Pub Rants

Riding the Cultural Zeitgeist?

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Status: I only own an umbrella for when I’m in New York. So ready for the perpetually sunny skies of Denver.

What’s Playing on the XM or iPod right now? MYSTERY by Anita Baker

Even though we agents and editors have seen this phenomenon repeat itself for years, it still strangely takes us by surprise.

Sometimes a theme or a type of story will hit the cultural zeitgeist and suddenly we will see a slew of submissions that have very similar story ideas.

And I’m not talking about obvious trends. For example, in Young Adult, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that paranormal romance has been “hot” for a while (thank you Twilight). Then the Hunger Games took off and dystopia became the new trend. As titles released in that, the latest is now SF or speculative fiction.

These are popular trends.

This is not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about storylines that suddenly start popping up that are potentially outside of these trends but for some reason, the stories all hit our submission inboxes around the same time.

For example, over the last 6 months, there have been a lot of queries and sample pages for fairy tale retellings (and this started happening before Little Red Riding Hood and Beastly hit the screen).

I was out to lunch with a children’s editor yesterday and for him, he had suddenly started seeing a ton of submissions that were what he called “man vs machine a la Terminator-style.”

The submissions came from different agents/agencies and yet all had very similar settings and main storylines. And this isn’t actually a rare occurrence. As an agent, I’ve seen this happen any number of times in my career.

So, there is something percolating in the cultural zeitgeist where any number of totally different authors who don’t know each other will have eerily similar story ideas for their novels.

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27 Responses

  1. Suze said:

    Now, that, I find interesting. Trends chafe me no end but a wave of something emerging from a creative collective is evocative of that mystery which imbues all writing, if we let it.

    Really liked this post.

  2. Josin L. McQuein said:

    I was nervous when someone told me about Sisters Red, but I was absolutely fuming when I saw the trailers for Red Riding Hood. I was well into a retelling of that one myself, and now, on top of it Rob Howard is putting out another one in a few months. X-(

  3. Scribbling Scarlet said:

    It seems everything is being reinvented; Songs, movies, books. Rarely is there anything original anymore just variations of what’s already been. It’s kind of sad really. It doesn’t seem people push their imaginations to the limit anymore.

  4. Pauline Toohey said:

    Does this suggest we’re struggling for originality, or perhaps has the gambit been covered so well that orginality is nothing but a past pleasure?

  5. Marie said:

    My guess is that somewhere out there, some event, news article, video, etc was seen widely enough that it might have triggered a certain specific wave of ideas/submissions. If they’re all written around the same time, then maybe they would also start making the submission rounds at the same time? Anyway, it’s a fascinating phenomenon!

  6. Stephanie McGee said:

    I seem to remember a Writer’s Digest article written by two authors whose debut novels had similar elements and were published around the same time, but the two had never once crossed paths.

    Collective subconscious, perhaps? (Is that the right term? I seem to have blocked all memory of lit theory classes.)

  7. Simon Hay Soul Healer said:

    This is because we’re all connected. One mind. Consciousness. We’re all affected by habitual patterns and creating patterns. It’s rare to find an individual, an idea is shared by everyone, and expressed by a few or many. We can learn by default, by being present. It’s become our nature to need physical evidence: how, why, where. But really we just know – know without eveidence I know spirit is standing beside me without having to sense spirit.

    Once you’re a writer you’re vibrating at ‘I’m a writer’, so you’re connected to every writer’s thoughts and actions. Have you noticed that people tend to dress the same in specific fields?

    It’s also critical mass. I heal one person with cancer – the potential has always been there to do so, but now it’s possible. This makes it easier for someone else to do the same. 1 becomes 10 becomes 100. A number will be reached when healing cancer will occur without intention or effort.

    Writing is an example of this.

  8. Jo-Ann said:

    I’ve seen this trend in another context. Many years ago I worked as a crisis counsellor. The counselling was anonymous and by phone (LifeLine), so you never knew who your caller was, or the nature of the crisis, until you picked up.

    Sometimes it seemed that our callers colluded, because there were very clear trends/ themes in the nature of the calls over the one evening. For example, I might not have had anybody calling for help about dealing with a missing person in the family, and yet on the one night I’d get two calls in a row from mothers with runaway teens whom they’d not heard from for weeks. Or about coping with seeing a once-intelligent parent dement. Or the aftermath of losing somebody by suicide.

    Sure, some might be explained by a tv drama airing a similar theme which struck a cord (chord?) for some viewers, who then called us to unload. But on other times, it really seemed that the collective unconscience played a role.


    Oh, are you getting many MG submissions about a cat plotting to free his home of his human’s new partner’s pets?

