As we look forward to round 2 of Author Mentor Match, we wanted to share in more detail some trends the mentors saw in the inbox during round 1. Knowing what everyone else is doing can be enormously helpful to the savvy writer. We hope to offer a snapshot of what agents are likely seeing in their query inboxes alongside your work. When there are 9 queries in a row that are YA fantasy with magic and spies, if you are the 10th, you’ll want to stand out and get that request! The rule of thumb with all of these trends is: we’re not saying don’t write these things, but to a) subvert tropes whenever possible or b) go into writing with with eyes open. Sometimes, writing a certain kind of book means your journey may be longer, with more roadbumps. But extraordinary writing and fresh spins very often find a place on a list, and in the market!

Trends in Contemporary YA
  • Alcoholic/addict parents
    • This is an issue that many teens face and it’s vital that they get to see their experience reflected. However, this came up in many submissions and in many cases just appeared to be there to provide background or something for the characters to feel angst about. And it’s a common trend that’s been done many times before. If you’re going to use it, make sure to deal with it respectfully and fully–don’t use it as a device to add “drama”. Usually it’s there to create conflict between the parent and the MC–why not try to find another, fresher idea?
  • Road trips
    • We know, we know, everyone loves a road trip story. But there are so many out there already and the submissions we got didn’t feature much to make them stand out from these existing stories. It’s also tempting to lean on the structure of the road trip element, to let it do most of the heavy lifting in terms of plot. They run across a quirky diner! They get dragged into a cool club! It’s fun but don’t let it take the place of actual plot/character development. In the end, they need to achieve more than just crossing a distance.
  • Dead parent/sibling/love interest/best friend
    • Again, something that many kids deal with, but after seeing this in a hundred published books, seeing it in these submissions left us wondering: what’s different? “Grief books” are so common and there needs to be something in your story that will make agents think that it’s not just something they’re read so many times before.
  • Completing dead friend’s/parent’s/sibling’s bucket list/secret adventure/life goals
    • This is more of a comment on this very specific trend; several submissions featured this. It’s an interesting idea that can quickly become tired without another angle to grab the reader. What else is there to this story? Is your MC merely living out the storyline meant for another character? It’s also interesting that within this one program, we saw several versions of this idea. It just goes to show you that even when you think you’ve hit on something interesting and original, there’s probably still going to be someone doing the same thing.

Trends in Fantasy YA

  • Magic/powers + outlawed magic
    • Magic is back. Everyone is writing magic. It was by far the most overwhelming trend in the fantasy submissions, and in a lot of cases, the main character was being oppressed within a system where magic was outlawed. Be wary, if writing magic/illegal magic that this is a common trope/plot conceit in many fantasy books right now. Focus on ways to make your book stand out. How can you subvert the trope? How can you make your main character stand out, or make your world feel different? Our mentors found that voice/character and smashing together tropes beyond the magic/illegal magic made some entries stand out more than others. A note on outlawed/illegal magic: be careful that your application of this trope doesn’t lean too generic and/or dystopian. What can you do to twist it and make it fresh?
  • Royalty
    • Perhaps it was because so many of our mentors love royalty in fantasy, but there was a lot of it! Again, find a way to make yours stand out by subverting tropes or bringing in some unique hook. There are a lot of YA fantasy books with royalty coming into the market, so do your research and find ways to twist tropes.
  • Portal Fantasy
    • We saw a few of these, and just want to offer a word of caution to writers–by and large, agents say that portal fantasy is not sellable.
  • Assassins & spies

    • Like magic, we saw a LOT of assassins and spies. The good news is, a lot of people love assassins and spies (including us). The bad news is, a lot of people love assassins and spies. There are already a lot of fantasy books out in the market featuring these tropes, and so you’ll have to do the work to make yours unique and stand out, first to agents, and later to editors. Know the existing market so you can make yours stand out.
  • Big worlds, ambitious books… lacking a clear hook
    • The key in fantasy right now is to make it unique and commercial… we saw a lot of submissions that were ambitious and creative, but the plot felt muddled, the conflict/stakes and selling hook unclear. In many cases, this is simply a query issue: don’t bog yours down with fantasy world details; focus on character, conflict and stakes. Why is your book compelling, and how will it stand out in the market? But look at your book itself: does the plot and character arc stand on their own as compelling, or is what you have mostly devised to prop up the world? Do you have interesting twists that break out of the standard tropes/expectations?

Trends in  Sci-fi YA

  • Space/post-apoc Earth salvage missions
    • There were more than a few of these, and while they are welcome to the many sci-fi fans among the mentors, we’re the first ones to tell you that these may be a hard sell in the current market. Post apocalyptic fiction was swept up in the dystopian trend, and thus novels that use this frame for setting may be painted by some as dystopian–which is still a near-impossible sell. This means you should be careful with how you frame things in your query and in the story itself. Most of the entries we got walked this line well, but these types of manuscripts may struggle in the query trenches, not because they are not good, but because sci-fi is a difficult slice of the YA market, period. And you’re competing against a lot of similar novels. How does yours stand out? Be sure to highlight that in your query.
  • Time travel
    • The YA market for sci-fi is notoriously difficult and is unlikely to change in the near future, and especially for time travel YA. Like most sci-fi, the trick here is to query that time travel but have a new project (that is not time travel) up your sleeve. If possible, aging your YA time travel up or down may be advisable. Sales for MG and adult time travel fiction is healthy, though still tough. Generally, time travel in YA blended with fantasy has a greater opportunity to succeed than time travel that takes a more straight-forward sci-fi approach.
  • Parallel Universes
    • We didn’t see a ton of these, but the few we saw do bear mentioning that, like time travel, parallel universes as a sci-fi trope has been cool in the YA market for many years. Writers with this premise may also struggle in the query trenches.
  • Space pirates
    • This sub-genre of YA sci-fi is currently selling relatively well, and we saw more than a few in our submission box. The key here is standing out with a strong voice and a plot that will stand out from the crowd–look at the comps/tropes that similar space pirate/ragtag team of space adventurers are using, and think about how you can subvert those tropes. The key to breaking out with YA space books is going to become standing apart from the recent sales/upcoming (and sure to be popular) books. Make sure you’re not writing Star Wars (or Firefly) under another name.
  • Terminology salad
    • Several queries/pages introduced way too much terminology way too quickly. Take a look at your query: do you have more than three words Capitalized For No Reason? You probably have too many. Try to pepper it throughout the first 20 pages. Also, to give a personal example, one mentor’s query got far more requests when they edited out ALL either world-specific or sailing-specific terminology. Really, this goes for magic systems too, not just SF.