Tuesday, 8 March 2016

WHAT'S GOING ON: YA FANTASY 2007-2016

Hello, Dear Readers! Welcome to Tuesday - I hope the week is shaping up well for you so far.

First up, in the grand tradition of this blog, I share some hair news! This was me last week:

 

With thigh-length hair, easily long enough to sit on (which, by the way, hurts quite a lot if you do it accidentally), and which had been driving me up the wall for quite some time. Not because I really bothered to *do* much with said hair, I hasten to add, but just because when you have that much hair even the super basic stuff like washing, conditioning and air-drying before putting it into a plait is laborious and time-consuming and I had slowly become very bored of it. So I headed off to the hair place on Friday and this is me now:


Realistically, I know this is still pretty long, but to me it feels incredibly different, and is so much quicker to wash and dry. They cut off over a foot of hair (I had to stand up to have the first cuts made, since otherwise the hairdresser said she would have to lie on the floor to get to the ends) and I have donated the cut-off tresses to The Little Princess Trust, which is almost ridiculously easy to do. If you're losing more than about 8 inches of hair in the near future you should consider doing the same, and making difference to a sick little girl somewhere.

OK, onto the main topic of today's blog, which was inspired by a chance encounter with a guest post I did for PewterWolf (otherwise known as Andrew - hi Andrew!) for the FrostFire Blogtour in 2012. The post was simply entitled YA FANTASY and was me talking about how things had changed since I came into the business in 2007. Reading it again in 2016, made my eyes bulge a bit, so I'm going to reproduce it below, and then talk about what's changed in the four years since it was originally written and what that means for YA fantasy, and my books now.
I'm a relatively young author. Young enough that when I attended the Lancashire Book of the Year Awards recently, some of the other authors were amusing themselves by placing bets on how old I was (the answer? Not as young as they thought. But nearly!). I was first published in 2007, which means I've only actually been part of the professional publishing community for five years. I cannot claim to have seen or done it all - and I certainly don't have the t-shirt.

Publishing is generally considered to be an extremely slow moving industry. It certainly feels that way when you're waiting for your edit letter, waiting for your cover design, waiting for your book to come out. But in other ways publishing moves lightning fast, and in the five years that I've been calling myself a writer, I've seen our entire community undergo metamorphosis, seen the profile of children's and young adult writers shoot sky-high, seen the birth of a whole society of adult readers who defiantly and proudly read YA novels in their YA covers, and seen the kind of books that fill the shops sweep from one extreme (brightly coloured middle grade novels chasing Harry Potter) to the other (black and scarlet toned dark fantasies and romances trailing after Twilight). 

Back in late 2005 I finished a fairytale retelling that I titled 'The Wild Swans' after the Hans Christian Anderson story it was based on. I submitted it to an editor who had offered me encouragement after liking but ultimately rejecting my previous manuscript. He told me he thought it was very good, and invited me down to London to meet him and his boss. But, he warned me, although his boss liked my voice and thought I had potential, she wasn't really sold on the book itself.

You see, it was a lyrical, romantic novel. It was clearly the sort of thing that ought to be marketed at girls. And it was a fantasy. The loose framework of the fairytale had been reworked to follow a magically gifted heroine on a quest to save her Kingdom and her brothers, and the plot encompassed magical battles, and shapeshifters and mortal peril. And it was for readers twelve and above, as it had some very dark themes and some extremely scary scenes.

These things, the editor told me sadly, were a hard sell. It was believed that girls didn't like fantasy and wouldn't buy it. Plus, all the recent publishing success stories (like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials) had proved that the 8-12 market was where the real growth was. Young Adult novels were a bit of a poor relation, unless you could gradually shade into YA with later novels of your series as Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling had done. No one at the publisher was really sure where my book would fit into their list. It wasn't like anything that had come their way before. He explained that his boss would probably ask me to write something else for them instead, maybe a novel for younger readers to fit into one of their established imprints.

Can you imagine an editor saying NOW that girls don't like and won't buy fantasy? That YA is a hard sell? But back then, that was the way things were. So I went into my terrifying and exciting first meeting with real life publishing people fully prepared to fight my corner. I talked about Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, perpetual bestsellers and award winners. I talked about Meg Cabot's '1800-Missing' series and Doctor Who. I talked about the girls who loved Harry Potter as ten year olds turning into twelve year olds and wanting fantasy FOR THEM, fantasy with girl protagonists and strong romantic subplots. 'YA Fantasy,' I said confidently, 'Is due for a huge boom'.
  
Somehow - and I'm still not sure how - my persuasions worked. After listening to me babble on for about forty minutes, the editor's boss said, 'OK. I'm convinced. Let's do some revisions and go for it'. Whooo! Success! 

Of course the book got a very small advance and had no marketing or PR budget. It was given a beautiful, unique cover, retitled The Swan Kingdom and flung into the marketplace quite ruthlessly to see if it would sink or swim. If it had sunk I'm not sure what would have happened to my career. But it didn't. It floated aimlessly for a bit, then developed a slow but strong backstroke that allows it to keep selling to this day. So in a way I was right. There was a market for The Swan Kingdom.

But that big huge YA fantasy boom that I had promised my editor and his boss would arrive?

It never quite did.

