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I was on another writer's board today (I've really got to stop reading so many) when someone brought up the age-old "Vampires are cliche!" argument.

And I jumped in to offer another perspective (because I can't resist). Editors LIKE the familiar. If it sells very well, why would you buy something that doesn't? I think that's the reason why Sherrilyn Kenyon continues to write a million Dark Hunter books and Christine Feehan continues to write her Carpathian novels.

(Mind you, probably not the greatest examples. But if SK came to her publisher and said "I don't want to write any more Dark Hunter books - I want to write cozy mysteries!", I dare say that someone in marketing would have a seizure on the spot.)

Which then brings the inevitable response of "Well, I'm just going to take a cliche and give it a new twist and make a fortune too!"

Good luck. People are constantly trying to do that and break into a tight market. But it worked for the guy with the $3.7 million dollar vampire apocalypse book deal, right?

So cliches work. But let's look at the other end of the spectrum.

I think every struggling author has the 'big' concept waiting on deck, hoping for the miracle book deal. And look at the books rolling out. Someone's got angel hunters, someone's got an exorcist main character. Someone's got demon assassins. There's different concepts out there. New and fresh. I certainly wouldn't have thought about making an exorcist a main character.

But can you be TOO new and too fresh in a market that wants more of the same?

I came up with an idea not too long ago that was BRILLIANT (or so I thought). Fresh, edgy, and different from anything else out there. I pitched it to my agent... "Too weird. Too different. Try again."

So here's my question, since I know we are hitting the 'Fangs / Fur / Fey' triad of 'cliche' on this group. I know there's a lot of people that just got book deals on 'cliche' items (myself included) and people out there struggling to catch an agent/editor's eye...

Cliches - friend or your enemy? Thoughts? I'm curious to see people's responses.

- Jill Myles


( 42 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 1st, 2007 09:58 pm (UTC)
I'm going to write a book called Chad the Cliche Hunter. He's going to hunt cliches. It's never been done before. I'm a GENIUS!!!!

For the most part I agree with you. Everyone wants to do their own twist on a familiar, popular element of the genre, but if you go overboard people might not be into it. I think the key is to just write whatever you love to write and hope for the best. But I'm naive like that. Except when it comes to the cliche hunter thing. Hello? Genius!
Sep. 1st, 2007 10:13 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I agree with the "Write what you want". The trouble is that when you start looking towards publication, it becomes "Write what you want...but make sure it's marketable."

And once you start thinking like that, it's hard to stop. :)

- Jill
Sep. 4th, 2007 07:09 pm (UTC)
And once you start thinking like that, it's hard to stop. :)

So very, very true.
Sep. 2nd, 2007 12:26 am (UTC)
Having read your stuff before, I have to say that you have the ability to take cliche, give it no twisting whatsoever, and make it an entertaining read.

IMO, the real problems with cliche are when the writer is bored with what they're writing (because it shows) or when the writer has immature attitudes/skills (in which case, they can only appeal to people who can't see through their work).
Sep. 1st, 2007 10:29 pm (UTC)
There is writing what the market knows it wants, and then there's writing something the market didn't know it wanted and making it realize that it really does.

I know that Kelly Link, frex, had to sort of--train? editors and readers to read her work. It seems to have worked out okay for her.

The trouble with--I don't want to call it cliche, exactly, but trends? Is that they change, and that eventually the market hits saturation and moves on. And then what do you do? Some of you have a lasting career. Some of you do other things. Some of you vanish without a trace. It's the difference between having a readership that reads the sort of thing you right and having a readership that reads YOU.


But trends come from somewhere. Breakout novels and authors come from somewhere. And that somewhere seems to be (often, not always) having something different to offer. I don't know where the line is between "different good" and "too different." I suspect it depends on the writer, the work, the editor, the day.
Sep. 2nd, 2007 01:06 am (UTC)
You're totally right about the work/editor/day. I think that's the reason why people glom onto trends. Because if you write a book about Roman centurions, and one editor in 300 likes books about centurions, then you've got to keep rolling the dice until you find that one. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't.

But if Greek hoplites are selling (boy, this is a dumb analogy) and Greek hoplites have been known to sell constantly, every line is going to look at another hopline manuscript, because at the end, it's all about money anyhow.

