My agent recently had a confab with a number of editors in New York, all from various houses. I can’t tell you the details of which house wants what (she’d kill me) but I can say this: what everyone is looking for is something fresh. They want the unique, the immersive, and the truly different.
There are a few catches to this.
First: in the nineteen years I’ve been professionally writing, editors have always said they wanted something fresh. No acquiring editor in their right mind is going to say “you know, give me the same-old, same-old.”
Second: in many cases, they are lying. They want fresh, and different, absolutely – but not too different. (Often what they really want is a slightly different version of some fresh and successful thing that came out recently.)
Third: when you’re writing genre, especially now, coming up with something that hasn’t been done before is a tough gig, indeed.
So how do you do this? How do you come out with something that’s going to wow with its originality and verve?
Know the clichés and pitfalls.
Being fresh and original depends largely on being different than existing material. If you haven’t read widely in your genre, its hard to say whether publishing professionals or the reading audience at large would consider your premise original or not. Research other books being published. Read every day. If you don’t have a huge budget, get friendly with your local library. From there, see what patterns crop up. For example, after Gone Girl became a huge hit, the edgy, unreliable narrator became a trend that got perhaps oversaturated.
Read outside your genre.
Once you have a handle on the clichés or overused trends of a genre, I’ve found it helps to read outside of the genre for inspiration and originality. I write contemporary romance and women’s fiction. That said, I can adore the high drama of YA, the delicious wording of magical realism, and I can admire the love stories in high fantasy. Kristin Cashore’s YA masterpiece Graceling has romance secondary, but it’s still swoon-worthy. And Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear has a will-they/won’t-they romance that, while frustrating, still teaches a lot about how to show sexual and romantic tension.
Polish up your prose.
From a sheer literary standpoint, I think reading poetry helps with making deliberate word choices. I also have a few go-to keeper novels that I read for the joy of their pages, regardless of plot. (And as a die-hard plotter, that’s saying something!) I re-read William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition at least once a year, as well as Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game way more often than that. They make me envy turns of phrase. They push me to be more inventive. Original, innovative writing, even with a cliché plot, can still make something fresh.
I was at a workshop with our own Donald Maass, years ago, when he said to write down a list of twenty-five (I think? It might have been fifty) things that the character could do in a given situation. The first ten or twenty, he pointed out, would be clichés – way too predictable, too easy. After that, you’d start getting to the juicy stuff. The harder it was to come up with, the more original it would probably be. Sure, there would be a lot of misfires and bad ideas, but you only need one to be gold, and you’d need to, pardon the pun, dig for it.
Look for a different viewpoint
A Western is a Western is a Western, right? Not so. I was fortunate enough to take a class on Western films in college, and we saw them all, it seemed – the good, bad, and ugly. (Sorry! But the pun was sitting right there!) We saw the uber-masculinity of John Wayne in numerous roles. We saw classics like High Noon and Rio Bravo. We saw Clint Eastwood become the anti-hero foil in spaghetti Westerns before directing the genre-flaying Unforgiven.
But my favorite movie, which I learned was based on a novel by Ruthanne Lum McCunn, was Ten Thousand Pieces of Gold. The main character is Lalu, a Chinese woman sold by her family to be a bride (in reality, a prostitute) to a Chinese merchant in Idaho. The story of how she creates her own path and gains her own autonomy in the Wild West is a fascinating one – definitely a Western, albeit nowhere near the traditional.
Telling stories with more diversity brings more depth to the genre and to the world. Looking for alternate characters and viewpoints guarantees freshness and originality.
Don’t be different for the sake of being different.
With all this talk of being fresh, there is one caveat: don’t be unique simply to show off how unique you’re being. That’s not story craft, that’s shock factor, and it fails more often than it succeeds. Even if editors are clamoring for something fresh, they still want the foundation of a solid story with a clear character arc (or at least characters they are drawn to, if you’re writing literary fiction.)
Like so many other aspects of writing, writing fresh is a simple concept, but hardly easy. That said, once it’s accomplished, you’ll find that the rewards are exponential.
Coming up with something fresh is an ideal worth pursuing. What will you do to inject some freshness into your work-in-progress or future projects?