Friday, January 21, 2011

You Are Not Original (and that's OK)

We want to believe we are unique little snowflakes. As writers, we create, and we want to believe that what we create is the most original concept that readers will ever see. Nine times out of ten, this just won't happen. We are not snowflakes. We are barely a box of multi-colored pencils. And for writers, that's just fine. In most fiction, genre fiction especially, the same premises get repeated. It's not plagiarism; it's just normal. In fact, it's how some sub-genres form in the first place. That said, most of these books use this basic, universal premise as simply a guide. How the writer chooses to enrich that structure is what separates good writing from the forgettable, regrettable wannabes.

I don't know what it is about January so far, but it seems as if everyone's New Year's resolution was to finish their novel and start querying agents right away. While I appreciate the motivation, this is more damaging than good. To put it another way, the number of queries I'm getting per day this month are almost double that of what I was getting in December. The number of manuscripts I'm requesting, however, has more than halved. This is in part because of what I'm talking about above. People seem to be so quick to get out their manuscripts that they've forgotten to enrich their basic plot to make it stand out.

Before you send out your query to agents, make sure that when you sum up your book in those few, precious sentences, there is more to it than what's implied.

Paranormal Romance & Non-romance: I recently tweeted, "In a severely crowded paranormal market, your plot needs to be more complex than 'MC becomes/is/loves a non-human & must deal.'" I can't stress this enough, especially since I get more queries for paranormal than any other genre. Agents and editors only want "the next Twilight" in terms of wanting another massively successful series that will make boatloads of cash for everyone involved. This does not mean we're asking for "girl falls in love with a vampire and is conflicted about it." It's been done to death (undeath?)! It's also not a twist if the person who falls in love with the non-human is a boy, nor does the female character become "strong" simply by being a vamp, wolf, zombie, etc. Sorry.

Literary fiction: People in the suburbs are not what they appear to be. Marriages that are seemingly perfect are actually rooted in resentment and possible adultery. Professor at a liberal arts college has an affair with a student. People living in Brooklyn do things that are seemingly more meaningful than what you're doing (yep, looking at you, 90% of literary fiction authors!). Sure, these premises continue to work in literary fiction (hey, I still buy them), but unless your last name is, in fact, Franzen, you will need to give your mournful suburbanites a little more depth.

Mystery/Horror: While these two genres are not the same thing, I've been getting a lot of cross-genre queries lately that read like tag lines from teen scary movies from the '90s. A group of people win a trip to a haunted house. A person who believes in ghosts begins seeing them for real. A killer runs rampant in a small town and is more often than not, the main character's boyfriend/best friend/long-lost relative. Usually all of these premises are offered with a wink. They'll provide a character who speaks for the audience by his or her cynicism and references to classic movies. There is nothing inherently wrong with doing this. It's fun to write and it's fun for the reader. But try not to rely solely on formula here. It's harder to resist the temptation to do so in these genres, so make sure to add a little twist here and there that strays from the expected. What's even more difficult is that in these particular genres, the "unexpected" is now what's expected. (Thanks a lot, Hitchcock!)

Contemporary YA:Your main character's parents are dead or otherwise absent, so he or she grows up too fast by either a) being overly responsible, mature, and "good" or b) drinks and parties, but is still wiser & wittier beyond his or her years. Then they meet or come across a catalyst for their path to self-actualization. Congratulations, you have a character portrait! But, this is not an engaging story by itself.

Science fiction: A boy (usually a boy) who is an orphan (usually an orphan) must defend his planet/galaxy/race/family because he is The One. A quest is involved. He also has some personal connection to the Force of Evil. This is called Every Sci-fi and Fantasy Novel You've Ever Read or Movie You've Ever Seen. Luke, Harry, Ender, Frodo, Jesus, Perseus - all of our heroes have the same story when it's boiled down to one sentence. Think of how these stories stand out from each other before starting your next project. (To my fellow nerds, please refrain from yelling at me about why I'm wrong to compare Frodo to Perseus.)

