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The Popular Fiction Report

What’s hot in Mystery/ Crime, Romance, Horror, Thriller/ Suspense and Science Fiction/ Fantasy? Find out in this comprehensive genre-by-genre market report. PLUS: A breakdown of fiction sub-genres and their definitions.

(Note: For a further breakdown and more precise definitions of fiction sub-genres, click here.)

The pros in the mystery/crime genre are all a little wary these days, and for good reason: The true identity of today’s mystery is a bit of a mystery, slip-sliding toward thrillerdom while fighting to maintain its puzzle-solving satisfactions.

“Beyond the obvious franchise authors whose books become automatic bestsellers, because the bookstores order their next works by the hundreds of thousands of copies, we’re all making our best informed guesses,” says Managing Partner Scott Andrew Mendel of the Mendel Media Group. “Mainly, we guess by looking at demographic trends and stories in the daily news. So here’s my prognostication: We’ll see more series featuring aging baby boomers and their enthusiasms, and we’ll continue to see crime fiction, especially thrillers, that feature terrorism.”

Agent Jean V. Naggar says the cause for the mystery/crime drift may be an overeducated public, so familiar with the legal system after watching endless hours of “Law & Order” and “CSI” that a standard crime drama isn’t enough anymore.

“A few years ago, it was the legal thriller,” she says. “Now it’s specific legal questions, but they’re firmly in the background. We’ve become very knowledgeable.”

The “high-concept” thriller is the main trend, Mendel says. “With few exceptions, most of the bigger authors of crime fiction will be [writing] stories involving mass death, presidents, billionaires and so on,” Mendel says. “There won’t be many cozy mysteries or police procedurals on The New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists this coming year.”

One author whose concepts are both high and dark is Jeff Lindsay, creator of the highly successful Dexter series. Lindsay’s protagonist is a self-aware psychotic who has learned to channel his urges by tracking down other killers and then indulging in vigilante dismemberment. Dexter could fit into either the thriller or horror genres—but he’s a detective.

“From what I can gather, the trend is toward the extreme edges,” Lindsay says. “There’s a real struggle to find anything that doesn’t live in gray, and to figure out what is right and wrong. The characters and situations reflect that and tend to be a lot more provocative in the sense of what they’re trying to say and do.”

Naggar notes this new ranginess among her own clients—like Phillip Margolin, who used to write straight-up legal plots but has gone into more suspenseful thrillers, like his recent Proof Positive. But another one of Naggar’s clients, C.J. Sansom, works in a surprisingly resurgent traditional genre, the historical mystery. A lawyer equipped with a Ph.D. in history, Sansom created the Sovereign series, featuring a hunchback sleuth living in the time of Henry VIII. Naggar points to Sansom’s success as a cautionary tale: The tried-and-true forms are tried and true for a reason.

“In 30 years, I’ve seen the cycles where people are saying the traditional mystery is on the way out,” she says. “The people who love mysteries don’t go away. The difference between thrillers and mysteries is that there’s a puzzle in the mystery. If you can disentangle it, it’ll lead you to the answer. I think it’s addictive. I’ve never understood what the dips in the market predict. People who like them will continue to like them.”

The basic romance formula calls for the heroine to come up against a classic alpha male, go through some exciting ups and downs, and then resolve everything by forming a neat family unit. Problem is, as the dukes and earls of yesteryear go the way of TV antennas and Pong, the alpha has become an increasingly endangered species. Romance writers have sought to solve the problem by entering into a trade agreement with a region in Romania known as Transylvania.

“The vampire is the new alpha male,” says Steven Axelrod, a romance agent for the past 30 years. “He’s definitely alpha—after all, he wants to suck your blood.”

It doesn’t hurt that your classic vampire apparently mates for life (a very lo-o-ong life), which also fits nicely into the romance liturgy.

Vampires are the principal suspects in this rising, new, paranormal sub-genre, which includes classic monsters (notably vampires and werewolves) as well as all manner of “The X Files”-type phenomena.

For bestselling author Jayne Ann Krentz, the trend has been quite a boon, opening up a whole new audience for the futuristic psychic books that she has been writing for a while now under the pen name Jayne Castle.

“The hottest area is the paranormal,” Krentz says. “The most up-and-coming names are all writing there. J.R. Ward, Christine Feehan—a lot of new authors went that route in the last five years.”

Krentz takes her explanation for the new wave beyond the alpha-male shortage. “The era of terrorism is scary. Psychologically it’s hard to wrap your mind around it. Fiction almost has to take an extra leap to deal with it,” she says.

On the demand side, she also credits Laurell K. Hamilton, whose vampire novels border on paranormal erotica, enticing the romance audience.

Erotica is also on the rise as romance writers have found an increased willingness to take the romance reader past those discreet bedroom doors. The results, Axelrod says, have been decidedly mixed.

“You give a group of romance writers a couple of drinks and they’ll admit it’s pornography,” he says. “It’s hard to see it as true romance, and it has a limited audience—they can’t seem to grow it. Very few good storytellers seem to be staking their careers there.”

