Thursday, August 15, 2013

Writing contemporary fiction: the pros and pitfalls

The first handful of novels I wrote were contemporary young adult fiction.

Actually, the first novel I wrote was science fiction but the first novel I completed was contemporary and not originally intended to be young adult but eventually rewritten and marketed for that category.

There are definitely advantages to setting a story in the present day and using commonplace references.  For one thing, there is a shorthand between author and audience. For instance, if I have a character refer to a celebrity named "Lindsay," you know I mean Lindsay Lohan. If I talk about Facebook or YouTube, you get what I'm saying. I don't need to waste time explaining things that we all understand.

With contemporary fiction, it's easy to throw in cultural references as mile markers or for in-jokes.

But what happens in fifteen years? Will readers know who Psy was? Or what the Harlem Shuffle was? Will TV shows like "Dexter" and "Breaking Bad" be remembered in all their intricate glory? If I say a character was like Walter White, will they think he was simply cruel and manipulative or will they get the multi-dimensionality of him?

No?  Well, what about in ten years? Five?  Three? One?

My first published novels were, naturally, written years prior to their actual publication. As we got closer to the books' pub dates, my editor and I made sure references that could be badly dated were cut or made generic so the books would be as fresh as possible. But there is no getting around the fact that the world changes really, really fast. And things that were big or popular or seemingly impossible to forget were forgotten or left behind.

Things I thought would become big didn't. Things I didn't think could become big did.  After all, I am not a seer.

LOL (will that be old soon too?)

As a result, some things about my books became dated. Certain things my characters did became hard to understand a few years later. Readers today don't consider the time having passed between writing and reading and they wonder, in reviews and to themselves, "Why didn't Vee use the internet for finding work?" (Because when it was written, that wasn't how it was done.) "Why didn't Meg have a cell phone of her own?" (Because when it was written, they were far too expensive for a poor girl.) Things like that throw the reader off and make them question the author's expertise.

Believe me, if I could have seen the future of cameraphones and people taking "selfies," I would have used them but back then, it would have been seen as impossible. Then I really would have been writing science fiction.