A monthly column of wit, insight, irreverance and inspiration

by a published author and veteran of the publishing trenches.

The Ink-Stained Wretch

Don Whittington

July, 1999



I am supposed to talk about what it will take to get published in the new millennium. How I'm supposed to know this is anyone's guess, but I've never let my ignorance of a subject stop my holding forth before, so here goes.

First and foremost, whatever you write will have to have the word "fuck" in it. This is apparently required in modern fiction. Now, I am the last person to flinch at profanity. But exactly when did this word become as mundane as the comma? Often I'll be working at my computer in one room while my kids are watching a video in another.

One of those teenage angst things where all the kids are worried because some serial murderer is slaying all their buddies. You know, a slice of life film. From my vantage I can hear the movie even though I can't see it.

Now, hearing a movie gives you a very different perspective. You are dealing with the naked words, and things leap to your attention that you might miss just watching it. While listening to "The Curve" I noticed that should one remove all sentences containing the "f" word, this flick would be reduced to a silent movie. Even that might have been excusable if the word had been used with any grace, or sense of art or playfulness. Instead it was simply there as caesura, used as a comma or semi-colon with no more force or effect. Less, really. Used this way, it is no longer profanity. It is just simple noise. In which case, who needs it?

This coarsening of dialect obviously has its defenders. "But that's how people talk," they say. We are merely reflecting the changes in American culture.

No, we're not. We are driving it. That's what art does; it drives cultural change. And however you feel about your work, you have to admit it falls in the realm of art, not industrialism.

Further, writers have never been particularly fond of how people "actually" talk. People "actually" say all kinds of boring nonsense. They are commonly inarticulate and repetitive, dull and unoriginal. We endeavor to create dialogue that, while it smacks of real speech, is actually more focussed and on target. We want our characters to speak words that reveal character, that provoke tension, that expose plot, that move the story forward.

But hey, profanity reveals character, doesn't it? Well, no, not when all characters use it willy-nilly, it doesn't. But that is beside the point. My opinion does not count.

Submit a modern novel minus profanity and it is going to raise eyebrows. Books have to be hip. No doubt somebody's going to go back and jazz up all those back lists pretty soon…


"That's very perceptive, Miss Marple," said the inspector.

"Well, when you've lived around these fuckers as long as I have…"

…or perhaps…

"My, God, Holmes, how do you know?"

"Ele-fucking-mentary, my dear Watson."

No matter. We're talking about the millennium here. What can we expect to be popular in the coming century? Besides obscenity, that is.

Well, having been wrong about nearly everything so far in my professional life, I feel uniquely qualified to make a guess. I took a quart of cheap bourbon and sat down to channel the spirit of Nostradamus.

This is what I think:

Prediction One: Historicals

People enjoy historical novels, but the problem for publishing has always been figuring out which period of history is going to be hot. It seems to me people have always been interested in ancient history and always will be. It's when we search closer to our own time that it gets harder to pin down. And with the average age of editors these days being only fourteen, it gets tougher yet.

But if we look at trends of the past one pattern strikes me as true.

Once people mature into their forties and fifties as the boomers are doing, they grow more interested in the history of their parents' generation.

They also grow more interested in their own, or of that time when they came of age.

I believe there is probably a huge market lying untapped which would respond well to books set in the thirties and forties. These were turbulent times in America, both politically and artistically. And if you're into puzzle mysteries, this is a great time to set them, since it gets you away from the modern technology that makes sleuthing so pedestrian.

There is already a huge backlist set during this time, but I think there is room for novels with a more modern perspective on this period.

Besides, we've read all the Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe, Agatha Christie, etc.

Another period ripe for plucking is the sixties. I find it interesting that so very few modern books have been written set in this period (and most of those, the good ones anyway, are technically war novels), a period which for most boomers has an exaggerated sense of importance. Of course, in a sense, the sixties have never really gone away what with the proliferation of oldies radio stations and the ubiquity of sixties references in advertising.

Still, it strikes me much could be done in practically every genre except, perhaps SF. Anyway, it's a thought.

Finally, I think westerns are due for a resurgence. But then, I always think westerns are due for a resurgence.

