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.)

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