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Monday Musing: Here We Go Again

September 26, 2011

Last Wednesday I talked about how readers don’t really care about adverbs, head-hopping, and fresh stories like agents/editors like to claim.  We’re going to talk about the latter today.

For over a year I’ve been getting the Vine newsletter from Amazon.  That lets me pick out books and also things like Ring Pops, mouse pads, lawn darts, and Tide detergent to try and review.  The two or so books I could get a month sustained a lot of reading for the last year or so.

Lately I haven’t been getting so many books from there.  Why?  Because most of them seem the same.  It’s kind of a game anymore to run through the newsletter and cross things off.  Here are a few of the most common storylines under the general fiction or literary fiction categories:

  1. Mother-daughter bonding
  2. Family tragedy
  3. Immigrants adapting

So as I said, it’s become a bit of a game to look at the descriptions and see which one the book falls into.  Some it’s easy because they say it right off the bat.  Others it might take looking until the end of the description.  No matter the case, I see it and then I move on.

Unlike agents/editors/the general public I don’t want the same thing rehashed endlessly.  One of the books I got was “The Widower’s Tale” which was an OK book, but the problem I noted was so much of it I’d seen before.  The main character is an academic from Massachusetts?  His girlfriend gets breast cancer and loses her hair?  Shocking!

Nothing against Massachusetts academics or breast cancer sufferers/survivors, but these things have been in a number of books/movies already.  As I joke in my review, there are probably 2,000 Lifetime movies already on breast cancer.  Do we need another?

It’s not like I’m asking you to reinvent the wheel, but at least give her a different kind of cancer.  How about ovarian cancer?  Throat cancer?  How about give HIM cancer instead.  I mean, why is it usually the women who get it?  And instead of being a stuffy Massachusetts librarian, why can’t he be an auto mechanic in Montana?  Come on, stretch yourself a little!

It’s probably because writers, like everyone else, want to stick close to familiar ground.  A lot of writers are Massachusetts academics, so that’s why they write about that.  It’s also why so many people (including me!) use writers or English professors as their main characters.

And you know what, publishers keep publishing them and readers keep reading them.  Why?  Because we don’t really want anything radically new.  It’s like with TV we just want all those old plots from “I Love Lucy” updated with new names and settings.

As I said in my Will Smith, Only Living Movie Star entry, there are certain themes that people go for time and again.  The ones I listed above are obviously in the mix.  In romance it’s usually some uptight chick mixing with some rogue/rake/scoundrel.  Even Star Wars used that one!

So again, when you’re writing, don’t worry about reinventing the wheel; just slap some new campaign bumper stickers on it and call it a day.

Wednesday:  Yann Martel proves (yet again) that agents are full of shit…


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  1. I’m not sure I like this post, Rogue. Could you not just adapt one of your previous “Everything You Know About _____ IS WRONG” posts and change a few words instead please? I would prefer to read the same article over and over and never be surprised.

  2. Ethan Cooper permalink

    Hi BJ,

    I think you’re right.

    For the most part, publishers are interested in moving so many units through their pipelines, taking advantage of certain sales outlets that typically sell a certain type and amount of product (thrillers in airport kiosks), provided each unit has a certain type of cover and clearly belongs to a certain genre.

    And to benefit from this sales strategy, which minimizes a publisher’s marketing costs, a writer has to fit his/her work within a genre, where readers expect certain elements to be present in the story.

    There is, of course, lots of terrific genre writing.

    But I think originality can be an impediment to finding a publisher, unless a writer has good connections.


    • The worst part is that agents and editors go around saying they want original stories but when it comes time to actually pick what gets published, they go with the traditional formulas or what they think will be popular. I’d be a lot better off if I ever could figure out how to “color within the lines” as someone put it once.

  3. I don’t understand why agents pick up one thing over another. Suzie Townshend over at her blog recently showcased a query from an unknown that she said grabbed her instantly and she couldn’t put it down. She sold it to a Big Six Publisher within days. Here it is:

    “16-year-old Dusty Everhart breaks into houses late at night, but not because she’s a criminal. No, she’s a Nightmare. Literally. Dusty is a magical being who feeds on human dreams.

