One somewhat common refrain among queriers is, “This has never been done before!” or a related espousing of the belief that their novel is completely unlike anything that has ever been written.
This is almost never true. And what unfortunately ends up happening is that whenever someone says, “This has never been done before!” I immediately take it as a challenge and start thinking of the times it has been done before.
The queries below are made up, but they’re close to the mark. Here’s how these claims tend to go and what I start thinking:
Query: “There’s never been a bestselling novel written in the second person!!”
Me: Thinking…. thinking… THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST!!
Query: “No one has ever explained the history of philosophy in novel form.”
Me: SOPHIE’S WORLD!
Query: “No one has ever written a novel in Twitter form!”
Me: Just sold!
According to Google Books there have been 168,178,719 books published in the English language. In words (even more impressive) that’s one hundred sixty eight million one hundred seventy eight thousand seven hundred nineteen books published.
In the immortal words of Roger Sterling after Guy Mackendrick’s foot was run over by a riding lawnmower in the office of Sterling Cooper on Sunday’s episode of Mad Men: “Believe me, somewhere in this business, this has happened before.”
Now, I definitely understand that each book is unique: every single one of those 168 million books was different in its own way. Even the plagiarized ones!
And we agents do stress, with good reason, that it’s important to know how your novel will stand out among the books that are already out there. That might mean a fresh take, a unique setting, an interesting character, an original style. There is absolutely a premium on originality, and every once in a generation a new genre is created almost completely from scratch.
But it’s important to recognize the extent to which every novel draws upon traditions that have come before and to be well read enough to know where your novel stands among the popular ones in your genre. Even very unique novels draw upon a rich literary tradition and have their influences and predecessors. When an author immodestly declares “This has never been done before!” it makes it seem as if the author is unaware of the books that have come before that are similar to theirs, and makes the agent wonder why the author doesn’t seem to know about them.
It isn’t important that you write a novel that has never even remotely been done before. What’s important is that you write it well.
Sarah Erber says
(Just rambling my thoughts here – might be a little off topic.)
I don't know if you've read, The Hollow Kingdom Trilogy by Clare B. Dunkle, but I think that comes pretty darn close to "this has never been done before."
Pst If there is something similar to this, Tell me so I can buy the book!
Queries should just avoid sweeping generalizations.
No "This has never been done before"
No "This is the next Harry Potter meets Twilight meets Dan Brown"
No "This is going to be the next bestseller and make you millions of dollars"
No "Everyone who has read this loves it"
They scream logical fallacy and lack of creativity
Sarah – I'm putting The Hollow Kingdom Trilogy on my TBR list!
Well, I think if you wanted truly original, that would be close to impossible.
Everyone is influenced – even Tolkein was influenced by mythology.
But, could it be done? Well, maybe. To be truly original, I think there is one way to do it. Whether this is possible or not, I don't know.
** If you came up with a new tense. Something other than past/present/future, for example. Or a new POV – something completely different than 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. Or a new type of voice, that hasn't been seen before.
But, we've been talking about form of writing. Another form of originality is in ideas. 2+2 can equal 5. There is more acknowledgement that new ideas can be discovered in the sciences. But it can also exist in the arts, in terms of the meaning of what the writing conveys; the 'message.' That can be new. New truths do emerge.
Beth Terrell says
Nathan, good point. There's not much (worth doing) that hasn't been done in some form or another. It's a writer's unique voice and perception that makes a work original.
And yes I think a writer must be well-read (with very few exceptions, who are probably either mutants or space aliens). I don't think it matters so much which particular works we has read, just that we immerse ourselves in stories and language.
I love what Jill said: "See with the light of others, then go out and shine your own."
Bane of Anubis says
Nathan, just noticed the Jacob Wonderbar addition on the sidebar… When are/Are you gonna launch a dedicated website?
Nathan Bransford says
All in due time.
Cliche — never say never, no matter what station of life you're in, writer, poet, playwright, parent.
So, where does that leave sparkly vampires?
"There's nothing new under the sun." So says an old book. And I'm inclined to agree. (except silly putty. That was pretty novel when it came out.)
As far as writers using that as a hook: they don't read enough.
Heck, I predominately read what people call classics and it was all done then–long before this decade.
Nathan, you are right when you point us to the author writing it well. If a writer can make me feel like it's never been done before, it's almost the same as it being utterly novel.
Hat Man says
In the immortal words of Dear Abby, "Nothing is so weird that somebody, somewhere, hasn't done it."
Diana McCaulay says
"Very" unique Nathan? Tut tut ..
I sometimes think I'm writing new concepts, but then after I'm finished, someone else gets similar work out there. I wrote a fantasy novel about penguins nearly six years ago and had it e-published, and then followed Happy Feet, etc. But, perhaps, there was something about penguins around before that. There was my vampire novel which I thought had an original focus, however not only was Twilight done a few years later, I've since learnt that the Vampire Diaries (based on a novel) was written even before mine – about 14 years ago. I somehow must be tapping into the international consciousness and not thinking up new ideas. (Not read the Vampire Diaries or seen the TV show yet, but I'm assuming it's similiar from what I've heard.)
Many people who take part in new trends are not usually inspired to begin by other work but by their own inspiration. The impressionists, e.g. Van Gogh and Monet, had all made individual strides towards this new style in their art and were later inspired to refine and develop even further by the innovations of like-minded others.
So this commonality of ideas and inspiration is a good thing and might be how new styles and genres can grow and become perfected.
