Pub Rants

Fresh & Original Vs. Too Risky And Strange

 19 Comments |  Share This:    

STATUS: Got a call from an editor expressing interest in a project I currently have on submission. Always a good first sign.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? THE DISTANCE by Cake

I’ve been having some interesting dialogues recently about what is too risky and strange (and thus misses the market) and what’s fresh, original, and daring.

What’s the difference and is that difference solely in the eye of the beholder? Darn hard to say.

On one hand I believe any concept can be pulled off and do-able given the right character development. As long as the reader feels emotionally involved with the characters (even the hard-to-like non-touchy feely characters), anything is possible.

After all you can have a story about young tweens with personal demons that shapeshift (and are the external representations of the person’s conscience) and then become static once the tween reaches maturity and that dominant personality traits are fixed. (Philip Pullman’s THE GOLDEN COMPASS)

And it totally works. The concept is strange and original but fascinating.

The difference might be in how one responds to the original concept. Is the initial gut reaction “wow, that’s cool?” or is it “huh?”

And gut reaction can certainly be subjective.

But for me, I know the instant I read a query (mainly because I’ve read so many and have seen thousands and thousands of ideas) which way a concept tips. I either react with “very cool” or a “wow, that’s too strange” or worse yet, “I don’t get it.”

And I can always be wrong. After all, I would have shaken my head over a concept of a novel set in the Ice Age where a Neanderthal clan rescues and adopts an early Cro-Magnon child (known as one of the Others) and that changes the clan’s destiny.

Sign me up for that one. Not.

Except that would be CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR by Jean M. Auel and a big mistake to have missed out on that one. I’m still trying to imagine how her agent pitched that novel to the editors.

“So I have this great story set 35,000 years in the past…” That probably wasn’t the approach.

Ultimately, it can all be in the writing but for me, some concepts are so out there and strange, I don’t want to read that story regardless of how good the writing might be. So even if you might be flirting with too risky, you need to make sure your query nails the emotional punch and allows the risky element to sound perfectly natural.

If that makes any sense. It’s a tough balance to strike but absolutely necessary.


19 Responses

  1. Literary Aspirations said:

    It makes perfect sense. For the Crapometer I sent in a hook the was a little strange and risky. A lot of Snarklings tore me a knew one saying it was too weird. Miss Snark basically said it was doable though, even if a little offbeat, as long as I used humor.

  2. Diana Peterfreund said:

    I love Clan of the Cave Bear. (I know, me and a gazillion other people all over the world.) I do think it is about how you pitch it. I would not have chosen to describe His Dark Materials the way Kristin did.

    Which may be why I’m not an agent.

    So maybe the agent who “gets it” is also the one who can figure out how to pitch it.

  3. Anonymous said:

    Great point, Diana! That’s why it’s so great that we have many options before us…because if Kristin doesn’t get it, there are still so many others who might (and hopefully, who do:).

  4. j h woodyatt said:

    “Ultimately, it can all be in the writing but for me, some concepts are so out there and strange, I don’t want to read that story regardless of how good the writing might be.”

    I hate to be overly critical, but this sentence seems to be the summary point of the post, and it just confuses the hell out of me. This is a topic I’m keenly interested in following more closely, so I’m a bit disappointed by where this post ended up.

    Could you please be persuaded to try again? Thanks.

  5. KingM said:

    “Ultimately, it can all be in the writing but for me, some concepts are so out there and strange, I don’t want to read that story regardless of how good the writing might be.”

    I hate to be overly critical, but this sentence seems to be the summary point of the post, and it just confuses the hell out of me.

    Is this intentional irony? 😉

    In other words, she’s saying that you either get it, or not. That tipping point into weirdness invariably comes at different points for different readers.

    I can remember my grandmother watching a minute of Star Wars on TV and asking in a bewildered tone, “Is this kind of like ET?” Not only did she not get it, and not have a decent way to categorize it, but she’d never heard of the thing. (!)

  6. Karmela Johnson said:

    Tons of Susan Kearney’s books have made me go, “What???” upon hearing the initial concept or reading the back cover blurb, but once I read the book, I’m fascinated and she totally makes it work.

  7. Anonymous said:

    Though it’s not an easy thing, an agent shouldn’t be totally interested in his or her own personal tastes. You always hear “I have to love it”, “I have to be passionate about it”. No; you have to be passionate about selling it (very much in the same way a GOOD lawyer represents a client who may or may not be guilty). Will the public (the millions of people who pay to see STAR WARS; the millions who vote each week for AMERICAN IDOL)actually buy this? Because right now they’re not buying much, and you have to wonder if this “I have to love it” from agents mentality is where the downfall begins.

    If anyone thinks I’m wrong just take a little jump over to the gather.com first chapters writing contest. Some of the best commercial fiction I’ve seen in a long time has been posted; all, I might add, rejected many times by literary agents. The writers are shocked; people are commenting “I’d buy this” after agents have told them “I’m just not passionate about it.” I think publishing houses need to re-think the submission process for the sake of their own financial survival.

  8. Jana DeLeon said:

    anon – I can only speak for myself, but I insist that my agent love my work and would never have signed with someone who didn’t. The enthusiasm that comes from an agent who really gets your work translates to the editors and helps the sale. If my agent saw my work simply as a money-making product, just like toothpaste or toilet paper, that wouldn’t be good enough for me.

