Pub Rants

You Know You Have A Tired YA Fantasy Theme When…

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STATUS: I had a great time listening to pitches that had a horror element to them and so different for anything I’ve looked at lately. It’s so rare to have 18 pitches and only three women in the mix. What a different mix-up so I’m enjoying World Horror.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? TOMMY THE CAT by Primus

Tonight I had dinner with fellow blogger and YA fantasy editor Stacy Whitman from Wizards of the Coast.

When you get an editor and an agent together, talk turns to submissions as we are wont to do. And you have to remember, we like to talk shop and even though we might highlight some tired themes in our conversation, any fresh twist on it can change our mind in a heartbeat.

Dinner conversation kicked off with a moment of understanding that it’s really hard to carry off a YA novel where a monster eats a child in the first chapter.

On one hand, it’s immediate conflict. On the other, not sure where the story can go from there….

But here’s our dinner list. You know you might have a tired YA fantasy theme when:

1. Your main protagonist is the “chosen one” and only he or she can save the world.

2. You have a lost magical amulet and that search alone is driving the story.

3. When your main protagonist is waking up and getting ready for the day in the opening chapter.

4. If you have to go through the portal to actually begin the story.

5. If your Mom & Dad are dead (and on top of that, they are dead wizards or something similar) that the protagonist must live up to.

And I would have added, you know you have a tired YA fantasy theme when your characters are on a quest but Stacy says she’s still game for those stories (albeit a little tired of Vampires because she can’t see how a writer might pull of an original story in that realm at the moment).

TGIF. I’m out!

35 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    What’s with all the railing against vampires? Has everyone lost sight of the fact that vampire novels have always been around, and probably always will be?

    It is really fair to toss every query involving a vampire into the trash because publishers decided to print every single story they could get their hands on over the last few years?

    And mind you, most of them were really, really, BAD. And even the bestsellers are starting to wane.

    Now anyone who writes vamps, even if they have an original idea, can’t get anywhere with it because every agent out there is saying, “Please, no more vampires.”

    I’m a member of many paranormal romance sites, and thousands upon thousands of readers are saying the same thing: Don’t stop giving us vampires, just make sure the story is good!

    Unfortunately, that can’t happen when agents won’t even look.

  2. Anonymous said:

    I’m also a little mystified at the haterade thrown on Vampire novels these days. Now, granted, my YA novel (on submission at last! Yay!) has no Vamps because…well, I was scared to put them in since everyone seems to be sick of them these days. But I’ve been a high school teacher for the past 5 years, and I can tell you now that kids LOVE vampire books and show no signs of getting tired of them. In fact, when they’ve devoured every YA vampire book they can get their hands on, they just move on to Laurell K. Hamilton or Nina Bangs. So are editors just out of touch with what kids really want to read, or do they legitimately see a backlash coming? Because, from in the trenches, I don’t see the desire for vampire books going anywhere!

  3. Anonymous said:

    Don’t read too much into it, she did say “any fresh twist on it can change our mind in a heartbeat.” Of course the question then becomes, what constitutes a “fresh twist”?

  4. Dave Kuzminski said:

    So far, I’ve only used vampires in a chapter for a fantasy private detective story in which the vampires weren’t trying to cause mayhem. Instead, they’d settled down and were earning a living by posing in lingerie for photographs. Since they can’t be photographed, only the lingerie appeared in the photos and they sold those for advertisements. Okay, it was kind of corny, but the story was overall a comedy.

  5. Cathy in AK said:

    Dave, that’s a great take on vampires. I’d think a photo of a vamp in lingerie leaves EVERYTHING to the imagination ; )

    As for YA fantasy, I have only one in my computer “drawer” and it doesn’t fall into any of the no-nos. Well, mostly. The protag has one dead parent.

  6. Courtney Allison said:

    Anons, I wouldn’t fear agents/editors are completely set against vampires. Vampires are a main theme in my books and I have had four partial requests in the past couple weeks from agents–the most recent being from this agency.

    Agents and editors are willing to give vampires a chance. All Kristin is saying is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find anything with a new, refreshing take. Vampires still sell a LOT of books, but publishers don’t want to keep publishing the same story over and over again.

    All I can say is keep writing what you love to write about–if that’s vampires, then write them–and then write a fantastic query. If agents were so against vampires, I wouldn’t have had a single request.

    Keep your chin up and write well =)

  7. booklady said:

    Thank you, especially, for mentioning the first one. The book I’m currently reading has this heroine who seems to develop a new magical power any time one is needed. As if the author is aware of that and doesn’t want to make her perfect, her personality is quite obnoxious. This means that everyone in the book either worships her or hates her, usually at the author’s whim. I wish the author had read your list–or that I hadn’t bought her book (which I won’t name, of course).

