What Makes a Work of Fiction Fresh?

Hang around acquisition editors and agents (or their blogs) for a while and you hear the oft repeated phrase, I’m looking for something fresh. What exactly does that mean? After all, isn’t it fresh to write a fantasy called The First Zepina of Xingkit? I bet no one’s written that one before!

Of course, there’s no guarantee, since we don’t know what a Zepina is.

The first rule of freshness would seem to be, it must be on a recognizable vine. In other words, “fresh” doesn’t mean something so unknown that readers aren’t curious.

When I ask someone what they do for a living and they answer that they transpose the digital data from the analog system in the xzgkrst imnblop wazseb, well, you can see where they lost me (though the process probably started after “transpose.” 😉 ) In these instances, I’m so lost, I don’t know enough to ask any more questions.

In the same way, if a story seems so foreign to a reader, he doesn’t know what questions to ask as it unfolds, his eyes will glaze over and he’ll put the book down.

“Fresh” also hasn’t been sitting on the vine so long that it’s started to turn black or mushy to the touch. In other words, it can’t be overdone. A story that is fermenting is one that has been done and redone in many, many ways, but a writer wants to tell it yet again sans significant changes.

These stories, some actually getting in print, are the ones readers and reviewers alike tag as derivative. They’ve been retold in a way that does not change or camouflage the source material. Take a look at these lines from some Amazon reviews:

  • I kept feeling as if I where reading a poor reproduction of Robert Jordan’s THE WHEEL OF TIME.
  • I find [the] plot more reminiscent of Star Wars than of anything else.
  • the events and ideas come from other authors.
  • These comments, by the way, are about the same book. (Any guesses which one?)

    So “fresh” can’t be too off the beaten path, nor can it be down Main St. Central. Then what IS it?

    The simplest explanation is, a fresh story is a familiar one told in a new way. Or a different story told in a familiar way.

    Here’s what’s hard for us pre-published authors, as I see it. Since we haven’t earned anyone’s trust yet, selling someone on the idea that our story IS fresh—not too weird or too stale—is hard work.

    I have a writer friend who had a test reader put down her manuscript because she thought she knew what was coming next. Never mind that the author had perfectly set her up for the surprise twist she wouldn’t see coming; the reader never gave the book a chance.

    Bottom line, agents and acquisition editors need to be convinced, before they’ll look at complete manuscripts, that they are looking at something fresh.

    Published in: on June 1, 2010 at 3:42 pm  Comments (7)  
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