Friday, June 18, 2010

The Writer's Dilemma

I talked yesterday with a newbie writer who'd contacted me for advice. She's been in query letter hell for the last year and was looking for a fresh perspective. I agreed to read her query letter and first chapter.

There was good news and bad news.

The good news is that she is a very competent writer. Her use of language and imagery were terrific. The chapter I read was clean and polished: she got right into the story without any backstory to slow down the action, and there were no grammatical errors. Her query letter was short and business-like with a brief synopsis.

She'd written a fantasy novel about a small group of vampires who protected the world from evil members of their kind who preyed on humans. Her hero was a brooding loner tired of his long life who unexpectedly found love with a spunky young woman he'd saved from an attack.

During our phone call, I told her all the good things I'd seen about the letter and her chapter. She wailed, "Then why aren't any agents interested in me? I researched carefully and only sent letters to agents who represent novels like mine."

I'd already asked whether she's getting form letters or personal responses from the agents she'd queried. Well over half the letters she is receiving are personal letters or form letters with personal notes added to them.

I said, "Let me take a stab at what they're saying. Things like, 'You write well, but this just didn't grab me.' Or 'This isn't what I'm looking for at this time'."

She practically jumped through the phone at me. "That's it. Exactly!"

I gave her the bad news. Her novel premise was derivative. Every agent she'd queried had seen it all before ... done by writers they already represented. There was nothing new or exciting about her manuscript.

She asked, "Isn't there anyone who'd be interested in my story?"

I said, "Sure, you could probably sell it to an online publisher. Releasing it as an e-book doesn't represent a huge risk to them so it would be easier to find a publisher that way. However, agents only eat when they can make a kill. A story everyone has seen before--and which their own clients have already written--won't excite them very much."

We continued to talk. She loves to read paranormal and wants to write what she reads. I began probing. Her interest in para-
normals started with her African-American grandmother who used to tell her voodoo stories.

I said, "Why not write a different kind of paranormal? Think about writing a voodoo story."

"I wouldn't know how to begin."

"How did you begin the novel you sent me?" I asked.

"That was easy. I knew how to write about vampires."

She couldn't see my grin over the phone. "Yeah, because you were following the template dozens of other writers established long before you arrived. Create your own template. Make readers want to know what happens next because you aren't writing a formulaic story."

My new friend faces the classic writer's dilemma. You know what's popular and what's selling today. You want to jump on the bandwagon. But you have to earn your own place in that parade. You can't just grab onto another writer's coattails.

Write what you love. Just make certain it's YOUR story you're telling.

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