How To Be Original and Still Get Published

Can a good writer remain unique?
Does a writer need a track record before originality can be attempted?

I’m always surprised when hear people saying the easy way to get published is to retread the same old tracks, present the same old characters in the same old situations and some publisher or other will decide that yes, this is ideal troll fodder for those weird people who read SF/Fantasy. My own experience suggests the exact opposite. I wrote my first full fantasy novel in 1991. It was a very traditional tale, young lad leaves home, gets caught up in various adventures, the usual rites of passage, so on and so forth. It had plot, subplot, detail on everything and a cast of thousands. I worked really hard on it; in all modesty I thought it was damn good. Friends whom I trusted to tell me honestly if it were crap liked it, so I sent it off to a couple of agents, a few publishers, sat back and waited for the replies. I was a little concerned as to how I would handle say, two or three conflicting offers but I figured I’d solve that problem when it arose.

Strangely enough, that was never a difficulty I had deal with. The agents and publishers who even bothered to reply said “Nice try, sorry, not interested.” Most of them also said, “it’s far too long”. One agent did offer to take it on but only if I paid a professional reviewer to write a report on how it needed rewriting and do you know, it just happened he knew someone he could recommend, for a mere &pound250! Anyone interested in writing should avoid deals like that like the plague. They’re a rip-off; I thought so at the time and didn’t bother, and every publisher or agent I’ve asked about it since has confirmed that.

So back to my first novel. The most telling line in all of the rejection letters I got was this;

There’s nothing to distinguish this from the six other perfectly competent fantasy novels that land on my desk every week.

Make a note of that, if you want to be a writer. Better yet, print it out and pin it to the wall next to your desk. You don’t have to be published before you can be original. You do have to be original before you’ll be published, if you’re going to get anywhere at all. The competition is phenomenal. One agent I know reckons she gets 1200 submissions a year, one editor has quoted 30 a week to me and another agent reckons on 3,500. Orbit, who publish me, get 1,500 a year. Those are unsolicited submissions by the way, what’s called the slush pile; that doesn’t include things they get via agents. That agent I quoted, of those 1,200, in a good year she might take on 2 new clients. The editor who gets 30 a week, reckons to have taken one slush pile author on in the last 10 years. Orbit have taken on 2 in the last 5 years, I’m one of them. That’s the kind of competition you’re facing and if you can’t stand out from the crowd, if you don’t have something new to bring to the party, you’re pretty much on a hiding to nothing.

So I had learned the hard way that my carefully crafted masterpiece was perfectly competent but nothing special. Realising I was going to get nowhere without more information, I set out to learn everything and anything that I could about writing. I read a lot of crime and mystery fiction, so one year when all my family and friends were asking what I wanted for my birthday, I asked for cash contributions so I could go on a crime and mystery weekend being run at my old college. That was in 1996 and I’ve been to all but a couple of the annual weekends since. There are talks by authors, critics, an agent did a presentation one year and also a couple of publishers. I’ve picked up some very useful things, especially on techniques of writing, plot structure, how to handle detail, how to avoid the data-dump, all very useful. I got to talk to crime writers who are household names and heard that when you hear about a writer trying ten or more publishers before being accepted, this isn’t unusual, in fact it’s pretty much the rule. A lot of authors find it’s their second, third, even fifth or seventh novel that’s the one finally gets accepted and gives them their start. The most telling thing I heard and it’s another quote to print out and pin up next to your desk was;

Every editor is looking for the same but different.