  8. Jim Cooney said:

    Spot on! And yet whenever I entertain the possibility of pursuing a fantasy work of my own my ideas inevitably start drifting towards those conventions — how can you have a fantasy without a chosen one?! So hard to avoid.

    This calls to mind a Top Five list of my own I posted just a few days ago. Possibly more of a literary bent but I suppose it could apply to YA fantasy too.

  9. Anonymous said:

    I don’t write YA fantasy, but I can see why these conventions are popular and overused.

    Try to get a “literary” YA published sometime, and pretty soon you’ll be looking for what type of portals, quests, and blood sucking vampires you can toss into your story so it’ll be commercial enough to lead to a sale.

    Not good, mind you, just commercial.

  10. Merc said:

    Thanks–I’m so sick of chosen one stories (and not just in YA–adult fantasy needs to find some more alternatives), I was chuffed to see that as number one on the list. 😉

    Fantasy CAN be done without them. I just wish more people would get that.

    Great list.

  11. Anonymous said:

    Fred woke to the sound of a rooster crowing in the impossible distance; the bird sounded distorted by time and space. With a sigh that traveled a little distance into groan country, Fred crawled from his straw stuffed mattress and tried to keep that feeling of just waking up from dreams with him as long as he could. Anything to keep from remembering that his parents were gone, and last week his little brother had been eaten by a monster.

    The room Fred used for a bed chamber was not a room at all, but a tiny closet dimension a mysterious wizard had conjured up to protect Fred from his enemies while he slept- when Fred was dressed, he crossed through the portal that led back to his own dimension and bright sunshine. The rooster suddenly sounded close, so close that Fred could smell the chicken dung. He looked through the window and closed his eyes to the sight.

    Once again there was a flock of misguided worshipers cleaning the courtyard in preparation for the waking of the Chosen One. Him. Fred. The boy designated by the Council of Gods to recover their Amulet of Making, lost for a millennia.

    All Fred had to do was travel to the Dark Side, the land of interminable night, battle a race of bloodthirsty vampires and find the Amulet in a temple devoted entirely to amulets. Talk about a rotten day…

  12. Anonymous said:

    Seated in the Narthex of Light, Lord Hoppytown’s daughter Moonglow handed out programs for those on their way into the Cathedral of Light. Earlier that day, before Moonglow woke up to spend an hour brushing her silver tresses, her little cousin Melbatoost had been eaten by a minotaur. Moonglow swore to cross through the Glass Portal in search of the Silver Medallion, the only amulet powerful enough to strike down the minotaur and bring back little Melbatoost.

    But first, she had to kill all the sexy vampires in the Cathedral of Darkness. It was very fortunate for her that the Cathedral of Darkness was located right across the street from the Narthex of Light.

  13. Anonymous said:

    Was it the same minotaur that was said to have devoured Moonglow’s wizarding parents, thus transferring most of its power to baby Moonglow, thus fulfilling the profecy of the chosen one?

  14. Anonymous said:

    The very same. Moonglow was most upset that her little cousin Melbatoost was also eaten, as that is what got her stuck in the Narthex of Light handing out programs in the first place. Melbatoost was the one who should have had program duty.

  15. Anonymous said:

    Well, my story is “almost” guilty of the first item on the list. It does have a “chosen,” but she is a secondary character, not the main protagonist.

    Rejector, what do you think of having a “chosen” as a secondary character?

    Fortunately, none of the rest applies to my current WIP novel or short story.

  16. Jana said:

    You people are hillarious!

    And I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with “chosen ones” or angsting vamps, but my god, there’s a limit.

    All I ask is that the chosen one be a real person and that the vampire has a real excuse for despairing over his existence. Otherwise, I keep wondering why people are buying so easily into an illiterate peasant as a world saviour, and wishing the vamp would just kill himself already.

  17. Anonymous said:

    People are sick of sexy vampires awash in guilt, self-doubt, angst, etcetera. I’m ready for a fat, slovenly zombie with a nickname like Mick or JoJo, who avoids hunting humans because it’s too much work. Mick lives on blood bank bagged hemo not because he is sickened by taking human lives- he’s just sick of having to chase his prey down, kill ’em, hide the body, you know- vampire stuff. He’s happiest watching late night television with his Hellhound (a Basset Hound named Flip), sucking cold blood through a straw.

    Mick’s adventure starts when someone wants to get him out of his routine. Maybe the sexy vampires can be the antagonists to Mick, and he decides to rid the world of vampires all by himself, just to be left alone.

  18. Anonymous said:

    Is Mick an anti-establishmentarianist who will take on corporate vampirism by exposing their ties to Halliburton and AOL-Time Warner?

