By JULIE BERTAGNA
‘Know your readers, know your market.’
That’s the Smart Writer’s Rule #1, right? To be successful, you need to be sussed. Don't you?
‘My advice is to take no notice of anyone else who thinks they can tell you what people want to read,’ says multiple award-winner Philip Pullman. ‘They didn’t know they wanted Harry Potter until JK Rowling thought of him. So the truth is, they don’t know what they want, and you have to show it to them. And the only way to do that is to write exactly what you want.’
It’s hard to argue with that. Who guessed that after wands and wizards, YA fiction would be over-run by vampires? Or that the paranormal passionfest would be swept aside by a tsunami of every dystopian scenario imaginable?
And after that... well, your guess is as good as mine. (Though I have a dream that YA writers will reboot sci-fi for a whole new generation; a kickback against the many shades of submissiveness publishers are about to serve up.)
When people say ‘write for your readers’ I always think: okay, which ones?
Reader crazes are like flashmobs - you might strike lucky and find yourself, by sheer fluke, crash-bang in the midst of one. But try to seize the zeitgeist and it’s likely to have zipped off somewhere entirely new by the time you’ve sorted your synopsis.
One thing I know for sure, after hundreds of author talks - despite the flashmob crazes, young readers are not a herd. For every one that loves The Hunger Games, there are others who loathe it and want something else. Often, they don't know what. After 15 years as a published writer, having seen trends blaze like wildfires, I’m with Pullman.
The zeitgeist is fickle.
The zeitgeist is fickle.
But teenagers are the most challenging and interesting readers. They won’t linger if they lose interest but their minds are still open, their imaginations flexible. You can take risks - their imaginations are not yet settled and they want to be taken right out of themselves by a great story, a thrilling idea, characters they can love and hate.
This last year, I’ve worked with Manchester Children’s Book Festival and the city’s Science Festival to launch the Future Manchester Young Writer Competition. Struggling through last winter’s superstorms, I’d arrive as wet and bedraggled as one of my own characters, to speak about the flooded dystopian world of my books. Last week, the weather was in full irony mode once again as I battled through epic summer floods to the announce the competition winner at a book festival event with fellow ‘spec-fic’ authors Saci Lloyd and Jane Rogers - the venue was packed out with teens of both sexes, and we had a cracking debate on how current events and science can spark and fire great stories.
|Author Saci Lloyd seizing the future|
There was a phenomenal response to the writing competition - hundreds of dark and daring stories about imagined futures illuminating the terrors of this generation, stark tales of young characters under threat, on the brink of disaster - but crucially, fighting back against a world gone wrong. I struggled to choose a winner from ideas and writing of a startlingly high standard: evidence of a generation of strong readers.
|Science inspires smashing ideas about the future|
There's still a huge YA appetite for futuristic stories - going by the teenaged tastes in Manchester. But hasn’t there always been? The publishing industry only recently found out what lots of readers and writers already knew. And I’m not the only author who wonders how well YA publishing understands or serves teenage boy readers. Is it because the industry largely consists of females of a certain background? That includes myself - but as a writer from ‘faraway’ Glasgow, I’m a quite an oddity.
Just last year, I lost a battle over the boy-unfriendly straplines attached to the fab new covers on my dystopian trilogy, despite the books having cross-gender appeal and a strong boy fan base. Female readership was deemed to be the market and the boy readership was sadly sacrificed for that. Current wisdom says ‘boys don’t read’ - and it's true that lots don’t. Or perhaps many just haven’t found the books that could turn them onto reading. (Read Teri and Julienne’s brilliant Demention posts on the gender debate.) The Manchester events proved to me that teenagers of both sexes are fascinated by ideas and stories about the future.
|Teenage boys don't like books? Oh yes, they do!|
The winning story by Josh Degenhardt, an amazing young talent, is a beautifully-written, terrifying vision of a parched nation - despite the current monsoons, this searing tale haunted me for days. Thoughtful and provocative, the dystopian visions of Josh and his peers have been an inspiration. Thanks to the Manchester kids and their fabulous imaginations, I’m confident that the fictional future is wide open for all sorts of adventures - and it’s not just female.