Maybe, once or twice in your life, you’ve done some light Internet stalking of agents and editors. And maybe, once or twice, you’ve seen them say something like this:
“I want to see something that feels fresh but also familiar. It’s hard to predict what I’ll like. I want originality and something I haven’t even though of yet. I’ll know it when I see it! #MSWL!”
So frustrating, right? Why can’t agents just tell us exactly how to strike this mystical balance of “fresh but familiar”? Why don’t they all just have checklists where if you tick the right boxes, you’re guaranteed an offer of representation? Are all agents just pretending like they want to represent great, original projects, but actually they hate literature and they’re only working long hours for the sheer devilish glee of rejecting our manuscripts because they’re not “marketable” enough???
No. No, they are not.
I think all writers worry about our balance of originality and familiarity. We feel like if one book about a teenage llama herder traveling to a parallel universe to find her lost cousin sells, then our book about a teenage llama herder traveling to a parallel universe to find her lost cousin will never sell. And yet, a look at any bookshelf will tell us this is false. When painted in broad strokes, a lot of YA novels might sound the same. There’s forbidden magic. There’s elemental magic. There’s court intrigue. There’s tournaments. There’s kids trapped in a small town. There’s road trips that start out for one purpose and end up being about so much more. The secret, they say, is all in the execution and the unique X-factor that you bring to the table.
The truth is, nobody can write an entire novel where every single thing that happens is a thing that nobody has ever thought of before. And if they did, it would probably be bad. There would be no universality to the emotions and events. Agents wouldn’t know how to sell it, because in the business of publishing, having comparable titles is actually a really good thing. But at the same time, we all want to read something that doesn’t already feel like we’ve read it a hundred times before. And that’s especially true for agents, who read hundreds of manuscripts in a year. It could be argued that agents are some of the hardest readers to engage.
So no, you don’t need to have the most original manuscript in the inbox. But you want to have the most engaging one. So here, I propose two ways you can access your “fresh but familiar” and truly engage: digging into the details and defying expectations.
Digging Into The Details
A small exercise: take your best friend–and I do mean the real person in your real life, not someone fictional. (Don’t worry, we go back to the safety of fictional people in a second). Set a timer for five minutes and list everything you know about them, like they’re a character in a book. And push yourself! The more you get down, the better.
Now read it back. If you started with the basics, your best friend probably sounds like a pretty generic character. But then you took my wise advice and pushed yourself, and you started writing down all their idiosyncrasies and random hobbies and their tangled family history and odd stories. They’re more than one or two things. They’re so many things. And now you’re emotional about how great they are. Or is that just me?
If your fictional characters contain those sorts of vivid specifics, with that many multitudes, in these unique combinations, they’re not going to feel like they’ve been done before. The same thing is true of your fictional world, whether you’re writing contemporary or speculative. Push yourself past the broad strokes to find the mess and complexity in the specific.
The big concepts of your manuscript can be given a twist, to great effect. “It’s like Twilight…except if Edward and Jacob fell in love with each other!” (shoutout to Cale Dietrich’s upcoming THE LOVE INTEREST). But on a smaller, page-by-page scale, defying expectations can be an incredibly effective way to keep the reader’s interest, too.
The last thing you want is for someone to read your scene and think, “Meh, I’ve already read this a hundred times, just with the character and place names changed.” So, surprise them! Make a turn right when you know that, if you were reading it, you would expect there to be a turn left. Combine this with attention to the details of the character and the world, and you get something specific and engaging.
For example, many main characters have a scene or two with their family before they’re pulled away on their journey. The scene often shows us that they’re a happy family or a troubled one. Family, in some form, is a universal thing, but almost paradoxically, the more generic a scene like this is, the less engaging it is.
Consider a scene between a main character and their family member: how would this specific family member show their love for your main character? Even if it’s something as universal as saying “I love you,” they’ll say it in their particular way, at their particular time, for their particular reasons.
Then consider: what would a reader expect a main character to say or do in return? Play with that. Maybe that’s not actually what your main character would say, once you really think about it. Maybe this scene isn’t the straightforward show of affection it seems. Maybe the conversation gets interrupted prematurely and never finished. Both of the characters involved are unique, complicated people, and any number of things could happen. They may not have been the first things that came to your mind, and that means they’ll be tiny surprises planted in your manuscript. Those tiny surprises keep the reader racing forward, wondering what else there is.
Unsurprisingly, the best way to get a feel for how details and defied expectations can enrich the reading experience is to read a lot. If you know what’s already out there, you can play around with it. Because your manuscript isn’t Generic Slushpile Manuscript #134. It’s your manuscript.