Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Bandwagonpunk! Is it right for you? (Probably not)

I think I mentioned that at the last PNWA conference I heard several agents ask for steampunk stories and many in the crowd had no idea what that meant.  Because I seemed to know what steampunk was, I was asked by several aspiring authors to explain it to them so they could alter their already-written books to fit this unknown setting.

Allow me to repeat that: alter their already-written books to fit this unknown setting.

I've been pretty immersed in the genre for awhile because I was (at the time) contemplating a steampunk novel.  I answered their questions and asked my own.  Mostly I asked why they would want to do such a thing?

Because it's what they want. ("They" being accompanied by a nod toward the nearest editor or agent.)  I tried to explain that it really isn't, but I'm not sure I got much traction.  In a competitive marketplace, it is tempting to write to the current trend.  But any reputable agent or editor will tell you not to chase the trends.

And then they ask for anyone who has one to step forward.  I know, it's frustrating, but after years and years in bookstores, this much I know is true: There's no appreciable market for Bandwagonpunk.

It just seems like there is because we see so much of it, but not if you want a lasting career.  Because while I have little or no data to back it up, how many of those authors do you think earned-out their advance?  How many of them do you think put up sufficient Booksense numbers to earn a second contract?  Relatively few.

Sure, careers have been launched by following what someone else did.  It's hard to name a fantasy author who didn't get started aping Tolkien.  God knows Harry Potter made the world safe for everyone from Artemis Fowl to Percy Jackson, but those are two among a horde of also-rans.  And note that neither of the two I mentioned is a clone of the author that laid the path that got it into the bookstores.  There's a difference between "Psht!  I can write that, here's boy wizard Number 293" and "That's an intriguing idea, what can I do that's new, but fits?" 

There are probably some good authors who have tried to hook a vampire premise to their novels just to catch the coattails of Twilight and some of them even pulled it off.   But I would wager that those authors would have done just as well (if not as quickly) if they're resisted the urge to graft foreign elements into their tales.

If you are adding things that the story does not demand to fit the trappings of the current setting du jour, then I (and many of your readers) will get bored quickly.  What's more, we'll trip over the things you grafted onto the story because even the most myopic readers will realize that they're not supposed to be there.  But if the story hinges on the death of Queen Victoria and troubles with the accession of King Edward VI, or if you're making some important parallel point using the story world to mirror our own, then I'll have my bowler hat and brass goggles and be flying alongside in my airship the whole way.  (Or space helmet, diving helmet or other headgear as appropriate.)  

Seriously, I sometimes think that "Me Too" should be a genre of its own. 

I think it usually goes something like this...
"I want to write a sort of proto-King Lear with a female as the Lear character."
"That's been done to death; how are you going to make it new?"
"I'm going to set it ON A SPACE STATION!"

"No one writes space opera anymore, Steampunk's really big right now..."
Make sure to oil the axles, that bandwagon squeaks something awful and they'll hear you coming.

Okay, I'll admit that I'm being a bit snarky.  On the face of it, there's nothing really wrong with this.  Putting it in space (or steampunk London, or Narnia, or turning them all into vampires for that matter) might make an old story feel new.  Maybe.  God knows Shakespeare's been cadged in every setting under the sun.  And a good writer could make that work.  But even though making King Lear into a western sort of worked with King of Texas (kind of), it only worked because the setting suited the story and there were enough changes made to the play to carry the western motif.

But it seems to me that someone who does this is actually creating obstacles for themselves that don't need to be there unless there's some compelling reason beyond "because it's cool right now".   Unless you have an angle that demands this setting, you have a longer road to walk than your peer who is telling a story that needs to be told in that setting.  If you're gifted (or lucky) you can make this work anyway.  Unless your reason for taking your story into space or back in time is the story, it's going to feel like a gimmick and you will have to work a lot harder to make it not feel like a gimmick.  Writing is hard enough; ask yourself why you're giving yourself extra work to do.

My guiding light remains true: Elements are in service to the story, never the other way around.  When you're shifting the story to fit the elements, you have a problem.

1 comment:

  1. I agree. Like any genre, the story unfolds because of its setting, premise, and the way the characters fit into the plot. With historical fiction (and steampunk is a close cousin) you can't just drop anyone into any time period. The historical events and culture drive characters to do what they do. You can't just have some fictional fellow going along with his plans to design the horseless carriage without mentioning the real competition he'd face, the rise of tensions in Europe (effecting what his is doing, for whom, and how he gets his materials, not to mention the sort of technology that is available.) Steampunk thrives on very distinct elements too. As do all genres. Thus I cannot help but agree that there are few stories that one can just pull from one pile and plug into another. Doesn't mean that folks won't try, just that it really won't work.


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