The Truth About Dead Genres

I opened my email this weekend and found a question from a writer--one that a lot of people are probably asking.

I am a follower of your blog, an avid science fiction and fantasy reader, and a hoping-to-be-published-one-day-in-the-future writer, who has a question that I thought you might answer for me. I was wondering, if a writer is writing something that is currently popular, e.g. a vampire-human love story or a dystopian youth fantasy, should the writer just give-up on their manuscript now, because a currently selling trend is a dying tend by publishing standards? Or is it worthwhile to keep pursuing the idea, as long as the work is sufficiently different, i.e. it doesn't feature a sparkling, suicidal vampire or a media-driven teen death match? I ask, because I've been writing a young adult dystopian story, a story I had the idea for, long before The Hunger Games (although I will admit that I'm a Hunger Games fan), but I'm worried that by the time my manuscript is ready for me to query an agent, everybody will think dystopian is dead, and won't give my story a genuine chance. My story has no resemblance to The Hunger Games: no teenagers fighting to the death for entertainment, no reluctant heroine with the skills of a warrior, no sweet and gentle baker with a tender affection for our heroine, but, as with most dystopia, it does involve societal upheaval. I'm worried that given the latest interest in dystopian fantasy that I'm wasting my time with this story, and should, perhaps, pick-up another idea, one that's a little less 'now', and run with that idea instead. I thought this might be a good question for you to answer on your blog as I'm sure that I'm not the only writer wandering through the internet concerned that it's too late for her sub-genre of interest.

Now, this is a tough one. There are a lot of different ways to approach this.

Here are my thoughts.

On one hand, you never want to "write for the market." As a reader, the books that are coming out were typically sold between a year and two years earlier. Which means you're always going to be behind the curve and therefore at a disadvantage. (Unless of course you are a psychic and can predict what's next--in which case, I'd love if you could give me a call...) But seriously, if you look at the books that have become successful, they're books that came out at a time when they were the only thing out there.

I was teaching when Twilight first came out and I saw my students roll their eyes at the idea of a girl who falls in love with a vampire. That was so not cool...until other people read it and raved about it, and then they read the series as well as several other vampire series as well.

I also firmly believe you should write what you love and what you're passionate about. This industry is tough and if you don't love the writing, the business and the publicity and the ups and downs will absolutely drain you.

That said, there's a point where the art of writing and the business of publishing have to meet. And in the business Dead Genres do exist. (I think dystopian is already pretty dead). There are queries and manuscripts that I reject solely on the basis that it's paranormal or it's dystopian--because they're not selling.

So if you're writing a YA dystopian novel, where does that leave you?

I don't want to tell you to give up. If you love the novel you're writing, write it, finish it, gain the experience from the process. Even query it--write the query, revise it, send it out, make connections with agents. And then while you're querying, write something else--something different, something that will challenge you and make you better at your craft.

Do this because even if the manuscript doesn't get you an agent and/or doesn't get published, you will learn and you will become that much closer to the agent and/or the sale. And that will help you when your next manuscript is finished. Do this also because who knows, you might get lucky.

Here's why, just a few weeks ago, I requested a YA paranormal from my queries. It was literary in style and totally weird and different in comparison to what I'd seen out there. In the end I didn't offer representation, but I sent some notes on the ms (and also told the author that actually instead of doing those notes she might want to just set the ms aside and work on something else) and I said I was really interested in seeing her next project. (Agents don't lie when we say that and we don't say it to everyone.)

I have also taken on a few projects that I knew in my heart weren't "commercial." They weren't going to be an easy sell--in fact, I might not sell them at all. But I loved the manuscript and the writing, and I had faith in the author, that even if this first manuscript didn't sell, one of his/her next manuscripts would and that investment was worth it.

Another thing to keep in mind--dead genres don't say dead forever. If you can't sell that YA dystopian right now, that doesn't mean you won't be able to sell it down the road. I've told clients this. There is no shame in putting a manuscript aside, telling yourself "it isn't the right time for this one," and then planning to come back to it in a few years with a fresh perspective.

And I'd say this is good advice for everyone, no matter what you're writing--put everything you have into the manuscript you're working on. Query it, and then write something else. And keep doing that until you find an agent, until you sell your first book, and then beyond.

Be patient, it doesn't happen overnight for anyone.

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Ambiguous_A said...

Great post, Suzie! I always wondered about this, because many people get a great idea after they read books in the new most popular genre, but at that point it's probably already too late. Good to hear an agent's perspective on how to handle that.

Marsha Sigman said...

Well, this makes me feel better since I am querying a paranormal mystery!

