The Quest for Originality

Are you tired of being told by a publisher “We simply don’t do books like that”? or “Yours is certainly out of the box, but is not what we are looking for at this time”?

What’s the Deal with Boxes?

In general all books are sold under a category. Be it a fiction genre (historical, suspense, romance) or a topical non-fiction category (marriage, parenting, finance, theology). When you are told your is “out of the box” what do they mean?

The above categories/genres are boxes. Publishers publish into boxes. They are convenient places to put a new title to help the consumer know what to expect.

While one may resist this seeming restriction, the reality is that you buy books out of boxes. Think about it. You want a new detective mystery. Likely you either go to that section of the store or go to some familiar author on your favorite online store and start looking around…inside that box. It is doubtful that, in your quest for a new detective mystery, that you will stumble into the “Car Repair” box and buy that instead.

These boxes are fairly large and can encompass a lot of titles.

Yes there are titles that cross boxes or genres or categories. There can be Romantic Suspense, Military Science Fiction, or similar. Even in non-fiction you’ll find books that could be classified in more than one box. That’s okay and has been that way forever.

But if yours is so different it is “out of the box” then no one knows where to put it and it becomes that much more difficult to be discovered by readers who root around inside a particular box. (Try to imagine how to classify a Bible Study Memoir with Fictional elements.)

So What Do I Do?

I like to describe it visually so bear with me as I attempt to do it with words. Imagine a circle you can make with your index finger and your thumb. That is the “box” and is where the publisher is publishing books. Your idea is outside that circle. It’s a good idea, it’s well written, but it defies simple classification. (By the way, if you have to explain what your book is, no one will be patient enough to “listen” and will have clicked to the next book online.)

Maybe write a new book that intersects the “box” but is still is partially outside the “box.” It will cause the original circle/box to expand to include your idea. And thus is one step closer to the other one that was out of consideration. After time, the market and the publisher is open to that original idea because the readers have become accustomed to new ideas that still fit within their own “boxes.”

Examples in the past include This Present Darkness that in the 80s redefined supernatural fiction. 90 Minutes in Heaven opened the market wider for “near death” experience books in the Christian market. Prayer of Jabez opened the market for short form non-fiction. Blue Like Jazz offered gritty wrestling with the Christian faith as a viable type of memoir. In fiction (due to the popularity of the general market novel Outlander) there has been a rise in interest for “time slip” novels. The examples are endless.

The Danger of Derivative Ideas

Some authors will see a successful book and think they can create something similar but derivative. There have been some success in that area but is fraught with danger. One is the lack of originality. Original thinking can be rewarded. Being a copy-cat often does not.

The other danger is litigation. Years ago there was a series of kids novels where the reader could interact with the story. The reader would be asked in the text, “If Sally says yes, turn to page 42” or “If Sally says no, turn to page 56.” Thus the reader chose their own adventure. Recently Netflix was sued by Chooseco, which owns the “Choose Your Own Adventure” brand. Apparently a recent Netflix show called Black Mirror: Bandersnatch took the idea of an interactive approach to the film. It is an ongoing lawsuit (more can be found at this link) but shows one of the dangers when trying to use a variation of an idea that already exists.

Bottom Line

Please don’t view the above thoughts as a capitulation to the “oppressive publishing machine.” Instead this is an attempt to explore one of the constant challenges we face in the content creation business. How do we find original ideas when the marketplace has only so much capacity to embrace those ideas? Finding a need and filling it has been the pursuit of entrepreneurs and artists for a long time.

May your next idea be the one that makes us exclaim, “What a great idea! How come this hasn’t been done before?”

35 Responses to The Quest for Originality

  1. Avatar
    Shirlee Abbott January 14, 2019 at 4:05 am #

    I want something that not only checks the box, I want something that makes the box bigger.

