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What Fiction Trends Say About Us

The book market is shifting again as it has quite often in the last five years. Let’s face it. It’s desperately trying to keep up with our fast-paced world. How we discover books, how we purchase them, and how we read them have changed completely. All of that change is difficult for an industry that’s been around a couple hundred years, and it’s arguably even more difficult for those of us who create books in the first place. But the market is bound to evolve, especially in a digital, global world that must meet the needs of different kinds of readers. The market changes, sure, but is the craft of writing evolving too? I asked some established authors to see what they had to say. This is what I asked:

How has the craft of fiction changed in the last decade? Specifically, what have you noticed about books in terms of structure, characters, topics, trends, etc? 

They said:

“I think in genre fiction, the readers are pushing for shorter chapters, quicker reads, and less depth. The publishers are following their lead. Literary fiction still allows the full beauty of the language to be explored, but genre authors have a unique challenge. Many of us try to inject a literary tone while still producing a page-turning quick read. That’s the sweet spot we are all shooting for, but with shorter attention spans, it is becoming a greater challenge.”—Julie Cantrell Perkins, NYT Bestselling author of The Feathered Bone [1]

“I think the lines between genre and literary fiction are blurring. I think genre lit is becoming more character driven and nuanced. Literary fiction is becoming a little less self indulgent… stuff needs to actually happen in the book. In all cases I think the reader is beginning to expect more in terms of balance between engaging story and well-crafted prose.” —Aimie Runyan, author of The Daughters of France series [2]

“Many published novels are shorter than earlier works, often less than 100,000 words and/or 300 pages and also much more first-person and multiple viewpoints rather than third-person following one pov.”—Sally Koslow, author of The Widow Waltz [3]

“In women’s fiction, we’ve gone from which designer shoes to wear to much darker, beefier themes. I see this as women claiming literary equality: there’s no problem a male character can tackle in a novel that a female can’t–and the female may learn more from it.”—Kathryn Craft, author of The Far End of Happy [4]

“I think there are expectations to crank out books faster and faster. Especially for romance and contemporary books (thrillers, woman’s fiction, mystery, etc).”—Amy E Reichert, author of [5] Luck, Love, & Lemon Pie

Other changes authors have noticed include:

“Deep POV usage, and increased use of first person”—Laura Drake, Rita award-winning author of contemporary romance [6]

“A stylistic shift with dialogue, where quotation marks are omitted.”—Susan Gloss, USA Today Bestselling author of Vintage [7]

It’s a lot of food for thought. To add to the mix from my own perspective, I’ve noticed fewer “warm” writers or those that extrapolate for pages and pages on world-building and character development, in exchange for many more “cool” or lean writers that drive right to the heart of the issue without delay. Because of this, there are far fewer “slow burn” novels that were so popular in the 80’s and 90’s. In fact, I’ve tried rereading a couple of favorites from that time, and I can’t even get through them.

I’ve also noticed snappier openings and an uptick in suspense as a sub-genre across all categories. It’s truly fascinating how much my perspective has changed—and all of our perspectives. I’m sure being an author with a critical eye is partially to blame, but it’s about much more. It’s about what’s happening out there in society.

So what IS happening out there in society? What’s driving these trends?

More competition in terms of entertainment. We went from books, games, and television to apps, social media, memes, and YouTube, as well as endless channels vying for our attention. (Never mind hobbies and life?) I wonder which of these will whittle down and fall away over time? Some argue it will be books. I don’t, and frankly, that thought makes me physically ill.

We have the attention span of a squirrel on crack. Life is faster than ever, therefore fiction must be faster, too. If the book doesn’t grab the reader’s attention immediately, they close the book and go to sleep, or jump on their smart phone and surf the web. I hear this time and again from parents I know. They’re tired at bedtime and won’t read any other time of day. You have to hook them HARD. Hook them in the cheek with a giant, pointy fish hook!

Story—and innovation—is king. To keep readers coming back to the blessed book, it’s imperative to stand out in all the noise. Maybe this is why writers are experimenting with stylistic changes. Readers are demanding something sensational that really grips them, and even changes their view of the world. Writers can’t sit back on their laurels. They must STRIKE OUT and be unique, as well as create a story that’s universal. (You know, because that’s so easy.)

The demand for literary equality is really here. Female readers want books that speak to their daily troubles, their anguish and self-doubts, their struggle to “hold it all” together. Those novels have arrived. Also, female writers want the opportunity to excel in publishing the way only educated white males have been able to do for so long. These new books women like? We want accolades for writing them, for moving readers, for driving to the heart of what matters in a beautiful, poignant way.

But acknowledgement of women-driven fiction is only part of that conversation. It’s also about a greater awareness of diversity in sexual orientation and ethnicity. Thankfully, that awareness has really evolved in the last few years and now, these cries for literary equality are driving major initiatives in the industry. We aren’t the book-reading public of the 1950s or the 1980s anymore. Readers want stories that truly reflect who they are as people. I think that conversation is front and center now, and change is truly afoot.

Fiction is fluid.  The most important thing to remember about writing trends is that fiction—and any written language—is an ART FORM, a living entity of sorts. Fiction writing should never be static. Our writings reflect the culture of the day and they also project future trends. The way we communicate in daily life changes, and so should the way we communicate our stories.

Books may be shorter, punchier, in bite-sized segments, accompanied by video and gadgets, and all manner of gizmos and puffery—they may even look different—but they won’t go away. Stories help us make sense of our world and ourselves. Stories help us to peel away layers of defenses, to heal pain, to feel less alone in our struggles. Our souls thrive on stories. As writers, we must continue to innovate and tap into our readers’ needs. I, for one, plan to keep an open mind.

What sorts of craft trends have you noticed in contemporary fiction?

About Heather Webb [8]

Heather Webb is the USA Today bestselling and award-winning author of historical fiction. To date, Heather’s books have sold in over a dozen countries worldwide. As a freelance editor, Heather has helped many writers sign with agents and go on to sell at market. When not writing, she feeds her cookbook addiction, geeks out on history and pop culture, and looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world.

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