  9. Anonymous said:

    I think this attitude is why so many people are willing to say, “There’s so much crap out there, why can’t I sell my book?” Looking askance at something risky and different BECAUSE it’s risky and different is kind of like saying, “I know I’d like to get out there and date different women, but my cousin June is just so familiar…”

    This is probably why the market is saturated with Tolkien, Clancy and King ripoffs. Writers who are willing to follow the established genre norms, in pursuit of a guaranteed sale.

    I have to look at Agent Krisitn a little differently, now. That statement about not being interested in the things that buck the norm (no matter how well written) has me extremely disappointed in her.

    T. Morrow

  10. Anonymous said:

    If anyone thinks I’m wrong just take a little jump over to the gather.com first chapters writing contest. Some of the best commercial fiction I’ve seen in a long time has been posted; all, I might add, rejected many times by literary agents. The writers are shocked; people are commenting “I’d buy this” after agents have told them “I’m just not passionate about it.”

    I don’t know; that sounds like the usual defensive-author riff. The writer would like to blame anything other than their own writing for their failure to get published. It might make the writer feel better, but it isn’t a helpful response.

    The writer has to take responsibility for their writing career; if it’s not selling, that means it isn’t saleable enough. Not being saleable-enough doesn’t mean the writing isn’t good, or even that the work wouldn’t sell a few copies – it just wouldn’t sell enough, and the publishing industry is not interested in taking on charity cases.

    As for having other people say, “I’d buy this!” I’ll just note that you can always find a handful of like-minded people who love something that wouldn’t sell well commercially. Look at fanfiction.net sometime; most of what gets put up there is crap, yet there’s lots of horrible stories that get good reviews (usually from people who spell even worse than the author of the terrible story did).

    The problem with trying to take statistics from the comment trail of a posted chapter is that a large fraction of the people who weren’t drawn into the story simply hit the back-button, rather than leaving a critique. Politeness skews the statistics.

    ~les woyms

  11. Anonymous said:

    To anon @ 11:03: From [email protected] 8:38

    I’ve been published and sold many books. My comment wasn’t based on sour grapes or “why can’t I get an agent”; just curiosity about why books aren’t selling. I don’t buy that excuse that people just aren’t reading anymore.

  12. Jana DeLeon said:

    T Morrow – Have you looked at Kristin’s client list and read a description of their books? She DOES take on books outside of the norm. My book was a hybrid that several houses said “we like it but don’t know what to do with it.” Dorchester was the only publisher that would take that chance but it’s turned out great for all involved. Or look at Linnea Sinclair. No one thought the concept of a science fiction romance would fly and it was a hard sale but she won a RITA. Publishers eventually give in and try something new, but they’re far slower to jump at that new thing than readers are.

    Some agents don’t like anything far outside of the lines because it will be a hard sale. Mine was a hard sale and Kristin took it on anyway.

    I think what she was trying to say is there’s a huge difference between coloring outside the lines and redrawing the lines. Of course, everyone’s opinion of what is “too odd” is clearly subjective, but then this whole business is.

  13. Twill said:

    T. Morrow –

    It is important to practice reading comprehension skills. Kristin said what she said, not what you said.

    She said “…some concepts are so out there and strange, I don’t want to read that story regardless of how good the writing might be.”

    Not “all concepts”, not “anything outside the ordinary”, just “some concepts”. Duh. It’s a truism.

    To use your analogy, there’s a world of women between “comfortable Cousin June” and that prostitute with the hypodermic trails/slashes on her arms and the psychotic boyfriend.

  14. j h woodyatt said:

    “Is this intentional irony? ;)”

    Not on my part, it wasn’t. I won’t speak for the host.

    “In other words, she’s saying that you either get it, or not. “

    Yeah, that’s unhelpful. It’s essentially the Potter Stewart answer: “I know it when I see it.” Which is okay, as far as it goes, but it isn’t very helpful for the aspriring writer trying to figure out whether he’s written something too weird to submit and he’d better tone it down before he sends it out.

    I was hoping for a hint of a process that isn’t absolutely subjective— you know, something with at least a little bit of craftsmanship involved— and I feel disappointed. I know. I know. Get used to disappointment.

    A guy can’t be blamed for hoping, right?

  15. Anonymous said:

    Jana,

    Romance is romance; put it on a pirate ship, put it in an Iowa farming community or on a Montana ranch. Throw it back in time to when Charlemagne marched across Europe, or toss it up on a space station between a green boy and a blue girl.

    I don’t know if the reading community necessarily differentiates romance from other genres, no matter what the setting. Perhaps most would fit Ms. Sinclair’s work into the realm of “paranormal romance”.

    Wouldn’t most romance readers pick up a sci/fi romance? As a sci/fi reader, I would not touch one (no offense to romance writers- I’m more along the line of pirates & intrigue where romances are concerned), mainly because when I’m reading SF I am looking more for exploratory thinking, in technology and sociology.

    twill,

    Huh? I seemed to have offended you in some way. My apologies. There is no reason for hostility, nor any call for criticizing my reading comprehension skills.

    T. Morrow

  16. Jana DeLeon said:

    T. Morrow – I think you missed my point. My book is not a hybrid because of where it’s set but how it’s written. It is a true blended hybrid – remove the romance, the story collapses, remove the mystery, the story collapses. Even bookstores can’t agree where to shelve it. Waldens says romance. BookAMillion says Mystery. B&N says Fiction.

    And I can’t speak for other genres, but I know for a fact that all romances are not created equal. There are definitive lines between types within the genre, and if the publishers can’t clearly label them, they shy away.