ruts without it being as large of a risk. BECAUSE they're smaller operations, they can take MORE risks, I guess. And I think this is also what self-publishing can combat. But. Self-pub and small-press books don't always reach the shelves at your local B&N, unfortunately. :-/ And B&N, too, I think, has to play it safe because they're struggling to even stay afloat and relevant. So maybe indie bookstores might provide a bit more OTHER? I don't know. I hope so, but I don't know. And there are so few of them, now, too.

  2. I agree 100%, and I think Amalia is right on the money. My husband and I have read YA pretty exclusively the last few years and many times have complained about the same storyline a wrapped in slightly different worlds. I'm sadly very tired of the one girl being pursued by two guys she can't decide between while they all fight against some establishment. I really love YA and the creativity it allows, but most stories have a very similar formula. I'd love to read adult genres but I haven't found much with the same interesting worlds and stakes as YA. Lessa, I think your stories are amazing! I think we need to keep pushing the boundaries of what is popular in order to get something fresh. I totally get the fear that perhaps agents and publishers have of doing something different and then having it flop. As readers, we need to demand something different too.

  3. Yeah, I agree with this too. It's really hard to find the fresh stuff a lot of the time. I pretty much work off favourite authors, reviews, and word-of-mouth for a lot of my YA and urban fantasy reading, and there isn't a whole lot of that these days. (Which is sad because I'd call myself an urban fantasy writer, and I'm only reading a handful of series in the genre.) I'm luckier than most, I think, because I work in a bookstore and so I get to see pretty much everything that comes in before it's shelved, but the interesting novels still get lost in the sameness when I'm looking for new stock to bring in or books to recommend to customers. Especially when it comes to YA, because there are so many dystopian love triangles and paranormals, and most people I take to the section are done with that, same as us.

    When it comes to comparing my writing to the current market, I've more or less adopted a philosophy of "I'm different enough and similar enough I probably stand a chance", but honestly, I've just got to finish a novel first and then I can cross that bridge. It's definitely daunting to think that I might not get published because my heroine isn't law enforcement with an on-again, off-again boyfriend. Thank goodness there are smaller presses out there!

  4. How interesting. I just read a post on trends by Peggy Eddleman. I'll give you the same path to publishing I posted on her blog:

    1. Write what you want to read.
    2. Write it well.
    3. Get lucky.
    4. If unlucky, repeat steps #1-2.