  2. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 14, 2019 at 6:10 am #

    My very life’s become a cell
    whose walls I cannot touch;
    running with outstretched hands I fell
    into a pit of pain, and much
    to my surprise I found
    that at its bottom lay grace.
    On my back, on that ground
    I looked into God’ Lov’d Face.
    So many paradigms are broken
    in finding ways to build a tale
    that I think it’ll stay unspoken
    because my skills cannot prevail
    against the need for category;
    I but ride the tiger of this story.

  3. Avatar
    Jennifer Mugrage January 14, 2019 at 7:51 am #

    Andrew … So good to see you back. And, great verse.

    Steve … It’s interesting. Some agents post that they like “genre-bending” novels. Others actually have a drop-down box on their query page where we have to select from a pre-set list of categories. And not all these lists are the same. I guess that illustrates the tension.

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 14, 2019 at 10:10 am #

      Jennifer, thank you so much! The holiday break was kind of literal for me…two bad falls on ice (on successive days!). The second one did some real damage.

      For what it’s worth, the discipline that trying to place a relevant comment in the rhyme/meter form of a Shakespearean sonnet is excellent therapy for the dullness of mind that unremitting pain causes.

      It’s also fun.

  4. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D January 14, 2019 at 8:08 am #

    Steve, thanks for the very interesting blog posting. I had never heard of time slip but there have been several movies in the past the embraced it- Kate and Leopold is one of my favorites, as is the Christopher Reeves one that took place in a hotel in Michigan, if memory serves. I think it was called A Moment in Time.

  5. Avatar
    Katie Powner January 14, 2019 at 8:23 am #

    I appreciate this explanation. I also love the idea of writing a book that expands a genre. I’m thankful for all the authors who have already done that!

  6. Avatar
    Kathy in Michigan January 14, 2019 at 9:10 am #

    Steve, would you comment on “true-life novel” and historical fiction? Is the first a new genre? I’m wondering where my work will fit. It is about my ancestors in their actual settings, true history, but if course I have put words in their mouths and created their actions which are not substantiated by research. What am I writing?

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube January 14, 2019 at 10:44 am #

      Kathy in Michigan,

      You are writing historical fiction. But you can say it is based on true events…even expand it to indicate these events are your ancestors.

      All historical fiction is in some form or fashion based on history. If not the characters, then it is the setting or the events which frame the story.

      Focus on writing the best novel possible. The danger of writing a fictional history of your ancestors is letting history overwhelm the story. Sometimes the novelist is better to let the story tell itself rather than being slaved to the facts. It IS a novel.

      I once asked a famous author who wrote novels based in WWII about literal accuracy to historical events. She said she would move a battle by as much as two weeks so that it would occur in the timeline of her character’s movement through that part of the country. Otherwise the trip would be rather boring.

      • Avatar
        Kathy January 14, 2019 at 1:43 pm #

        “Release me from the tyranny of exact information.” a quote by David Lavender, who was a western historian and writer. I try to consider this quote from one of his books all the years I have been writing and researching. It reminds me that the characters, their development and conflicts, are the focus. The research has been enjoyable, to say the least, and has prompted me to write a photo-biography (perhaps a photo-history), of sorts, of the photographer in the family. I too have moved some events and people around, using them so the story could move forward, or to develop the characters. And yes, I am often caught up in facts, and find myself attempting to insert bits and creating scenes of the facts. I think of the facts and photographs as hooks to hang the story on. Thank you for clarifying what I am writing.

  7. Avatar
    Lori Altebaumer January 14, 2019 at 9:12 am #

    This is what I needed today. I am working on a book proposal and researching comparable titles has brought me to a level of anxiety I hadn’t expected when I started writing my romantic suspense. Following the advice of “write the book you want to read” (although I can’t remember who said it), led me to write this book about a heroine who doesn’t mad law enforcement or military skills. She’s just an average person with the strength and courage to rise to the occasion. And then I put her in West Texas. No urban coffee shops or crowds to hide in. It seems that the most popular books in this genre have women leads who are criminologists, FBI agents and such. So will my novel intersect the genre enough to fit there? I’m still researching (but if anyone has any titles/authors they would like to recommend I look at I would love to hear your suggestions).

