This sounds familiar…

August 12th, 2011 • Kate

girl-fitting-shoes-in-front-of-a-mirrorI’ve been working on getting caught up on my queries lately, and last night, came across several queries that read, to me, almost exactly like the plot of other books I’d read. Now, sure, that can happen naturally, as authors tune into a zeitgeist, just as Hollywood may prep two Snow White movies at the same time, or two meteor-coming-to-destroy-us disaster films, or whatever. And sure, sometimes it’s just a surface similarity, and the book itself may be completely different than the one it reminds me of, in interesting and compelling ways.

But still — unless you can show me that, it’s hard to get past the feeling that I’ve seen this before, so why would I want another book that treads the same ground already covered?

I have to wonder if it’s a matter of not really knowing the category in which you’re writing. As a writer of young adult novels, for instance, you’re not expected to have read EVERY YA novel out there, but I’d expect you to have more than a passing familiarity with the biggest names and the most popular titles. If you’re going to pitch me a novel about a teen girl at a private school that trains spies, I’m going to wonder why you don’t seem to be aware of Ally Carter‘s Gallagher Girls series. I’d rather you say, yes, I know about the Gallagher Girls series, but my novel does x, y, and z differently, and it’s set in 1945 instead of present day. That still might not get a request from me, but at least it shows that you’re aware of your competition.

Then again, I know that way back in pre-historic days, when I was working on my YA novel about a female perspective on Arthurian legends, I very deliberately stayed away from reading The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which everyone went to great lengths to tell me was about a female perspective on the Arthurian legends. So it’s ok not to have READ your competition, but I think you still have to KNOW about it.

The other thing to bear in mind is that it should be about the characters, not just the setting. Your zombie novel may be set in a world where the rise of the undead was caused by a cure for cancer, just like in Mira Grant‘s Feed, but if you can tell me what makes your characters as compelling as Grant’s, so that I’ll care just as much about their (spoiler!) deaths as much as I did about the characters in Feed, then you may have a shot.

Otherwise, often when I see a query like this, it makes me just want to respond with a link to the book I think they’re ripping off!

What do you think? Have you come across this problem in your own writing and querying?

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14 Responses to “This sounds familiar…”

  1. Olivia Says:

    My current WIP, which I actually first started writing when I was 11 (I've since started completely over- the original makes me cringe every time), started out as a pretty shameless rip-off of basically everything I loved at the time. The biggest problem when I started over again last year was cutting out all of that and leaving just the echoes.

    A friend of mine, who has self-published his novel just to say he did– states outright in the acknowledgements that he ripped off the ending from something by Vivian Vande Velde ("And I kind of hope she sues me because then I'd get to meet her in court"). He isn't concerned with actually getting published, so he doesn't care. He just writes for the sake of writing, and perhaps that's what some of these authors querying you do as well– they just don't know they're doing it.

  2. DaphneUn Says:

    The sad truth is that MANY of the writers querying me will never be traditionally published, so to acknowledge that they might be writing just for the sake of writing is HUGE.

  3. LupLun Says:

    "If you’re going to pitch me a novel about a teen girl at a private school that trains spies, I’m going to wonder why you don’t seem to be aware of Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series. I’d rather you say, yes, I know about the Gallagher Girls series, but my novel does x, y, and z differently, and it’s set in 1945 instead of present day."

    I was under the impression that it was a serious query faux pas to compare your book to some popular hit, and that implying that you did what they did better shows arrogance as well.

  4. Trish Says:

    I don't think you have to frame it in a way that implies yours is better. When I queried Kate with my first manuscript, I mentioned 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson as a book that had a similar feel, but let my description of my manuscript speak to the differences. It worked. 🙂

  5. DaphneUn Says:

    Exactly. I'm not saying that you should say your book is as good as Ally's, but show me that you're aware that Ally's exist, and explain how and why it's different — not better. Different.

