And you can focus on the pretty clouds and take deep, calming breaths while I explain why everyone is saying Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy are dead genres.
I’ve participated in this very conversation several times over the last few weeks – in meetings, panels and online – so I thought I might as well write out my take on it, as something to point to.
But yes, this is the industry message we’ve been hearing and was probably one of the key takeaway messages from RWA 2014. Agents and Editors are just not buying new Paranormal and Urban Fantasy stories.
I’m sorry. Look at the pretty clouds. Take a deep breath.
But, but, but… Jeffe! I hear you all saying. But your Twelve Kingdoms books are doing really great and you said the other day that if presales on The Tears of the Rose are good enough you’ll get to do three more!
But I see new paranormal and urban fantasy books coming out all the time!
But I love to read those genres and know *tons* of other people do too, how can it be dead??
What do they even mean when they say a genre is dead?
Okay, so here are some simple answers for you.
“Dead Genre” – WTF??
You’re right – it’s a misnomer. Even the agent who declares on a panel that PNR is dead will agree ten minutes later that genres don’t really die. She means that it’s on a downcycle. When industry people say this, they mean that agents can’t sell that genre to a big publishing house and editors can’t justify acquiring it. Will that change eventually? Of course. Will certain books circumvent that rule? Of course. Will yours? The odds are not in your favor.
If editors say they won’t acquire, then why did [insert famous PNR/UF author name here] get another big deal?
Because they *already have an audience.* It’s not a gamble to buy more books from an established author. It is a gamble to give a book contract to a new or midlist author. Having that uncertainty on top of a downcycle genre stacks the deck against the decision to go for it. This is why the big authors get big deals, to keep doing what they’ve been doing. This is why umpteen books still come out on the shelves. This is also why digital and smaller publishers are more likely to give a book in a downcycle genre more of a chance, because they have less investment to gamble.
But the READERS!
Okay, there are a few things to consider here. One is that these people see the sales and you don’t. Just because the big authors (see above) are selling lots of books, does not mean that all books in the genre are doing likewise. I can vouch that a number of authors I know writing in these genres are not selling that phenomenally. There are a LOT of books out there – the market is glutted, which is what causes a downcycle. It’s hard for a new author to break in, be different, catch reader attention. One thing to consider is, between you and your PNR/UF loving friends, how many of the books that you’ve bought lately were from totally new authors? Not new-to-you, but debuts? If can list some, think about why those debut authors caught your attention.
So… does this mean you’re screwed?
First of all, remember than genre is something of an artificial construct. If you can find a way to spin your story or the description to make it clear that it’s not yet another example of this dead genre, do that. Some of you cleverly pointed at my books and that I, as NOT a big author, am doing okay getting them out there. That’s because they’re Fantasy. If you were paying attention last week, female authors did great in the Hugo Awards. Keep in mind that the SciFi/Fantasy (SFF) publishers are not the same as the PNR publishers. Other romance subgenres may be hotter now, but there’s hunger for female voices and stories in SFF.
And besides, the wheel goes round, right?
I’m giving you perspective and advice on the market right now. That’s totally different than the advice I’d give you as a writer, which is to write what you love. As an artist, as a storyteller, you have to follow your heart. Now, if your heart is polyamorous and can be just as happy with you writing an idea in an upcycle genre? Do that. But don’t chase the market. Put the book in a drawer and wait for a better season. I have one that’s a great book, could be an amazing series – and the market is all wrong right now.
Write something else.
That’s what writers do.
Spotted on the New & Recommended table in New Hampshire! Many thanks to @TamsenParker for snapping the pic! I’m over at Word Whores today, talking about mixing and matching genres.
If you were anywhere near the Internet yesterday, you will have already heard my squeals of shock and astonishment. Totally out of the blue, the amazing gals at RT Book Reviews tweeted me that The Mark of the Tala was chosen for the June Seal of Excellence. They describe it like this:
Each month the RT editors select one book that is not only compelling, but pushes the boundaries of genre fiction. This book stands out from all the others reviewed that month, in the magazine issue and on the website. June 2014’s RT Seal of Excellence — the editors’ pick for best book of the month — is awarded to Jeffe Kennedy’s fantasy romance, The Mark of the Tala.