Sep. 1st, 2007 10:56 pm (UTC)
Neato thoughts all. Especially bmac, natch.

I posit that writers tend to read one way and that readers tend to read another.

As a bad example, there are scads of teenaged readers who haven't seen much, if any, film noir. But an updated version, a novel of the right length with "relatable" characters, could probably land well (a 9.6 from most of the judges?) in the marketplace even if it was laden with the silliest film noir cliches.

Because the buyers / readers wouldn't know the difference, it could work. But writers and, let's say, vampires?

Most of the best ideas have been done a few times. It's hard to innovate vamps in such a way that people who've been reading about them for years will be blown away.

Yet (and now I'm scrambling), many of this moment's vamp readers are Post-Buffy people. They weren't even going gaga for Anne Rice when lots were. So cliches for most readers, imh and often wrong opinion, aren't the same as cliches for most readers. But I'm wrong a lot and all that...
Sep. 2nd, 2007 01:09 am (UTC)
I think I'm one of the few out there that don't get the Buffy references. I wasn't a big fan of Buffy or Joss Whedon, to be honest. The reason why UF appeals to me is because it tends to have a female narrator (which wasn't overly popular in fantasy before) and the narrator is usually younger and single, which makes it easy to relate to.

Of course, I come from the romance market, so all these elements add up to making UF very palatable for romance readers. I think fantasy is getting a lot more crossover from that sort of audience. They can pick up an UF and know it'll have a lot of the same elements they enjoy in a romance - a hot guy, a kick-butt girl, and a somewhat familiar setting.
Sep. 2nd, 2007 03:04 am (UTC)
Oh, I think you're right. It's just my opinion that the debate often occurs between the "writer" perspective and the "reader" perspective. (Editors, if they're going to remain editors for more than a few months, are wholly in the reader perspective and, methinks, most successful novelists end up there too.)

And I invoke Buffy whenever I look at urban fantasy because as a bookseller, it's astounding how many customers mention Buffy as what drew tham to writers like Kenyon, Feehan or Hamilton. (Yes, Hamilton was doing her thing way before the UF boom, but it's easy to posit that her boom coincided, etc.)

As a writer, I should probably make more concessions to the cliches. I like the far outposts of the marketplace, but those outposts aren't as well-frequented as the three novelists mentioned above.
Sep. 2nd, 2007 04:03 pm (UTC)
Yeah, the Buffy thing is a kneejerk reaction for me, because I think I'm the only person in the world that ACTIVELY DISLIKES Buffy. So to hear 'my' genre compared to that, well, it drives me nuts. *g*

Something I'll just have to get over. :)
Sep. 4th, 2007 07:10 pm (UTC)
Nah, I disliked what I saw of Buffy, too. (Granted, I only saw the first couple seasons.)

Angel (the series) was a lot better, imo.
Sep. 2nd, 2007 10:02 am (UTC)
Buffy is the most recognizable brand name to describe a general prevalence/ trend in modern UF; call it television instead perhaps, or that UF (with vampires or other beasties) draws more heavily from television and written material done in the last decade than the entire source material available for each of those tropes.

>it tends to have a female narrator (which wasn't overly popular in fantasy before) and the narrator is usually younger and single, which makes it easy to relate to.

is...pretty much Buffy. This is a true definition from what I can gather about all the current and recent releases in UF, but it's not true for Urban Fantasy as a whole, unless UF has become more narrowly defined.
Charles deLint (who was writing female leads in the 80's, but has also written male leads), and Neil Gaiman would both be UF, IMO.
What neither of them does very often, is write along the (hot) trends of how UF appears to be defined now.

Vampires, et al are tropes; how they are handled is cliche/ not cliche.
Publishers do back hot trends, and they could end up saturating the market (has been done before), by, not too many titles, but too many of the exact same thing.
There's a fine line between books giving readers what they want, and giving them something new.
In the end, people do eventually grow tired of the same old, same old, and start looking at something that reminds them of they used to enjoy, but goes in a new direction.
In the bookstore, people would often come and ask me"I want something similar to David Gemmel or Danielle Steele", etc, and that's where you get the same of principle. But, on the other hand, sometimes authors (and genres) can run hot - for months or years - and then one day, without any warning, they fall dead. And we couldn't even move a single copy of author/ genre.

