So let me tell you a cautionary tale. A few years ago, I started writing a YA paranormal novel, back when paranormals were The Thing. Now, I was not writing the paranormal because paranormals were The Thing, I was writing it because it was a story that consumed me, that had actually come to me in a dream, a la Stephanie Meyer.
I’d been reading Twilight, in fact. And Harry Potter. With some John Green and Sarah Dessen and Barry Lyga thrown in for good measure. But Twilight really swept me off my feet (have I mentioned that I’m a recovering book snob?). It got inside my head, this book about vampires and werewolves, along with all the hoopla surrounding it. In fact, I feel certain that Twilight took over my id, and told it to give me the idea for my own YA paranormal, which I was then consumed with a need to write.
And write I did, furtively, for about six months, while I dreamed of the sure-fire fame and fortune that would result from its publication. I figured I had it made: I was writing a story I really believed in, AND I would be surfing a trend wave safely to the beach.
When I’d banged out a good enough draft, I gave it to another YA writer friend for comments, and I’ll never forget what she said. She said: “It’s so good. It’s so good I can’t believe no one hasn’t written it yet.”
Turns out someone had. And just as I started looking for an agent for the novel, I saw that it was debuting on the New York Times Bestseller list.
Okay, so it wasn’t exactly my novel—the only thing the two books shared was the paranormal ability of the main characters, and hey, there are like a million vampire novels on the YA shelves, so why couldn’t there be two of our kind of character? Our novels were different in every other way.
But no. I’d been scooped. Agent after agent, then later (when the agent I signed with for a different book tried to sell the paranormal) editor after editor, mentioned the other book and said that there wasn’t space in the competitive marketplace for two of this kind of book, blah, blah, blah.
I disagreed, and still do. But this was my reality because, like it or not, I was chasing the paranormal trend.
At the time, I hadn’t thought of my novel as a trend-chaser, but in retrospect, it totally was. Like I said, Twilight got inside my head, and I thought something like, “Hey, I can do this—probably even better.” And as soon as I did that, I threw myself headlong into a pool of highly ambitious and creative and talented writers all ready to eat each other alive to become The Next Big Thing.
But the trend-makers, the ones who really would write The Next Big Thing, were already swimming in another pool. The dystopian pool.
It’s like what my parents’ urbane Manhattanite friends said about Balthazar, the “it” restaurant of the late 90’s: “By the time housewives in Stockton (my hometown) read about it, the restaurant is done.”
What’s the takeaway here? That I shouldn’t have bothered writing this novel that I wanted so badly to write, because I was obviously too late to the paranormal party?
Partly. See, I’m not a big believer in regret—it will also eat you alive. Even though it was a trend-chaser, writing that novel taught me a great deal about writing a character-driven but also plot-heavy book with a supernatural twist, an experience I wouldn’t have gotten from writing anything else. It also taught me the valuable secret I’m letting you in on today.
I think it was a good thing that I wrote this novel, but if I were to do it all again—or if I were to counsel dystopian-writing students in a current creative writing workshop—I would advise myself not to get too excited about the publication opportunities. I would tell myself that I was writing this novel because I loved it, and because I needed to write it out of myself, but that I was writing it as a learning experience. To be realistic about its chances of publication (slightly higher than 0%).
But because I’ve already had that particular learning experience, both of writing a paranormal and of chasing a trend, these days I would tell myself to write something different altogether. Something non-trend, instead of on-trend.
Which, by the way, I’ve been doing. I’ve poking slowly away at a contemporary YA novel for the last year or so. Then guess what?
This past spring, my Twitter feed was positively clogged with news from the Bologna children’s conference that agents and editors are on the hunt for contemporary YA. Crap, I thought. I wasn’t supposed to be trend chasing! I can’t win!
So I stopped reading Twitter till the conference was safely over. I didn’t want to know. I was too committed to the novel to quit now. So this time I’m crossing my fingers that the scooping doesn’t happen again, and that I arrive just fashionably late to the party. I think the good news about contemporary YA is that it really never goes out of style.
At least, that’s what I keep telling myself, as I try to keep my publication fantasies in check. The writing life is long. Trends are short.
Keep writing, I tell myself. That’s the important thing.
Kerri Majors is the author of This is Not a Writing Manual: Notes for the Young Writer in the Real World (Writer’s Digest Books, July 2013). She is also the Editor and Founder of YARN, the Young Adult Review Network (www.yareview.net), an award-winning literary journal of YA short stories, essays, and poetry. Kerri’s own writings have been published in journals like Guernica and Poets and Writers. She has an MFA from Columbia, and lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Mike, and their daughter. You can find out more about her at www.kerrimajors.com.
Oh, AND she's giving away a copy of This is Not a Writing Manual!
Real-world writing advice, minus all the lectures.You're an aspiring writer. Maybe you've just discovered your love of words and dream of being a novelist someday. Maybe you've been filling notebooks with science-fiction stories since middle school. Maybe you're contemplating a liberal arts degree, but you don't know what the heck you're going to do with it. The last thing you need is another preachy writing manual telling you how you should write.
This book isn't a writing manual. It is a series of candid and irreverent essays on the writing life, from a writer who's lived it. Kerri Majors shares stories from her own life that offer insights on the realities all writers face: developing a writing voice, finding a real job (and yes, you do need to find one), taking criticism, getting published, and dealing with rejection.
Don't have enough time to write? Learn how to plan your days to fit it all in. Not sure how your guilty pleasures and bad habits translate into literature? Kerri explains how soap operas and eavesdropping can actually help your writing. Need a reader for your first novel? Find a writing buddy or a writing group that will support you. Nervous about submitting your first piece? Learn from Kerri's own roller coaster journey to find an agent and get published.
 copy of This is Not a Writing Manual by Kerri Majors up for grabs
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ends July 12
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