  6. @ihiatt Says:

    When I finally sat down to churn out my first manuscript, I explained to folks that one of the biggest pieces of advice that authors, editors and agents give is to read. Read, read, read. Know the genre and audience your pitching to.

    One person said that they would do the exact opposite out of fear of copying what's already been done. The way I explained it to them is that it's -all- been done before. You want to write a book about vampires? Okay. Toss it in the warehouse with the others. Zombies? Werewolves? Popular guy, awkward girl? It's all been done. The premise of a book at its barest state is not going to be original. You need to make it original beyond that point.

    My manuscript is about a teenager who has prophetic dreams. Has it been done? You bet. One of my favorite books is The Stand by Stephen King, where prophetic dreams were a huge plot point. It's been done. But I'm well aware of how it's been done. As you've said, being aware is the key. Having the conscious thought of "This has been done. Now how can I do it better?" should be what -every- writer is thinking. Otherwise, why bother? If my book is a just an awkward copy or collage of what's already out there, then it's really just fan fiction.

    The notion that the writer should have to read all of those books they might be copying is ridiculous, as you've said. The human race has been writing for quite some time now. That's quite a library an author will have to peruse. A decent amount of research should always be part of writing, though. Apart from the actual facts/believability of the story, a writer should be poking around the market. At the very least, the big names. I for one have never heard of the Gallagher Girls. Then again, I'm not writing about spies…

    So I told that person who questioned doing so much reading of material already out there, that it's simply about keeping that mindset. Know what's out there, strive to do it better. Any writer that does that will yield something worth at least a glance.

  7. DaphneUn Says:

    Exactly! Great comment — thanks for sharing.

  8. S. C. Green Says:

    This is definitely something to keep in mind. It might be a good idea for any writers out there who think their stuff is original to ask beta readers to suggest other books that remind them of his or her work. You are right though, the fate of the book rests on the strength of the characters. If I don’t connect with the character, I won’t hesitate to put it down. I have too many other stories to read with characters I’m ready to follow to the ends of the Earth, regardless if the plot is somewhat recycled.

  9. DaphneUn Says:

    Excellent idea! Often writers are too close to their work to even see the parallels.

  10. S. C. Green Says:

    I really enjoy the conversations you get going here. So much so I'd like to recognize you with a blog award from my writer's group site, The Parking Lot Confessional. You can pick it up here: http://parkinglotconfessional.com/2011/08/12/the-

  11. DaphneUn Says:

    Thanks!

  12. Stephanie Says:

    I guess I don't get why someone wouldn't want to say which books theirs resembles. I see it as a huge compliment to the authors. I do have to agree that it is all about how it is written, nobody likes a ripoff, the same being told the same way, but I will proudly admit that I get a lot of my inspiration from Luanne Rice. She has a unique way of letting a story unfold mysteriously while keeping you aching/longing for her characters. This is something I try to echo, but with my characters own personalities.

  13. @ghosthorse_mt Says:

    Wonderful discussion, everyone! I try to keep up with popular books and movies in my genre for Middle Grade readers. I don't have time to read each book from cover to cover, but I find it helpful to examine writing styles and popular themes. I then try my best to be original with my plot, setting, and characters. It is very important to me to communicate my stories in a commercially viable way. I really want the kids to enjoy the stories, and that means keeping up with their current trends. I have often found that I make up something that has already been done by another writer or story teller. I find out about it usually three or four chapters too late and have to re-write entire passages. It keeps me flexible. lol One of the hardest challenges is to create a new myth, since the human psyche is so full of repetitive symbols. The works of Joseph Campbell have been very helpful for me as a writer. I also read fairy tales and folk tales from as many different cultures as I can. They have helped me with original material. Again, thanks for the tips!

  14. aneducationinbooks Says:

    I love that you say it should be all about the characters, not just the setting. For me, it's always the characters that get me reading. I'll read any genre if the characters speak to me.