But I started working on a YA Thriller that I am very excited about so it's true. Starting something else right away really helps with this process.

Zan Marie said...

Thanks for a clear answer to the good question, Suzie. It's nice to know what's really important--write and keep writing.

Yi Gosoh said...

Thanks so much for taking the time to explain how genre trends work. I've been wondering about something for a while. Is there such a genre that is what I call "just before things get dystopian"? As in, imagine if dystopia is on the far side of a peak, the peak being war for example, and the dystopian society follows that. If dystopian is a genre defined by the state of the society (I don't know, I'm just writing from the few novels I've read in this genre) is there any genre for what happens on this side of the peak, the period in time when the society is staring at war/unrest and possibly a dystopian future? When the world (fictional world) is straddling normal and things are about to turn dystopian and you have some serious choices to make? I guess it's pre-conflict but a very large cataclysmic kind of conflict in which everyone knows the world will not end--life will go on--but it will be irreversibly altered as far as humans ever knew if they don't act. That's where I'm at in my fiction and I just don't know where that would sit. But it is YA and thriller. Maybe that's it? Any ideas would be appreciated. Thanks again for this post.

Cynthia said...

Thanks for answering this for us. I've often wondered the same thing since for any one of my manuscripts, publication is years away. It feels little like mowing the lawn to keep them updated and relevant as I'm seeking representation and publication.

Unknown said...

@Yi Gosoh - A dystopia is simply a society with negative aspects, the opposite of a perfect, wonderful utopia. (You could say that we are living in a dystopia now, in a way.) The idea of "dystopian fiction" is not defined as clearly as "thriller" or "fantasy" or "sci fi" is, and it is usually considered a sub-genre of one of the above, being either a form of speculative fiction or set in another world. A society on the brink of war is, in itself, a form of dystopia, so being "pre-dystopian" really isn't possible, simply because "dystopian" is so blurrily defined that there is no real "edge" of it. If it's at all bad in any way, you could call it dystopian. The Middle Ages would have been a "dystopian future" to the people of ancient Rome since so much information was lost and society plummeted backward. Overall, the definition of a dystopian novel is not clear enough to say that a novel would be pre or post dystopia--it's just too general a term. Just calling it a speculative fiction thriller would probably be the best bet.

Unknown said...

@Yi Gosoh--

Right now there have been a number of books that are dystopian, post apocalyptic, apocalyptic, sci-fi, and futuristic thrillers. Sometimes they cross into different genres. Sometimes they are what they are, but because of the definition of "dystopian" they typically all end up being labeled at one point as dystopian.

So in terms of pitching your story I'd say you want to call it a YA thriller. That's not a dead genre.

Scribble Orca said...

Suzie, thank you for answering the writer and sharing your thoughts with us all.

It's very helpful to learn that it is how the story is presented ie not as dystopian but pointing out the other aspects that can make the difference between a manuscript being accepted or rejected.

Kathryn Faye said...

Thank you so much for answering this question. I was worried about my Paranormal Romance because most agents are calling it dead and I fear that I am meeting with rejection because of its genre. Perhaps I will set it aside and work on the Space Opera/Sci-fi that has been nagging at me for about two years.

I love following your blog because your advice is so sound, Suzie. Thank you.

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Unknown said...

I love that you posted such a perceptive and informative answer to a question many of us have. Thank you for taking the time to let us understand your (and other agents') thinking processes and being so encouraging at the same time. :-)

Yi Gosoh said...

@Suzie Townsend and @Michelle Wilson: Thank you both for clarifying the conventions around this genre area. I think I've been confusing the idea of apocalyptic (pre- and post-) with dystopian, which may not necessarily be apocalyptic in nature. Thank you! I feel relieved to get it and also know that it's not dead. In any case, the urge to write it is stronger than whatever the market is doing but it's nice to know the market is still receptive. Thanks.

Eric M. Collier said...

Thank you for your post, Ms. Townsend.

Is YA horror dead? I mean, without vampires, werewolves, faries, or fallen angels who are star-crossed lovers with a human girl. But is magic and dark forces ok with more of a horror/thriller aspect?

What about clock/steam/cyberpunk?

Thank you again for your post.

Gabe (Ava Jae) said...

This is a fantastic post Suzie, thank you! The dead genre issue seems to be a common problem amongst writers regardless of whether or not they're keeping up with the market. It's impossible to guess what will be the new trend or what will die next, and sometimes, as was the case with the writer who originally asked about dead genres, you start writing a book just before a trend explodes and by the time it's ready for querying, the genre you wrote in is (unfortunately) on it's way out. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the issue! I'll definitely be sharing this post.