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube January 14, 2019 at 10:48 am #

      Having main characters who are criminologists, forensic experts, FBI profilers, etc. gives them great credibility to being inside the suspense of the story.

      The average person suddenly becoming the expert is a little harder to accept.

      In the cozy mystery genre we have the “Miss Marple” type where she is the unassuming woman who solves the mystery.

      Without seeing your material I can only hazard a guess as to the believability of your main character.

      If you have not already, consider joining ACFW (www.acfw.com) where a couple thousand other Christian novelists can help out with their expertise. They also have a great web site called http://www.fictionfinder.com where you can research other novels of similar topic to yours.

      • Avatar
        Lori Altebaumer January 14, 2019 at 2:19 pm #

        Thank you Steve. That’s a great point (not that you needed me to tell you that). I need to re-evaluate to consider if the heroine’s actions and conclusions could benefit from the added credibility that law enforcement training would provide. But also thanks for the reminder about fictionfinder.com. I am a member of ACFW but had forgotten about this resource.

  8. Avatar
    Carol Ashby January 14, 2019 at 11:20 am #

    Great article, Steve. Knowing where your book fits doesn’t stop with its broader genre. Figuring out your novel’s “box” is a vital part of selecting the keywords that will let readers find your books at Amazon for indies. Two of mine take place in Roman Germany, and using “Roman Germany novel” in the Amazon search brings both up on the first page of search results. If we remember people use Amazon like they would Google as a search engine, that can help us pick the right boxes for linking up with people who will love our books. For someone seeking representation, it can show how many other books share your book’s topic and give you an idea of the size of the competition.

    It can also help an author find the right comp books for proposals to agents or publishers. Books with sales ranks better than 100K from traditional publishing houses (which can be found when you scroll down to Product Details) could be useful comp titles, with sales ranks below about 30K often being on the top 100 Amazon best sellers (paid) in a category like Christian historical romance.

  9. Avatar
    Maco Stewart January 14, 2019 at 1:19 pm #

    Steve, my novel is about an ex-CIA operative coming to Christ. In this process, she faces more harrowing dangers than she ever did abroad, despite her having taken a “safer”job managing black scientific projects for the Intelligence Community. Along the way, she falls in love for the first time.

    Finding the right “box” has been tricky!

  10. Avatar
    Steve Laube January 14, 2019 at 1:30 pm #

    Maco,

    As described it seems pretty straightforward. The story has suspense. And it has romance. = Romantic Suspense.

    That genre usually has the romantic element very prominent. If it isn’t a driving force of the story then it is a straight Suspense.

    Most stories has some element of romance in them, but if it is a critical driver to the story then it is “historical romance” “romantic suspense” etc.

    Steve

    • Avatar
      Maco Stewart January 14, 2019 at 2:24 pm #

      Thanks, Steve. Romantic suspense it shall be, easy on the romance, heavy on outmaneuvering the malefactors.

  11. Avatar
    Debra Torres January 14, 2019 at 3:02 pm #

    Hi Steve, I guess I’ve had a recent “out-of-the-box” experience with my Amish novel, “The Forbidden Gift.” Because “The Forbidden Gift” goes deeper into real-life issues, it doesn’t fit the mold of the “cozy Amish” books that are so popular right now.

    And yet, this book and its sequel offer something unique and original to a vast readership.

    I feel like my novel might be “that book” that you mention at the top of this post that can help readers begin to accept deeper Amish works of inspirational fiction.

    But I don’t know where to take it from here.

    Can you tell me what you would advise I do to help my book get published?

    • Avatar
      Brennan S. McPherson January 14, 2019 at 6:39 pm #

      Don’t know if anyone can say who to bring the book to, but you should read Jolina Petersheim’s “Amish” fiction. I’ve found she brings that sort of edge to the genre, as well, and she’s done well. But she crafted a niche with two books being dystopian amish fiction. And she writes extremely well.

