Utterly Original: A Rant
“To my knowledge, nothing like this has ever been written. Ever. It is utterly fresh, mine and complete.”
That was a line in a query I received.
It’s hard to explain how this sounds to agents and editors who get pitched everything under the sun, are typically well-read, and are aware of what’s going on in the publishing marketplace. The book might be unique but not to the extent the writer seems to think.
When pitching your work, you have to walk a fine line: Be confident, but don’t come off as grandiose. Stress your original and fresh voice, yet don’t be afraid to acknowledge there have been other books similar to yours, whether in plot, style, theme, whatever. Yes, you want to be unique, but you can’t make wild claims that just aren’t true. Every book published has some similarities to something that came before; yet yours must also have something fresh and different about it.
In non-fiction book proposals, we always have to provide comparable titles (the “Competition” section) and increasingly, editors are asking us for comps even for fiction. Many authors write something like, “There are no books similar to mine.” What it says is, “I haven’t taken the time to properly research the market and I have no idea what other books could be compared to mine.”
Remember, it’s not bad to be able to compare your book to others people have heard of. It’s good. It helps people begin to capture a vision for the type of book you’ve written. If you can point out the ways your book is similar and different, and why you think yours is a good complement to the other, you can further help a publisher understand what your book is all about. Don’t ever claim “There are no books like mine.” If that’s your impression, go back to the bookstore and find some.
You don’t have to give comp titles in your query, but when you get further down the road, you may be asked what books you think yours is similar to, so it’s a good idea to be ready.
Of course, if the book in question really was amazingly fresh and original, my response to the query would not be quite so negative. Alas, it was not the case. Most of the time when people try so hard to tell me their book is awesome, rather than just showing me an awesome idea and letting me figure it out for myself… it’s usually not awesome.
Unsurprisingly, the same writer who told me their book was utterly fresh responded to my pass letter with the observation: “This is probably one of the most spectacular works of fiction ever written.”
My loss then, I guess. Bummer.
Haha, this made me laugh. The most important thing I remember from reading the Writer’s Market was precisely to avoid sounding overconfident and condescending. Thank you for the reminder!
This might be making me sound grandiose – but I like writing things different. And that comes from (sorta) knowing what’s out there. I like knowing the tropes and twisting them, taking common expectations and then not meeting them. But I also fully expect to not know the market fully. There are – sadly – wa~ay to many books in the world for me to read.
In that way though, I figure there are books similar to mine (though I want to be unique!)and I’m not above admitting to that. After all, those readers might be my readers some day ^_^
Thanks though for the examples of how *not* to present yourself.
A while back, I stumbled across a blog post of yours that lead me here. I have been enjoying your website for more than a year now, and I have to say, I love your plain-talking way of training us willy writers. I have never found you to be disrespectful, even when it is called for.
On the flip side, I have no respect for anyone named”Anonymous”, and feel the same about their posts–which are usually drive-by bashings of you or one of your followers. Folks, if you believe in what you are saying, put your name to it, Coward. If you don’t stand behind your reply, why are you wasting our collective time posting your dribble?
I thought it was a great post, Rachelle. I, myself, would never be so cocky in a query, but there is lots of useful info in here. Thank you!
A very good food for thought.
On the other hand, saying “This book is like Harry Potter, only better, and will be even more successful” also isn’t the best move.
I’ve actually received rejection notes from publishers who have referred to my manuscript as “unique.” This is despite listing comparable works when I submit it. I’ve come to realize that it was an issue of audience. I was targeting the inspirational market. My comparable works were shelved in literary fiction. I’ve since rewritten my work to tamp down on the inspirational aspects.
I’ve got a question, if you don’t mind. I believe my WIP is original, yet it pulls elements from many other books into it. For instance:
Paced and structured similar to “The Maze Runner”
Takes place in Heaven and Hell like “What Dreams May Come”
Uses a plot device akin to Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riverworld”
Romance and rival families like “Romeo and Juliet”
Mixes elements of magical fantasy and science fiction
I’m still a few months away from query stage, but I’ve been thinking about how exactly to explain this. In addition, some comparables might be negative (like Maze Runner) since dystopian is not exactly in publishing demand these days and my book isn’t a dystopia.
In short, what exactly makes a book similar enough to mention as a similar title? Is it wise to claim “aaa” meets “bbb” meets “ccc” meets “ddd”?
