Pub Rants

Fresh And Original

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STATUS: Relaxed. I have just a few minutes before I pop out to meet my evening appointment—Jaime Levine at Warner Books (or should I say Hachette Books USA).

What song is playing on the iPod right now? Well, CNN Headline news is on instead.

As an agent, I’m sure that writers have heard us say many a times that we are open to any story as long as it is fresh and original. Funny enough, the editors feel the same way.

Now I’m positive that most writers do believe their novels to be fresh and original and sadly, that is the point that is most often missed (and usually the reason why queries or partials get passes).

At least once a day I receive a fantasy query letter that has a quest-oriented plot or dragons, or is a battle of good and evil and at the end of the query letter, the writer will state that his/her story is original because the focus is on character development.

Well, all good fantasy has strong, developed characters. I’m sorry to say that character development in itself cannot be the “original” aspect of your story. It’s standard and what you really need is a story approach, hook, or plot that’s revolutionary in its uniqueness.

What creates originality is taking a concept that is done to death (because there are no new stories under the sun) and envisioning and creating a whole new possibility that reinvents the known fantasy world. As a reader, it makes you gasp with a wow, what a brilliant idea. Why has no one thought of that before?

Then you have fresh and original.

Let me give you a great example. This author is not mine by the way so there is no self-interest in giving this example. Betsy over at Ballantine Del Rey gave me a teaser for HIS MAJESTY’S DRAGON. She thought she had seen everything possible in dragon fantasy. What is left to invent?

Quite a lot actually as debut author Naomi Novik demonstrates.

Here we have an alternate-reality historical novel of the Napoleonic War where a 18th century naval captain captures a Chinese dragon, becomes a dragon master in the British aerial corps to defeat Napoleon in the war for the continent. Patrick O’Brian with Dragons.

If you’re thinking, “how cool is that?” then you are starting to get the idea of what I’m trying to explain. Now your work might not be an alternative reality historical novel but when you explain your concept to someone, it should incite that same reaction regardless of whether it’s epic, urban fantasy, or whatever.

Get the picture?

22 Responses

  1. Anna the Piper said:

    Hi there! I’ve been lurking on your blog for a bit and just wanted to drop a comment to say 1) thank you for your very informative posts (especially this one, as I am aiming at SF/F for my genres of choice), and 2) I’ve just purchased His Majesty’s Dragon on the strength of very positive recommendations. I’m looking forward to it immensely. Especially the whole idea of a flavor of “Patrick O’Brian with dragons”. 😀

  2. anna louise said:


    I read this book a couple of months ago — Naomi kindly gave me a copy of the ARC. I loved it. I couldn’t put it down! I thought it started a big slow, but once I got into it, I really got into it. I’m so glad you liked it too!

  3. Chrysoula said:

    But are there really authors out there who /don’t/ think their idea is ‘How cool is that?’ You know– ‘A Dual Sword-Wielding Vampire! How cool is THAT!’

    Recognizing appropriate degrees of difference is hard, especially for people who aren’t professional readers (like agents and editors). After all, sometimes the differences in published fiction seem to come down to ‘But my Vampire is /Daniel/, and hers is /Michael/ and they’re /very different people/.’ Perhaps it’s just all those exceptions out there we’re not supposed to pay attention to, though.

    Still, it seems like explicitly TRYING to come up with (and implement) a fresh idea will only bring heartbreak. Ideas are so cheap. Everybody has tons and you can’t really count on coming up with some unique twist that you’ll finish and submit before the next guy does. All you CAN control is whether or not you tell the story well. Really well. Incredibly well. So well they don’t stop to think ‘old hat’.

    Is this incorrect?

  4. Anonymous said:

    I cannot believe that anna louise misspelled your name. Wow. With an exclamation, no less! We writers are hit over the head with frying pans that say, never, ever, mispell an editor or agent’s name, and she did! Anna Lousie? Is it because you are an editor, and still above the agent on the ladder of need?

  5. aphie said:

    This was published in Australia as “Temeraire” a few months ago, and I was very nonplussed by the cover… but the story itself was absolutely amazing, and the writing lovely – restrained enough to just let the story and situations form up in your head… yay you for promoting this!

  6. Sam said:

    I can’t count the number of books I’ve started that caught me because of their original premise and lost me because of bad writing.
    I wish there was more emphasis on good storytelling and less on finding that ‘new fresh idea’. Ideas are great, but it all boils down to telling a story.
    That said, this dragon story looks superb- I mean to get it, with hopes that the writing can carry the wonderful idea!

  7. Bernita said:

    I sometimes wonder about this emphasis on “character development.”

    Some characters, away from the YA syndrome, do not “develop” – they are revealed.
    Crisis and conflict may expose, uncover, display the essential character, not mould, shape or grow it.

  8. Jan Conwell said:

    I know agents and editors want Fresh and Original, but apparently the dirth of it makes them publish what they get. Seen loads of same ol’ same ol’.

    I do understand “How Cool is THAT?”–love when I have this reaction to a blurb–but I have to agree w/ Sam. I’ve started quite a few books that had a fascinating premise only to find the writing couldn’t carry it off.

    One more thing. (and you’re waiting w/ bated breath, right? heh) I think one reason writers believe (aside from pride of authorship) our stuff is original is that, ounce for ounce, we just haven’t been exposed to the monstrous volume of ideas agents and editors have. I mean, we read books. Usually the whole book. Takes time, and must often be wedged into a day job’s worth of hours. You guys read–as your day job–not only whole books, but billions of queries and partials. Poor things. No wonder you see our newly hatched offerings and think, “Yup, got four of these this month. Pass.”

