We universally hear fiction editors say: “I want something like x book (whatever is selling hugely these days), but I want it fresh, unique, different.”
In other words, something just like, say, Harry Potter, but with a twist.
Now, on the surface, that seems simple enough. Even though what Aristotle said a while back still holds true today: “There are no new plots,” we have to make book writing seem so new as to belie that.
And therein lies the stumbling block for most writers. How do you make a story and characters unique without causing them to be so over-the-top that the book loses all verisimilitude?
All books have to have a fresh slant of some sort. For example, Coming of Age hasn’t changed in all of publishing. But the way in which you tell your story, the characters involved, and the events that transpire all have to come across as something new.
Most writers fall into two traps here. First, they write something that revolves around “pulled from today’s headlines.” As most of you probably know, agents and editors sigh heavily at this. While God knows, truth really IS stranger than fiction, if something is pulled from “today’s headlines,” by the time it would get into print, it’d be old news. Our society has a short attention span, even in this brave new world of POD.
But the second foible is subtler, and trips up more writers. What I see so often, in all genres, is characters who are celebrities or presidents of Forbes 500 companies or successful doctors or lawyers. Now, in and of itself, that’s not a rule-out.
The problem comes in that rarely is the actual book author a celebrity, or now running a multi-million-dollar company. Now and then one is a doctor or lawyer. But when the writer isn’t in those businesses, the characters don’t feel like any of the above either.
Plus, don’t you get tired of reading about that sort of person? Yeah, we like to get a voyeur’s view of the rich and famous.
But the most memorable books are about folks like you and me, struggling through this life and hopefully learning something along the way—even if within the confines of a Cozy Mystery or Traditional Western. Yep, Gus and Cap’n Call were famous Texas Rangers. Once. But their heyday had long-since passed, and what made Lonesome Dove so compelling was that longing that calls to all of us. Given the chance, I too would sign up for that trail heading north.
That’s what makes a book worthwhile, and that’s what I see more and more writers losing.
Which brings me to my point (you knew I’d finally have one).
That old cliché in this business could not hold more true here: write what you know. Because not only will your story then have the feel of reality, and keep characters from acting OUT of character, but nobody knows your slice of life like you do. Nobody. Not one person has had your exact experiences, filtered through your perceptions. And nobody can bring to life the events as can someone who has actually lived them.
Okay, so you probably haven’t actually murdered anyone. But chances are, your Mystery isn’t going to be told from the murderer’s viewpoint (unless you’re Dean Koontz, and we worry about him :). Most likely, your Protagonist is going to be someone trying to put the pieces together. And armchair sleuths abound.
On the other side of this ocean, we would all love to write The Green Hills of Africa. But when Hemingway tells you to never trust a man until you’ve seen him shoot a charging lion at thirty yards, well, you don’t have to wonder if he’s speculating. Every word of his stories resonates with truth.
It is the rare author who can pull off places and people without having lived with them; or, to be successful by Isak Dinesen’s method: “I have been a mental traveler.”
But even then, it’s no surprise that her signature work revolved around a story she LIVED.
What makes novel development really fresh isn’t some bizarre plot twist (although these can work very well). It’s giving your reader a slice of life he wouldn’t ordinarily see.
I edited a great book where the main character was a slave trader, post Civil War, on a slave-filled ship headed to Brazil, and small pox broke out—Masters and Savages. Obviously, the author didn’t ride on that ship. But he’d already written a nonfiction, historical work on this subject (he’s a Ph.D. professor), and had studied small pox in-depth as well. I learned an enormous amount about a history I didn’t even know existed, and got completely wrapped up in the main character’s dilemma. Interestingly, that dilemma was about a universal human truth . . .
What do YOU bring to this table? What do YOU know that no one else does?
Find that essence. Forget the always-gorgeous, incredibly rich and successful, bling-adorned heroes. Give me a real person any day. One you know from the inside out, who learns and grows and stumbles and screws up and behold and lo—I can relate to. That’s why you remember Holden Caulfield (okay, so lots more boys revere the book than girls), or any number of others.
Hemingway said that a writer’s only requirement was to write the truth. We fictionalize it—the events may not have happened as we portray them—but the essence is pure.
So, go write your truth. And then let the rest of us in on it.