Interesting. When I read the first line, my first thought was “House of Leaves?” But, then, I decided to figure out what’s similar to “House.” All I came up with was “post-modern epistolary, incorporating the experience of reading hypertext within a hard copy format.” Which means, yeah, it’s unique (or was — we’ve had other hypertextish stuff since then), but not beyond description.
(My current project is a cozy for middle-aged, probably-but-not-necessarily-female science geeks. Comps: yeah, all the cozies, but there is that part of me that says it’s filling a sub-niche that hasn’t quite been tackled yet. Lifetime did do a movie about an astronomer once…)
I have the most original comment to post here – kidding. I can’t believe in this tough market for writers people don’t do more research. One of my books is tough to categorize, so I lean more to the audience it will be read by. I put that in my query – this book would fit in with such and such reading audience. No accepts, but a lot of replies back. Guess that is something.
Anthony, that is exactly the advice I give writers in regards to coming up with comparable books. Ask yourself, “What are my readers already reading?” Focus on the audience more than the book. Great job!
This is what happens when people live in their heads and not in the real world. Hopefully, this person will see your post and get an
ah-hah moment and change their approach.
This quotation applies:
“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”
— Salvador Dali (1904-1989)
Wow. Some people amaze me. Unless the writer doesn’t read, how s/he could claim there isn’t one book in the universe that’s similar is mind-boggling. After all, there are only so many basic plotlines and, if writing a mystery, less than ten reasons to kill (revenge, jealousy, money, payback, etc). Even at the most basic level, the writer should search for similar themes, writing style, or tone.
I’m sure you’ll have many sleepless nights over letting this “masterpiece” slip by you. LOL
Haha, so true, Sue. I’m losing sleep over this one! 🙂
Really though, if one focuses on the audience rather than the specific topic of the book (as in my discussion with Anthony in the comment above), it’s not that hard to find books to compare with yours.
Very interesting. On the other hand, what do you do if all your advance readers tell you this book is unlike anything else – and you know as an author that could be the death knell. You watch the Also-Rans taking over the marketplace and feel very frightened at your prospects of being noticed.
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Thanks, Rachelle. Ooops. I think I say that everyday.
I love that magical period of time after submitting a query. Hit send, sit back, sigh and wait. Anything is possible. . .until the rejection comes. Then it’s time to lick the wounds, rethink, revise, try again.
[…] further reading on competition, read this: “Utterly Original“© 2012 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent Tags: Competition Section [ ← Previous Post […]
Great blog post, saw on…
>Thanks for your insight! I've been reading your blog for the past week and I have so much information and understanding of the literary world. Have a great weekend.
>Ugh. Meant "Rachel"? It must be rubbing off.
>Why do some of you still refer to her as "Rachel?"
>Talk about self-deception! Wow. I think, possibly, some writers are too into the marketing side when they're querying. They think they need to sell it to you by saying that their book is THE NEXT HARRY POTTER or THE NEXT TWILIGHT.
I appreciate agent blogs like yours that teach writers what is deemed professional and positive in a query, and what is not.
Retweeting this to spread that knowledge around. 🙂
>I'd be so embarrassed to ever say or write that about my writing, I can't imagine actually sending a query like this to an agent. Wish I had such a high opinion of myself and my work, but the steady stream of rejections tell me otherwise…This writer has such a huge ego that I doubt s/he will ever feel publicly humiliated…but maybe that'd do them some good. (A diff Anon)
>You made some good points and most of us who have studied the process know exactly what you're stating.
A well written query should speak for itself. There's no need to inflate or glorify an idea to this extent. It comes across as unprofessional.
I think it helps to see clear cut examples. This is another strong reminder of what not to do in the query process.
>My initial reaction upon reading their query?
"Oh. So you've read EVERY SINGLE BOOK EVER WRITTEN throughout the existence of time, have you?"
>He could've been someone suffering from lack of confidence, trying to make up for it with overconfidence. Sometimes you gotta let the needle swing the other way for a little while.
>I'm a new follower, and a young writer searching for representation, and I definitely agree to the humility is much better than this insistance that one book is better than all others.
Every individual person has their own personalized tastes and preferences. Just because you think your book is the best and has never been written before doesn't mean everyone else will agree with you. Better just to state that your book is a passion you have and enjoy and not try to pound someone else with how much better it is. That's the quickest way for a rejection.
Personally, not meaning to be insulting if I am, I probably would have flushed it down the nearest toilet …
>The arrogance is astounding. I honestly don't know how agents remain as polite as they usually are.
>But…what if I have an
Udderly fresh take on an old story…
More like Bronte than Thomas Hardy's story, this manuscript takes fiction to spectacular new Heights
(Yeah, just kidding.)