  9. Bernita said:

    Good point, Jan.
    It’s not that we’re stupid or vain about our stuff, just there’s just no way we have the contextual experience.

  10. RyanBruner said:

    I used to love reading Fantasy. It was, at one time, my favorite genre. But it didn’t take long for me to burn out on it. At least, the typical fantasy, a la Lord of the Rings or Dragonlance. (I still loved Dragonlance, BTW.)

    I’ve read several manuscripts of yet more traditional fantasy, and you’re right, Kristin…having strong character development doesn’t change the fact you are reading pretty much the same old story again. Places have different names, perhaps a few different creatures thrown in.

    I like it when I read a fantasy that does something unique, something that makes people think, “Is this really fantasy?” Challenge people’s notions as to what fantasy is.

    Of course, my own story is incredibly unique and revolutionary. Am I right? I said, am I right? 😉

  11. Patrice Michelle said:

    On not knowing what’s a fresh idea: I guess that’s why we can be thankful to Kristin and other agents who are now blogging and telling us what’s same-old,same-old to them. The “good” writing piece is up to us. 🙂

  12. Catja (green_knight) said:

    Sometimes the difference between ‘fresh and original’ and ‘same old same old’ is not all that great…

    I’ve written what I thought was a fairly conventional fantasy story – don’t get me wrong, I love it, but compared to others in the genre it didn’t stand out a lot. (The Tolkien clones are firmly stacked in a trunk somewhere; I’m not _that_ derivative. Well, not any more.)

    And then I ran my query letter past a few people, and past a few more people, and a friend zoomed in on something I’d mentioned as an aside and said ‘*that’s* what is different’ and I went ‘oh’, and she was right – it’s there in the story, I just hadn’t brought it out enough. So now, instead of having a novel about a Mage who learns to control his magic and faces a series of (mostly personal) challenges on the way, I have a Cold War novel on my hands…

    It was there all along. It was just a question of bringing it to the surface.

  13. Bruno said:

    Hhhm, on Ms. Nelson’s rec. I might take a peak, but I must admit I tend to shy away from alternate history fantasy and SF. Historical fiction? Sure. In a heartbeat. To be honest, I’ve got a few waiting in the cue, myself. But after I got out of the CF I started my degree in history (before I switched) and, though it gave me the ability to sink myself into my research, it also ruined me for a lot of sub-genres that play fast and loose with history. I guess you could say it made me into a more “What if?” than “Imagine if?” type where history is concerned. Still, one wonders. One hundred and fifty years from now, will someone be writing about the US marine dragon-corps fighting against the North Vietnamese dark elves at Tet? Hhhmmm.

  14. Wesley Smith said:

    I have this book in my queue at the local library. It’s been recommended on a couple different literary-type blogs.

    Great ideas are only part of the package for beginners. We not only have to have GREAT ideas, but also GREAT execution, but then we also have to have a GREAT query to get our feet in the door to begin with.

    And then, we have to have luck that the market for that kind of book is out there and relatively proven.

  15. Amie Stuart said:

    I think Jan makes a great point as far as the sheer volume of material read etc. However, I’ll definitely check this out–it sounds fab!

  16. NL Gassert said:

    I really liked all the comments here, but something didn’t come up: you need to be fresh and original, but not too fresh or original. I have heard from a few of my writer friends that their manuscripts were turned down by editors with comments that boil down to this: “loved it; it’s unique and new; but we’re afraid to take a chance on it; not sure if there are any readers for this yet; we were looking for something more traditional.”

    In the end, none of these writers found a large publisher willing to take on their manuscripts. Two went with smaller, independent publishers instead (and no advance to speak of).

  17. Anonymous said:

    Just finished His Majesty’s Dragon. Unfortunately I have to disagree with ALG–yes, the premise is fabulous, but the plot turns are *very* predictable and the character development minimal. No surprises, nothing out of the ordinary writing-wise. Which is a shame–I’d really been looking forward to something new, too. Maybe books two and three will be less predictable.

    Definitely agree with Nadja on the “send us something new and different, but not too new and different.” Have run into this too. It sucks.

  18. Stuart said:

    Kristen, I have a question:

    Is it usual for a trilogy to be published across three months? (Majesty’s Dragon came out in March, with its sequels being released in April and May)

    Seem like this would flood the market and not build up demand between books… Blog topic? 🙂

  19. Amie Stuart said:

    Stuart they did this with Allison Brennan too! (And Julie Ortolon)… I think they do this when they want to break someone out but I’d love to hear Kristin’s take on it.

  20. MTV said:

    As Catja point out –

    What really makes your story different? As the writer it is sometimes hard to express. You know it’s there, but can’t quite see it. The same thing happened to me as what Catja describes. I was talking about it one say and suddenly – there it was – the very discriminator that I needed.

    I also had an experience similar to what Nadja described – “I love it, but we think the market is too new to take a chance on it.”

    Still, you’ve got to go with what you want to write. At the same time keeping an eye on where the market is going doesn’t hurt. You always need to be ahead of the curve, though.

  21. David the Multi-tasked said:

    I saw this book last night and almost picked it up. I probably still will, just was in the “Oh man Easter is in 5 days and if we don’t have te kid’s faves we are dead” mode.

    Originality….what a concept!