I came across this while reading a book called ‘Rhinos on the Lawn’. It’s about the history of The Cotswold Wildlife Park which is well worth a visit if you find yourself within striking distance of Burford, Oxfordshire.
My first thought was, ‘ooh, that’s good advice for writers too’, swiftly followed (in Granny Weatherwax approved fashion) by second thoughts. ‘Hang on. Is it really?’
Because as many writers know from firsthand experience, myself included, you’re not going to get anywhere writing a book that simply ticks all the expected boxes. Like many others, I tried that with the Definitive Blockbuster Fantasy Masterwork – aka my first novel which thankfully sank without trace beneath the weight of agently and editorial indifference to a youth-leaves-home-rites-of-passage tale. As one said at the time ‘there’s nothing to distinguish this from the half-dozen perfectly competent fantasy novels which cross my desk each week’. It wasn’t until I found something new and original to weave a story around that I wrote something warranting publication.
On the other hand, I was reminded over Loncon3 of something I said a good few years ago, when someone retweeted Patrick Nielsen Hayden saying on a panel ‘A trope is a cliché with PR’. He promptly and courteously acknowledged he remembered me saying that in Dublin in 2006. Thinking back, as I recall, my precise words were ‘A classic is often just a cliché with good PR.’
Which is the same thing in some contexts, and subtly different from other perspectives, so I think Patrick’s words stand on their own merit as well. Crucially thinking about that reminds me of something I heard from a commissioning editor at the very first St Hilda’s Crime & Mystery Conference, back in 1996. ‘What we’re always looking for in publishing,’ she said, ‘is “the same but different”.’
Because there are common features to both the classic tales and to the new stories that seize a reader’s interest with original characters and fresh perspectives while still revisiting tales of heroes, jeopardy, quests, defiance (doomed or successful), rivalry, vengeance, good men (and women) in opposition etc etc. This stuff really never gets old.
On the other hand, once something has been a great success, from Harry Potter to Sookie Stackhouse and any number of other examples besides, there’s only so much time before the market for similar books is saturated. Given the lead times in publishing, most of those books will probably already be in production by the time you read one of those exemplars. So the writer starting out with a fresh blank page really does need to find their own ‘same but different’ instead of ‘just doing what’s new’.
Which brings me to something else I’ve had lingering in the back of my mind since Loncon3. Scott Lynch said something memorable, when we were both on a panel about writing professionally. Talking about ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’ (if you haven’t read it, do!) he said ‘I wrote the book I didn’t see on the shelves’. In one of those light bulb moments, I realised that’s exactly what I did with ‘The Thief’s Gamble’: putting an independently minded solo female protagonist into a high fantasy setting.
Is that one way to find ‘the same but different?’ Maybe, maybe not. When I tweeted that, someone came back with the entirely reasonable point ‘maybe that book’s not on the shelves because it won’t sell.’ Which reminded me of something I heard Michael Marshall Smith say at a convention in Derby a few years back, so I’m guessing it was an early Edge Lit.
Paraphrasing because I can’t recall his precise example, when discussing how far you have to write what the market wants, he said, ‘You might write the definitive unicorn vampire serial killer novel. You might sell it to each and every fan of unicorn vampire serial killer novels in the world. But if there are only five hundred of those particular fans in the entire world, that’s not going to sustain a writing career.’
In other words, too different is none too good either. Incidentally, this is why every agent says how hard it is to sell crossover novels to publishers and every editor says how hard it is to successfully pitch crossover novels to booksellers. Not least because every bookseller has stories of the truly weird places where crossover novels get shelved by confused staff, to the further confusion of readers and to the detriment of the book’s sales.
So how do you write the book you don’t see on the shelves while telling your story in a way that’s the same but different?
How about this?
“Don’t go chasing after the latest new thing just to copy it.
Read it in hopes that it will inspire a fresh idea of your own.
Test that new idea against the classic elements which never get old in stories.”
Not as snappy but more nuanced.
(And incidentally, all this does show how and why I have always found it so useful going to hear writers, editors, agents etc talk at conventions, library events and literary festivals.)