I’m not sure how many books they review each month in magazine and on the website, but it must be hundreds. You can see the list of past selections here. Sharing this honor with those books and authors? Just UNREAL. Seeing my book listed alongside ones like Written in Red, The Hunger Games Trilogy and Gone Girl (also a June selection!) is powerfully moving.
They also say this about their selections:
The RT Seal of Excellence is awarded to the one title each month that stands out from all the rest. The RT staff nominates contenders which the RT editors then read and discuss at length. Sometimes a book is propelled to the top of the list by an innovative twist on a familiar story, or a villain that leaves readers chilled to the bone. In other instances the setting or the author’s writing style has set the story apart. But every title that wins the RT Seal of Excellence is our pick for the best read of the month.
I think that’s the best part of all. For those of you who’ve been following this blog lo these five years (can you believe that??), then you know I struggled for a long time to find a home for my particular blend of fantasy and romance. At one point, an agent I was pitching to at a national convention put me in tears when she icily told me my books fell in the cracks between genres. She was particularly cruel, the worst of them by far – which led to my writer friends referring to me as the Crack Ho ever since – but everyone had a similar refrain. No place in the market for my kind of thing.
Yes, the market has changed in these last five years and there’s more room for different and more interest in permutations on fantasy – so I’m dead lucky there. Some wonderful people have taken chances on my work and that’s been huge. Carina Press bought into my Covenant of Thorns trilogy when no one else would and those books led directly to my Twelve Kingdoms books being picked up.
So, to have this book be celebrated for standing out, for pushing genre boundaries – incredible validating.
I feel as if I’ve been fished out of the cracks.
So, you all know that I’ve been busily drafting Rogue’s Paradise, the third book in my Covenant of Thorns trilogy. Well, maybe you don’t breathlessly follow my daily doings and so wouldn’t know, but I am. And – I think this isn’t spoilery – there are *ahem* dragons in it. Because, you know, they were in the first and second books. I’m just indicating the trajectory continues is all.
But it’s funny because, as I deal with the ins and outs of dragons and their role in my overall story, I keep remembering this conversation I had a few months back.
I was at a writers conference and, when I arrived at the area where the workshops were being held, I saw Agent Pam talking to this guy. She spotted me walking up and introduced me to the guy. I can’t recall exactly what she said, but it was along the lines of “Jeffe writes fantasy and [Guy] writes some kind of fantasy, too.” And then she ducked away really quick, which should have given me a clue. But I was freshly arrived, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, feeling generous and friendly, so I made a little joke, something like “oh, one of those, huh, who doesn’t know it exactly what kind of fantasy it might be?”
I mean, come on – I have internet conversations almost every day where we debate if something is epic fantasy or urban fantasy or contemporary fantasy or fantasy romance. It’s not like our stories come pre-pigeonholed.
At any rate, Guy gives me a look (you know, the mansplaining kind) and says to me, “No, I know exactly what kind of fantasy I write. It’s [insert some way-too-specfic term here].” Seriously I can’t remember what he said, because as soon as the words came out of his mouth, I started to glaze over. Then he proceeded to give me his resume, which largely included his “near-misses” along with the books he had written. A near-miss happens when, say, your book makes it all the way to the second meeting of the editorial team at TOR and they ultimately decide to pass. I total “I coulda been a contenda” moment. Agonizing for the author, yes. Not a good way of introducing yourself.
Writers, of course, discuss and commiserate over the near-misses all the time. But they never count for making you more legit or important. (Pro-tip, there.)
Anyway, Guy tells me about a near-miss. Then also tells me how this prestigious role-playing game (which meant nothing to me, since I don’t know that world) wanted him to write a spin-off of book. He, however, refused! “They wanted to me to write about dragons sitting around discussing war,” Guy said, in a disgusted and dismissive tone. “No amount of money would get me to write about a conversation. I write action!”
So, as I write about my dragons – who are, by the way, not sitting around discussing war, for what it’s worth, though there may be other, similar conversations – I keep hearing Guy’s voice. And thinking how he just didn’t get it.
