I struggle with this concept so much, but never more than when I’m prepping to query. Whether I’m stalking agents on Twitter, perusing agency websites, utilizing the fantastic and wonderful Manuscript Wish List or just trying to craft my query in general, it never fails that this topic is brought up and I’m stuck with these hidden emotions that I wish I could describe, but I’ve always been so scared to say, because I don’t want to be disrespectful or appear ignorant. I am genuinely curious. My question regarding originality keeps nagging at me and the itch to talk about this is still here, so the secrets out, friends:

It irks me a little bit when someone asks for something “new” or “original,” not because I think we shouldn’t want these things, but because I don’t have any idea how the hell to achieve said things.

Because what is more original than sending out something I’ve written; a person you’ve never read before, with characters you don’t know, even if aspects of the plot or tropes are familiar?

Granted, I’m sure if some professionals in the publishing business read this, they’d be rolling their eyes at me. I don’t mean to sound inconsiderate or disrespectful or rude or anything aside from actual curiosity. I totally understand why agents have to be picky (while starting off securing an agent may be a dream come true for writers, it is a job for agents and they obviously have to be cognizant of that when choosing authors to represent, amongst a variety of other factors) and that they each have their own personal tastes. One agent is completely tired of vampires while another isn’t interested in angels. Another wants both.

I totally understand that and respect it 110%. So please don’t get the wrong idea. I just don’t understand what they are asking for when they ask for something original. Because what it is original? Is that even possible?

I know my stories aren’t breaking any new ground. I do things that have been done before. I also am fond of twisting a lot of traditional tropes, building up expectations only to disappoint and surprise my readers later on when the story takes a different turn. And as I grow as a writer, my stories have also grown in complexity and in creativity. My first trilogy is so filled with tropes (though that did inspire my latest project, which I’m arguably most excited about) and is the only one that I’ve queried so far, so I totally understand why it has only been rejected (especially when you factor in that I queried it before it was truly ready and my query could have been improved tenfold). And though I have moved on and written other works, some which still have tropes, some that don’t, I still work on this story and I still hope it can get published one day and be enjoyed by readers, even if it isn’t original.

Yet isn’t it?

I guess it’s not agents requesting that they want to see something original that irks me slightly, it’s that my work, because it’s been “done before,” it isn’t considered original. Yet how original can you be? Can you do anything completely and totally new? There are always going to be elements that you draw from, inspiration, works that mirror yours, tropes that you incorporate and twist.

And I guess, writing this, I realize that my goal for my books isn’t for them to be the most original books you’ve ever read. If that ends up being a side-effect, fantastic! I just want to write the most enjoyable and fascinating stories that I love, in hopes that others might love them, too. If they are never labeled as original or unique, but you enjoyed them nonetheless, then I think I could be okay with that.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear other opinions about this, especially from any agents who impossibly stumble upon this post: what is your definition of originality? Can it still be achieved in writing? Has everything been done before? Does writing your own work hold any originality organically simply because you wrote it?



About Nicole Evans

Nicole Evans is a writer of fantasy and science fiction. She is currently unpublished and is working fervently to get the "un" removed from that statement. She's written a trilogy about destined heroes that fail anyway, has started a science fiction trilogy that pits the natural desire to love against the natural instinct to kill during the extinction of the human race and the start of a series with the sole goal of fitting in as many tropes as possible into nine books.  She really can't wait for you to read these stories.  Considering she has run out of space for putting rejections letters up on her wall, Nicole now uses her spare time doing the typical things that nerds do: blogging, dying repeatedly during video games (which she believes is retribution for the characters' she's killed), wishing she was the character she is currently reading about and trying to fight off the real world by living in her own head, with varying degrees of success. Nicole has a degree in Creative Writing and a minor in Film and Media Studies, and works as an evening librarian assistant. View all posts by Nicole Evans

15 responses to “Originality

  • inkandpalette

    Being asked to be original is like being asked to be funny on command – it just doesn’t work like that. Originality comes to you when it comes to you. It’s cool when it happens because you know it’s something new for you to use. But if you love your story, originality doesn’t matter because, as you say, it’s yours to keep and to share.

    Good post.

  • Adam

    It can be challenging, seeing published, successful stories, and they seem cliche, and familiar to us.

    I think on one level it’s about disguise, or engagement. There are some stories that are so engaging that I never step back and consider whether they’re original or not, while others fail to hold my attention.