This was from a publisher explaining the Catch-22 that faces every editor. They want to publish what they know will sell because if they make the wrong choices, the book becomes what the sales reps refer to as a Falkland book, as in ‘I counted them all out and I counted them all back in’. Books go out from publishers to shops on a sale or return basis for the most part. If the editor gets it wrong, the books come winging back to the warehouse, the company loses money and that editor’s job is on the line. On the other hand, the great book buying public is not that stupid, not everyone is going to buy the same old story in a different jacket time and again. Also, every editor wants to find the next Longitude, the next Captain Corelli, the next Harry Potter.They’d quite like to be the editor who picks up the next big thing when every one else has passed it by. Editors aren’t infallible by the way, which is why the aspiring writer has to send their submission to anyone and everyone who might publish it. What someone hates, someone else will love. This editor who was talking about ‘the same but different’ was on the editorial committee that turned down Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow, which of course, became a million-seller and a hugely successful film with Harrison Ford. But this was before people like John Grisham got started and this particular committee all agreed a complicated American legal thriller would be a waste of paper in this country.

So the writer has to be original but not too original. Highlighting that originality is crucial in initial submissions, to convince the editor that this book is indeed ‘the same but different’. That letter is a sales letter, make no mistake.

I write fairly traditional heroic fantasy, The Thief’s Gamble can be quite fairly called a quest novel. The Swordsman’s Oath, you’ll guess from the title, has to do with issues of loyalty, nothing earth-shattering there. As you’ll see from the cover and the jacket copy, there’s what can loosely be called a magic sword as a central element. So what did I bring that was new? Well, I write in the first person, they are ‘I’ books, not unique in fantasy but less common. I write in very direct, colloquial language; my characters use slang, abbreviate each other’s names, and insult people in fairly forthright terms. It’s a style that stands out and I try to make what I do with the traditions of heroic fantasy a bit different on top of that. I’m determined to avoid the more crushing clichés of the genre. There will be no lost heirs turning up as farm boys, with or without unrecognised magical powers, there are no dark forces of motiveless malignancy, no all encompassing prophecies moving my characters around like pieces on a chess board. That’s another less common angle, though more common in recent years, I am relieved to say as a reader.

When I was pitching The Thief’s Gamble, I could point these things out; it’s different but not too different. I could point out that Livak, my heroine, while not your typical fantasy female does have a great deal in common with Kinsey Milhone, Kate Brannigan and VI Warshawski, to my mind the best of the independent female Private Eyes who’ve taken the crime genre by storm in the last 10 or 15 years. Look, Mr Editor, the same style of character but different genre.

You have to be original but you have to be original within the recognised parameters of the genre. Consider The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. There are some wonderfully original ideas in there but in terms of form and writing and a lot of the characterisation, it’s a very traditional novel. The same but different. There’s a wonderful episode of Yes Prime Minister about setting up a party political broadcast and the rules are explained; if you’re presenting something radical, the minister should look traditional and reassuring, wear a dark suit, have an oak panelled background and leather bound books. If you’re not doing anything new, you want a light, modern suit, a modern high-tech setting with abstract paintings. I’m sure you could all come up with books that are something startling smuggled in under cover of a dark suit and others that are basically the same old thing but jazzed up with the literary equivalent of high energy wall paper and a Stravinsky sound track.

So you have to be original but is that enough? No that’s by no means the whole story. I belong to a Oxford writers’ organisation and some while ago found myself talking to a nuclear physicist who’d had various technical books published and was desperate to find a publisher for his masterwork, the great novel. I have to say, I don’t hold out a lot of hope. He was very keen to tell me all about it, it’s sort of a whodunnit but not really, and then in some ways its a philosophical exploration and then again, it’s something of a love story but there is a science fiction element too. If he presents it like that, I can’t see any publisher taking it on. Publishing is a business; book shops are arranged into sections and genres and any book that can’t be fitted into one of those is facing an uphill struggle This chap was also dead set against doing any rewriting or making any changes. Apparently the quality of his writing makes that impossible and anyway, that’s what will sell the novel for him, making any sales pitch unnecessary. I have to say I doubt this, if his writing is anything like his conversation. Given the choice between another half hour talking to this guy and watching paint dry, point me at the gloss or the emulsion. It may be this guy has some startlingly original ideas. It may be that his writing is superb. I still don’t reckon that will get him published because he’s so inflexible in his attitude.