It's dangerous to settle into a comfort zone, cause in the long haul readers do respond better to writers whose work is familair to them, but shows gradual changing over the years, than ones who basically write the same book over and over.
In my case, I read and enjoyed David Edding's Belgariad. Then I read Mallorean, Elenium, Tamuli and when I got to Althalus, I made peace with the fact that I am still paying money to keep reading the Belgariad. And now I won't ever buy another David Eddings book ever again.

It would be a mistake, though, to try and predict/ anticipate the market. They will respond or they won't respond; there's seldom logic behind it.
Sep. 2nd, 2007 04:08 pm (UTC)
Does fiction follow TV trends, or does TV follow fiction trends? If we look at TV now, shouldn't have all these shows come out five or six years ago when Buffy was on the air? I have no idea. I just think it's interesting to look at whenever someone brings out the Buffy argument. :)

As for Buffy, as I told the poster above, it's a knee-jerk reaction for me because I hate Buffy, so I hate the comparisons. Buffy is all about a cute girl kicking some vampire butt. And while a lot of urban fantasy is like that (don't get me wrong) you can have a strong female heroine without her kicking anyone's butt or hunting one vampire.

I actually like the derivatives of the stereotype more than the stereotype itself. Er, does that make sense?

As for David Eddings...you mention that you won't buy another Eddings book again because it's all a rehash of the Belgariad. I sometimes think the same way ... but my sister, who is NOT a writer, would be the one waiting at the bookstore with her money, eagerly anticipating the next book. I think as writers, we have a lot less tolerance for 'more of the same' than readers themselves. :)

- Jill Myles, only half awake
Sep. 2nd, 2007 06:11 pm (UTC)
>I think as writers, we have a lot less tolerance for 'more of the same' than readers themselves. :)

hmm, I'm not sure, maybe. Sure, it's true of me, and I do write, but it's not true of every writer. Sides, I saw this happen a lot in the bookstore (6 years I worked there). James Michener had been selling steadily for decades, and then nada. Not one copy in two years.
The last year I left, I remember we even started to move the latest Stephen King titles slower, a lot of his die-hard fans were beginning to grubmle that 1) it's just the same thing all over; 2) his new writign is not as good as what got them reading his stuff.
Those people were actively looking for new writers and either bought the new books out of a sense of completing the collection, or a hope the writer they used to love would turn around. But they were ready to drop him. And...Lisey's story (? not sure about title), still sold huge amounts from the sound of things, so it's not a complete case. But King is a phenom of such a magnitute that it's only worth noting that he did start to alienate some fans, by committing to a sequence of the same, same. But he's too big to have to worry about bombing.

The psychological detective serial books, otoh, had lost a lot of ground over the time I worked there - from being hotter than bodice rippers and chic-lit, they fell to the point where only a couple names were steady sellers, and only one or two newer writers were rapidly making fans. A lot of the newer writers coming through sold a great deal slower, and even some of the older ones -Patricia Cornwell and James PAtterson -were starting to lose interest from people I initially met as die-hard fans.
But, it could be a temporary thing, certainly as far as I know, a lot of those writers are still selling in huge numbers.
Interestingly, I heard John Connolly is turning his writing more directly to supernatural horror, and I read an interview where he said he's always had a love for horror as such.

I think, books and comics inspire a lot of the TV and movies, and then are adapted to that format, and then they in turn inspire/ become reference source for a new collection of books and comics.
So, it comes back to literature, but there's a disconnect of kinds, a small distance and sense in the books that they are coming from televised media, and not literature itself. I don't know that it's conscious, but some books I have read feel like they are drawing from TV, not literature (it comes down to the manner of presentation and character building as well). Hard to put into words exactly.

I take it this is early morning for you now?:)
Sep. 2nd, 2007 08:26 pm (UTC)
How fascinating to have worked in a bookstore where you can watch the ebb and flow of bookreading trends. I read Lisey's Story and loved it, but what I appreciate about King may not be shared by the average reader. In Lisey's Story he stepped back from the weirdness (i.e. Ka) and leaned farther into the real (but not totally, not like Misery or Dolores Claiborne). Still plenty of weirdness going on, but in a far more believable way. Perhaps that's the appeal? I don't know, I just know that I love King's way with characters.