>"If that's your impression, go back to the bookstore and find some."
>I really cringe at the idea of anyone saying this or thinking it.
As several people have already said, there are no new stories only new ways of telling them. I worried about this a bit because my current work has some elements that might be considered cliche'. Naive girl goes out to prove herself and discovers it's much harder than she thought it was going to be.
How boring is that?
Well, hopefully, the telling isn't quite that boring.
What people really need to grasp is the wealth of information that's available to writers. Study the blogs. Study interviews. Study social media. Everything that's been done wrong is out there as well as things that are done right.
Take the time to learn before you query.
Thanks, Rachelle. I'm sure you've helped some people who needed to step back and take a look at how they are coming across.
I have read your blog for a few weeks, but always as a 'humble' lurker until now. I honestly can't believe someone could possibly be that arrogant, especially in a query letter. It boggles..
Do you find that more people tend to fall that way…Too certain of their untested abilities vs Too humble and timid?
Which one is more off-putting?
Thank you for such an entertaining and informative blog-it's daily reading on my desktop, now.
>Kathleen – so true about first manuscripts!
I guess I should also delete the line that reads, "You would be a fool not to send me a contract RIGHT now."
Thanks so much for this cool insight into the behinds the scenes thoughts.
J Randayle Greyson
>Anon, I’ve read your post three times and while I respect your feelings,I think you are starting at the wrong base. Professional writing isn’t coach-pitch, little league baseball where everyone bats and gets a trophy. It’s competitive and my guess is a bunch of us will get thrown out at first before we finally score a run. For me, this is a working blog and not the SNL mirror where I affirm, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” Now I’ve got to get back to my query letter for my book that will change humanity for the better after it revolutionizes the written word.
>This has to be the toughest part of the publishing process for writers, at least for me.
To echo Timothy's sentiment, writers try to find ideas that are as unique as possible, which makes it even more difficult to find true comps.
Any advice for finding those comparable titles?
I’d say get to know Boolian search techniques.
>"I am careful to use my examples in such a way that no one could identify the writer. Even so, there are so many writers that make these mistakes, it's likely that a dozen or more people could read this post and think I'm "trashing" them."
Exactly. This alone means that you should not do this. You are humiliating multiple people with an unnecessary example.
"Sometimes example is the most effective way to teach"
Completely unnecessary in this case. No need for real example here. Point easily made without one.
"While writers will constantly complain that agents "disrespect" writers every single time we use an actual real-life example"
If writers communicate they feel disrespected, arguing is counter-productive. You will not change their feelings, they will feel disrespected.
“You’re so vain, you probably think this query’s about you…”
>Honestly, I can't believe people still put this type of stuff in their query. Like someone above said, how could you not do your research? I've heard so many times that you should put as much time into your query letter as you did with your novel. It's that important. Thanks for the example!
>Anon 6:47 am: I appreciate your concern, but in fact I'm not humiliating anyone. The words I've reproduced in this post are quite generic and I've read similar things from hundreds of writers. In addition, I pulled this particular example from my query pile of over two years ago.
While writers will constantly complain that agents "disrespect" writers every single time we use an actual real-life example, I respectfully disagree. I am careful to use my examples in such a way that no one could identify the writer. Even so, there are so many writers that make these mistakes, it's likely that a dozen or more people could read this post and think I'm "trashing" them. When in reality, it probably wasn't any of them.
Sometimes example is the most effective way to teach, and since I've carefully reviewed and adjusted the way I used real-life examples on the blog, I'm standing by this use of an example. In the past I may not have been so respectful, but we all live and learn, and I believe I've come to a workable solution here.
>Honestly, it's hard to take the human race very seriously when statements like that are made! I hope I never get to the point where my ego exceeds my abilities – I really dont need too many more lessons in humility. Had plenty in my day just by accident!
>This is a good lesson for us to learn as writers. Be humble and let other boast for you when the time comes. There are a lot of creative ways to advertise your skill in a query, and the fact most agents accept the first five pages is a miraculous amount of time in their limelight. Use it well.
>hahahaha wow I needed that laugh!
>At least folks keep it entertaining for you and us!
>But…but…everything I write is a totally unique flower!!
>Good post, Rachelle. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
Lol, I think I felt that way about my first manuscript . . . don't all writers? But I don't think I would have had the nerve to say that in a query. The more I read, the more I am humbled by the work of other writers and hopefully learn from them. And I have certainly learned that "there is nothing new under the sun". Striving for a more original voice and characters that touch the reader are ongoing pursuits in the development of craft, for sure!