      As Steve said in his post, the business side of writing is about finding a need and filling it. The key is that it must be a “felt need.” Meaning, a need that people know they have and actively search for something to fill it. Then you need to know how to deliver it to those people. Make it easy for them to find and want to purchase your work. So, what unique need does your book address, and how does your book do what no other books do? Then, how are you going to find those people who have that need (and know they have it), and then deliver your book to them as an answer to their problem?

      • Avatar
        Debra Torres January 14, 2019 at 7:31 pm #

        Brennan, some good thoughts here! Not sure how to discover how to find a “felt need” amongst readers. Maybe conduct some kind of survey? I’ll need to put some thought into it. I just know there is a lack of good Amish/Mennonite books that deal with this type of writing. Jolina Petersheim is a favorite of mine. And I have used her books as a model for my own writing.

        I have been in discussion with Jolina about this very topic. I know that she realized she was “out of the box,” as well.

  12. Avatar
    Nick Kording January 15, 2019 at 6:55 pm #

    Sorry I am late to this but I kept the email because I’m interested in how the box stretches to include work on the edge of the box. This was really interesting – I think of books like Rooms, which was way out of the box when shopped around, but now is decidedly considered speculative even though I wouldn’t classify it as spec. I am learning we, as authors, should be prepared for any objection to our books when pitching to agents and publishers. This process should, I would think, make us better, more persuasive writers, and, in the process, better marketers of our work.Thanks for the insight and wisdom.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube January 16, 2019 at 4:54 pm #

      ROOMS by Jim Rubart is definitely speculative. At the time it was being shopped almost 10 years ago, there were a number of other creative titles also in the pipeline.

      SHADE by John Olson is one. It could be called a “non-vampire” vampire book.

      Both of those books were published by B&H.

      Another to look at would be DEMON: A MEMOIR by Tosca Lee. Originally published by NavPress in 2007 it was re-released by B&H in 2010.

      • Avatar
        Nick Kording January 17, 2019 at 10:39 pm #

        Steve-

        I get this. I understand the genre – it feels broader than other genres to me. I like the idea of stretching the box though – it leaves room to write something different. All great books though.

  13. Avatar
    HEATHER FITZGERALD January 16, 2019 at 4:29 pm #

    I was talking to an agent about my story at a Christian writer’s conference and mentioned that there were angels and demons involved. “Oh, Christian publishers won’t touch that. But you might look into some secular publishers, those topics are fine if they publish spec-fic”. Seemed a little counter-intuitive to me…but I guess that particular box isn’t one the Christian publishers want to explore.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube January 16, 2019 at 4:45 pm #

      Heather,

      There are a couple possibilities here:
      1) The agent was misunderstood or misunderstood the question
      2) The agent was referring to something else
      3) The agent doesn’t know what they are talking about.

      Supernatural fiction is a real category in Christian fiction.

      Cliched stories about demons with scary teeth or angels with flaming swords are not going to get published. But well written novels with supernatural elements are published all the time.
      For example:
      HIDEOUS BEAUTY by Jack Cavanaugh
      SOULS’S GATE by Jim Rubart
      “War of the Realm” series by Chuck Black
      “East Salem Trilogy” series by Lis Wiehl

      That is a small sample of recent publications.

      • Avatar
        HEATHER FITZGERALD January 16, 2019 at 5:01 pm #

        Thanks, Steve! I’d like to think there’s a market for this among Christians 🙂 I will say, the story is rather out of the box in that I have an order of angels and demons that are not actually in the Bible–although I would certainly never head over to ‘heresy-land’ for the sake of a story. Their function gives them more interaction with humans.

        The agent claimed that taking any such liberties would scare away Christian publishers. It’s left me in a quandary now, as I’m writing; I would certainly use more Christian terminology in a story written for the Christian market and remain more obtuse in a story for the secular market. Praying my way through it and trusting God will show me how He wants me to handle those issues when they come up!

        • Avatar
          Steve Laube January 16, 2019 at 5:15 pm #

          The agent did know what they were talking about. They didn’t say “publishers won’t touch stories with angels and demons.” The agent was commenting on your idea of creating a structure or “order” that could be problematic theologically. (Please be careful when telling the story. It makes the agent sound bad.)

