Friday, February 11, 2011

Trend-Chasing; or, Missing the Soup for the Broth

Chasing trends is one of the big newbie author no-nos. It’s always the same advice. “By the time your book is finally published, the trend will have past and you’ll be yesterday’s news.” Good, solid stuff.

But you know the real reason chasing trends is a bad idea? Even if you do manage to release your book during the spillover of the last big craze, it’s still not going to work because riding the coattails of an awesome premise does not make your work inherently awesome as well.

Think about it, when was the last time you read a teen’s book about wizards and magic that genuinely reminded you of Harry Potter, or a mythology-based adventure series that rivaled Percy Jackson, or even a symbolism-charged conspiracy thriller that got even close to comparing with the craze of The Da Vinci Code?

You can think of books that tried, I’m sure, but none of them actually lived up to their claims. It was always obvious that they were just copy-cats, occasionally gender-bent to appeal to the other half of the marketing demographic, occasionally played straight. They couldn’t live up to the original.

I’d point to the teen vampires craze as an example, but I can’t actually tell the difference between any of those books, so I don’t know why Twilight and The Vampire Diaries were remembered while hundreds of others were ignored. So let’s look at dystopian teen fiction instead.

The Hunger Games is often cited as being the source of this sudden trend. Dreary futures with metaphorical commentary on present society had turned up in teen fiction before – hell, the Uglies trilogy wrapped up its fourth installment, what, four years ago? – but Hunger Games is the one that really knocked it out of the park, it seems.

Except that it didn’t.

Hunger Games isn’t popular because it’s a dystopian future novel. It’s popular because it was well-written, depicted interesting and relatable characters, and built an amazing world. It’s popular because it was innovative, interesting and just plain good.

Trend-chasing completely misses the point of what made the books successful in the first place. It tries to define an entire complicated recipe by its key ingredient, like deciding that a soup was delicious because it was made with chicken broth and completely ignoring the delicious poultry, vegetables, and seasonings that developed its true flavor.

Which is why, I think, that books like The Water Wars fail. They’re published and marketed to fit in a certain trend, and for all intents and purposes they match up to that trend, but they’re just not that good, so they don’t hold up.

You can’t write a mediocre version of the book someone else has done better and expect to be as successful. Readers can tell the difference.

At least, that’s the way it is in YA.

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