    Maybe as a side project you could find some stories that you consider to be original, and a few that have similar elements but strike you as unoriginal. I’ve found it very helpful to write book reviews and really analyze why I think a story is strong or weak.

    Another strategy could be to just keep writing. Eventually, if only by chance, you’ll hit upon a strong, “original” idea. The more you write, the more often it will happen, and eventually you’ll learn to to do intentionally.
    At least…that’s my hope.

    • Nicole Evans

      I think your comment about engagement is so spot on. I was reviewing “Blood and Iron” by Jon Sprunk and I was checking out some other reviews, and all of them complained that he was way too clichéd in his plot, yet I was enjoying the book so much, I never even noticed.

      And I totally think that the more you write, the “better” your stories become. At least, that’s my hope, too. 🙂

  • lightafireinstead

    I’ve been worrying about this, too! As I’ve not queried and am far from “ready” to do so, I haven’t really wrestled with it much, yet… I can’t offer any insights, but it’s sitting in the back of my mind a lot!

  • philcharlesr

    I found this really helpful (although I’m far from utilising it effectively yet!) https://onlinewritingtips.com/2015/03/02/how-to-write-something-original/

  • robertfnugent

    Man, oh, man. I have a lot I could say on this topic, but I think you nailed it yourself, Nicole. “… what is more original than sending out something I’ve written; a person you’ve never read before, with characters you don’t know, even if aspects of the plot or tropes are familiar?”

    That is my argument. When it comes to the basic content, I truly believe that *nothing* is original. We live in a day and age that with so much art, whether or not it got the spotlight, everything has already been done by someone else.

    I believe that what makes our writing unique and original is our experiences. We can both write a love story. We can both write a sci-fi, romantic-thriller-comedy-noire-horror love story. It doesn’t matter what genre, setting, or anything else it is. That’s not what makes it original. What makes it original is that you and I have experienced love differently. The emotions we put behind it, the rationale that we use, and the way that we present it will be different. That’s originality- our own human experiences.

    I spent a bit of time in the querying gig, and I’m not sure how many agents/publishers, if any, share my view. Ultimately, that’s actually why I gave up on it and self-published. I really think that the business gets too self-involved in their concept of originality sometimes. Every now and then I see the new writing that’s getting promoted on social media and I groan at the reasons that they give for why its so original.

    Keep doing you. Your writing is original, whether you know it or not. Keep living and experiencing new things to fuel your writing! Originality will be sure to follow.

    • Nicole Evans

      Rob!!! Your thoughts were fantastic. `I also really, really, REALLY love how you define (redefine?) originality as “our own human experiences.” Like, holy hell, that is spot *on*. I just want to be rejected because they didn’t like *my personal writing or how I wrote a story*, not because it’s a trope they are familiar with (I do understand why they do it, though).

      Thank you so much for your thoughts and taking the time to share them. I hope your writing is going fantastically and I can’t wait to read your stories, one day. I know they are going to be fantastic.

  • azpascoe

    Great post! It’s so true though: realistically (depending on your definition of ‘original’) nothing ‘original’ will ever be written again, because in some way it’ll have been written once, somewhere, by someone: it’s inevitable! But it’ll never have been written the way I’ve written it, and it’ll never have been written by me before. So, I agree with you. Obviously there are some things that are cliche, and writers work really hard to avoid them, but otherwise, I think originality is a pretty tough one to definitively pin down!

    • Nicole Evans

      Thank you! And granted, I’m not looking for an excuse or anything of that nature for my stories that are a bit more cliché or trope-y than others, but I would love for my stories to not be rejected outright just because “it’s been done before.” *Everything* has been done before.

      • azpascoe

        EXACTLY. It’s just not a helpful thing to say, honestly. It’s not developing you or helping you to fine-tune your work to what they want: it’s just a throwaway -_-

  • R. K. Brainerd

    Yep. Yep yep yep. Yep yep.

    The love of my life — who is also a writer — says that “something can’t be completely original, or we’d have nothing to relate to and we’d hate it.” Sooo… this probably comes back to my favorite word: balance. How can we be both new and relatable? Pssshhh. I don’t know!

    Really… I think publishing professionals, like you said, are just working to find the next thing that’s going to take off (as the market changes whatever), and they get bored of reading the “same” story + certain characters (AKA vampires) and they start throwing out the whole thing. But you know that.

    It’s getting them to read enough to realize and enjoy our unique perspective and experience that’s the stickler…

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