Are Your Novel Ideas Fresh Enough?


In 2011, there will be four debut novels published from authors who attended my Novel Revision Retreats. (There were five, but one has been bumped to 2012.) And in 2010, I taught four retreats and a couple other conferences, visiting with writers in many areas of the country. Why does one novel get published and another doesn’t?

Start Your Novel with Great Idea

The concept or idea of the novel makes a difference. Editors aren’t necessarily looking for a great space story or a great character story or a dog story. They don’t know what they are looking for, except that it’s something they can get excited about. They want something exciting, different, new, fresh.

Don’t you hate comments like that, comments that tell you nothing?

Yet, after reading many chapters for my students this year, I understand the comment. After a while, stories tend to blur together. Except when a story idea stands out.

Fresh & Exciting, New & Different (FEND). The imperative here is to be original. Some hold that there are only two story ideas in the world (a stranger comes to town and a person leaves town), while others hold to a whopping 32 story ideas. To some extent this is true, there are large categories of stories, and your novel will fall within one of them. The key, then, is to take a tired idea and make it fresh.

Ways to do be FEND: voice, format, quirky characters, update, reverse, twist, turn to comedy, turn to tragedy, change setting, speed up events, concentrate on a tiny sliver of the story, and so on.

While you are doing this, concentrate on how the idea has morphed into something original. Fin, you say, but this tells you nothing new. Still don’t understand FEND! So, some examples.

Examples of FEND This fella is definitely Anti-FEND! We know the typical cowboy story, one of a rugged individual who battles the elements, himself, or the savagery of the natives (NOT politically correct these days). How would you make a cowboy idea FEND?

Set it in Argentina with gauchos; update it with a quirky first person voice; set it in the future; write an epic drama about cowboys over several generations; or write about one ranch during one special year. Remember that what makes it different is the passion and creativity you bring to any of these choices.

Note: We’ve had the Urban Cowboy! And we’ve had the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. What’s next for this genre?

Medical Breakthroughs/Technology: If you’re writing about some new medical break through, or emphasizing technology, be very careful. It often takes a couple years for a novel to get published. I often see novel drafts based on outdated technology. If you want to explore the issues of technology, then concentrate on the moral issues. Then, when (not if, but when) your technology is outdated, your story will still stand. Look at Issac Asimov’s science fiction stories as an example. His technology (his guesses about the future of the science he knew) is off; but he concentrated on the human issues.

Two of his stories stay with me. In the first, Asimov points out that each of us has a skeleton living inside us. It’s a twist that gives a frisson of pleasure at the unexpected take on our bodies.

In the second, it’s the cruelty of children to children that makes me cringe. Schoolchildren on another planet (I think Venus; does anyone remember?) accidently lock one student into a closet; while she’s in the closet, the sun comes out. But on this planet, seeing the sun is so rare, that you may go a couple years without seeing it. The students are swept up in the event and don’t think about their classmate still in the closet and she misses the entire event. When she’s let out, her grief is overwhelming.

The technology may be wrong, but the human emotions are spot-on.

It’s said that John Grisham won’t write a novel until his wife and agent both agree that the synopsis is FEND. It’s a blockbuster idea!

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