Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office, CA
You’ve heard it over and over. Agents get a staggering number of queries. If I were a writer trying to catch a break this information might be enough to stop me in my tracks. The odds are overwhelmingly against the writer. But that fact by itself is not enough information.
The truth is that much of what we see is the same old, same old. Something fresh stands out.
So what do I mean by fresh? Let me try to explain.
Fiction: Fresh Idea. If you could see the query mail you’d see that we get the same concepts over and over. Yes, it’s true that there are just a limited number of plots told in different ways– someone posited that there are only seven basic plots: man vs. nature, man vs. man, man vs. the environment, man vs. machines/technology, man vs. the supernatural, man vs. self and man vs. God/religion. But when you add the creativity of the writer to a basic plot, the possibilities are endless. Come up with something new– something we’d love to read– and you will be in a small minority. Sometimes when you blend two genres you come up with something fresh. I just caught a television drama that debuted in the summer season called Memphis Beat. Yes it’s another cop show but it is a standout because they combined an unapologetic southern setting with a music thread and gave us complicated southern characters (almost no caricatures) for a crime drama. Fresh.
As an experiment, I typed “overused plots” into Google. Oh my goodness! It’s all there for the taking.
Fiction: Fresh Writing. If you’ve read the recent bestseller, The Help, you’ll understand why it stood out from the rest. The author’s voice, combined with a compelling story and unforgettable characters, made this book a standout. It’s impossible to give instructions for writing fresh, but we sure recognize it when we see it. The more you read, the more you will recognize it as well. And reading good books, fresh books, starts to infiltrate your own writing. You develop your voice by osmosis, not by technique.
Fiction: Fresh Characters. This is key to writing stand out fiction. We tend to first gravitate toward creating stereotypes. Like one editor told me, “The wise older slave woman in southern historical fiction has almost become a stereotype.” The writer who wants to create fresh characters has to walk a fine line– give us someone new but don’t give us someone we can’t identify with. I see a lot of writers of women’s fiction who decide to have a male main character– it’s different after all. Different, but not good.
Nonfiction: Untapped Need. If you can marry your own expertise with an untapped need or a fascinating subject you will have a winner on your hands. Think of Malcolm Gladwell’s books. He answers the questions we all think about. What makes something become an overnight success?(The Tipping Point) Why do some people exceed all expectations? (Outliers) Or Bennan Manning when he wrote Ragamuffin Gospel “for the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out.” In his review of the book, Max Lucado said, “Brennan Manning does a masterful job of blowing the dust off of shop-worn theology.” That’s fresh.
Nonfiction: Fresh Format. Sometimes the thing that makes a book fresh is when the author comes up with a new way to present the information. Pam Stenzel, one of my clients, is the world’s leading expert on teen sexuality and abstinence. She speaks to half a million teens every year. There are lots of books on teen sexuality but Pam’s newest book, Nobody Told Me, uses a social network-type format to present the information. Kids who are used to writing on each others’ walls and reading FAQs will feel right at home with this book.
Nonfiction: Fresh Voice. When we come across a fresh voice in nonfiction it immediately catches our attention. Think about Francis Chan’s Crazy Love. Publisher’s Weekly said he writes with “infectious exuberance.”
Memoir is all about voice. Examples of fresh voices would be Jeannette Walls in The Glass Castle or Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy.
How do I know if it’s fresh? Stalk bookstore shelves. Research on Amazon. Read publishers’ websites. Read everything you can in your genre. Talk with other writers. Again, it takes research. An idea formulated in a vacuum may be a result of zeitgeist— just like a hundred other ideas, all hatched at the same time.
What are the dangers of trying to be fresh? This is where it takes real instinct. Trying to be different can lead to something odd, something quirky, something that doesn’t work because it’s too different. I wish I could give you a concrete suggestion like 25% fresh, 75% comfortable, but of course that’s impossible. It’s up to you to try it out and let others chime in. Here’s where the combination of your art and knowledge are put to the test.
Please chime in. What’s your take on the tension between fresh and comfortable?