Friday, March 26, 2010

Looking for fresh and new

Agents and editors are always talking about how we're looking for something fresh and new. I know saying this frustrates authors, because rarely does anyone define what they mean. Recently I experienced a "eureka" moment (it helped that I was in Northern CA at the time) and here's hoping that my insights help to shed a bit of light on at least one aspect of what might be meant by the phrase "fresh and new."

So much of what I read in manuscripts these days is quite competently written. The characters are good, the story relatively strong, dialogue sharp, etc. But what the story lacks is freshness. What it has too much of is predictability. Once you understand the characters and their motivation and generally where the story is set, the rest of the plot falls sadly into a very predictable pattern. If A does this, then B, of course, is going to do that and as a result, C happens. Far too many stories (be they romances, mysteries, or general fiction) have the same A's, B',s and C's.

But recently I read two very different books where the ABC's were all mixed up and the results were delightful. One book was the much-acclaimed first novel by Gail Carriger, Soulless. There the author weaves both unpredictable characters and events throughout her story. Even her choice of words often sets one's head spinning. For example, instead of focusing on the usual powers of vampires and werewolves, the author has written a wonderful tale about a woman with no soul who actually touches those paranormal creatures and returns them to human form. Just imagine how that could twist a standard vampire plot! From the opening words of the first paragraph of the book, there's no question that the reader is about to embark on a most unpredictable tale.

The second book is Danar by Matthew MacNown. I came to know this book early in its life when the author's mother retained my legal services to help negotiate the publishing contract. Matthew (whom regrettably I have never met) must be a most remarkable young man; not only because at the age of twenty-two he can already say he's an author, but also because he has autism. I couldn't wait to read the book when it came out. It's a fantasy set in a far off land of dark and light where heroes do battle with wicked villains. But what delighted me most about the book was the fresh perspective Matthew brought to the story. There were inventive names and words throughout and a focus on what was happening in the story unlike any other I'd read in a long while. It was that unpredictable and fresh look at what could have otherwise been a very traditional story that resonated with me.

So the next time you sit down to write, think about how you can introduce the unpredictable and unexpected into your story -- think about your language and dialogue, your characters, your plot. See if you can't play off the predictable to come up with something new. Remember you still have to have believability. You don't want your unpredictable element to simply drop down from the sky. It has to emerge from your setting, plot and/or characters in a way that the reader can understand and accept, but try looking at the world you're writing in a different way and I'm confident you'll come up with something fresh and new.


Ann Marie Wraight said...

YES, trying to discover those elusive characteristics,fresh and new must be like looking for a needle in a haystack.It must be pretty tiring digging through the straw until you find the pin! I don't envy you your job.
Hopefully, my YA story about an autistic boy with Asperger's syndrome will be a project I can inject with a different edge. The protagonist is based on one of my students so at least I'm very familiar with his personality.
Thanks for the advice.It seems really obvious when you hear it, but,...alas..

Donna Gambale said...

You're spot-on with Soulless, so now I'm very curious to read Danar.

Susana Mai said...

i like fresh and new! i've found that too often literary fiction for example thinks it's playing with fresh and new, but it lacks plot or significance or it's too snobby to bear. So fresh and new is a good idea to me.

Anonymous said...

I am in the process of completing my first novel. While we have been told a thousand times that there is nothing new under the sun there is only your spin on it, I will try, during rewrites, to infuse it with the originality and freshness that agents and publishers are looking for. Thank you for this timely advice.

Lexi Flint

Kimberly Sabatini said...

Fantastic advice! Thank you for the reminder to write outside of the box. :o)

Christina Farley said...

I like how you explained the differences. Now I'm going to have to read these two books.