Memes

This handy literary terms website defines a meme as “an idea or pattern of thought that ‘replicates’ like a virus by being passed along from one thinker to another.”  Everyone is familiar with Internet memes:  the squirrel vacation photo, the Star Wars kid and all the spoofs that followed, and LOLcats.  Like television commercials, they get overexposed and people get sick of them.

I think the definition of memes should include current slang and topics as well; you often see a spate of novels about the same type of character—for example, a reluctant superhero, or aliens, or currently, vampires.  Television is overrun by issue-of-the-week movies.  Memes fall in and out of fashion incredibly fast, and before you know it media has moved on to the next.

Writers who include memes in their stories run the risk of dating them.  Publishers and agents are looking ahead in terms of what they think might sell.  Given the time it takes to write, edit and print a book, this is merely practical.  Agents and acquisition editors don’t have crystal balls (at least I don’t think they do), but they have to know their market well and be able to spot a potential trend long before it actually becomes one.   They probably won’t want something so loaded with current memes that it’ll be dead before it ever gets out of the gate.

Slang is a special case.  Used as part of a period setting, it can work.  A character in a novel set in the 1980s might say “Gag me with a spoon!” in Valley-speak, a remark that tells us her sex, age and possible geographic location.   If the slang is peculiar to the time period and well-known, it brings the period to life, establishes character and lends color to the writing.  But don’t rely on just that.

If you don’t know current slang, please don’t use it.  Your teenage character can make do with cleaner dialogue and we’ll still know it’s a teenager by speech patterns and the things he/she says.  Kids don’t talk in slang all the time anyway.  Similarly, business-speak has phrases and words that are popular one minute, passé the next.  You’re risking dating your book by using them.  And it makes you look clueless to use them wrongly, or have a contemporary kid say something only someone from the 1960s would have said.  Unless he’s  a time-traveler, it won’t fly and readers will roll their eyes.  If your story even gets into their hands, that is.

I have a character in a WIP (work-in-progress) who is from the 1970s.  He says things like “ya dig” and “groovy.”  I remember people saying those things when I was a kid during that time so they are at least authentic.*  That’s not all he says, of course.  He talks like a normal person the rest of the time, just like most people back then.

A book could take years to land in the bookstore.  Techno-thrillers have to not only keep up with the times but be slightly futuristic and innovative.  The genre relies on reality-based technology’s advantages and failures to create and maintain suspense.  Future is always better than past because it’s the great unknown.  If you wrote your book three years ago, by the time you find an agent and a publisher and go through the whole process, your computers could be hopeless dinosaurs.

Enjoy memes for what they are, short-lived cultural fads.  They’re like cotton candy, fun while they last and gone before you know it.

*Yes, I’m old; so what!!!

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