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Writing Timeless Stories

Over my book-free weekend, I tried a lot of things I haven't done since I started obsessing over fiction writing and publishing. I went out on a Friday-night date with Sweetie, in which we ate food I didn't make from a box and engaged in a refreshing round of moral indignation over the Halloween costumes at Fred Meyer (fake foam muscles sewn into superhero costumes for young boys, sultry figure-hugging vampiress dresses for little wonder we all have body image issues!). I played a terrible video game. I even ate three meals per day.

And on Saturday, I watched an HGTV show on Netflix. (Here's where I begin my illustrative philosophizing. If you don't care for philosophizing, skip down to the header in bold, where I get to the point.)

The last time I saw an HGTV show was when Sweetie and I were in college. I watched the home-buying shows—House Hunters, My First House, Property Virgins—because I liked to imagine living in exotic locales. Montana, Chicago, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, New Zealand....

Here's how a typical episode of Property Virgins or its ilk would go.

A pair of fresh-faced newlyweds is looking for a modest starter home. The realtor shows them a beautiful house in an upscale neighborhood. The couple's faces fall when they hear the asking price. "Whoa, that's way out of our price range."

The realtor flashes a cloyingly maternal smile. "You're focusing too much on the big, scary total. Over a thirty-year mortgage, you'll pay only twenty more dollars a month! You can afford twenty dollars a month, right?"

The newlyweds look at each other uncertainly. "Um, I guess that's doable. Yeah. We can afford that."

Cut to a coffee shop, where the realtor meets the couple to discuss the purchasing negotiations. She says, "The sellers won't take a cent less than $320k."

The husband, who originally wanted something around $250k, attempts to put his foot down. "We can't pay more than $310k, tops. I think we should keep looking."

Then the wife gets tearful. "But I love this house! It's our dream house! I can go back to work. I can get another line of credit. I'll do whatever it takes!"

The realtor nods sympathetically. She gives the husband a lecture about how real estate is an investment and he needs to think about his family's future. She reminds him that five other buyers are dying to get this house, and he'll lose it forever if he doesn't put in a strong offer today.

One scene cut later, the newlyweds have spent $350k they don't have. Yay! They got the house! Hugs and cheers all around.

Then 2008 happened. Surprise, surprise.

Fast forward to Saturday. The show I watched was Property Brothers. Twin brothers, realtor Drew and contractor Jonathan, help couples choose and renovate their new homes.

This show always begins with a "reality check" segment. The brothers lead a couple around the American Dream Home—spacious bedrooms, bathrooms with jacuzzi tubs and heated floors, enormous backyards with elegant decks and beautiful swimming pools. At the end of the tour, Drew reveals how much this palace costs. Jaws drop.

"Reality check! You can't afford this. You need to come down from the clouds and look at the properties within your reach."

Then the brothers show the couple some homes that are, to put it kindly, total dumps. The couples wrinkle their noses and say, "But it's ugly!"

And the brothers smack 'em down with, "This house is $20k under your budget. The structure is sound. With some smart renovations and elbow grease, you can make this place look just as good as the other one." For the rest of the show, they assemble the couple's "dream home" at bargain rates, demonstrating that you don't need to break the bank to live in style.

The moral of the story: times change. Prevailing attitudes change with them.

Now here's your header in bold.

What does this have to do with writing?

Some entertainment ages well. Much doesn't. People today relate better to some books published in 1890 than they do to books published in 1990. Classic movies from the 1930s seem more modern than many from the 2010s. Viewers loved HGTV's pushy realtors in 2007, but by 2011 they were tuning in to Property Brothers instead.

Why? Why have Jane Austen novels from the 1810s remained popular for a solid 200 years, despite massive changes in fashion and technology and cultural attitudes, while Nora Roberts novels from the 1980s are hilariously dated? Why are His Girl Friday (1940) and The Lady Eve (1941) still fresher and funnier than 27 Dresses (2008) or Bride Wars (2009)?

Here's my theory: the books and movies that survive feature rich stories and characters that will be entertaining no matter where or when you put them. But the books and movies that do well for a few months before fading from collective memory were designed to be popular, not good. They were created to capitalize on trends, and trends will always go out of style.

Unfortunately, the literary market—like every other market—is driven by trends. Many agents and publishers don't seem to want anything but the sexy genres of the here and now. That's because publishing houses exist to make money, not to throw it out the window. They have to make products that people will buy, and people buy what's in vogue.

Many people around you will insist that because this is the way the world works, you need to follow the trends. They'll say you need to write to genre—and not just any genre, but the hot! hot! hot! genres.

