I feel it only right that I talk about this, because it’s honest. I want to be the author of the Next Big Thing.
(Foreword: the Next Big Thing is actually more of a kind of story rather than a kind of product in my mind; there are certain stories that just check these items off the list and feel like the Next Big Thing, even if they’re not. Being a bestselling book is not about completing a checklist – I mean the Oxford Dictionary probably sells pretty damn well. It’s almost like the Next Big Thing is a sort of meta-genre in and of itself, and that’s what intrigues me about it.)
And it’s like – what is that Next Big Thing? It’s whatever it is, and that’s the catch – what was it, exactly, that made Harry Potter take off the way it did? All I’ve heard is ‘word of mouth’. But that doesn’t explain why people felt so strongly about these books that the bothered to tell other people about it to begin with.
I feel that it’s probably due to the two things that everybody loves about Harry Potter: the characters and Hogwarts. The characters are interesting, and what’s really quite unique to the series is the way in which their relationships are central to the plot, which is always a murder-mystery-style adventure. And all of this adventure, intrigue and suspense is set against the backdrop of a community, taking the elitism of magic and – kind of – making it egalitarian. Obviously this doesn’t extend to everyone, as Muggles are left out in the cold and even within Hogwarts there’s an ‘us vs them’ mentality of everyone vs Slytherin, but for anybody who matters you’ve got your best friends and role-models all doing the same awesome magical stuff that you do, and the overtone of exclusion allows it to retain that ‘special’ status while still being inclusive where it matters – that is, when it’s your friends and your role-models and your adventures that get to be special.
And that’s what I think made it take off the way that it did. I feel that if it had just been kids at a boarding school who solve mysteries together it wouldn’t have been as well-received, and if Harry, Voldemort and Dumbledore had been the only magic-users in the story it would have likewise kept it down. Taking magic, something special unique and incredibly exclusive and democratising it (albeit in an Athenian sense), is what I think tipped the series over the edge, rising on the strong foundation of compelling characters and intriguing plotting.
Twilight and The Hunger Games I’m far less sure about, but my intuition (read: skimming the Goodreads forums and then extrapolating) is that the huge success came from the films. The ‘normal’ success of the books is probably just because they’re interesting, on paper, in a broad sense: Twilight takes vampires and makes them romantic leads in a contemporary setting – with teenagers – and The Hunger Games takes gladiatorial contest and puts it on reality TV in a dystopian future – with teenagers. But they didn’t have anything near the groundswell or ‘grassroots’ momentum that HP enjoyed prior to the films being made.
And as a result, they’re not the blockbuster book series that Harry Potter is. Again, all my assumptions here. The thing is that the ‘democratic magic’ aspect of HP acted as a sort of ‘gateway’ for all the other strengths of the stories to shine through – the mystery, the suspense, the intrigue, the guessing. Much as I like The Hunger Games, there’s much less of that element of making the reader actually work while they’re reading. Which is fine. Not every story has to be a murder-mystery. Part of what I like about The Hunger Games is the fact that it’s almost the opposite; instead of mystery we get drama, and it works really well with the reality tv angle and the social/political commentary of the series. It’s done very well.
I feel, though, that the reason it’s not as big as HP is simply the fact that HP already existed when THG came on the scene, as did Twilight. If we’re going to analyse what makes Twlight successful …
Romance sells. This is pretty common knowledge. And vampires have been cultural currency for ages.
In fact Twilight came hot on the heels of two other notable franchises that took vampires and romanced them up to 11: the Anne Rice books and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The only difference here is that the romance aspect was made absolutely central, rather than investigating the existential crises that come with being a vampire, or ass-kicking. And of course both of those series are very successful as well, so it’s clear that vampires have selling power.
But really, the thing that I think put Twilight over the top – and actually something that, in a very abstract way, I appreciate about the series – is how it took the issue of not just romance but sexuality and made it accessible to teenagers. Up until Twilight, narratives of teenage sexuality all came with a whole lot of moralising and ‘a very special episode’ kind of connotations, and then Bedward came along and made hormonal psychosis absolutely normal – and romantic. Rather than abstinence – ironically, Twilight is about abstinence – and a denial of sexual feelings and expression, this series allowed for the feelings and yearnings to take centre-stage while at the same time maintaining a polemic of virginal purity. It took a narrative of indulgent romance, something normally reserved for adults, and made it accessible for young adults.
The reason I so intensely dislike the series is because of the way it handles consequences: there aren’t any. The abusive relationship between Edward and Bella is legitimised because it’s ‘romantic’, and the same deal goes for Jacob; any inappropriate behaviour is explained away with ‘but … but … FEELINGS!’, which makes it okay for Edward to stalk Bella, up to and including sneaking into her bedroom at night to watch her sleep for months, because he like-likes her, makes it okay for Jacob to blackmail Bella into making out with him just before he goes off to fight evil vampires and possibly die, because he just can’t help how he feels, makes it okay that Bella never gets a say in what happens in her relationship with Edward because she looooves him. This would all be fine if it were followed up with real-world consequences, like showing the abuse for what it is rather than making it seem desirable. It is a fantasy that doesn’t even try to be real, except in how it deals with feelings – not the people who experience them, just the feelings themselves.