Twilight came out in the U.K. the very year of my first chat at the publishers office (the UK paperback had an...unusual cover very unlike its iconic US jacket art) bombed, and then exploded worldwide, bringing an overwhelming tsunami of dark paranormal romances and then ripples of urban fantasy which washed up every variety of unearthly boyfriend (vampire, werewolf, demon, angel, elf, pixie, fairy and god). Then The Hunger Games arrived and threw another grenade, opening the way for a Dystopian novels invasion. Science fiction is starting to make a resurgence too.  

All these genres are, in fact, varieties of fantasy. Speculative fiction. Books which embrace the unknown. Some of them focus more on romance, others are gritty in the extreme. Some of them are beautiful works of literature, others more pulpy reads. But what none of them are is high fantasy - what the average reader would point at when they say the word 'fantasy'. The burgeoning success of the Game of Thrones series in the U.S. and the intense anticipation for the Snow White and the Huntsman and Hobbit films seems to hint that there's a demand there for classic fantasy taking place in secondary worlds. But the book that can do for YA fantasy what Twilight did for paranormal romance or Hunger Games for Dystopian, or even what Harry Potter did for the entire middle grade category? It doesn't seem to have been written yet.

I'm waiting for it eagerly. 

In the meantime, I'm left to look around me at the extraordinary landscape of YA fantasy - and if you want to argue with me about whether Hunger Games or Twilight count as fantasy, feel free in the comments - and wonder... is publishing for children and young people always like this? Does it renew itself completely every seven years as the human body is said to do? Or have I, as a young fantasy writer just starting out in 2007 and just hitting her stride in 2012, been been privileged to witness an extraordinary era of change for my category and my industry?

And most important of all... what's in store for us next?
I think you can probably see why looking back at this now makes me sputter. Because I was right!  YA high fantasy WAS due for a massive boom, and it was literally right about to happen as I was typing those words back in 2012.

August of that year gave us Sarah J. Maas' THRONE OF GLASS which took readers by storm. The first of Leigh Bardugo's now legendary Grisha Trilogy, SHADOW AND BONE - originally entitled The Gathering Dark and given a different cover in the UK, but swiftly brought into line with the US version when it took off like a bottle rocket - was out in June! And Rachel Hartman's world-beating SERAPHINA hit the shelves in May of 2012. I even reviewed it, here. Laini Taylor's genre redefining DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE was there before all of them, making it's entrance on the scene in September 2011.

Having waited so long and so eagerly for this explosion in YA high fantasy, you'd think I'd have noticed it happening - but I didn't. I missed it completely, because when I finished writing FrostFire in 2010, I threw myself wholeheartedly into my new idea, my very first piece of urban fantasy and my very first series, THE NAME OF THE BLADE. I spent four years of my life focusing on a completely different area of the fantasy genre. So while, looking back, I can now see what was going on? At the time I was oblivious. I just wanted to write the idea I was in love with.

This sudden drop of interest in the previously bullet-proof genre of urban fantasy/paranormal romance, and the surge towards high fantasy, may have been why, just between you and me, Dear Readers, my beloved trilogy did not do as well as anyone (me, my agent, or my publisher) had hoped it would, or believed it deserved to. As well as I believe now that it might have done, had it only been published two or three years earlier.

High fantasy has a place in mainstream culture now that it was only barely beginning to glimpse back in 2012. Game of Thrones is everyone's favourite guilty pleasure, The Hobbit trilogy (controversial though it may have been) made billions at the box office, Frozen is the cartoon that launched a thousand merchanising deals, Into the Woods was nominated for three Oscars, the average Netflix account or DVD shelf is strewn with live-action fairytale retellings and Snow White and the Huntsman is getting a sequel with added Snow Queen and extra magic.

And the YA publishing industry has been a big part of this change. Not merely following the trend but actually anticipating and *driving* it.

I haven't had a high fantasy novel out since FrostFire in 2012. I effectively missed all of this in my own career. If I'm honest, the thought leaves me a little depressed. It seems that if anyone can be counted on to miss a growing trend, even when she's been sitting right on the crest of it for years, it must be me.

But it's cheering to realise that I'm back in the high fantasy and fairytale saddle in September this year, with BAREFOOT ON THE WIND. I love my Japanese-influenced Beauty and the Beast story. It's dark, and lush, and weird, and it has shapeshifters, talking trees, mazes made of ice and bone, and the undead, and Feminism. While copy editing it I was moved to tears by a piece of writing that I could hardly believe had come from my pen. I think it's a good book. I'm also hoping that it is, for once, the right book at the right time.

Again, Dear Readers, anyone who intends to read this book and thinks they'll have the cash to cover it in September can do me a huge favour by pre-ordering it now. And with any luck there will be more lush, dark, weird fantasies from me for you to enjoy in the future.

5 comments:

Jinx King said...

You had me at weird but then you had to throw in "shapeshifters, talking trees, mazes made of ice and bone, and the undead, and Feminism" and now I'm even more sold.

I can't wait to see the cover for this one!

Zoë Marriott said...

Oh, neither can I. I'm still as much in the dark as everyone else right now!

Jinx King said...

That anticipation, though!

Alex Mullarky said...

Gorgeous hair! Can you tell I'm catching up on my reading? Is there anywhere to preorder Barefoot on the Wind in Australia?

Zoë Marriott said...

Thank you :) And you could probably try Book Depository a bit closer to the release date? It's not up there yet, I don't think, but I'm pretty sure it will be - all the rest are.

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