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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    7 Comments

    1. “Fresh” might also be a story that has been “out of season” for a while that finally shows up again in the market (or fruit stand). How else could vampire stories keep returning? It’s seasonal, I guess. Instead of, “Ah, it’s berry season!” it’s “Ah, it’s vampire season!” But if “fresh” is really what editors and agents are looking for, why is Amish fiction still going strong? Doesn’t that throw a bit of a wrench into the search for “freshness”? And re: your proposed tale: My hunch is that “The First Zepina of Xingkit” didn’t spend enough time on the vine. It’s way too green.

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    2. great post.

      I’m guessing Eragon is the book those reviews are taken from. It was a classic Star Wars story.

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    3. I’m with Sally, great post 🙂

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    4. I bought one of my favorite authors sight unseen. I even spent the extra money on hard bound. The first chapter turned me off. I didn’t like the character. The character was not a victim of chance or an unsung hero, but a villain hiding in another country to escape the consequences of his actions. There was no remorse in his words. Fresh also means the characters need to be one we can relate to, get acquainted with, and like.

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    5. And what’s fresh to one person may be stale to another. For example, I’m not very familiar with Star Wars. I saw the original movie once, a long time ago, so Eragon did not seem that derivative to me. I thought it had other problems. All I can do as a writer is write the best story I possibly can from the idea in my head. I’ll drive myself nuts and not complete anything otherwise.

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    6. While I agree, Mike, that types of stories can be seasonal, I don’t think there’s a “seasonal” period for an unchanged story.

      The vampires today are not the same pale, fearsome vampires of yesteryear. They more closely represent the bad-boy romances of old than they do the vampire stories—at least Stephenie Meyers’ ones seem to.

      Becky

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    7. Sally and Morgan, those comments were about Eragon. And thanks for your feedback.

      Nikole, I agree that starting a story, familiar of not, with an unlikable character is problematic, yet an number of suspense writers do. Maybe that’s why suspense is lower on my preferred genre list. 😉

      Jeff, I really think you’ve nailed the issue here: what’s fresh to one person may be stale to another. I really want to understand the idea of “fresh” so I can avoid having editors roll their eyes at what they perceive to be stale.

      While it may seem unattainable, I tend to think there is something that causes people to sit up and take notice, to say, That’s a story I’d want to read, rather than, Ho-hum, I’ve heard that one before.

      Becky

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