Friday, July 17, 2009

Harriet Potter

I am writing this particular post today for three reasons: First, it's Friday and that's the day when the fewest people seem to read/respond to blogs (I don't take it personally, really I don't) so I can just pad out the week with something light; Second, tonight Mighty Reader and I are going to go see the new "Harry Potter" film (which is nearly three hours long, for gosh sakes, meaning MR and I will get home around 2:00 AM and we are therefore very brave HP fans); Third, I've noticed something in my trolling of query letter sites and I must ask about it.

A lot of people seem to be writing the same book. Or, I should say, the same couple of books. I get around, you know, and read a lot of writers' blogs and see a lot of queries for books people have written, and there seem to be two premises that crop up a lot:

1. Sort of downtrodden youngster discovers he/she has magical powers, enters world where he/she learns to use said powers, and must then battle Ultimate Evil.

2. Sort of shoe-gazey young girl, feeling isolated, meets handsome mysterious male who turns out to be paranormal evil person, who tempts girl to dark side (usually because she has paranormal powers she doesn't know about, and handsome evil boy wants to steal her paranormal energy).

3. There's also a third premise I see a lot that I just remembered, where young protagonist (usually female) discovers she has magical or otherwise unearthly powers and either a) must choose between the life of a close relative (sister or mother in most cases) and her own life as a superhuman powergrrl, or b) must use her superhuman powergrrl powers to save her close relative.

So we have, essentially, Harry Potter and Twilight and Superman (or maybe Wolverine in a Hello Kitty t-shirt) as premises that are being used A Lot Around Here.

So what's the deal? Are people deliberately trying to be the next Rowling or Meyers or whomever (I don't know, maybe Neil Gaiman on the last one), or are these just the sorts of stories that YA and MG readers like, and we write what we read and it's all just that "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" are the sorts of stories we want to read more of?

I'm not complaining or saying any of this is bad. Personally, I think premise is the least part of storytelling, as long as the premise and the story are solid and compelling; it's how you tell it that matters most to me. But I am asking. Why are these the stories a great lot of writers are choosing to tell now? If this is you, dear reader, what's up? Spill it.


  1. I've got three ideas, and I think the high number of book pitches on these subjects are probably a combination of all three. First, I think some people are trying to copy what works. For them, the "how you write it" may also be the most important thing, so they may not care so much what their premise is. They just want to find one that works. Second, I think perhaps a lot of writers who happened to be writing on these subjects before Harry Potter or Twilight or whoever are just now seeing that their work has a market. So, they're trying harder to get published. If I saw some big book that was similar to mine make it big, I'd probably be querying many more agents with the hope that they would see my "next big thing" potential. Third, I think people get really excited by these popular books. That's why they're popular. And, if a piece of art inspires you, then you may want to copy it. I mean, that's much of the reason why I end up writing what I do. I want more of Tolstoy, and since he's dead, I have to try and do the work myself--hopefully falling into some originality in the process.

  2. Yeah, certainly we're part of a global publishing culture no matter where we live these days, so none of us write without being influenced. My own book is obviously part of the ongoing process of writers retelling the stories of previous authors (and I don't feel bad about that because some of these books--Grendel and March leap to mind--are brilliant and my source, Shakespeare, stole his material from Kyd, who stole it from Bellefloret, who stole it from Saxo, who stole it from who knows where), so I fit into a marketing niche even though I didn't realize that when I began the book three years ago.

    As I say, I'm not pointing an accusing finger at anyone. All three premises I mention are versions of the coming-of-age story, which is a perennial favorite through the ages. The transformative journey of the hero, arguably, is the only story there is. Different cultures just dress that story differently, if you subscribe to that idea.

  3. I think these writers are following the age old saying - write what sells.

    The three types you mentioned are currently (and perhaps unfortunately) the hot commodities in publishing these days. Epic Fantasy has died (for the time being) . . . and I blame it all on Harry Potter (which I love, btw, and hope to see the movie this weekend).

    So, some aspiring writers are jumping on the 'hot commodities' ship and hoping that luck holds for them.

    I'm not sure if this is a good or bad thing, unless you don't read MG, YA, or paranormal, and the Epic Fantasy you read no longer exists in new and interesting ways!


  4. "Wolverine in a Hello Kitty t-shirt"

    THAT made me laugh out loud! Michelle, can you Photoshop a picture of that for us ;-)

    I notice the trend of which you write (probably because I frequent or moderate the same query blogs). I think many of them are from writers who are younger in terms of age and/or experience, and a portion of them may not consciously realize how similar their premise is. The rest fall into Davin's three ideas.