  9. said:

    I call it the Ether. I shared the ether with Neil Gaiman for about 5 years in the 1990’s. Problem was, he could write faster and kept scooping me. (Oh, and he might be a better writer…)

  10. Delia said:

    That might explain why I saw a character with the exact same “abilities” as one I’m currently writing on a blog the other day. Bah! Oh well, I don’t think it’s too late to tweak it. Who knows, maybe the two of us will start a trend.

  11. Jericho Ambrose said:

    I remember reading about this, and every time I hear an agent/editor mention it I just simply find it fascinating.

    This case is especially interesting since you quickly ruled out the recent movies being “inspiration.”

    That and one of the short stories I wrote recently was an “After Ever After” type tale. So it feels weird but I know I am a part of that.

    Muy intriguing if only just to me!

  12. Wendy Tyler Ryan said:

    “Trend” is my least favorite word -always has been. Why? Because trends come and go – more importantly, they go – eventually.

    How many times can you rehash the same story before the reading public says “enough”?

    How long can you ignore this demographic or that demographic before they say “enough” and stop buying books they end up using as doorstops?

    I have no answer as to why certain ideas crop up in batches, I doubt anyone does. I do hope, however, that with everything erupting in the publishing world the way it is, that good writing will prevail regardless of whether or not it meets someone’s idea of a hot “trend”. That’s not why writers write and it shouldn’t be why people read.

  13. Kristie Cook said:

    It’s something in how the universe works, though I’m not bold enough to pretend I know what exactly it is. It happens in my day job too. We won’t have a certain kind of client for months, then we get 5 in a week or two. In four years and 1000s of clients, we never had a client named Calvin. Right now, we’re working with 3 Calvins. It’s strange and wondrous how the universe works like that, especially in the creative realm. There’s a story there…

  14. Heather Davis said:

    I am going to put on my geek statistics hat and say this is completely normal (pun intended) for a random distribution (meaning the submissions were not influenced by any common factor). Clumping is to be expected. If you threw a bunch of pennies in the air, they would land more in some places than others. It would be weird if they laid themselves out in a grid. The grid would be an even distribution. Now think of the pennies as submissions. It would take a divine act to prevent people from coming up with the same ideas – or in other words, to prevent clumping.

  15. Carolyn said:

    If it’s not actually just a random confluence of coincidence, would it not follow that it’s not just among writers, but readers, too?

    Are there readers sitting at home wishing like heck they could read a fairy-tale retelling or a Man vs. machine story but can’t yet . . .

    Which means these editors should be snapping up the best of these stories.

    AND it means I could get friends and strangers to send queries about killer rabbits on Planet Zeonon, come to marry our women and fight crime, and THEN after, say, 3 months, send my own amazing query and voila!

    Sorry Kristin. Hope you’re having great time in NY!

  16. Jeff Seymour said:

    Reminds me of that page in Watchmen where Ozymandias is watching a wall of TVs and deciding what to invest in.

    …sounds like anxiety over a changing world and a yearning to return to the simplicity of childhood to me. So the smart money goes into, what was it—candy and ice cream and weapons manufacturing? 😉

  17. Diana said:

    I think it comes from creative people unintentionally tapping into the collective consciousness. There have been times when I’ve had an idea for a story and started working on it only to then have someone else publish or release a very similar story. It’s rather spooky. In my case, can’t be explained away by something on TV or the movies triggering the thought since I don’t watch TV and I’m out of the loop when it comes to current movies.

    Considering how much time and effort it takes to write a novel, I think this is strong evidence that there is a collective unconscious at work.

  18. jenna123 said:

    You know, whatever it is I seem to follow right along with it. Becoming more aware of the trends in the world has helped me realize that I’m more like everyone else then I’d ever want to admit!

  19. Carolyn said:

    A good friend of mine was an attorney for MGM. It was her job to defend MGM when writers claimed idea theft. She discovered that she could track these zeitgeist moments down to a core spark. For example, she tracked a run of screenplays involving time travel to ancient Egypt to the King Tut traveling exhibit.

    I do believe there is something to Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, but when it comes to these waves within the cultural zeitgeist, you’re usually looking at something fairly mundane.

  20. Kat said:

    I love hearing about submission trends like these — themes that seemingly come out of nowhere, but suddenly are everywhere. It reminds me of Connie Willis’ wonderful book Bellwether, whose main character tries to figure out where trends come from.

    I really enjoy your blog, and I’ve included it in my list of 10 Publishing Blogs Worth Reading for Ebook Authors. Thanks!

  21. carrot said:

    Either that, or the same things are all on the AGENTS’ minds, and they are choosing the same kind of projects out of a wide pool of possibilities…