You made me stop to think about the writers I couldn't get enough of and then later kicked to the curb for some reason or another. LKH is the first who comes to mind. On the opposite end is Clive Barker, whose pin-head books I loathed, but whose fantastique books like Imajica and Cold Heart Canyon (among several others) will sit on my keeper shelf until the end of time.
Sep. 1st, 2007 11:25 pm (UTC)
At UCLA's screenwriting MFA program we were given a few valuable pieces of advice:

1. There is only one rule: Don't be Boring.

2. Take 'em where they want to go, but not by any route they recognize.

3. Do not write about the Village of the Happy Nice People.
Sep. 2nd, 2007 12:29 am (UTC)
Do not write about the Village of the Happy Nice People.

Unless you know what you're doing, ala The Stepford Wives. (Which, admittedly, is not about the Village of the Happy Nice People, it's about the Village of the Creepy Smiling People.)
Sep. 2nd, 2007 01:11 am (UTC)
Very true. I especially like #3. I think that's where a lot of beginning writers struggle - making enough conflict for the characters and story.

It took me several novels to figure out that I can't always give them what they want. ;)

Sep. 2nd, 2007 09:01 am (UTC)
How about the Happy Nice Village People?

Maybe not.
Sep. 2nd, 2007 01:40 am (UTC)
There’s a fine line between cliche and tradition. Vampires go back 150 years, and even further in legend. They’re a fine tradition, not a cliche. Noir is a style –would you also call it a cliche? If you write a book where boy meets girl, you know there’s going to be trouble somewhere along the way. Cliche? If you write a book about boy meets boy, are you just putting a twist on the old hackneyed plot?

The readers decide if your book is cliched, and they can be unmerciful. But I think ultimately it’s the writing that can be cliched, more than any plot. And that comes down to that ever unhelpful advice: just write a good book.
Sep. 2nd, 2007 04:12 pm (UTC)
It's funny, because readers want the cliche, but they want it to be original.

Take romance, for example (I know, everything I talk about goes back to romance, but it's a really good example). Readers have very specific ideas as to what they want in the book. No adultery. No cruel heroes. A black moment. A happily-ever-after ending. You put a cruel hero in your book, and romance readers are going to scream about how everyone should stop reading your novels. You take away the HEA ending? You've just ended your career. ;)

Romance readers WANT the cliche because they know what they are getting. They can pick up a book and say "I know I'm going to enjoy this storyline" because it's one their comfortable with. They don't want to learn something new along the way, they just want a fun journey, a retelling of a comfortable road they've been down before. I totally get that.

You're absolutely right in that it's the writing that can be cliched, not the plot. After all, every plot and every 'trope' has been done before. The only difference is in how you make them yours. :)

- Jill Myles
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 2nd, 2007 03:12 am (UTC)
I just think a certain amount of familiarity draws people to a work.

Well said. And sales--both to editors and to readers--seem to support this.

Rachel Vincent
Sep. 2nd, 2007 04:11 am (UTC)
I just got over an August cold myself so I sympathize. And I agree with you about the familiar. Which is why it's so cool to see a new twist put on the same old, same old.

Before I read Anne Rice's Vampire Lestat, I thought all vampires were like dracula. Big bad villains seducing the women and turning them into blood sucking slaves. After Lestat, my mind was totally opened to a new world of horror/fantasy and I gobbled up Rice's Mayfield Witches like nobody's business soon after. Her books turned me on to the whole new twist concept. I'd found enlightenment. 8^)
Sep. 2nd, 2007 04:14 pm (UTC)
Totally agree. Which is why I find it a bit frustrating when people say "This is such a cliche! Why are editors buying cliches!"

(Or in the case of Cassandra Clare a few days back "She's ripping herself off!" It's like...wtf?)

- Jill
Sep. 2nd, 2007 03:59 am (UTC)
I think this is a middle of the road type of thing, as I gather from my day job at Penguin. Editors do like more of the same, especially if it's selling. Go tooooo far of center, you're likely to get a lot of the "too weird" comments. I think everyone's got to bring their own flavor, their own spice to the recipe to keep it being too much like everything else. It's finding the balance that's tricky. Vamps ain't dead yet as a trend, so keep em coming.