    Being the only Nightmare at Arkwell Academy, a boarding school for magickind, and living in the shadow of her mother’s infamy is hard enough. But when Dusty sneaks into Eli Booker’s house, things get a whole lot more complicated. He’s hot, which means sitting on his chest and invading his dreams couldn’t get much more embarrassing. But it does. Eli is dreaming of a murder. The setting is Arkwell.

    And then it comes true.

    Now the Dusty has to follow the clues–both within Eli’s dreams and out of them–to stop the killer before more people turn up dead. And before the killer learns what she’s up to and marks her as the next target.”

    When I read this, I was like…how is this any different than every other paranormal story/YA thing out there. 1) Female protag, 2) first person point-of-view 3) Harry Patter academy 4) A “Being Human” plot–ghost instead of dream person who sits on boyfriend’s chest while he sleeps. This totally was done in the first season of Being Human and the act of looking at someone while they are sleeping is in Twilight and Switched. 5) Hot guy. 6) It’s going to have lots of dream sequences in it which people say are bad for you to do in books.

    But Suzie went apeshit over this query. Also note that in the query…there are mistakes “Now the Dusty” … like who the fuck has an extra “the” in there? As well, there are several sentence fragments that I don’t think are good writing. Example: “And before the killer learns what she’s up to and marks her as the next target.”

    I think that you’re absolutely right on the money. Originality counts for nothing. Whether you get published or not is a lottery and has nothing to do with talent or story. It’s just a roll of the dice at a crap table…somebody sooner or later has got to win.

    • And when I queried my story about a blind guy who can see into people’s dreams and control their dreams no one was interested. I should have made it a blind teenage chick and used first person, present tense, right?

      Again though you see why obsessing about queries and getting critiques on them is pointless. This person has errors in hers and still gets a Big Six deal! Yeesh.

  4. Really, this is a continuation of the debate that began on Michael’s blog. Rogue — if you wanted to sell your blind-dream-invader book, you should’ve made it a teenage girl, because that’s what people are buying. You can’t go wrong selling what people are buying. (And this author should keep in mind that Piers Anthony came up with the dream invasion thing years ago in “Night Mare,” which he probably stole from Scrooge McDuck’s Inception.

    I long ago realized that selling a book to an agent is different than selling a book to the public. Agents buy what they think they can sell, and I see the appeal of this book: witches (the next big thing), a girl experimenting with her sexuality (sneaking into people’s houses and sitting on them but not having sex) and the like. It’s a lot more work to create the next big thing than it is to simply ape the last big thing and eke some more money out of it.

    Harry Potter, after all, is a formula, as is The Lord Of The Rings. As I said with sequels, nobody objects to formulas when they’re well done.

    As for what queries agents pick up, consider your own job. Some days, you’re in a good mood, other days you’re not. I get cold-called by potential clients all the time, and I’ve had to rethink the way I handle those because if I’m in a bad mood or under pressure from something, I had difficulty accurately assessing their cases. So if an agent had a fight with his boyfriend and comes in Monday morning and reads “Now the Dusty” he reacts exactly the way Michael did. But if the agent is just lazily reading over queries to kill time until 5:00 comes around so he can head off to that hot spot, and reads this, he’s in a mood to consider the story and not the typo.

    (By the way: I overlook typos in resumes all the time.)

    And consider what you pick up to read. If you tell me something is “paranormal,” I’m interested already, even though I recognize that many times it’ll have a formula. Both the last two books I read — Miss Peregrine’s Something-Or-Other and John Dies At The End — had protagonists who were somewhat outcast from society, late teens/early 20s, with family issues, who discovered that they were unique in the world and had a sort of special power that let them into other realms of existence/consciousness. But one (John Dies…) was great, the other (Miss Peregrine…) so/so. There’s a formula even for books that think they don’t have formulas.

  5. What I think folks are really after if the exact same, with a little twist. That’s all. Hey, look, it’s just like Twilight, but with Mermaids! Or, it’s just like Harry Potter, but with, er, different names for the characters! I know I’ve heard several editors and agents say as much in the past, that they want the same with a twist – that whole wanting something new and original might be what they dream about, but not what they really want.

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