Originality Doesn’t Sell

I’m about to be pissy about something. Get your jaw off the floor. I say this, not because it contrasts to my usual, cheery, positive self, but because I’m going to make fun of a behavior that has gotten on my nerves for sheer commonality, not because these people are doing anything wrong. It is possible, in fact, that I am entering into the realm of hypocrisy. But still.

Originality is harder to achieve than perceived by those newcomers first stepping into the literary sea. Immaculate originality, something purely new and unseen before by the eye of man, is impossible. But even going against the current trend and doing something novel to what’s being made right now takes a great deal more effort than what some might think.

Every so often while on a writing forum, someone wants to know what others think of their idea. This in itself is understandable. We’re excited and we want to talk about it. It’s in the same vein of why girls pick apart every minutiae of what their crush has done; we just want to talk about him, it really doesn’t matter what about him. To the inexperienced observer, it looks as though this aspiring writer actually wants advice when the truth is the conversation will end with a, “Well, I’m doing it anyway.”

I’ve written an article I’ve never posted about “What You Should Know about Other Authors.” Number one is they have no idea if your concept is going to sell or not. I don’t care if you’re Stephen King pitching your own inspiration, the market is so strange that even the experts can’t promise an idea is guaranteed.

Sometimes these inquiring writers just don’t want to waste their time. Again, understandable, but there’s no helping it. Writing is about spending time doing weird things that you’ll never be sure if they had a positive or negative effect. You will waste your time writing a book that won’t be published, or a scene that will be cut, or doing a first draft that will drastically change in the second, then go back to what it was in the third. The unfortunate truth is a book’s quality cannot be determined until after it already exists.

But these aren’t the issues that annoy me. The thing that comes up that makes me have to bite my tongue, sit on my fingers, and call up my friend to bitch to is when someone has little understanding of the market and banks on his “original” idea being something incredible simply by concept alone.

It can manifest in him asking you to write it, or asking if it’s marketable before he goes to the trouble of working on it. Maybe he’s just bragging. At best he just needs someone to bounce ideas off of. No matter the case, he illustrates a huge misconception on just how valuable originality is (and what it is.)

First and foremost, the aspiring author attempts at originality with a very common method. He takes his perception of what a book is (or a character or a world or a genre) and then attempts to do the exact opposite.

Real examples:

“I want to write a fantasy book that doesn’t involve politics and kings and queens and horrible worlds, but just about a normal person living in a magical world.”

“My dwarves are evil and elves are the ones who like gold.”

“I’m not going to write a nice, naïve, and weak love interest. Mine will be strong and smart,” (And a bitch.)

“I’m going to kill off the nice character.”

I’m not arguing that these ideas can’t be marketable, I’m saying that their creators are assuming the marketing bonus is their uniqueness when, in reality, it’s a lot more common than they think.

When trying to be original, a writer needs to be aware of two things: What is actually in the market currently, and what is being submitted currently.

Someone who is not well read in fantasy may think that all fantasy books are like Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings when there is actually a great deal more diversity. Actual fans of the genre have a different idea of clichés than the mass populace who only gets a peripheral glance.

For instance, I read a lot of speculative fiction featuring female protagonists. I have so since middle school. So Frozen’s ending of a platonic love breaking the spell was not only cliché, but predictable. Not so to people like my brother whose focus was on big-picture, male hero fantasy novels, or my friend who reads realistic fiction.

When a writer wants to go against the common trend, he needs to have a better picture of what the common trend actually is, not just seeing what the popular books are doing. Because a lot of beginning writers don’t read as much as their potential fans, or they don’t read the genre they’re writing in, they often have a skewed idea of what’s actually going on. First reason why not to bank on originality selling is because it might not be as original as you think.

This becomes an extra problem when dealing with a gatekeeper. What is being submitted isn’t always what’s being published. A well-read writer who only reads published, polished books also is missing a huge chunk of information about what they’re being compared to. As an editor of a literary journal, I find a lot of unexpected similarities in the stories I read. The ones that differ, the ones that are “original” compared to the stack, get taken more seriously.

The problem is when, say, an agent or editor is reading one hundred stories and pulls out the five different ones, the similarities between those five may not have anything to do with the similarities of the rest. The common choice amongst the unchosen works is also not exposed to the public, meaning the writer has no idea that his choice actually is common.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that the writer has come up with a concept that is unique. Not even unique for now, but unlike what most readers have ever considered.

That still doesn’t mean it will sell.

On opposite spectrums you have original and relatable. The more original something is, the less relatable it is, and vice-versa. Now if you look at the top bestselling novels, you have A Tale of Two Cities, Lord of the Rings, The Petite Prince, and Harry Potter. Top movies: Avatar, Titanic, and The Avengers.

Many of these stories don’t have a pitch-worthy concept. Their originality takes form in execution, more so than the plot. Much of their success has to do with relatable characters dealing with issues that most people see themselves as having (though not to the extremes or with the magical properties.) You’ll note that many of these have been criticized for plagiarizing their themes, or just not being that original. A boy going to magic school? An invading military man being swayed by the nature loving locals? An engaged woman falling in love with someone below her station? Superheroes fighting someone who wants to destroy the world?

What these things have, really, is not a never explored concept, but a relatable situation with new elements or perspective. Experienced writers say that it’s all about execution, and that’s because any successful story requires a balance of relatability with novelty. And that relatability is far more important than the novelty. If you can offer a book that discusses feelings and issues and perspectives that help your readers not feel so alone, then they may just ignore the fact that they could find the same subject or plot elsewhere. It’s why so many successful books aren’t original.

Whenever someone introduces something new, the instinctual reaction is rejection. Different means unpredictable, which can be exciting, but is also terrifying. A writer using techniques or discussing topics that aren’t normally talked about might just be an idiot who doesn’t know what he’s doing. That suggests you'll get into this story and he leaves you in the lurch. Or, without predicting how this story will probably make you feel, you might end up some place you don’t want to be. We categorize books into genres for exactly that reason: People want to choose how they’re going to react. I want a romance novel to yearn for love. I want a horror novel to scare the pants off of me. I want a drama to make me cry. It’s also why mislabeling a genre can be so disastrous for the reviews.

The more you write, the more you learn that originality is the least important part of your writing. It’s far more about making your reader feel things, think things, be immersed in the world, laugh, cry, change.

So why is it something people push? Why is it so sought after?

Because something new forces us to rethink. We can’t go on autopilot and let our assumptions do the work. We don’t grow tolerant and jaded. Our feelings are rejuvenated. Originality doesn’t sell. Feelings do, and originality is one of the best means to make us feel the most intense.

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