Saturday, January 26, 2008

Fresh and Original Ideas

I think the single, most significant problem I see with queries today are that they don't feel fresh or original. 

Let me first put this in the proper perspective. I read hundreds of published books a year, hundreds of manuscripts, hundreds of partials, and thousands of queries. I also read numerous book reviews and have conversations with authors and colleagues about books each week. 

As a result, it's pretty hard to surprise me with a new conceit, though  you certainly don't need a completely original idea to get published anyway. After all, isn't everything derivative to some degree or another? However, there does need to be a sense of freshness in the voice, a twist that is completely original, an opinion not previously expressed, a subculture never explored, etc. 

This problem seems to arise the most when it comes to memoirs. Since the individual has lived the life they're describing, the story will of course feel original to them. They might also feel that the book can be a support for other people who have suffered the same problem. But more likely than not what you're describing has been written about already. So why do a few get published, while most get rejected? A fresh and original voice. 

Mysteries are another good example. You'll likely have a sympathetic if slightly flawed protagonist. There's a love interest. Someone dies. The antagonist is caught or killed, which results in a bittersweet victory for the protagonist. So why is John Sanford a bestseller? Because the voice feels original, there's almost always a surprise, and he's just a darn good writer. 

So when I receive a query, more likely than not I'll have been pitched or read a similar book in the past. The query should convey both in the style and substance something new, something that jumps off the page.  

Easier said than done, I know. 


duckrun2 said...

I have a unique querry letter and the agents I have sent the letter to have all made positive comments about the design of the letter, but have not offered to represent me. Should I throw away the letter or the novel?

PrudentPerson said...

Finding few fresh and original concepts, opinions and ideas?

You can find them pouring from my mind. Folks who visit with me either laugh at my unexpected humorous comments or say, “I've never thought of that” or “I've never looked at it that way.” My clients pay me for cleverly written business documents.

For me, new concepts and ideas are easy.

What is difficult is building an agent-acceptable book on an original concept. A good idea, even a book’s worth, can often be summarized in a paragraph. The challenge is stretching the paragraph to fill a book with details, descriptions, and characters.

If only one could sell the summaries….

Anonymous said...

Mr. Lyons. With all due respect, I wish some of you agents could just say that you don't want fresh and original ideas. Those who have read my manuscript always call the voice fresh and original, but they're afraid it won't sell. You haven't seen my manuscript, saying twice that it wasn't right for you. I appreciate your response, as promised, but please don't pretend that you want fresh and original ideas. A top exec at Random House said that my voice was fresh and original, but feared that in "today's crowded fiction market," blah, blah, get the idea. I don't mean to sound bitter here, and I actually feel more encouraged than ever; but please don't pretend that you want something new. You want the same ol' thing that you'll be sure will sell. You ain't gonna get fresh and original that way.

Jonathan Lyons said...

Anon - With all due respect, your comment might be the silliest thing I've read in some time. I blog to provide more information to authors, in order to get better queries, in order to get clients, in order to sell their books. So why would I lie???

Anonymous said...

Hi Mr. Lyons, I hope you're catching lots of fish! I don't think you're lying; I think a lot of you really believe that you want something fresh and original. Again, with all due respect - and friendliness! - so many great writers, musicians, and artists have been rejected for centuries because their ideas were ahead of their time, because their work didn't fit with the current mode of the day. Thanks to your suggestion, I'm now including what I do at the end of my bio paragraph, even though it's a little controversial. It didn't work with you, but helps explain why I'm qualified to write the novel I did. Thanks for printing what I wrote (I didn't think you would!) - but I don't think it's silly. I think it's true.

sgg said...

I must thank you and other agents for blogging and sticking your neck out to teach the ways of the publishing world. I'm surprised you think it worth your time. It is a valuable resource and I hope you continue.

As I understand the situation, agents have taken over some of the editor's responsibilities of yore. No editor (because of current budgets) can afford to be a Maxwell Perkins spending as much time needed on acquiring, editing, and internally selling a book. Still, an editor needs to bring in salable books in order to keep their job or receive promotions. Developing relationships with agents known for delivering the goods is a wise use of their resources, but it puts pressure on the agent to bring in the right projects.

It reminds me of what John Gardner writes in ON BECOMING A NOVELIST: "One should fight like the devil the temptation to think well of editors [and agents]. They are all without exception—at least some of the time—incompetent or crazy. By the nature of their profession they read too much, with the result that they grow jaded and cannot see new talent though it dances in front of their eyes. Like writers they are under insupportable pressures: they have to choose books that will sell, or at least bring the publisher honor, so they become hypercritical, gun-shy, cynical. . . . It is useful, in short, for young writers always to think of editors [and agents], as limited people, though if possible one should treat them politely."

I have no doubt you are merely crazy and not incompetent. For in order to find those fresh and original concepts you want us (non-published novelists) to take twenty-eight chapters of a tightly woven story and simmer it down to three or four sentences, hurling it through email for an inevitable strike. Talk about an 'insupportable pressure.'

Kindly (and Politely) Yours,
Stephen Griffith