I mean, yes, write action! That’s great stuff. Nothing wrong with writing action. A good writer, however, can make a conversation into a fight scene. Or a love scene. Hell, look at Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants or Dorothy Parker’s Here We Are. Conversely, I’ve read tons of fight and battle scenes that I skimmed because they were all about the blow-by-blow and contained no emotional tension.
I think that’s why the conversation with Guy keeps coming back to me. The thing is, while the STORY is key, it’s the writing that makes it come alive. Written well, a conversation adds to the overall tension and climactic build of the plot. Written poorly, the most dramatic fight scene can, well, droop and fail to satisfy.
I’ll leave you with a snippet from the amazing Dorothy Parker’s Here We Are.
“Well, you see, sweetheart,” he said, “we’re not really married yet. I mean. I mean—well, things will be different afterwards. Oh, hell. I mean, we haven’t been married very long.”
“No,” she said.
“Well, we haven’t got much longer to wait now,” he said. “I mean—well, we’ll be in New York in about twenty minutes. Then we can have dinner, and sort of see what we feel like doing. Or I mean. Is there anything special you want to do tonight?”
“What?” she said.
“What I mean to say,” he said, “would you like to go to a show or something?”
“Why, whatever you like,” she said. “I sort of didn’t think people went to theaters and things on their—I mean, I’ve got a couple of letters I simply must write. Don’t let me forget.”
“Oh,” he said. “You’re going to write letters tonight?”
Guy would no doubt disapprove, but something also tells me he wouldn’t get it.
I’m over at Word Whores this morning talking about the pros and cons of writing in multiple genres. And also panda bears.
The other day, I saw this tweet:
D’ya think it’s poss to write a YA zombie book without ever having read ANY zombie books at all, like ever? Recommendations please folks?
This isn’t anyone I follow or who follows me – I saw it because someone I follow retweeted it. So, Unknown Person who asked this question by flinging it upon the waters of Twitter in good faith, if you see this, please don’t think I’m dissing you here. I had a long answer to your question. Longer than Twitter permits.
Plus I admire this person for asking the question in the first place. So very many people don’t. And I think it hurts them as writers.
See, there’s this idea that there’s an artistic purity in working from a vacuum. I’m not quite sure where it comes from. But people love to tell stories about the guy who never studied painting, ever but produces this amazing, unusual work. Or the young girl who spontaneously starts creating symphonies. We’re fascinated by the idea of this kind of genius, that seems to spring out of nowhere.
It also maybe is alluring, because we get the idea that we can skip a few steps and be successful anyway.
Really, I think this rarely happens. In fact, I suspect it never happens and stories meant to convey that idea are heavily massaged. There’s a reason interviewers ask bands about their influences, why people are forever asking writers who they read. Creativity comes out of richness, not a vacuum. Ideas lead to more ideas. Also, learning your craft means studying others who’ve gone before.
After all, no one really wants to hire an architect who says “Oh, I didn’t go to school because I didn’t want my creativity to be influenced by the establishment.” No CPA should touch your taxes who says she hasn’t read all that IRS stuff.
It’s great to want to be a rulebreaker, but you have to know what the rules are first. For a writer, that means reading. A lot of reading.
A few years back, I had a friend who was writing a vampire book. Only hers was a going to be a special vampire book – not like all the others. In fact, she’d never read a book with vampires in them. She had a fair amount of contempt for the genre. When I suggested a few books or authors who’ve greatly influenced that genre, she dismissed the idea. First of all, she didn’t want to waste her time reading books like that. Secondly, she wanted her book to be unique, untainted by the tropes. She planned to mix it up and do something Fresh, Exciting and New.
Who doesn’t want to do that?
Thing was, because she hadn’t read, she didn’t know which rules she was breaking. So, she would ask me, hoping for the benefit of all the energy I’d invested in reading those stories. I found that, not only was it difficult to answer a question about vampire nature – after all, according to which author, which tradition? Laurell K Hamilton’s vampires are not Charlaine Harris’s vampires are not Anne Rice’s vampires are not Bram Stoker’s vampires are not Stephenie Meyer’s vampires – but I resented that she wanted to write a genre she didn’t care enough about to read.