  19. Anonymous said:

    That’s too much work for Mick. As long as things don’t effect the late-night line up of his favorite shows (he’s curiously fond of “Fresh Prince” reruns on Nickelodeon), Mick doesn’t much care about big business. “Give me a mug ‘o blood, batteries in the remote and a comfy chair and I’m a happy vampire. Just make sure the blinds stay shut.” That’s Mick.

  20. Adaora A. said:

    I’m not a big fan of the vampire thing, though I do admire those who do it well. I think people just get tired of the broken record. It’s not a discredit to those who write it, it’s just a thirst for something new.

    In any case, I’ve never really read much horror, though again, I have respect for those who write it well.

    TGIF? It’s Friday in 2 days again!

  21. Anonymous said:

    Wow. I write a vampire series and not one of my vamps are angst driven or whine about what they are. Of course, my vamps also don’t have to kill their vessles. Although some do…but trust me, they don’t cry about it. They’re too busy trying to control the world and kill their rivals.

  22. Mad Scientist Matt said:

    I’ve got a (non-YA) fantasy book I have been working on that sort of had a “chosen one” in that the gods had chosen a character to accomplish something… but this “chosen one” was, in fact, expendable and not really unique. In fact, he wasn’t aware he had been “chosen.”

  23. Anonymous said:

    “And I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with ‘chosen ones'”

    On the contrary, there is something wrong with chosen ones: they kill any and all tension. If your protagonist is the chosen one, they can’t lose. And everybody knows it.

  24. Timothy Taylor said:

    I guess you guys are speaking of fantasy novels as pure soul-less entertainment where we keep bending conventions and making everybody grittier and realer and dragons do different things old wizard families that are now in the video game industry, ad naseum. I have been reading Fantasy for a long long time and my favorites are still by the masters who used many of those devices that were on the list. Tolkien, Ursula K. Leguin, Piers Anthony, I don’t need to continue.
    Ged had dead parents, as did Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter, who by the way were all somewhat the “Chosen One.” Editor, By “Chosen One” do you mean “Hero” because the “Hero” myth is at the very core of all the stories that human beings have told themselves since we were sitting around a fire in cheetah hides. It will continue to be, because the really good stories resonate with the Archetypes that we all carry in our subconscious. I just watched Alan Moore’s video the other day, and he was saying that the best stories are emotionally true, whether they are conventional (as in the use of conventions) or not.

  25. Pen said:

    I have to say I’m with Tim on this one.

    Everyone knows the “hero” of the story is going to win anyway – if they don’t I’m gonna throw the book at the wall!

    Having a “chosen one” does, in my humble opinion, create tension – they have to come to terms with their destiny as something that is thrust upon them as opposed to a path they have chosen for themselves. How are they going to deal with that?
    More is at stake if they fail. That creates a pressure, tension and a conflict that would not be there if just anyone could fix the problem.

    Just my two cents.

  26. Anonymous said:

    I can’t believe the number of people commenting against what Kristin has said. But I think most are missing the point.

    Imagine you are a literary agent who represents YA Fantasy. Since the year began, you have read 400+ query letters. And most of them have these common themes in some way, shape, or form (though maybe not directly). Wouldn’t you find that boring? And for the most part, you need to spend your time trying to find the best of the slush pile, but most of the bad stuff comes from unimaginative, ill-creative writers.

    Vampires are popular right now. And as Timothy Taylor said, there are good stories that use them. But they are extreme popular stories that pioneered their popularity or are the originators of them.

    It’s when a writer uses these over-used themes to drive a story it gets really tiring. Nobody really wants to see the next “C.S. Lewis” or Tolkien. It’s been done, start something different or new.

    If not, just make sure it’s done well enough. The core of the story is the characters, and the core of the characters is the care. Anything that character is willing to die for; a character trait, material item, a goal or another character. Something that envelopes their world and causes the change in their life.

    A lot of people call it “conflict”, in a sense that two cares are battling each other with the character(s), but sometimes it is more linear.

    It’s when writers throw out what’s important to making a story interesting and tries using some theme (such as these) to drive the story.

    I’m a little surprised a few more things didn’t make the list:

    – The Elven culture. A race of eternal/long-living beings who are above humans and most others, keeping to themselves and always some of the wisest around.

    – A dark lord lusting for power and the character must stop them. Sounds a bit broad, but I’m talking about an evil villain who really has nothing else in mind. Very flat, well over-done and burnt to a crisp.

    – Hero/Heroine is at the bottom of society (usually born that way) and meet their romantic interest of royalty, when such a relationship is usually forbidden.

    – (And I’m sure it’s at the top of the list) A story that begins with a historical info-dump or unnecessary look into the past about why things are going from good to bad (usually including the villain’s introduction). If you guys have this in your story, it’s, in my opinion, worse than all 6 points combined.

    Most movies can get away with it, because they can create tension with a scene and an epic narrator’s voice that grips the audience. Unfortunately, a book does not have the visual or audio effects to pull it off very well.