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What’s so Peculiar? Nailing the “Novel Idea”

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Recently, I had the misfortune to discover that my completed work-in-progress had some startling similarities to a recently released novel. Further digging proved that the similarities ended at the logline, but it was enough for me to put the project on hold. I threw up my hands, and for a few weeks, I allowed myself to feel greatly uninspired.

Then, one day, I’m walking past my five-year-old’s stack of library books. He loves the shelf that features the bizarre and unusual, and when I looked at the cover of one, I almost fell over, a new idea struck me so fast. This time, I scoured Amazon, Goodreads, and the AR reading list for similar titles. At the end of it, I had a pretty big grin. My idea looked to be somewhat unique.

But that begs the question: What exactly is a “fresh idea”? We see rehashed movies all the time, and we’ve come to expect regurgitations of our favorites. But editors in the book world, while wanting something intriguing and marketable, are always looking for something a little different. But what’s different? Well, here are a few ideas.

Using a gimmick. No, this is not a dirty word. It’s great to be inspired by something—a prop, or a photo—when writing a book. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a perfect example of this. Ransom Riggs built his tale around his collection of creepy pictures. And that’s pretty intriguing by itself, much less the visual marketability.

A fresh character in a novel world. Harry Potter has a lightening scar and discovers the incredible world of witchcraft and wizardry. Hunger Games Katniss Everdeen is a quiet huntress forced into a bizarre technological gladiator ring to fight for her life. Hazel and Gus from The Fault in our Stars (John Green) are kids with cancer, navigating the strange world of hospitals and unhappy endings. All three of these successful books and series might have had plots that shared similarities with other stories, but through expert world building and deep character development, they became something so much more.

An imaginative retelling. A Court of Thorn & Roses (Sarah J. Maas) is a luscious fae-inspired retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Tiger Lily by (Jodi Lynn Anderson) takes a fresh look at the tale of Peter Pan. Scorpio Races (Maggie Stiefvater) is like National Velvet or Seabiscuit, with an incredibly dark twist. Don’t lean too heavily on an idea that’s been there done that, but if you have a way to make something like Cinderella or Romeo & Juliet seem unusual and exciting, then go for it.

The story that needs to be told, that other people are too scared to tackle. One of my favorite books of all time is Wonder. R.J. Palacio took on a difficult subject of a child with a disfigured face and turned it into a book that touched the entire publishing world. In the One and Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate takes us inside a captive gorilla’s despair, only to lead us to a beautiful place because of it. Both of these authors have incredible voice, but it’s not just the way you tell a story, it’s the story you tell.

So go, be inspired. As soon as you come up with something, don’t let yourself settle.

Ask yourself one question: How can I make this even better?

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