Note: Their are no vamps in Dead To Me (2/26/08), but someday they may pop in the series if I can figure out my take on them.
Sep. 2nd, 2007 04:15 pm (UTC)
That's another interesting thing...you can break out, but only after you're established. To establish yourself, stick with the familiar.

Heh. Who says this business is confusing? ;)

- Jill
Sep. 2nd, 2007 05:31 am (UTC)
I'm going to play devil's advocate a little here. I don't think vampires are cliche--I can't think of a time in the last couple of decades that at least one name author has not been producing a vampire book/series. What we have seen, imho, are times when there are lots of titles and times when there are not.

Right now, I think we're in a post-Buffy-inspired trend, so we're seeing lots of vampire titles. When I hear people say vampires are cliche, I think what they really mean is wanting to read vampire novels is cliche. It's popular, there's lots of it, and everyone's reading it because it's cool. What makes the current crop of vamps so noticeable is, I think, that their popularity is coinciding with the rise of urban fantasy, which is a growing subgenre (as opposed to vamps in the gothic romance style or horror style).

Is the trend cooling off? *shrugs* Maybe. In the meantime, they continue to sell well. Are we seeing an interest in different stuff (i.e., non-vamps)? Definitely. But I don't think the different stuff is going to supplant vampires, but co-exist. Maybe the vamp volume will go down but it won't go away while, say, weres gain momentum (or fairies or demons).

Not sure if I'm making my point clearly (it's late!). Did I miss a $3.7M deal or was that rhetorical?

Mark Del Franco
Sep. 2nd, 2007 09:29 am (UTC)
"Did I miss a $3.7M deal or was that rhetorical?"

Nope, 'twas the real deal:

Sep. 2nd, 2007 04:18 pm (UTC)
I think you're right. People get frustrated that people are still buying vampires when someone out there wants to write about Zombie Robots and nobody is buying Zombie Robots. I hear the "It's a cliche!" scream from writers more than readers.

As the trend, I think it goes in cycles. Publishers scream "No more vampires! We've bought too much! The market is tired!" and then they get their numbers back...and they're still selling strong as ever. Or stronger. So then they say "Bring on the vampires!"


- Jill Myles
Sep. 2nd, 2007 02:36 pm (UTC)
Heh, I'm currently doomed to go the non-cliche approach for things. My first novel of note is a steampunk YA novel when I'm still trying to explain a Steam Age world setting to everyone I tell them about. The second is a forensics novel (easier to sell) with magic (not so easy) and steamp punk (same world) which dooms it to a very, very small niche market it appears.

For this year's NaNoWriMo, I'm planning on moving back to urban fantasy with a nice... zombie book. With the main character being the zombie.

One of these days, I have to figure out how to write closer to mainstream. *sigh* But, I like writing interesting things and I like going down a different trail; yeah, it means I probably won't get published often (at all), but its more important to me to write what I want to write because there are people out there that want to read it.
Sep. 2nd, 2007 04:19 pm (UTC)
Forensics and magic might not be as hard a sale as you think. Vivi Anna sold one to the Harlequin Nocturne line. I think Caitlin Kittredge's book involves a detective werewolf? (Not the same but I think forensics play a part?)

If your ideas are outside of the norm, go with them. It's when your ideas fall into cliche-land that you get frustrated with the name calling. :)

Sep. 2nd, 2007 08:32 pm (UTC)
A forensic sorcerer! AWESOME! I'd read it, and I'd buy the t-shirt. 8^)
Sep. 3rd, 2007 02:26 pm (UTC)
Oh, inspiration!

