Monday, March 01, 2010

Trend-Setting / Trend-Surfing

Okay, here's the Meaty Monday writing post I had intended to have ready by this morning. My apologies for the hockey-related lag!
There's this vampire trend going on in literature. You may have noticed it. Unless you prefer sub-granite abodes, that is--and even then, you've probably caught a glimpse or two of Edward's sparkles.

A lot of people put a great deal of energy into trying to predict the next popular trend, because being ahead the curve is a very lucrative thing.

However, I've been thinking about what creates a trend, rather than what the trend will be, and it seems to me you can't predict the next craze unless you've got insider information on the quality (more than the subject matter) of an upcoming book or movie.

Here's how I figure a trend happens. For the sake of conciseness, I'll assume that books start and propagate the craze.

Stage 1: Inflammation
Someone writes an engaging, entertaining, addictive book based on a relatively fresh idea. Word-of-mouth ensures this book becomes a bestseller.

The universe portrayed in the book is so engaging that it fires the imagination of the readers. They spend time thinking about this world, dreaming themselves into it, and imagining new adventures for its characters.

Because it's a popular book, this happens to a large segment of the public.

And the public includes other novelists.

Stage 2: Pandemic
These other novelists now are also excited by the latest craze, and when you excite an artist, you get art.

A second generation of novelists now writes books that fit in with the trend, and since the public has a new appetite for such books, the publishing industry is happy to put some of them on shelves.

Most of these books will be good enough, but nothing special. Occasionally, however, one of the second generation of books will be as fantastic as the original.

This book will also capture the public's imagination, and the cycle repeats with a third generation of novelists. (To be clear, when I say generation, the time frame I'm talking about is on the order of six months to a year-and-a-half.)

Stage 3: Death
The trend lasts for as long as great books continue being written--books that excite the public's imagination. If the chain of great books breaks, the public moves on to something else and the trend will begin to wither.

Anne Rice (re)started the vampire craze with her character Lestat. The Anita Blake books continued the trend. Then a loooong series of urban fantasy and paranormal romances featuring vampires flooded the market, but nothing really caught on the way Lestat and Anita Blake did. The trend began to die.

Until Stephanie Meyer brought it roaring back to (un)life with the Twilight saga. And the charming Sookie Stackhouse books plugged right into Ms. Meyer's trend and have both propagated and benefited enormously from it.

Alternate Stage 3: Murder
It's worth mentioning that a trend can be killed.

If a new trend starts before the last one has run its course, it can derail the public's enthusiasm. As a non-literary example of this, during the '80s, "Corporate Rock" or "Hair Metal" was a popular genre of music.

Until the band Nirvana (and the rest of the Seattle music scene) arrived.

Corporate rock died instantly in the wake of Kurt Cobain and company. Nirvana's variation on rock was so fresh, so honest, that other music which had, even a year previous, been perfectly targeted for its audience abruptly seemed, to that same audience, false and pandering.

The new craze killed the old one. (Cue JJ beginning to hum Video Killed the Radio Star, knowing full well she won't get that song out of her head for a week.)

So the lesson for writers is that it's dangerous to try to write for a trend. If your book is ready the instant the trend hits, then you may make a quick sale. However, if you start writing when the trend hits--given it can take three years between that point and having your book on the shelf--you need someone else to have a hit novel to propagate the trend for you. If there isn't one, your book may seem stale to audiences by the time it comes out.

Working Strategy: I Am My Own Trend
A better way to work is to always strive to write an engaging, fresh book, regardless of whether it fits in with a trend. If you catch the public's imagination, it doesn't matter whether you're the first or the next; your books will sell well.

Alternate Strategy: Own the Podium Bookshelf
I'll note one last thing: It appears to be possible to be the whole trend unto yourself.

When my dad was a kid, he didn't play cowboys and Indians with his friends; he played pirates.

However, that trend disappeared. There were no hugely-popular books written or movies produced about pirates while I was growing up. Then the Pirates of the Caribbean movie came out, and it started a craze.

But the concept was so unique for its time that no other studio has been able to cash in on the craze. Any attempt to make a pirate movie that isn't part of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is going to be seen by the audience as a blatant rip-off and a pale imitation. Because the pirate idea was so novel (and so well-executed), the original franchise owns the trend.


What do you think? Do you believe this is how trends start and end, or have I got it all wrong? Do you think there are other factors than what I list? And just how much longer do you think the vampire craze will last? (Remember, people have been predicting its death since before Twilight was published!)

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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