If you don't write to genre, they'll question your maturity and intelligence. They'll scoff, "Personally, I think it's a waste of time to write books that won't sell. You can do it if you want, but you'll never make a living that way. Don't quit your day job, little dreamer."

The people who say these things to you, unprompted, are disingenuous and frankly rude. Their words don't stem from any altruistic concern for your career, but from their own insecurities. They're afraid people judge them for "selling out," so they feel the need to justify their decisions by making you feel bad about yours.

They're also shortsighted. No must-read classic in any genre follows a formula more specific than beginning, middle, end (and maybe, loosely, "detective catches the villain," "hero saves the world," or "heroine gets the guy"). Enterprising authors may make some quick dough by copycatting Twilight with another paranormal teen romance, Hunger Games with another dystopian adventure, or Gone Girl with another twisted thriller, but nobody will respect or remember them.

In fact, these novels will already be "so last year" by the time they're published. If you've heard of the next big trend, it's already over. Hundreds of authors have already jumped on the derivative bandwagon, and there's no room left for you.

The books people remember are the ones that broke the mold. These books didn't follow the trends; they set them. They were rejected over and over by publishers because they were too unique and, therefore, posed too great a risk. Meg Cabot collected so many rejection letters that the US postal bag she keeps them in is too heavy to carry. Publishers told Dr. Seuss that his children's books were "too different from other juveniles on the market." Jasper Fforde received 76 rejections over 11 years before he sold The Eyre Affair. The list goes on and on.

If you love writing in a certain genre, by all means, go for it. Most genres leave plenty of room for fun and originality—I've read some amazing romances and cozy mysteries—it's just that the mercenaries give genres a bad name by gunking up the market with tired cliches. (Your heroine's love interest doesn't have to be an arrogant, brooding, sexually aggressive jerk with a wounded heart of gold. I swear.)

But if you're tempted to write to genre because people have told you that's where the money is, don't. Just don't.

1. It takes months, if not years, to write and publish a quality book. That's a lot of time and sweat to pour into something you don't much like.

2. You probably won't succeed. The competition for sales in the popular genres is extremely fierce. You think you can make easy money by going head-to-head with Debbie Macomber, James Patterson, or Stephen King? You think you can beat thousands of other mainstream writers who were all at the top of their English programs and have spent twenty years learning how to write the best books they can? Not only will you compromise yourself and make yourself miserable, but you'll do it all for nothing.

3. If, on the off chance, you do succeed in your trendy genre, your career will peak at the midlist. The very goal of your approach is mediocrity—to secure your living by giving the people what they claim to want, never pushing yourself or the envelope by taking risks. You may think you're being "realistic," but in the long term, you're only boxing yourself in.

And no, you can't say, "Once I'm an established author, I can write what I really want." That's not how it works. Once you start pumping out those bestsellers, you have to keep pumping out those bestsellers to stay in the game. Your publisher and fans will strongly encourage you to keep writing the same stuff you've written before. Even J. K. Rowling had to wave hi and bye to her experimental literary career.

I know it's tempting to cave to the pressure. You see all these writers skyrocketing to the top of the rankings with books very different from yours, and you feel like the only way to succeed must be to write the same things they do. But chasing the fads won't guarantee financial success—it will only guarantee that by 2030, your novels will be as hokey as leg warmers and scrunchies are today. The word "vampire" is already a punchline. Do you want to be a punchline? Didn't think so.


Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt (October 8, 2014, 11:36 pm)

"The books people remember are the ones that broke the mold."

It makes me feel better - I'm breaking several molds. But each one of those molds satisfies a large number of people, and you don't know if they will follow.

But then who said writing was a guaranteed venue, like a caterer? You go to a caterer - or a specific genre - because you know what you want in your eating/reading/entertainment experience.

The job of the mold breakers is to say yes, but - and present something that will make the reader realize there is more out there than the same.

The chances of success are low - as they are for almost anything. But I don't think success is as obscure as winning the lottery - it is more like graduating with honors from college: hard, complicated, but doable. Still rare (or it should be), and requiring choices (another editing pass? that makes 15!), but possible.

Fortunately for me, I am physically incapable of caving to the pressure to write trendy books. Too slow to catch even the trailing edge of a trend. I think it may be a good thing.

T. K. Marnell (October 9, 2014, 2:47 am)

Hi Alicia,

You're right, breaking the mold is scary because we never know how people are going to react. Do readers truly love the formulas and will get angry if we deviate from them? Or have we falsely assumed they love the formulas, and they'll actually be refreshed to see something different? We won't know until we push their buttons and see what happens!

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