Prediction Two: Mysteries

Mysteries are bread and butter. People love them. But many modern mysteries simply do not cut it. I was at a convention once where someone posed the following question for discussion:

Who are the modern American immortals in the mystery field? Once everyone figured out Rex Stout was dead, the only name offered was Ed McBain.

Now these were all mystery fans, but they offered none of the modern writers for consideration. Not one. Why? Because most modern American mystery is character driven, not plot driven.

Few puzzles worthy of the name, no grand denouement. People miss that.

As good as the Tony Hillerman's, Sara Paretsky's etc. are, and they are very good indeed, they are not delivering the element of surprise that old time mysteries gave. I would argue that Marlowe and Archer never solved anything particularly mysterious to begin with; these novels were always character driven. But for some reason, readers put PI novels in a different category. If you accept that reasoning, then maybe it's time for the return of the puzzle mystery. But in the modern market you might be wise to adapt and come up with true, character driven puzzle mysteries. Then watch the money roll in.

Prediction Three: Humor

For a good many years the humorous novel has been dead as Diana.

This is a great shame. There was a time when this was a rich field with the likes of Thorne Smith, Max Schulman, H. Allen Smith and a host of others ringing the bell. Nowadays you've got Douglas Adams and that's about it.

Lots of humor gets published, mind you, all of it by Dave Barry, but those are not novels. There are, of course, the literary novels referred to as droll and wry, but this is simply another way of saying "not funny." Somebody, somewhere is going to re-discover this form and it's going to happen over the next hundred years. Bet on it.

Prediction Four: Kid-Lit

Serious fiction for kids has become so self-important and filled with life affirming themes that the only people reading it are adults.

Kids who read are reading adult fiction. Probably horror or fantasy or SF.

Prediction Five: Science Fiction

Anyone who tries to predict what is going to happen in science fiction is a fool.  Look for "fat, unpopular boy makes good as super-being" themes to remain popular. Otherwise, the sky is no limit, as ever.

Prediction Six: Romance

Sex will remain popular in the new millennium.

Prediction Seven: Fantasy

I expect fantasy will always be popular. And as our world continues to get more technologically complex, the taste for this kind of escapist literature will grow. Just remember that Tolkien is an example, not a template, and you'll be fine.

Prediction Eight: Paranoid Thrillers

As the information age continues to get out of hand, look for a growth in this market. The really bad guys have not yet caught on to the best ways to mess up your life yet, but they will because we're going to figure it out for them and write novels about it. For every person who is enjoying the Internet there are probably four who don't trust it. And being technophobes, you can bet they are into books. But here's a hint. No pages and pages of chat, or other internettery. Keep the computer stuff off-stage as much as possible. It's boring.

Prediction Nine: Christian Publishing

This is going to be huge in the next millennium. By Christian I mean clean, not necessarily polemic. In fact, preachy novels are not really what this market wants. They just want books that don't rub your nose in smut and graphic gore.

If you doubt this you are probably in New York.

Prediction Ten: Moslem Hero

We have a large Islamic population in this country. Sooner or later someone's going to write a book for them and make a lot of money.

Prediction Eleven: Horror

Sometime in the coming century Stephen King is going to die. However, he is so far ahead of his publishers that new novels will continue to be published into the twenty-third century. The rest of you can wait your turn.

No, seriously, there will always be a market for good horror.

It's just a shame there is so little of it. After the emergence of King in the seventies and eighties, publishing disgraced itself by publishing an awful lot of bad horror. Once the public figured out that aside from King, Koontz, Rice, and Straub they couldn't count on anybody, they stopped buying, and suddenly it was hard to sell horror. Look for this situation to right itself in the coming century.

Prediction Twelve: Coming of Age

Note prediction one, above. Everybody likes these but the publishing people. Why, I have no idea. This, too, will pass. It may take the Christian printers to bust it open, but it's going to happen.

Prediction Thirteen: For Luck

Something completely unexpected is going to happen. War novels will be up or down depending on the state of arms in the world.

Authorlink will sell itself to Microsoft for a billion, three. A collection of my Ink-Stained Wretch columns will be published in book form and sell five copies.