Krentz notes with some relief the wane of chick-lit and a greater freedom to cross-breed with other genres. A fine example is a series of detective romances that evoke the classic film noir style of the ’40s.

“Romance has always been a very wide-open testing ground,” she says. “You can get away with a lot because the critics aren’t looking over your shoulder.”

Krentz’s advice for writers entering the romance market is to come up with a unique twist (especially one that utilizes an author’s specialized knowledge) without shattering the basic framework.

And no matter the trends, don’t rule out the traditional categories of historical and contemporary romance, as well as the Harlequin series romances, listed under brand names such as Desire, Sweet Romance and Intrigue.

“A lot of writers get their start there,” Krentz says. “I did.”

Read an essay on Romance Writing by Debbie Macomber: All I Used to Need Was Love

Like a rotting corpse covered in mushrooms, the horror genre is sprouting new ideas on a daily basis.

“It amazes me that with great writers still putting out spectacular fiction, like Stephen King and Dean Koontz, the horror community has embraced the newer writers,” says rising star Michael Laimo, author of Dead Souls. “Maybe it’s because we’re putting fresh twists on old ideas. I think my readers have come to me simply because they’ve had their fill with the giants, and are in search of a different, not-so-mainstream voice.”

Mort Castle, author of On Writing Horror, says that many of those voices are of the ubiquitous sexy-vampire variety, including gay and transgender variations. Watch out, though. “Once books are coming out with ballyhoo along the lines of ‘In the tradition of Laurell K. Hamilton’ or ‘If you love David Thomas Lord’s gay vampires …’ then that means we’re not likely to see much innovation or even continuing quality in the area,” Castle says.

The monster list also includes those ever-popular zombies and sexy werewolves (although, in the latter case, the hairiness seems to be an issue).

On the other hand, Lee Thomas, winner of the prestigious Bram Stoker Award, sees a field dominated by the post-apocalypse. “From Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to Max Brooks’ World War Z and David Wellington’s Monster Island trilogy—there’s a push to show what the world would look like without a lot of us in it. Zombies, vampires, war and disease are being used as apocalyptic devices.”

Thomas also sees a host of new titles with a historical bent, as well as a red-hot, young-adult market (which he writes for under the pen name Thomas Pendleton).

Castle and Thomas agree, however, that the genre attracts a new breed of sophisticated writers. “Once upon a time, a horror writer’s education came from reading [Edgar Allan] Poe and aspiring to write for Weird Tales,” Castle says. “Now a horror writer may well have an MFA from The Iowa [Writers] Workshop and see his story in Cemetery Dance or The New Yorker.”

The trend also shows itself in writing styles. “For a number of years the genre was defined by the close third-person point of view,” Thomas says. “But now a number of authors are exploring first and second person, epistolary and combinations of narrative styles to create fresh reading experiences. The work has to be exceptional, inventive, thoughtful and stylish, and that’s the way it should be.”

But amid all the futurism and supernatural gee-gaws, writers shouldn’t dismiss old-fashioned psychological suspense. “Demons and zombies are cool for horror fans,” Laimo says. “But the casual reader looking for a scare wants to read about ‘true-life’ horror—the type of story that made The Silence of the Lambs so popular.”

The trio’s hot-author rosters go all over the place. Laimo likes Tim Lebbon for dark, surreal fiction, Brian Keene for zombies, J.F. Gonzalez for psychological horror and Tom Piccirilli for dark horror mysteries. Castle nominates Joe Hill, Simon Wood, Charles D’Ambrosio and Steven Savile. For Thomas, it’s Sarah Langan, Nick Mamatas and David Wellington, plus newcomers Laird Barron, Darren Speegle, Brett Alexander Savory, Paul G. Tremblay and Nicholas Kaufmann.

“No one is doing contemporary pulp horror like Keene,” Thomas says. “And you’ll find few of the dark fantasists working today excelling in literary style the way Mamatas, Piccirilli or Langan do.”

Read an essay on Horror Writing by Ramsey Campbell: Why I Write Horror

If ever a genre were affected by a real-life event, it would be the thriller/suspense category and Sept. 11. But not always in the ways that one might expect.

“You had a lot of writers jumping on the bandwagon,” perennial bestseller David Baldacci says. “The good guys versus the extremists. It’s a one-trick pony, though, and it tends to flame out pretty quickly.”

What has remained is an increased awareness of international relations and cultures, which has opened up the market for more and more far-ranging settings. “As the world becomes a smaller place, people want to better understand. People gravitate toward fiction to better understand the facts,” Baldacci says.

Which brings up another trend: more and more thrillers backed up by boatloads of research. The most obvious example is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. But the pursuit of fact-based realism has been on a steady rise for years. Careful, though. “If it turns out to be a textbook, you’re in trouble,” Baldacci says.

The Holy Grail of thriller writing is the twist, that piece of specialized knowledge or plot innovation that will set your story apart. “Part of marketing is knowing what’s out there in your field,” Baldacci says. “If you write another Tom Clancy novel, no one’s going to be interested. It’s been done by a number of authors, and if you’re the millionth one to send an editor this idea, it’s not going to get through.”