Something I’ve heard, with slight variations, from three editors and two agents all murmuring ‘don’t tell anyone I said this but’ is

When you’re reading a new submission, you’re always looking for the reason to turn it down.

That sounds extremely harsh but think back to the numbers I quoted. It’s the only way to run a publishing house without vanishing under an avalanche of paper. That reason will often be the writing, it will frequently be lack of originality but equally it can be the amateur, unbusiness like way that the author has presented their manuscript or presents themself through their letters. It can be that the deal falls through on contract details because the writer just has no idea what is or is not a realistic offer, which is where an agent can be invaluable, if you can find one to take you on.

I had to convince any publisher that I was a professional writer, as serious about the business of writing and publishing as they were. Once Orbit had made an offer for my first novel, a deal that was dependent on me submitting an outline for a second, I rewrote the start extensively, I changed various things near the end and added nearly a third of the final text. Having been told my first novel was far too long, I had really concentrated on keeping the prose tight, avoiding over writing, really being strict with myself. One of the first things Tim my editor said during our initial discussions was he did feel it was rather too short, so did I think I could add about 50,000 words? Yes, I said, of course, no problem! That’s how The Thief’s Gamble comes to have a sub-plot written in the third person format. We discussed various titles before we agreed on The Thief’s Gamble and what name I might write under, where a lot of marketing considerations applied.

No-one outside West Oxfordshire knows how to pronounce my married name when they see it written, and in fantasy terms any name that starts with S or T will get you stuck on a bottom shelf next to Tolkien, where all anyone is for is The Hobbit. McKenna, my maiden name, puts me between Anne McCaffrey and Terry Pratchett, which is a very good shelf position. One of the things that helps my working relationship with Orbit is I don’t have to have these things explained to me. I learned a lot about book selling working part-time for my local branch of Ottakar’s, between kids. In particular, if you think it’s difficult to get a publisher to take your manuscript, you try being a sales rep getting a bookseller to take a first novel by someone they’ve never heard of. Originality is often the key for the rep to get that book onto the shelves.

So why are so many unoriginal books published? True, I come across books time and again that look like something I’ve already read with just the names changed to protect the guilty. Personal taste is a factor here, especially in editors, which is why you have to be persistent and send out submission after submission after submission. Another factor is personal contacts. Next time WHS are running their ‘Fresh Talent’ promotion, look at the authors details on their little handouts. Most years, while it’s their first novel, pretty well all of the writers work in journalism, the media or publishing in some form or other. It’s a fact of life that it’s far easier to get published if you have contacts which means it’s far easier to get something less original published.

I’m no different to anyone else in this regard; Orbit got my original submission via the sales rep who deals with the shop where I used to work. A pal still working there read it, liked it both as a fan and as a bookseller. The rep read it, liked it and reckoned it was a book he could sell, so was willing to put his own credibility on the line in forwarding it to the editors with a note to that effect. At that stage Harper Collins were also interested, having picked the submission up from the slush pile, so that personal contact isn’t the whole story but it certainly speeded up the process and helped me stand out from the six other perfectly competent fantasy novels competing for attention that week. Other writers I know have made their own contacts, to help them stand out from the crowd, through meeting people at conventions, establishing themselves with a track record in short stories or genre journalism, reviewing, that kind of thing. You don’t have to have had the forethought to have famous parents or a godparent who happens to be an all-powerful literary agent.

Thinking back to the unoriginal fantasy books out there, I think a track record can stifle a writer’s originality. There are always authors basically rewriting their early novels and frankly not making as good a job of it. You do need a track record before your publisher is going to let you take a really dramatic chance on something startling but you’re going to have a hell of an argument on your hands to get him to agree, regardless of your sales. I would argue that’s the point where many a good writer has trouble remaining unique.

In summary, I would argue that unless you have inside contacts or a media profile that makes you certain to generate sales however bad the book, you have to be original to get published and then the next hurdle is staying original.

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