In terms of the Next Big Thing, though – making it into a formula?
I got nothing.
Well okay I got one thing, let’s try it out:
They’re all original in some way. HP took magic, normally reserved for super special snowflakes, and gave it to the masses (but only the worthy masses). Twilight took sexualised romance, normally reserved for adults, and gave it to teenagers. The Hunger Games took the basic premise of The Running Man (itself playing on the age-old concept of gladiatorial contest) and made it about a teenage girl.
In each case, something with a tremendous amount of cultural capital is taken and turned on its head. You may not think that just changing the gender of the lead protagonist or the target demographic of the audience is much of a big deal, but if that’s the case then why wasn’t it more common before Bella and Katniss came on the scene?
And of course the issue of target demographic is another one; as the music industry discovered very quickly, teenagers are a lucrative market, and remain so to this day. Well, teenagers and kids, and now ‘young adults’. Anybody with access to a disposable income.
And people who don’t have, like, jobs, actually have time to read and listen to music and go to the movies and whatnot, so that’s who you market to. I doubt that any of these books would have been as successful if they weren’t targeted at young people, and not only that but they wouldn’t have been as original. You can say that Hogwarts rips off Unseen University from Discworld all you like, but the fact of the matter is that Discworld is not, most definitely not, for kids, and it’s even more most definitely not wish-fulfillment. It’s about comedy and social commentary, a self-reflexive, fourth-wall-nudging parody, and it’s fantastic, but that also makes it more difficult to immerse yourself in it, and that is the other thing that these three series have in common: allowing the reader to totally immerse themselves in the world of the story.
So in short: take a widely-known cultural concept, such as wizards, gladiators or romance, and change something fundamental about that concept, such as exclusivity, gender or age; make it immersive (keep the self-reflexivity to a minimum); and if at all possible, get it optioned for a movie adaptation.
Of course the problem, then, is making sure that you do it in a different way. I mean Percy Jackson and the Olympians is a pretty successful series, but the similarities to Harry Potter are unmistakable, even to somebody like me who’s never read the books or even seen the movies. There’s certainly money to be made in derivative works, and that’s fine, but it’s not enough to put you over the edge into Next Big Thing territory, just More Of The Last Big Thing. And again, that’s fine, but it’s not going to shake things up.
And even if you do manage that – is anybody going to notice?
For all I know, the Next Big Thing that conforms to my own list of requisites already exists, is out there somewhere in the world, and it’s just that nobody noticed. It very nearly happened with Harry Potter, as many fans of the books know; she took it to almost 30 publishers before finally getting a publishing deal. And the issue is that publishers want a safe bet, and to find a safe bet they’ll look at what’s sold well in the past. At least this is what I gather from snippets I’ve heard about marketing and stuff over the past couple of years. So even if you do come up with the Next Big Thing, you may find it hard to gain traction if it doesn’t align with the Last Big Thing.
And thus we enter the territory of self-publishing and whatnot and I curl up into a ball of paralysing anxiety. I should get out some books or something.
Honestly this whole blog post has given me great misgivings about my own book ideas because they don’t fit into this idea of the Next Big Thing, and if it’s not the Next Big Thing then what’s even the point?
Wanting to tell the story anyway?
There’s this lovely book I think I’ve briefly mentioned before called The Changeling Sea, and it is one of the best-written books I’ve ever come across. It’s a simple story that probably wouldn’t take more than 2 hours to read with a beautiful economy of language that only makes the prose even more gorgeous, and it’s nothing new. It’s not a New York Times bestseller or anything, and it’s not really original in terms of its premise or setting or plot. But it’s wonderful. It was a story worth telling, and the only thing keeping me from buying it is the fact that it’s not available from The Book Depository.
I still want to write the Next Big Thing, don’t get me wrong. But I’m fine with it never happening, so long as I get to tell the stories that I want to tell and have some kind of audience. I really do want to tell stories and have other people read them, but hanging out for Harry Potter-level success is just not practical – nor is it fulfilling.
And in any case – this is only my idea of what makes a Next Big Thing. I could be totally wrong. I don’t think I am, and it’d be fun to try and ‘play the system’ and do something like Naked Came the Stranger, and in fact I think I have a book that might work according to my own list of criteria, but it’s about popular opinion, and writing just to gain the endorsement of the masses seems quite …
I mean it’s fine, really. But I wouldn’t want that to be the only thing motivating me to write.
Tallulah is not a story that even remotely fits the Next Big Thing criteria as I’ve laid it out. But it’s still a story that I really want to tell, which is why I’ve spent the last two years doing that (and it’s looking like it’s going to consume the better part of a third before it’s done). If all I get out of it are a bunch of rejection letters, well, there’s always self-publishing, there’s always shopping it around at writer’s festivals or whatever – there’s options, is what I’m saying. And of course I can just put it up online for people to read for free. Not that this is necessarily a strong career decision, but at the end of the day I want people to read it and I want to know their reactions to it. And that’s enough reason to tell any story.
And having said all of that, it’s time to get back to revising, and probably spending inordinate amounts of time on crafting my very own Next Big Thing, because I have horrible impulse control.
Hey, at least it’s honest, right?