One of Baldacci’s most popular thrillers, The Camel Club, came from turning a familiar formula on its head. “All Washington-based novels are based from the inside out. I decided to go from the outside in,” he says.

The result was a narrative that took on the point of view of a budding terrorist. Along with excellent sales, however, came hate mail and a few death threats. But Baldacci takes it in stride. “You never want to write a book that everybody loves—you want a visceral reaction.”

Another way to locate that twist is for an author to apply some personal, specialized field of knowledge. In the case of bestseller Robert S. Levinson, that translated to his latest work, In the Key of Death. “It’s a standalone thriller set in my old stomping ground, the music business,” he says. “With any luck, it will have readers trying to figure where, if anywhere, I fit the truth of rock-and-roll history into my fiction.”

Another important consideration, Baldacci says, is finding an angle that will maintain your interest throughout the long writing process. “The real challenge is finding an idea that will motivate you to put all that energy in,” he says. This kind of idea often comes from what’s going on in society; Baldacci’s current project derives from the increasing prevalence of truth-bending among American leaders and media. “We have so much info these days that everybody turns it off,” he says.

Baldacci’s list of hot authors includes Brad Meltzer, Vince Flynn, Nelson DeMille and an old favorite, Patricia Cornwell. Levinson’s choices are Clive Cussler, David Morrell, John Lescroart, T. Jefferson Parker, Jeffery Deaver, Sandra Brown, Tess Gerritsen, Heather Graham, Gayle Lynds, F. Paul Wilson, Daniel Silva and Michael Palmer, as well as newcomers James Rollins, Joseph Finder, Christopher Reich, James O. Born and Jeff Abbott.

Read an essay on Thriller/Suspense Writing by Ridley Pearson: Writing Small, Not Small Writing

Science Fiction/Fantasy
Perhaps it’s the nature of the beast, but science fiction and fantasy are tough to pin down. Among the many distinct sub-genres, however, the most prevalent trend is the return of “urban fantasy,” which Harper Collins Voyager Publishing Director Jane Johnson describes as “the supernatural erupting into the everyday—sexy, tongue-in-cheek, post-modern.” The best example of this resurging genre, says Johnson (aka Jude Fisher), is the work of Kim Harrison.

Crawford Kilian, author of Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, puts in a strong vote for the alternate history genre, typified by Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and the books of Harry Turtledove. The genre is also marked by the prevalence of long series with recurring characters. “It’s established authors like Turtledove who sell most consistently,” Kilian says. “That’s because they’ve now got large readerships impatient for the next volume in the latest interminable saga.”

Kilian also sees a return to epic fantasy, spurred by The Lord of the Rings movies. He cites a new series, Queen of the Orcs, derived from one of Tolkien’s fanciful species. The return of the epic style is welcome for Johnson, who wrote a companion piece for The Two Towers, and is currently working on an epic children’s fantasy series, the Eidolon Chronicles.

“It’s hard to beat the rush of finding a tale with huge scope and a cast of brilliant characters,” she says. “For me, there’s nothing more absorbing.”

From there, the cross-genre blending gets a little dizzying. Johnson mentions dark fantasy, a marriage of fantasy and horror, typified by Michael Marshall Smith’s The Servants. Marlene Stringer of The Barbara Bova Literary Agency brings up the ever-popular vampire genre, as well as science-fiction thrillers and young-adult books.

Kilian notes the rise of traditional (hard) science-fiction writers like Neil Gaiman and Rudy Rucker, but worries that the days of mind-stretching tales are dwindling. “No doubt some agents and editors really are looking for brilliant and innovative newcomers,” he says. “But they’ll be like apprentice chefs, trying to create superb meals for customers who want Domino’s Pizza.” Johnson’s favorite in the pure science-fiction category is the recent Gardner Dozois/George R.R. Martin/Daniel Abraham collaboration, Hunter’s Run.

Johnson’s favorites also include Peter V. Brett’s upcoming The Painted Man, British author Stephen Hunt and Robin Hobb. Stringer’s hotter clients include Ben Bova and Orson Scott Card, as well as newcomers Alex Bledsoe and Virginia Baker (talk about genre-blending—the works of these last two are described as, respectively, “sword and sorcery pulp noir” and “historical thriller with science-fiction elements”).

Perhaps the hottest author of all, Johnson says, is Naomi Novik. The rights to her Temeraire dragon series have been purchased by The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson.

As for Johnson’s own writing, she had a fantasy project that turned into reality and then back to fantasy, before she ever set pen to paper. Investigating the family legend of an ancestor who was abducted from a Cornwall church in 1625 by Barbary pirates, she journeyed to Morocco, found out the family legend was true, and then met her future husband. Let that be a lesson to all authors—research pays off, even in genre fiction.

Read an essay on Science Fiction/Fantasy Writing by Terry Brooks: Creating New Worlds

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