If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There isn’t a person alive who hasn’t heard that adage. Amazingly, it applies perfectly to the literary arena.
Think I’m kidding? When was the last time you perused the New York Times Best Seller list? If you’re a writer with intentions of taking your craft to the career level (or even just the next level), I sincerely hope your answer is “Five minutes ago.”
Okay, I’m being a tad tongue-in-cheek, but the sentiment holds true: so-called “professional” writers should consistently familiarize themselves with every book that’s selling like hotcakes. And I’m not even talking about reading them—although that wouldn’t be such a bad idea if you’re writing in a similar genre. I mean just to familiarize yourself with the basics: the overall gist of the books and the companies publishing them.
If you’re seeking puddin’ proof of commercial viability, the best seller list has done all the legwork for you. And if you’re looking for publishers and editors to query for similar titles, once again, the information is at your fingertips.
But there’s a bigger takeaway I’m working towards here, and I’m sure I’m gonna catch hell from all the non-conformist scribes out there. If you dig a little deeper on the list, beyond the catchy titles and grabber dust-jackets, you’ll undoubtedly notice a pattern… Many of those best sellers encapsulate stories (or in the case of non-fiction, topics) that have been explored ad nauseam. Sure, the characters and settings have changed, but the stories are largely the same.
A love story is a love story. A hunt for buried treasure is a hunt for buried treasure. A serial killer being pursued by a detective is a serial killer being pursued by a detective. And on it goes.
I’ve attended more than a few literary workshops over the years and listened to writers talk about their works-in-progress. A good many of them start out with rockin’ “high concept” ideas (stories that can be pitched in merely a sentence or two), only to devolve the work—and its chance of securing a publishing deal— by plugging in multiple secondary story lines and fringe characters that add no value to the plot and don’t drive the story forward.
Rather than concentrate on fleshing out the basic concept to its fullest, all the while giving their primary characters more layers than an onion, they feel the need to pile on the extras.
Good writing is a lot like good cooking. Talented chefs know when to edit their recipes. Too much spice muddies the flavor. Less really can be more.
Please understand, I’m not suggesting you need to quell your originality by penning something that’s already been done. Perish the thought! But if you’re looking to give yourself a fighting chance at actually securing a publishing deal, giving agents and/or publishers the bones of a story they can wrap their head around—a story that, at its core, has sold innumerable copies and quite possibly resulted in a fast-tracked feature film that did halfway decent at the box office.
It’s the same reason Hollywood is constantly remaking movies we’ve all seen. Trust me when I tell you, there’s no shortage of original screenplays floating around Tinseltown. And many of them are quite good. Granted, there’s a lot of crap out there, too, but virtually every producer in the business of making movies has at least one yet-to-be-produced script in their drawer that, if the right talent and filmmakers are brought into the mix, the film could be a monster.
And yet they still choose to go the “been there, done that” route.
Because when big money is on the line, oftentimes the devil they know is much less scary than the devil they don’t.
And when you consider every book a publisher brings to market requires a non-inconsequential investment on their behalf, they want to make damn sure there’ll be a return on their investment.
Hell, just a decent shot at breaking even is a win.
But losing money?
Back the wrong books and editors/publishers will be searching for new jobs before searching for new titles.
So instead of doing some wild amalgamation of When Harry Met Sally meets Goodfellas meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind, how about just writing a great new love story?
Or instead of penning an exciting new heist novel with the backdrop of gene splicing, manned missions to Mars and time travel, what about just delivering on a great heist concept?
Truth-tellers can apply that same formula to the non-fiction arena. Build a better mousetrap. Self-help books will ALWAYS find a home—provided they actually deliver a fresh take on an old idea. Got a new diet routine that actually works? If you can prove it, you can become billionaire overnight. A new DIY ‘hack’ bible that hasn’t been showcased on YouTube yet? Not only could this be a best seller, this could be the next megahit unscripted reality show.
Long story short, you don’t have to think outside the universe when thinking outside the box. Simple concepts that can be articulately explained—PITCHED!—and then properly executed are all you need to see your name on the literary Valhalla that is the best seller list.
Until next time, happy writing!