A few years back I wrote a “realistic” novel, based on my own adolescence. No magic realism, parallel worlds, or plot gimmicks. It had humor and pathos, and captured the zeitgeist of the mid-sixties perfectly, or so I thought. When I showed it to an agent, he said I wrote well, and the voice was authentic.
“But I’ve read too many stories like these.”
Later it occurred to me that the intended audience for the story—middle schoolers—wouldn’t have read many stories like it at all. Because young people haven’t waded through piles of manuscripts and seen the same story lines and characters repeated over and over, ad nauseum, like editors and agents have.
As it turns out my story had other problems as well that made it not quite right for today’s market. But the perception that it was stuck with the Same Old Same Old Albatross gave me pause. Was it just a generational thing? Do Gen-X editors and agents harbor some kind of resistance to the Sixties because they are tired of it? Do Boomers like me rankle them a bit? Or is that just my personal paranoia talking?
Yes, there are universal truths about young people, when social dynamics get confusing and emotional and our inner rebel wants to take over. But creating a contemporary world for dealing with these truths is a real challenge—not simply because I’m older, but also because that world changes so constantly. Slang words in vogue two months ago go passé. Fashions come and go like bats in the night. Some types of stories—vampires, anyone?—inexplicably hang on to the public imagination like magic limpets on sea rocks. Other story types fall into the pounding surf of public opinion.
That’s one reason fantasy is so popular: your story can reference pop culture without conforming to it, as The Hunger Games has so successfully done. Readers can invent their own way of interpreting it. The same applies to historical novels—you don’t have to worry about presenting an authentic contemporary world, although you still have to conform to that historical time and place in a believable manner. And you still have to find a character, plot and theme that resonates with today’s audience.
Find a world—fantasy or from the past—that’s unique enough, and no editor or agent is going to say she’s read too many stories like them. On the other hand, if it’s too different, who’s going to relate?
It’s a balancing act.