That’s what it really comes down to. If you’re writing something you don’t love to read, why the hell are you writing it?
This is a kind of literary carpetbagging. The sort of person who swoops in on the lucrative opportunity, with no real investment in the thing itself.
Not that you’re thinking that way, unknown Twitter person. Because you, at least, cared enough to ask. The short answer is sure, it’s possible to do it. There’s no guarantee for how your book would turn out if you do or don’t read. But why wouldn’t you? Take two weeks and read everything you can get your hands on. If you’re feeling the YA zombie love, then it should be a fun assignment for yourself. Spend a little time enriching yourself, creating a nice thick stew of ideas and images and emotions to draw from.
Don’t worry that you’ll be derivative or duplicating – if your creative heart is in the right place, your own story will come out of it. But do spend a little time studying the genre.
It will be an investment you’ll never regret.
I’m over at the Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal blog today, talking about being a cross-genre write – and why my agent said my books aren’t anything.
It seems the debate on “real literature” and “serious reading” will continue to roll on. It’s occurring on so many levels, with so many lines being arbitrarily drawn. There’s the Literary camp, of course, who accepts only a few authors into their lofty ranks. I really like this summation by Neil Gaiman in answer to a question on his Tumblr about why his teacher says Gaiman’s book isn’t “real literature”:
“Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig,” as Robert Heinlein once said.
I mean, you could ask your teacher to explain why Watchmen’s on the syllabus, if it’s not real literature. Or why TIME picked it as one of the 100 best novels of the Twentieth Century, but that will probably just make your teacher even more defensive. And mostly you’ll just be trying to explain to someone who is color blind why red is a really nice colour.
(About twenty years ago I was on a flight to the US, and sat next to an English professor at some middle-range US university, and we talked about books, because I love talking about books. And his specialty was early twentieth century literature, and I thought our conversation was going to be so much fun, until I realized that he really didn’t know any authors who he didn’t teach. He could talk Hemingway or Fizgerald, but as soon as I started mentioning authors equally as interesting out of the canon, and I was sticking to American authors because he was, you know, American, he started looking hunted; and I felt a little sorry for his students, but only a little, because even a bad teacher can’t stop you reading in your own time.)
I saved this link and this story because I think it speaks volumes. For a long time English and Literature classes famously only taught a few writers – often referred to as “dead, white males.” This has opened up, but judiciously, to minorities and females. But, as there’s an idea that lines must be drawn, most books smacking of genre are excluded from consideration.
Then, the other day, I stumbled across this really excellent essay by Ursula Le Guin. I think what we’re seeing now is these genre authors who’ve reached the age of authenticity, talking intelligently about their bodies of work, which just happen to be genre. She proposes a solution to the endless debate:
To get out of this boring bind, I propose an hypothesis:
Literature is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.
The value judgment concealed in distinguishing one novel as literature and another as genre vanishes with the distinction.
Every readable novel can give true pleasure. Every novel read by choice is read because it gives true pleasure.
Literature consists of many genres, including mystery, science fiction, fantasy, naturalism, realism, magical realism, graphic, erotic, experimental, psychological, social, political, historical, bildungsroman, romance, western, army life, young adult, thriller, etc., etc…. and the proliferating cross-species and subgenres such as erotic Regency, noir police procedural, or historical thriller with zombies.
Some of these categories are descriptive, some are maintained largely as marketing devices. Some are old, some new, some ephemeral.
Genres exist, forms and types and kinds of fiction exist and need to be understood: but no genre is inherently, categorically superior or inferior.
This makes the Puritan snobbery of “higher” and “lower” pleasures irrelevant, and very hard to defend.
All of this continues to be on my mind because, even within genre, there’s criticism of who is legitimate and who isn’t. Mainly, there seems to be a bastion in sci fi and fantasy that feels pressed to defend it against feminization. No “soft sci fi” is their battle cry.
So, I’d like to propose an amendment to the hypothesis, as such:
Genres exist, forms and types and kinds of fiction exist and need to be understood: but no genre or emotional style is inherently, categorically superior or inferior.
What do you all think?