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Can I Jump on the Bandwagon?

[1]Random fact: A bandwagon was literally a wagon that carried a circus band. Or so says the Internets. They were part of circus parades at first, and then politicians discovered them, as politicians are wont to do. According to todayifoundout.com, here’s what happened next:

“Politicians started to use bandwagons in parades through towns on their campaign trails. It’s believed that Dan Rice, a famous circus clown, was the first to rent out his bandwagon to a political campaign.

As a campaign became more and more successful, other people and politicians sought to rent seats on the bandwagon and ride it through town. In doing so, they received face time with the public and believed that the success of the original campaign would rub off on them.

There are records of the phrase used in political speeches throughout the 1890s, usually in the form of warning potential voters not to ‘jump on the opponent’s bandwagon in haste.’ Because of the negative connotations associated with the phrase, many didn’t admit to having a bandwagon of their own despite it becoming common.”

(Emphasis added because ‘famous circus clown’ is my new life goal.)

And hence, the phrase “jump on the bandwagon” was born. Cool!

So, why am I telling you this arcane bit of etymology? Because I want to talk about genre, and specifically, genre-bandwagoning (Is that a thing? If not, it is now!) and it’s opposite: genre-abandoning.

Imagine that you’ve been seized with an idea. One of those Ideas, ideas that won’t leave you alone. You write your story without worrying too much where it fits in the market because, hello!, that’s what we’ve told you to do and you’ve been listening. You write and polish and beta, and then there you are with your bright, amazing story that you are ready, finally!, to take out into the market. And then your agent (if you’re lucky enough to have one), or some well-meaning book-friend tells you, “No one’s buying Steampunk[1] [2] anymore.”

Ka-chunk. (This is the sound my brain makes when I’m panicking. It’s kind of like that sound in Law & Order, only scarier).

“But, but, but,” you say. “There are Steampunk novels sitting at #1 and #2 on the NYT right now. And this is my best work ever.”

“Sure, the last gasp. Editors are buying for 18 months from now.”

“So what are they buying? What’s the next trend?”

[Insert Agent/Friend shruggie here.] “They don’t know.”

“But, but, but, I saw in the deal news that here were, like, at least two other Steampunk titles sold this week.”

[Insert Agent/Friend giving you “the face.” You know, that face that makes you feel like a moron so you don’t ask what the face means. To quote/paraphrase Watson in Sherlock. “No, I don’t know what that means. That’s why I find the face so annoying.”]

You decide not to ask any more questions. You slink out of the meeting you were excited for feeling slightly sick.

But what do you do (I mean, after the drinking)? You have to do something. Do you simply accept that Steampunk is over and stick this novel right in the drawer (along with the others)? Do you push back against the rising tide and insist that your agent take the novel out anyway? Or do you cast wildly (and widely) around looking for the next trend, one that you will hopefully hit right as it’s peaking?

Damned if I know.

[That would’ve been a good last line, right? A little bleak, maybe, but sometimes you need to take it to a dark place. But okay, okay, I have more to say.]

This is the problem, I think, with the advice that I myself have given: Don’t worry about genre or trends or what is going on in the market: Write what’s calling to you. And of course, that is the right advice in many ways. I’ve made the point before that the author of Fifty Shades of Grey was not sitting there examining the market to figure out that there was a hole in the market that needed to be filled with BDSM-Twilight-spin-offs. She created that trend. But there’s also the reality that if she’d written her novels after that trend had come and gone, we’d never have heard of Christian Grey.

This is one of the reasons that my biggest advice to writers and want-to-be-writers is to read. To read widely and to read now. Assuming you want to sell your book (and come on, that’s what most of us want to do, right?), then it’s important to know what’s going on in the market. The market is wide and deep and can bear a lot, but there are moments for certain types of books. There will always be romance and thrillers and detective fiction and historical fiction (at least, I think there will). Usually, there’s a way to recast your story within one of those broader, long-standing genres. It might be a question of tweaking or a slightly different direction or tone. And if you know what’s going on in the market, in general, you can steer your book, gently, away from being too pigeonholed into something that that market has declared is “over.” That will work for most, but not all, ideas I think. Because: Chick lit evolved into women’s fiction. Women’s fiction into domestic noir. Today, Agatha Christie would’ve written “the next Gone Girl.” You get the idea.

What I’m trying to say is: Do know the market. Know it, and then throw it away. Don’t write to the market. Write while being aware of the market. Be bandwagon-adjacent, because jumping on the bandwagon just makes you a politician.

“But I still want to write Steampunk,” you say. “Can I?”

Damned if I know.

[1] [3] The name of the genre in question has been changed to protect the identities in this story. For anyone who’s writing Steampunk: sorry.

Have you ever been tempted by a bandwagon? Which one(s)? What did you decide to do, and how did it go for you? Other thoughts to share? The floor is yours.


About Catherine McKenzie [4]

A graduate of McGill University in History and Law, Catherine McKenzie practices law in Montreal, where she was born and raised. An avid skier and runner, Catherine’s novels, SPIN, ARRANGED, FORGOTTEN, HIDDEN, and FRACTURED, were all international bestsellers and have been translated into multiple languages. HIDDEN was a #1 Amazon bestseller, and a Digital World Bestseller for five weeks. Her fifth novel, SMOKE, was an Amazon bestseller, picked as a Best Book of October 2015 by Goodreads and one of the Top 100 Books of 2015 by Amazon. Learn more about her latest bestselling releases, THE GOOD LIAR [5] and I'LL NEVER TELL [6], and watch for her latest releasing in June of 2020: YOU CAN'T CATCH ME [7].