I agree. When I read other books it makes me appreciate the wonderful writers in the Christian book market. Rachelle’s post was a nice chuckle with my morning coffee.
>I am struggling to find comparative works or titles right now. Its not an easy task, but I'm pretty sure there little new under the sun, so I'll keep looking.
Meanwhile, I wish more writers would stumble across or better yet, look up this blog and read about querying before actually querying. Its sad to be cut out at the query stage because you haven't done your homework. Bummer. Humility goes far whatever your endeavor.
>Did you get permission from this writer to trash their query in public? You are humiliating them. So much for not disrespecting the writer.
>It would be wise for this writer to take heed from Solomon. There really is nothing new under the sun.
>Janet Reid often says the same thing. Whatever plot you come up with, it's already been done. The writer's job is to bring something new to it. In the query letter, you have to show that your novel is different in some interesting way.
Had this person done his (or her) homework, he would not only find comparable books, but also blogs like this that tell him what not to do in a query letter. If he can't take the time to research that much, what does that say about his novel?
Thanks for the post! It seems a presumption of uniqueness is the writer's hubris.
>Amazing how sticking around in this business for a bit will teach humility. I believe a wise king once said there was nothing new under the sun. That’s what I thought of when I read this. A spin, a twist, a fresh voice, a unique angle—those are great reads and treasured finds!
I’ve discovered it helps to research potential topics even before I start writing.
>So what's the difference between "original" and "utterly original"? The fact that the writer felt the need to "ly"-up in order to convey its total awesomeness probably says more about the book the author would like.
>Thanks Rachelle. Keep reminding us until we get it.
And thank you for taking the time to blog. I hope you never burn out because you are doing a great mission work to the writers in God's vineyard.
Some of us will never publish, but we still need to learn the craft to the best of our ability.
>On, come now. Having a sense of humor has to count for something, right?? I mean if the query letter can make you laugh, just think what the book will do for you.
>My Scottish father was a man of few words, but here are four of them that have stuck with me lo these 57 years: "Self-praise is no honor."
Of course, this is the SAME man who would dress in his suit and tie every morning, stand in front of the full-length mirror in the front hall, use one arm to pat himself on the back of the shoulder and say, "Oh, Jeez, you're a good lookin' son of a gun."
So what do I know???? 🙂
>Hmm, when I hear agents talk about this type of query, I always imagine the writer being like Robin Williams in One Hour Photo, it's a little scary. I have to wonder if they actually read other books, or if they just believe themselves to be the best thing ever. As a writer, I can understand having faith in your work, but you have to keep a healthy mental outlook. Maybe some are just a little less self-aware. Thanks for the great post, I love learning what not to do.
>My eighth grade English teacher made a point of informing us there are no more original ideas to be had. He meant it in the context of three basic plot lines (man vs. man, man vs. himself, man vs. nature).
At the time, it truly discouraged me. Of course, MY story about the quiet bookworm girl in class and the star football player having a secret romance was original! 🙂
Later, I realized it wasn't and that was okay. I liked reading books about teenage romance and it didn't matter if it was the same idea with different characters and only slightly varying plot lines.
So, claiming utter originality is one query mistake I will never make. Thanks to Coach Washington at Highland East Junior High.:)
>Sounds like something my twelve year old daughter would say – as a joke.
Oh well, it probably was their first and they probably do think that about it.
I know I've worried about my e-mails and how they might come across. It's def. a fine line.
>I see your point, but I think you're looking at it wrong. While it says nothing about their writing ability, one of the reasons authors decide to write that first book is because the books that are available in the bookstore are not what they want to read. It's hard to fault them for saying that their book is unique when they are struggling to find something that they enjoy reading.
>Yes, even in query letters the importance of showing, not telling plays a role, if only succinctly.
>*wince* really people need to do their homework first.. that said we all make ballsups on occasion 🙂
>Every time I read posts like this I can't help wondering if these people have ever heard of the internet. Good advice, industry information, and a good dose of perspective is widely available and basically free.
Or is it just me?
>I used to handle the slush pile for a national publisher, and the things writers would say about themselves or their work left me gobsmacked sometimes.
What you said is true: The more they insist how wonderful their book is, the worse it actually is.
Humility. We all need to have some.
>*smiling* Ah…one must be cautious of straddling that fine line between being confident and positive, but remaining humble…even if the work really is totally awesome! Something to consider…thanks.