Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Caught up in the machinery - Nick Green

          The news of 19-year-old Sandra Isherwood’s half-million pound deal for her YA debut Bjorkana will fill many a struggling author with envy. On the surface it looks a neat premise: young baseball hero Aidan falls in love with a tree spirit, in the wood where an unsolved murder took place some years before – but you can also see the buzz around this book as part of a wider trend. Look around, and you may notice that it’s not the only recently hyped book that features ‘tree people’ of some sort. 
Sleeve detail from Bjorkana.
Across the pond you have Evergreen Park by K. J. Granger, featuring characters who are essentially dryads, exiled from their cleared forests and now living incognito in suburban Chicago. And back in the UK, Dan Williams’s debut Oak Heart is the story of a man whose soul was bound to a tree by dodgy 14th Century witchcraft, and who as a result cannot die (or at least not easily). All three are tipped to be bestsellers, and several more new titles spring to mind that are in a similar vein. Yes, it’s starting to look as if tree people might be the next big thing for YA fiction, following in the footsteps of vampires, angels and what have you.

As with previous ‘big things’, the concept itself isn’t new: there were Tolkien’s Ents, C S Lewis’s dryads and of course the Swamp Thing comics. But now the idea of sentient trees, or tree spirits, is breaking out into the mainstream (maybe I should say ‘branching out’?) and publishers are smelling windfalls of cash.


Sadly for us poorer writers, it’s probably already too late to jump on this particular bandwagon. But no doubt we can expect, with wearying predictability, that for the next few years there will be bookshelves crammed with tree-people, or wood nymphs, or forest daemons, or Spirits of the Wood. Publishers have twigged (ha ha) what’s going on, and they’re ready to hype any book with bark.

Except…

What’s that? Did you just try clicking on those links I posted above? Oh sorry, didn’t they work? Maybe I pasted them incorrectly. Or – maybe – I made them up. Maybe there is no debut called Bjorkana, no half-million pound book deal, no Evergreen Park, and maybe Dan Williams is someone I went to school with. There’s no red-hot trend for dryads in young adult fiction. Tree people aren’t the next big thing. Please say I had you going there for a moment.

There is a point to all this, beyond me not being patient enough to wait till April the first. This merry jape has invited you to glimpse the absolute brain-munching absurdity of trends such as these. If I can convince you in two paragraphs that the whole world suddenly wants to read about talking logs, then the publishing industry, with all its power and might and working lunches, can convince you of anything.

Trends may do good. There’s a strong argument that without Harry Potter to pave the way, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials would not have got the exposure it received. Also plenty of older classics by Eva Ibbotson and Diana Wynne Jones were ‘rediscovered’ (as if they hadn’t been there all along). But the pursuit of trends can become a race to the bottom, with every wizard/vampire/dystopia story being snapped up, regardless of quality, and thrown to the ravenous gaping beaks of the reading public. And it insults our intelligence. Because it implies: You’re only reading this stuff for the wizards.

Wizards, vampires, magic, spaceships, angels, robots – these are all what’s traditionally called the ‘machinery’ of a story. The machinery are the vessels that convey the story, and are the scenery amid which the story takes place – but they are not themselves the story. A good way to identify whether or not a story is really good is to take away the machinery, and imagine the players in jeans and t-shirts interacting on an empty stage. Do you still find it gripping?

Very often, someone will read a book that features vampires (or whatever) and love it – and then look for other vampire books, in the mistaken belief that it was the vampires, and not the story, that made it special for them. When I first read The Lord of the Rings as a teenager, I spent years trying to ‘get into’ fantasy, because I was sure that was what I loved. I couldn’t understand why I kept on being vaguely disappointed, till I realised it wasn’t the fantasy worlds that captivated me, but something about the way Tolkien wrote. I’ve since discovered other wonderful fantasy writers, but it’s always the writing that keeps me reading, never the machinery.

So if you happen to be in the publishing business, here’s some helpful customer feedback. Forget what the book is ‘about’. Ignore the trappings and surface details. And stop looking for the Next Big Thing. Because the next big thing is just the old big thing, the only thing that ever really mattered: good storytelling.

Nick Green.

 I tweet at @nickgreen90125.

12 comments:

madwippitt said...

Hmmm ... yes you had me going: but it strikes me that there's an excessive amount of preparation and thought here for a merry jape... I can only assume you are currently working on a book about magical vampirical sap-sucking trees!

Lee said...

Terrific idea, those fake links.

And I agree wholeheartedly, Nick: it's the writing that makes the story - or not!


(Of course, I'm bound to say this, since I'm writing a novel about all-too-trendy angels - well, maybe they're angels. You'll have to wait and see, I reckon. Why the tease? Because I myself don't quite know what they are, at least not yet...)

alisonwells said...

Excellent yes, you had my heart sinking at me being too late for the tree story I've had in mind for the past five years. Yes, I'm definitely not a trend jumper. What a great observation about it being the book and way it's written being the main thing. Hype and trends just create a (magical) mist that makes people forget that very important point.

julia jones said...

Great post - yes I was fooled but am left feeling rather sad ... tree people as next big thing sounded so much more congenial than vampires or violent dystopias. Heigho, muggins me. Was going to say good post - but decided that would be potentially distressing to arborophiles.

julia jones said...

Oh whoops I already did. Coals of fire heaped on head. (Except coal is very very very dead tree, isn't it?)

Chris Longmuir said...

Yes, you had me going as well, and I was starting to think that maybe my crime novel, Dead Wood, which features a killer with a tree fetish, might be able to climb on the band wagon! Oh, well, the thought was nice while it lasted. Great post though, and something to think about.

Elizabeth Kay said...

Right, I thought, I can re-vamp that hamadryad story I wrote thirty years ago in less than a week... ah. Terrific post, Nick.

madwippitt said...

Maybe we should gather together and publish a tree collection of short stories. We could call it something like Roots and hope that lots of suckers buy it ...

Ann Turnbull said...

Great post, Nick. You had me convinced! And Elizabeth - please re-vamp your hamadryad story. I like hamadryads, whether they are in fashion or not.

madwippitt said...

The truth shall make ye tree ...

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes, I was fooled! Brilliant - and a great and wise conclusion. Thanks for making me smile!

Katherine Roberts said...

Damn, and I already have a tree-person book! (Spellfall, with its giant soultree called Oq.)

Yes, I believed you Nick, and was already gnashing my teeth about that million-pound deal and at the same time working out how to throw my book on the passing bandwagon...

... oh, has it passed already?