          That is a completely different thing.

          What you’ve described is out-of-the-box…and gives a publisher a reason to say “no thanks” unless it is an extraordinary and well written story.

          It is important to stay within the boundaries of an orthodox theology of angels and demons. It’s not a playground where one should consider changing the Biblical teaching. I know of one publisher who asked the author to write out a theology of angels and demons to demonstrate that the author knew the Biblical teaching on the topic.

          Glad to know you don’t want to “head over to ‘heresy-land.'”

          Put it more simply: Supernatural fiction is a viable category for publishing, but there are very few slots available. To break through, a story has a better chance if it is closer to the “box” than outside it.

          • Avatar
            HEATHER FITZGERALD January 16, 2019 at 5:32 pm #

            Thank you! That certainly gives more clarity and I appreciate it. I will say that she did generalize, and the comment was what I stated in first post. She said Christian publishers generally stay away from stories dealing with angels and demons but secular publishers were open to it. She said there wasn’t an interest for stories like “This Present Darkness” anymore (her example, not mine).

            Your comments and hers make me wonder about Christian paranormal romance. I’ve read only one book (by a Christian author and publisher) and I would say my story idea is less theologically ‘bendy’ than that one in which a woman falls in love with some sort of angelic being who helps to save her from an abusive boyfriend.

            What’s your opinion on that genre in the Christian market? I know Realm Makers has a category for Horror and paranormal but I haven’t read enough (haven’t read any horror) to understand it, but my knee-jerk reaction is to be a bit uncomfortable by the idea, LOL.

            • Avatar
              Steve Laube January 16, 2019 at 5:35 pm #

              Read the examples cited in the above comments. They should help.

        • Avatar
          Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 16, 2019 at 5:22 pm #

          Heather, I’m not any sort of theologian, but I think you might find the writings of Pierre Teihard de Chardin intereting, and perhaps useful in creating a theologicall sound framework.

          He is controversial; there’s no getting aroun that. But his views are at least stimulating.

          • Avatar
            Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 16, 2019 at 5:23 pm #

            And I apologise for the typos. My keyboard is not feeling well, and I neglected to carefully proofread.

            He is of course, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin; I deprived the poor chap of an ‘l’.

          • Avatar
            Steve Laube January 16, 2019 at 5:34 pm #

            Andrew,

            Thank you for the comment. I would raise a huge measure of caution in reading Teilhard de Chardin. Unless already well grounded in Scripture and theology his writing can be confusing.

            Some claim him as the “Father of the New Age Movement.” The Catholic church, even today, is embroiled in debate over his writings.

            His attempt to merge the concept of evolution (he was a paleontologist) and theology (he believed in the primacy of Jesus Christ) got him in hot water.

            A brief and incomplete discussion of his teaching can be found in his wikipedia entry:
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Teilhard_de_Chardin#Teachings

            • Avatar
              HEATHER FITZGERALD January 16, 2019 at 5:37 pm #

              Ha, sounds like this guy is traversing on ground I wouldn’t want to cover. “Embroiled in controversy” is not the legacy I want to leave behind 🙂

              Thanks for the heads up!

            • Avatar
              Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 16, 2019 at 5:51 pm #

              Steve, yes, he really needs to be read with a very strong background in Scripture and orthodox theology. Thank you for mentioning that; I was remiss in not giving that caveat, and appreciate your backfilling for me.

              His ‘source’ writings are perhaps less controversial than the overlay that followed after his death. They’re hard to separate, more than 60 years after his passing.

              I rather suspect he would have been horrified at being called the ‘father’ of the New Age movement; personally, though I don’t agree with a lot of his thoughts, I would not regard him as such.

          • Avatar
            HEATHER FITZGERALD January 16, 2019 at 5:34 pm #

            Thanks, Andrew! Though I write fantasy, this sort of spec-fic is definitely new territory and I’m not well read. I appreciate the recommendation!

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