Agent Monday: Haven’t I Seen this Before?

So sometimes, well, many times actually, I open up a query in my inbox and think to myself, “Self? Haven’t I seen this before?”

And sometimes I literally have seen it before. Folks think they can send the same exact query every few months because, hey, the agent reads hundreds and hundreds of these and won’t remember. Perhaps the writer has heard stories of writers doing this very thing, and one time getting a rejection, but the other time, getting a request and then getting representation. Wahoo!

Writers, please don’t do this.  I for one actually remember my queries.  And if I’m not sure? There’s a function in my email that enables me to search you out by your email, or your book title, or your name…even by key words in your query.  And when I find a writer, who I’ve already taken my time with by reading their query and responding to it, now trying to scam me, I’m not going to be pleased at all. I even had one writer use a different email address and change her book title. Not cool, guys.

But believe it or not, this is not what this Agent Monday column is actually about. Today I want to talk about the overused ideas that I see. Stuff that everyone seems to be writing about. I’m seeing a ton of YA’s where for some bizarre reason a teen is dropped off for the summer or the year at a grandparent’s house, and there they discover secrets and of course a cute guy, etc.

I’m seeing a slew of women’s novels where the woman’s left her husband or he’s left her, or he’s died, etc. and she picks up, to the shock of her family, and moves to some remote rugged coastal home and buys some run-down hovel…and the rugged handyman, who is crusty but hot, well, “fixes” her.

I’m seeing spin offs of The Hunger Games. I’m seeing vampires and zombies. I’m seeing teens who suddenly discover they have special powers or are part of a curse, and must harness these powers, etc., to save the world.

I’m seeing a bunch of novels about orphans in the 1920s who must go across the US (always heading West) to find the only family they have left (or something like that), and along the way they ride the rails and they meet other ornery kids, some of who become friends and travel along, and of course, there’s a ratty but lovable mutt trotting by their side.

These are just but a few examples of the “types” of stories I see over and over again. How does this happen? Okay, the vampire stuff I understand, but the rest? Writers are creative people. They work alone. They are not exactly looking over each other’s shoulders copying from another writer’s manuscript.

I think part of the problem is that we are all human, and as humans we share common experiences and archetypes that resonate with us all. You can argue that there are only so many stories to be told, but I say phooey to that. You each have an original voice and point of view to share.

If you write something, even if it is perfectly polished, and I’ve seen something like it before, I’m not going to represent it. It’s that simple.

So how does a writer know if they are being original or not? Well, reading plenty definitely helps. It helps you know the genre you are targeting and prevents you from reinventing the wheel. But it doesn’t open your eyes to what’s sitting in every agent’s inbox right now (stuff that you won’t find on the bookshelf because it’s just too obvious in some ways).

I think the answer may rest with you as a writer, not taking the first idea the grabs you, or even the third, but forcing yourself to dig deeper. In Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass, he has an exercise that addresses this. Maass has you make a list of things that can happen in your book’s scene.  Then he makes you list even more.  And he tells you to take the very last thing on that list and run with it.

Think about that.  There are a slew of obvious things that bubble up in our minds when we write…things that the reader can quickly think of as well. But some of our favorite works have taken twists we didn’t see, or were set in unexpected original worlds or circumstances, or have characters so memorable they stand out in our minds even now. These factors, combined with your own original voice and point of view, result in something fresh.

Something red hot I’ll want to read.

Something that definitely won’t make me say to myself, “Haven’t I seen this before?”

In this week’s Writer Wednesday post, I’ll continue this conversation about originality, talking about what we can learn from the movie Easy A.

“The Bucket List! The Bucket List!” (If you don’t know this line, then go rent Easy A NOW.)

*Agent Monday is a weekly post. To catch all of these, subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s Site Here” in the upper left column.

15 thoughts on “Agent Monday: Haven’t I Seen this Before?

  1. Thanks for this , Marie. It’s helpful to know what the overworked subjects are. I mean–who would have guessed 1920s orphans heading West? I’d love to see the whole list.

    • Hi Joan!

      Sometimes the subjects that people share are surprising. Sometimes you see agents and editors in interviews talk about getting too much of one thing or another, but I don’t know of a complete list. Wouldn’t that be handy? Thing is, you can still write about something that is overworked as long as you do it in an unbelievably fresh way…in a way that the reader doesn’t even realize it’s actually something pretty familiar…cuz it isn’t anymore. I know, cryptic. Hey, I’m only on my first cup of java 😉

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. This is a great topic, Marie, and I too have a few thoughts on it.

    I think that for sensitive creative types, certain world events bruise the psyche in a way that begs response. That iconic picture of the man flinging himself from the World Trade Center was one of them—and suddenly my novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (and based on a different “falling” account that pre-daterd 9/11) is among a rash of others. The name even got used and I had to change it to The Sparrow That Fell From the Sky, but then suddenly so many people and objects were falling from the sky even I couldn’t take it any more! So I changed it again.

    I fear there’s no helping this phenomenon. All your list can do is discourage someone with a complete book from sending it out. We can’t predict what will be popular by the time we finish a new project, or even what is fading now that might be ready for a comeback by the time our project is polished. And even introspective types are rarely so psychologically astute that we know “why” we were seduced by a certain topic and should therefore avoid it because others might be responding in like fashion. All we can do is make it the best it can be, and as you said per Don Maass, reach for plot points that are beyond the immediate and obvious.

    As Carl Jung would say, none of this is “our” material. These stories are in the air, they’re of our era and only filtered through our experience. If that’s true, our only hope is to write such a fine query that an agent like you with a sensitivity to trends simply must sit up and say, “But this one is better written. I can sell it.”

    • Hi Kathryn!

      Beautifully stated. Yes, we can all think of subjects that may have seemed overdone that, in the hands of a writer, have soared with fresh originality.

      I think it’s key to write what truly speaks to you, and by digging a bit deeper into the underlying depths, and blending this with your own voice and point of view, you will create the new and sparkling.

      As writers, we must make ourselves go deeper and ask ourselves, “And then what? And THEN what?” And as readers, we will respond with, “What’s next? What’s NEXT?”

  3. Thanks for sharing your insight and wisdom, Marie! I was just talking to a fellow writer yesterday how we can write intuitively and let our story evolve, however, often that intuition can often be the first thing that comes to our mind to write -and can be the cliche, the thing that’s expected and obvious.

    Once we get that first draft down then comes the harder work of going through and seeing those spots that are obvious and re-working them with new elements that are surprising and unique. I am in this boat right now with a novel just finished! We can make a ‘standard’ formula surprising with new twists and we should aim for this to keep challenging ourselves and providing our readers with plots and characters that inspire them and stay with them long after they put our book down.

  4. It scares the crap out of me that something I might be putting my heart and soul into is being replicated by my next door neighbor! But it’s also a personal challenge–and I like personal challenges. Your insight is fantastic.

    • Hi Jess!

      This has happened before, and it is scary! All you can do is write original, and keep your ears to the rail to make sure your plot isn’t coming out somewhere else.


  5. Thank you, Marie! Just bought the Maass workbook and will be using it for my next book…which is only 15,000 words so far, so at a good place to do some of this work. The digging deep thing is key, because even if topic or themes are familiar, the writing can be unexpectedly extraordinary. That’s my new goal : )

  6. Pingback: Writer Wednesday: YA Writers Can Learn from “Easy A” « Marie Lamba, author

  7. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 09-06-2012 « The Author Chronicles

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