My Dear Husband gave me some excellent advice yesterday, and I thought I’d share it with you. I was noodling over a book that was in the works, trying to figure out why it was so hard to hard to write, when the prequel was so easy, and he asked, “What’s different about this version of the story? What are you giving the reader that they haven’t seen before?”
Oh. Oops. Because this story was meant to be partially a re-examination of events in the prequel, A Small and Inconvenient Disaster, from the perspective of a character who was somewhat sympathetic but definitely on the other side of the argument. This gives the story a slightly different cast- the POV character is not as blandly nice as she appeared in the prequel- but it’s not enough to hang an entire novel on. I was going give the reader the same conversations and events, with different speech tags and description, and hope they didn’t notice.
But as DH reminded me, readers like novelty. Even in regency romances, a rather formulaic genre, they don’t want to hear the exact same story over and over. At least change the names, for heaven’s sake.
As with many aspects of writing, this concept exists on a spectrum. Even in the regency genre, some readers prefer more formula, others like a little more novelty. Thrillers seems to be the male-directed version of regency; the Clive Cussler books became pretty interchangeable after a while, possibly because the author insisted on making so many cameos that I can’t actually remember the name of the series; it’s catalogued in my mind under the author’s name only.
Since I don’t want readers to look at my books and wonder if they were churned out by a novel-writing computer program, I need to incorporate a little novelty. As should you; bored readers usually don’t buy your next book.
This is not easy. You have to determine how much originality is appropriate for your genre, and there are so many books out there that your plot and characters will be similar to at least one other book. Since you also have to give the reader appropriate cues and use familiar tropes (you can use them unironically or turn them on their heads), this isn’t as awful at it seems. The whole process is rather like making bread- too little yeast, and the loaf is flat and dense; too much yeast, and it’s nothing but air and tastes funny.
Adding novelty is another good reason to read lots of books (as if anyone ever needed a reason to read more), particularly books in your genre. Most people do this before starting to write their book, because they want to have the genre-specific tropes and language fresh in their mind, but don’t want to subconsciously alter their voice to sound like another author. But you should have at least a passing familiarity with the giants of your genre; it’ll help you see which tropes to use and which have been done to death and should be avoided. For the same reason, you might consider interacting with other fans of the genre, so your work doesn’t inadvertently become a meme, or if it does, you’ll know about it quickly.
I didn’t mean for this to turn into yet another ‘do your research and know your genre’ post, but it seems like a lot of writing-related things come back to that. DH also gave me some good advice on character arcs, which I’ll share with you in another post. Thank goodness one of us was actually taught how to write (DH) and isn’t just winging it (me, as usual). But it did make me reconsider whether this book was worth salvaging, between the general boringness of it all, and the odd characterization.
The short answer: it’s not. Luckily, it was an offshoot of the main series from the beginning, so I can set it aside and move on to the next one without too much trouble. I only have to contend with the knowledge that I wasted a couple weeks fighting with a book that wasn’t going anywhere. I guess I’ll know better next time.
My to-do list is about as long as my arm today, so, talk among yourselves. Have you ever scrapped a book when you were halfway through it? Have you ever written and published a book, thinking it was ultra exciting, only for the readers to disagree- or vice versa? Do you throw books against the wall if they’re too derivative, or is that a punishment reserved for different errors?