Dystopian: The world as we know it has been destroyed by a virus! The world as we know it has been destroyed by climate change! The world as we know it has been destroyed by economic turmoil! The novel has been destroyed by Find & Replace! Writers, no matter how the world as we know it ends and no matter what the world you're writing about is like, make what happens in that world worth caring about. Romance? Adventure? Mystery subplot completely unrelated to how the world has changed? All examples of how to bring your dystopian (another insanely crowded market) to the next level.

I could go on to give the basic formula for "chick lit," but I'll save you all some time and say that no one should use that phrase anymore and please don't write it anyway. Thanks :)

Have a good weekend, everyone!

18 comments:

  1. Thanks for this info, this a great post. I kind of cringed when I saw your description of sci-fi, but that's ok :) And I appreciate the reminder not to rush things.

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  2. Very awesome! It's essential to study the basics in order to find that angle and twist that'll help your version of it be more unique :)

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  3. Oh phew mine's not in there. Sort of.

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  4. I am actually interested in reading a dystopian tale in which the world as we know it has been destroyed by a find and replace typo.

    In a world where mankind has been wiped out by a control-function key, one orphan boy-turned vampire, and one starry-eyed girl must...

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  5. @Rachel - I knew the sci-fi one would irk the most people. I lumped specific types of sci-fi and fantasy in with each other. But since I'm talking about queries I receive, it seemed appropriate for the purposes of this post. There are many descriptions of sci-fi in general!

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  6. I imagine now you'll get queries in which people reference this post and spend the letter telling you how their book is NOT like any herein described. :)

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  7. Fail on the dead parent thing. But there's only an older sister in the original book, hence why I went in that direction.

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  8. I don't think Sarah means your novel is a bust if it involves a dead or absent parent, just that if this is your plot line, it had better stand out from the crowd. Check out PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ for an example of a book with this plot line that succeeds very, very well.

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  9. Fantastic post, Sarah. Thank you for this. It's a good reminder to all writers that while yes, it's all been done before, you must find a fresh way to do it that will stand out.

    Of course you didn't cover my YA Dystopian Chick Lit Paranormal Romance Mystery fiction novel, so I guess I'm still good then?

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  10. The problem is that these qualities are what make a genre that genre. They're the "by definition" aspects in a lot of cases, especially dystopian or speculative fiction. Which is also precisely why they don't work. They're the foundation, not the house.

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  11. Excellent post! It is impossible to escape all cliches, but you can make them your own. I love finding new ways to subvert cliches and mess with the audience's expectations. Just reading this has given me a bunch of new ideas! :)

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  12. Great post. It's always good getting a feel for what agents are looking for and what they are getting instead. Thank you for sharing.

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  13. I agree to an extent, however I've read numerous novels which sold me on the prose and not so much the story itself. I usually read the first paragraph, if the writing style is unique, I read on. Strong prose and structure takes a story, no matter what kind, a very long way. My two cents! :)

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  14. i always knew i wasn't a snowflake but also thought i had stories that people would want to read. this post of yours is helpful 'cause ignorance/assumptions are damaging and you dispell them here. if i write anymore here, it'll be a another book...so thnx

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  15. Thank you for this post. It is interesting to see as an agent what you are looking for and thankfully my new project holds a majority of good points! That's such a relief!

    -Erin

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  16. Interesting about getting so many queries in January. I had always assumed the heavy month would be December, but maybe everyone waits until January because that's what they also assume!

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  17. Oh hooray - a Fight Club reference on my Monday morning blog trolling! As a YA librarian and (sometimes forced) avid reader cross-genres, I found myself going, "Yep, yep, yep, yep, yep, uh - huh, uh - huh," like those Sesame Street fellas while reading your post. Great topic - thanks!

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  18. Hmmm.... the sci-fi description sounds like my YA fantasy except my orphan is a girl. Well, I'll see it through to the bitter, query end, but in the mean time, I'll be writing my adult urban fantasy/paranormal about the spoiled, rich daughter of Lucifer. That one didn't fit into your list of cliche' genres.

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