Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Disgruntled Reader: In Which I Find I Sound a Little Like a Literary Agent

The other day I pulled up Goodreads to check out new and existing titles to add to my to-read list and also IMDB to view some new movie trailers and see if there were any new TV shows worth watching. While I read through lists and blurbs I noticed how easy it has become to answer "no" within ten seconds. Going by summaries alone or watching a trailer a couple of minutes long, I could decide if the story idea worked for me or not. Of course, I also considered that maybe some of the summaries/trailers might have held my attention if so many of them didn't sound like simple variations of each other.

There were an awful lot of crime TV shows featured where the main character was either a grouchy detective or had some paranormal ability. I sat back and wondered how people differentiated one show from another. None of them stood out.

I noticed a similar trend with books, not only on Goodreads, but also in links I followed on Twitter or announcements done on an agent's blog. (insert YA/MG character) lives in oppressive conditions until they discover they have (insert amazing ability/power) and can now either save the world or oppress it. OR (insert MC) meets (hot paranormal person) but generic obstacle (political/social/etc.) stands in their way. All of the descriptions modeled each other and none of them stood out because of it.

I'd like to think that every one of these TV shows, movies, and books have something unique and wonderful. As described, I'm getting a blasé feel for the current trends du jour. On the upside, finding comp titles for a new story has never been easier. Making any story stand out (other than popularity statistics) is very difficult.

Query letters submitting for peer critique often fall into the same molds too. We write the trendy formula or are expected to, even if the story doesn't fit the current summary mold. Without diving in too deeply to the query process, I'd like to just put in a plug for making sure you identify what makes your story stand out from the others and be sure to mention it in the query. What makes your YA character's abilities & situation any more special than the hundreds of other YA prodigies out there? What makes your love interest or the situation involving that love interest different than the usual struggles? Do we really need another grouchy or superpowered detective/cop/attorney? And if so, there should be a better reason other than fighting crime either of the normal variety or the supernatural. (These are only three examples, you can find boxed-in niche descriptions in any genre.)

One thing that would help is character voice in these descriptions. I hear several stories praised for having strong voice, but you know what—those voices sound an awful lot alike. They do! Character traits, especially for main characters, aren't leaping out at me either. I've seen their like before many times. Or, the voice in those descriptions are completely lacking. There's a lot to be said for great characterization in a novel or TV show. I think the marketing industry is either burned out or failing, perhaps both, when I see so many cloned summaries/trailers.

Gone are the days when having an extra-ordinary power or birthright will make a story stand out. Our culture is inundated with them. High risk stakes are great too, but also very common these days. Even what the main character stands to lose is running out of steam and growing repetitive. I'm worried. How are new authors supposed to break in without happening to touch upon agents' and editors' individual wish lists, you know, the wish list made up of story types they never tire of? And that's if they haven't already signed up several other clients who write in the same mold as you do. The same worry goes for self-publishing too. Die-hards who never tire of the—say grouchy detective stories—are pretty pretty much the ones who will pick up a story just because it's that genre. Generating new readers, not so easy, unless we can give them a reason to pick our story over all the others.

We can't be out of new ideas yet, or is everyone trending to the same two or three basic story plots these days? Perhaps we're on the brink of something new taking the entertainment world by storm. I hope so.

Maybe I'm so unreasonable about this dilemma because I read several genres and have to be convinced to notice a book or show. Writers and other artists must make me a fan. Make me want to read more than that short summary, maybe open up the book and try out the first page. I don't follow willingly. Yet I'm always on the hunt for something stellar, something that I can fall in love with. New worlds, new characters, great conflicts, insightful inner journeys, stories that teach me things, and especially stories I can't figure out by reading the summary or watching the trailer alone. So help me and others like me: make your story or TV show or movie stand out from the pack. Be noticeable. The next time I comb through Goodreads or IMDB or even my local library, please let me find something I can fall in love with, instead of the terrible disappointment I felt the other day in clone-ville.


  1. Ah, yes. I have noticed this, too. But I am a lot more forgiving, and if the prose is especially lovely, I may overlook the fact that the storyline is similar to countless others. But if the voice or prose is mediocre, and the characters and story line cliched, I will skip it for sure.

    I used to be able to finish a book even if I struggle through it--my philosophy back then was to always finish what I started, even if it would take me weeks to do so. Now, I don't do this anymore. If a book doesn't sustain my interest, I'd end up returning it to the library without even getting 50 pages in. And I don't regret it. I figured, there's so many potentially good books out there and I've only limited time to read them, so why waste it on one not worth the time and effort? Sounds harsh, but time is a luxury nowadays. We're forced to become more selective.

    As my husband pointed out one day while we were at the bookstore: "Sheesh, everybody and anybody can write nowadays." (He said this in reference to a 10-year-old author who was there doing signings.) While he said it in jest, there's truth to it. I'm constantly bombarded with book promotions and hypes online (especially with e-books making their scene now), and sometimes, I really do feel like a lit agent too--sorting through the slushpile of pubbed books.

  2. Cherie, yes! I used to have that philosphy too--to read a book all the way through even if I hated it. =) I agree, there's not enough time and too much to read.

  3. I'm with you on this too, the only problem I see, is the whole genre collapsing or losing favour with the agents/editors. Then what happens to all those aspiring writers? :(

  4. I definitely agree with you, except for one very minor point. We as writers need to strive to be outstanding, absolutely, but the trends you're seeing aren't new. From what I can tell, stories come in stages-- one thing makes it big, and the rest of the world follows suit, whether through blatant copying or just because of the seeds of inspiration that the earlier work planted. Dracula was a more successful rip-off of Varney the Vampire; after Byron, everyone had to have a Byronic hero; and so on, and so forth.

    That doesn't excuse it, of course, but at least it can keep us from despairing too much. :)

  5. I think we're seeing a trickle-down effect from the entertainment industry, which will spend money on sequels before taking a chance on something new. (Where's the movie of Freedom or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay?)

    I started a thread on AQC in the Litter Box about this. I read the openings of query after query in my email, and more often than not, I don't read past the opening line. Your paragraph was spot on showing all the various, completely generic, repetitive "hooks" that have me hitting "next." I'm sure agents do the same.

    I'm sure, within the genres, there are many unique aspects to explore, but I read way, way too many copycat openings, just like what you demonstrated. I've never been afflicted with the must-finish syndrome. I move on.

    I think too many new authors are trying to fit an already popular niche. Worse, they copy what sounds, to them, like a current, contemporary "voice." ("..to make matters worse..." or "...the last thing s/he expected...")

    Jennifer's right. Everything, to some extent (at least in genre fiction) builds on something that came before. The key word there is "builds." We writers need to bold.

    Too many are writing what they think will feed the Twi-fans, or LOTR, rather than telling a new story. Or an old story in a new way. (West Side Story/Romeo and Juliet?) What about a new take on Dracula where he is something other than a vampire? Just sayin'

    Good post, Joyce. I'm in total agreement. FWIW

  6. I don't think it's the trends so much that bothered me, as it was the descriptions for the books/shows/movies that didn't stand out. Any genre, whether popular or not at the moment, has similiar issues in these little blurbs. I could have easily used military SF, historical romance, and MG school stories for the examples as well. Marketing-fail.

    Good points on the trending issue though, Darke, Jennifer, and Rick! =) I see some future blog posts simmering there.