Nothing New Under the Sun

How does an editor manage to still be moved by a story when she has to sift through ever-growing stacks of unsolicited manuscripts, looking for a nugget of something new? I mean, how many ways can you write a romance? Or a murder mystery, a space opera or zombie invasion?

Sure, there are tried and true formulas that readers will follow in endless serials because of popular characters or variations on a familiar theme. After all, they are selling so someone must be reading them. You can always count on me to pick up a book if it promises a Captain Picard cameo.

So how do you get your one-of-a-kind, original story past a jaded assistant and into the hands of an editor? Check out their current titles. Follow their guidelines to the letter. Don’t exceed their word count. Don’t send anything they haven’t asked for. If an editor wants to see a sample chapter, for crying out loud don’t send her the whole manuscript!

I like to peruse the covers at the library or local book store to have a look at what publishers want readers to see when they first glimpse a new release. But when every other cover is graced with a young woman throwing sparks from her fingers or yummy beefcake shoulders with glowing tattoos, it can be difficult to tell which story is going to deliver the goods. They’re all smoldering looks and come-hither-but-not-too-close and it can be painful to have to read ten carbon copies of the same formula just to glean one gem of a story. I end up scanning covers and writing down the names of the authors so I can check them out online.

It’s tough to be original. I once wrote a short story that I could have sworn was truly plucked from my ripe imagination, only to discover that I’d been betrayed by my own memory banks when a friend said: “I like it but it sounds a bit like this other story I read years ago.”

A bit of digging and there it was. I’d read it too and had liked it well enough. Nothing super remarkable but it had obviously wormed its way into my subconscious, biding its time until it could jump out and sabotage my story.

Could it be true that there’s nothing new under the sun? As a storyteller I have to believe that it isn’t. We see rehashings of old plots, mash-ups of styles and genres, or the same characters dressed up just a bit differently. Some of those stories can be painful to read but a lot of times they manage to get it right, like a cover band with a fresh spin on an old classic. Those are the stories that give me hope and encourage me to keep writing whatever my imagination wants to spew out. I may cringe later when I pick it apart for a second draft, but I’d be stupid to ignore my muse just because it seems like she’s repeating herself.

A bestseller may sell a million copies but there are several billion people on this planet, and each billion has a thousand millions in it. That’s a LOT of potential readers. So go ahead and put your own twist on that other guy’s bestseller, because you never know who’s going to prefer yours.

But don’t run the risk of having it languish in an editor’s slush pile because you thought it would be cute to print your manuscript on lavender paper or you thought they wouldn’t mind that you doubled the suggested word count. If you want to impress an editor/publisher, stand out by being the kind of author they want to work with instead of one that has them rolling their eyes whenever they see your name.

Publishing guidelines are set for a reason. They work. Stick to them. They may be what makes or breaks your relationship with a potential publisher. If only all our other relationships came with such clear guidelines…

Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual

from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”

- Stephen King


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3 Comments

  1. January 28, 2013, 7:58 am   / 

    [...] Monique Jacob takes us with her as she learns how to be a newly published author, here and here. [...]

  2. Avatar of Michael J. Sullivan
    January 14, 2013, 8:44 am   / 

    To me, it’s all about execution. I loved the Harry Potter books, but it had every tired cliche in existence:

    * Orphan destined to defeat the dark lord
    * A poor, misfit best friend
    * A plucky know-it-all girl
    * A wise old mentor wizard

    And yet…I didn’t care because the execution was so good. I felt connected to the characters, and Hogwarts was a place I would like to visit.

    Yes, there is nothing new under the sun, except that the devil is in the details and how something is executed is even more important than the “originality” of the idea.

    • Avatar of Monique Jacob
      January 15, 2013, 10:02 am   / 

      Yup, a change of costume, throw them into a different locale, add a few updated jokes, stir in some modernized angst and voilà: recipe for a whole new story. If it’s well executed no one’s going to notice that the same character has danced from one story to the next for many years.

      Archetypal characters are going to stand out no matter how many times we encounter them…as long as they’re presented in a fresh manner.

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