I'm still struggling to find a publisher who wants to actually publish it (I finished it a year ago). My main idea from it came from the Hawk and Fisher series when they were complaining about the sour forensic mage. And, for a present for a coworker (who was an ex-detective), I got a bunch of murder scene investigation books and basically wrote him two stories that turned into the novel (which I wrote for a publisher I met at GenCon who later rejected it *pout*).
Sep. 3rd, 2007 05:07 pm (UTC)
Stick with it! Sounds like a winner to me.
Sep. 3rd, 2007 05:39 am (UTC)
Another zombie as MC. I thought I was mostly alone in that.
Sep. 3rd, 2007 02:22 pm (UTC)
I was reading too much Undead and Un* and got the idea. Plus, I figured it depends on how the zombie was described, their powers, etc. Everyone I sat down and talked about it seemed to like the idea, so I figured I'd do it for that Wizards of the Coast call for submissions that just started. "I have a plan."
Sep. 3rd, 2007 05:27 pm (UTC)
Wizards, that's cool. I totally agree with reading to much Undead and Un*. I think people oftentimes have this image of Romero's sluggish zombies (and later his more aggressive zombies) who just exist in this "Brains...! Brains....! Brains....!"-type world.
Sep. 3rd, 2007 05:27 pm (UTC)
Mark Henry's HAPPY HOUR OF THE DAMNED features a zombie MC. :)
Sep. 2nd, 2007 09:53 pm (UTC)
It's all in how you spin it. If you've got something that the denizens of one list I frequent call YAVN (yet another vampire novel) then you need to bring something else that's very powerfully different or magnetic to the table. Maybe it's the world or the voice or the POV or the "rules" but it needs to be there.

However, if you've got something rather unusual (killer unicorns, perhaps) you need to ground it in something that does have proven groundswell -- the kick butt female thing, perhaps.

But either way, you're going to have detractors. I got as many ::blink::blink::unicorns?!?!:: responses as "Oh, cools!"
Sep. 3rd, 2007 10:43 pm (UTC)
I think sometimes writers spend too much time worrying about how to compose the right sort of book ... will too much cliche keep it from selling? Too little? Is my book too different to sell? Is it too like everything else? Am I doing whis wrong?

I've spent my share of time doing this, but I've never sold a book trying to figure out what type of book sells. (Though, to be fair, the book packager I made my first sale to sold lots of books that way.)

The way I sold books, though, was by giving up on trying to work out what everyone wants, and by instead writing the books I really, truly wanted to write, and throwing everything I had into them, and making them the best books they possibly could be.

Above all, what everyone wants are really good books, I think. They need to be really good books that someone believes they can sell ... but the better they are, the better the chance of that, too.

Editors LIKE the familiar. If it sells very well, why would you buy something that doesn't?

Because no one has a completely reliable formula for what sells very well, in the end.

And because the editor falls in love with that something not-familiar, and believes they can make others fall in love with it too. Editors need to make money in the end, but that doesn't mean love doesn't enter into it for them, too.
Sep. 4th, 2007 05:18 pm (UTC)
Well, almost all of these comments are highly reassuring - the novel I'm getting ready to query agents with has, yes, vampires. And gypsies, and werewolves, and some other stuff, but the vampire part was sort of worrying me. When I started it back in November, I was just excited about the story and the characters. The only cliche I was worried about, perception-wise, was a possible Buffy comparison, as my MC is a demon killer. But there's so much about the story and my MC that's nothing like Buffy, I mostly put those fears to rest.

Then at the recent writing con I attended, several panels made the statement "no more vampires, people are tired of them".

So now my worry is the query itself. How to write it so that the agent/editor reading it doesn't immediately think "Gah, not another vampire novel!"

But your comments here give me some hope that stories with vampires will always be in demand. When I was writing this, I wasn't trying to write to any particular market. I wasn't trying to give it a new twist. I was just writing the story I wanted to tell. And I think it's different enough (hopefully) to stand out. It just never occurred to me until I was done that I was writing something that might be more difficult to sell due to oversaturation.
Sep. 4th, 2007 07:34 pm (UTC)
As I see it (and I'm not a member here so I hope there's no objection to me butting in ^_^)... if vampires are cliche, then so are wizards, dragons, knights in shining or not so shining armor, disillusioned princesses, elves, dwarves, and any manner of the fantasy world menagerie.

What makes a cliche is not the specific elements of a story. It's how you put it all together. Two books can have exactly the same elements and be as different as an elephant and a mongoose. Hell -- even if the book follows all the cliches but is well written, plotted, and characterized, it can still be a success.

I don't think cliches are either good or bad. They just are.
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