Maybe the powerful Arthurian legend grew the same way through a variety of story-tellers inspired to tell of this golden age; and then gradually the most popular stories or sections of the saga were preserved through repeated telling and have become the unified legend we know today. To me, this legend is the ultimate story as it has everything from unforgetable characters from the fairy world (Merlin and the Lady of the Lake, Nimue. Well, Merlin is half fay in some traditions) and from the human world (King Arthur and his knights) to mystic Chrisitanity combined with magic and also new concepts to advance the culture and our lives. I'm assuming the concepts of chivalry and democracy – via the round table – were new at the time the tales were woven.
Nathan and confused,
Reluctant Fundamentalist was hard for me to classify, because there is an "I" character sitting at the table addressing the "You" who is also at the table. It reads more like 1st person to me.
A great example of straight-up 2nd person is Bright Lights Big City.
Matthew R. Loney says
Re: The Twitter Book
I hope the author has considered McLuhan's "The medium is the message" in choosing to publish via Tweets.
Judging by the comments on GalleyCat, his "innovation" hasn't really blown anyone away. It seems to have become the norm to use the next technological medium and apply it to writing/publishing.
I don't believe true innovation can be predicted, otherwise, it just turns into a "who-can-be-the-first-to…"
No longer confused says
John, I went back and re read some last night. (Yesterday I was going by what I remembered from reading it last year.) In my opinion, it is clearly first person and, as he himself characterizes it, a monologue. He is talking to someone, yes, but he is talking. From the opening:
"Excuse me, Sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America…"
It is similar to Lolita where, in the third para Nabakov has the first person narrator, Humbert Humbert, address the "Ladies and Gentlement of the Jury" and often later begins passages with things like, "Gentlewoman of the jury! Bear with me!" He's talking to someone, just like Changez is in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. But in both cases it is told from the protagonists' point of view in first person narration.
Not confused says
Sorry, that should say Nabokov with an o.
There's a weird concept I've heard in some philosophy circuits that there are 'times' for events. When it's time for electricity, a dozen people will independently 'discover' electricity. Usually one person gets the credit but seldom is it just one person who makes the discovery. It happened with steam, the internal combustion engine, with radio, with the telephone, basketball… and on and on.
Terry Pratchett does a hilarious take on this phenomena in his Discworld series where ideas literally fall out of the sky like radiation and hit people. But then Terry Pratchett does hilarious takes on just about every modern institution and myth.
Killer interview: https://lavengra.wordpress.com/2009/09/21/p-a-brown/
Nick Kimbro says
The question of originality is one of the more self-defeating ones a writer can take up. How many stories have you read in workshop that seem to be constructed around the sole premise of their own originality? Of originality, there are two kinds: that which blazes ahead, and that which completely misses the mark.
Stop me if you have heard this one.
Congratulations, Rick! The best of luck with it.
It's funny, it's been my experience that most of us write in the genre we love to read. Guess not.
To me, the story is in the telling.
You listen to a joke told by one person and it's not funny. Another person can tell the same joke with lots of antics and whatnot and it's hilarious.
I'll wait for the blog to answer your Mira-inspired post.
Congratulations, Rick! Happy for you!
You would have written a winner query with so much practise on your blog. Thanks for all the help you've given us there.
Kathryn Magendie says
Yes; last sentence says it all!
kathleen duey says
Great discussion, thanks to all. I think claiming (or seeking) complete originality is silly. Using it as a sales approach is beyond silly. But we are writing in an era that offers more chances to be original than almost any other. We have so many broad shoulders to stand upon, so many shiny new tools to apply, and a screen-culture audience of readers who welcome new channels, complex structures, innovation of all kinds.
P.A. Brown – I like your point alot.
Jack Roberts, Annabelle's scribe says
Bingo. I couldn't agree more.
Dan Geilman says
Amazing that the best blood splatter in recent T.V. memory came from a 60s era advertising agency and not a medical drama. Best moment of new T.V. for 2009.
Wendy Sparrow says
I thought "Jennifer Government" was something that had never been done before.
I think it happens… maybe not often, but it happens. I wonder if it makes agents reluctant to pick up a book if it's too "original." I guess you would know that better than me, though.
The hardest thing for any writer to learn, is that you need to be confident about your work but also realistic.
In my own work, I'll let someone else sing my praises; if someone wants to call me different and innovative that's great! But you'll never catch me saying that about my own work because there's always going to be someone who's more well-read and more knowledgeable on a subject than I am.
Alicia Hicks says
Rule of thumb: If it hasn't been done before there's probably a very good reason. Try not to over think it.
After 24 years in the advertising business I can tell you with confidence, Roger Sterling was right.
Stories of horrid queries never cease to amaze me; stories of human arrogance don't either.
I recently had to make a decision with a YA manuscript – do I overhaul it *one more time* (groan) and get it to conform more to the the conventions of what's already out there in YA lit (in terms of time span), or do I forge ahead with what I already have and become a pioneer for an under-represented age group?
In the end, I decided to edit more because, why mess with what works? I realize I am no pioneer, and I'd rather stick out because of voice or spin than because of intended audience. I think that would sound much less risky to literary agents looking to sell the thing.
Thanks for the great post!
Rebecca LuElla Miller says
Interesting to note that Tolkien, one of those you and practically everyone else today credits with inventing a genre was, in his day, accused of being derivative. Some claimed he got his ideas from Wagner. His famous reply was "Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases."
However, he went on to acknowledge other influences such as Homer and Sophocles.
In other words, while he rejected the idea that he was purposefully retelling someone else's story, he happily admitted others helped shape his writing.
Thanks for the thoughtful post, Nathan.
About half of Iain Banks's "Complicity" is told in the second person. So is Italo Calvino's "If On A Winter's Night A Traveller".