Is there such a thing as a bad premise for a story? Without a doubt some story ideas feel familiar. Bandwagon syndrome pretty much guarantees that something successful will soon have imitators. If the imitators are successful you can count on a trend. If a trend lasts then you can put money on it: that kind of story within a few years will be done to death.
Then again, can we say that whodunits have been done to death? Love conquers all? Save the world? No, these story patterns are durable. They are durable because they are flexible. There are thousands of ways to figure out whodunit. True love has infinite obstacles. The world always needs saving, too, and in different ways in every new decade.
Originality comes not from your genre, setting, plot, characters, voice or any other element on which we can work. It cannot. It isn’t possible. Originality can come only from what you bring of yourself to your story. In other words, originality is not a function of your novel; it is a quality in you.
Where so many manuscripts go wrong is that if they do not outright imitate, they at least do not go far enough in mining the author’s experience for what is distinctive and personal. So many manuscripts feel safe. They do not force me to see the world through a different lens. They enact the author’s concept of what their novel should feel like to read rather than what their inner storyteller urgently needs to say.
Finding the power buried in your novel is not about finding its theme. I would say, rather, that it is about finding you: your eyes, experience, understanding and compassion. Ignore yourself and your story will be weak. Embrace the importance of what you have to share with the rest of us and you have the beginning of what makes novels great.
Excerpt from The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great by Donald Maass (Writers Digest Books, May 2009).