    On some level it is helpful, because when a query comes along that has a unique concept and a fresh voice, it stands out.

    Enjoy the movie. Last night my wife and I went out and saw THE HANGOVER. It's one of the funniest movies I've seen in years, after the movie I was still laughing when I got to the car.

  5. Jabez, I think that's a great point. These popular plots aren't exactly groundbreaking. They feel pretty standard, and it's the material that fleshes out the story that makes them stand out.

  6. Sorry -- accidentally deleted my earlier post.

    Again: What may also be at work is that these common premises have some intrinsic allure as good ways of solving the type of storytelling problems the genre presents. For example, in an urban fantasy, you want to explain the paranormal elements to the reader, and an easy way to do that is have the protagonist discover them along with the reader. Or in a fantasy featuring magical abilities, you want high stakes and a dynamic main character, so it's easy to have your main character grow into powers and take a lead role in fighting the big baddie. Then the writer tries to "make it original" by selecting other elements of the story to be different from what's out there.

    So, like in a thriller you might do a story about a gruff cop with a past who's disillusioned by the corruption in his department and drinks too much because he's tortured by the loss of his partner and his terrible love life, but yours is different because the cop is a deaf Afghan collaborating with U.S. troops who thinks he can't touch people or they'll explode.

  7. I think that what we read when we were younger impacts how we write now. If Twilight and Harry Potter were your formative stories, the you might find yourself thinking of stories with similar premises.

    Sometimes, you can still take a well known premise and make it good. I read a nice book that was rather obviously Cinderella. Even after I saw that, it didn't seem like a bad thing. Instead, I enjoyed seeing how she worked around and with such a premise.

    (Also, the HP movie is very good. Have fun. :D )

  8. Ha ha, I'm guilty of the Harry Potter plot (in a sense). But I wrote mine long before I knew anything about Harry Potter.

    As has already been stated, I think it does have a lot to do with what you enjoy reading. Or at least that's where my idea stemmed from.
    I know there are probably some out there who do try to write what sells, but I think some of them are unconsciously doing so; they get an idea in their head that turns out to be much like say, Harry Potter or Twilight with some variation and they write on it maybe not realizing where the idea came from.

    Wow, that was roundabout and long-winded

  9. I'm sure that what we write is essentially what we've read. A lot of the stories I write are just versions of Greek myths. It suddenly occurs to me that an idea I have for a planned novel is based strongly on the "Paris and the Golden Apple" story. So, huh.

  10. There's that worn-out saying there are no new stories, just new ways to tell them. So it's all about original voice and characters. Maybe that's what we need to concentrate on in queries if so many premises are similiar.
    I love fantasy, so I write it, as well as other things.
    Saw Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince--loved it, lots of action, great visuals, comedy and pathos. Good mix. (Only one thing made me grumble and I won't mention it before so many get to enjoy it)

  11. I think a lot of it depends on how the world and characters make those conflicts original and fresh (as I think someone already mentioned here).

    If you think of Tolkien, he took a TON from Norse mythology. It's almost scary, yet look how popular LOTR became. The same goes for HP. Stories about witches, warlocks, or protagonists possessing magical powers have been around for a long time. What I think made HP sell so well was Rowling's writing style and her world.

    On a completely random note, I like Greek myths as well :)! The Iliad is probably one of my favorite pieces of literature.

  12. I just re-read the Iliad! Why read any other adventure story when you have Achilles battling gods in the form of rivers (and a thousand other adventures along the way)? The Iliad has everything in it!

  13. I agree that a lot of stories are similar. The way I see it, though, is that there are only really a few stories in the world and everybody has to put their own spin on it.

  14. There are no new stories. Just in the way we tell them. That makes them fresh and new. Unlike this comment, I notice just about everyone has said the same thing I'm saying. Just in different ways. Hmm...:)

  15. One of my English professors once told me that there are really only five original stories in the world. Everything else is just a combination of elements from those five. It's why we still read Shakespeare, I guess : )

  16. It's the whole "chosen one" thing. Every culture (I think) celebrates stories about a chosen one....(like Achilles, maybe Scott). Why do we love to read about the "One" who make the most difference in all things? Maybe it is the secret wish of humans to BE the One.

    What we need to remember is how much difference one person can make in life, even if it is not the One.

    Sorry....a bit philosophical.


    PS. Just got back from Harry....Have fun!

  17. I think it might be a combination of writers being inspired by popular contemporary novels, and writers thinking they could've written X novel better, and writers trying to get in on a hot-selling genre and make a few bucks before the frenzy dies down. I'm fine with similar books popping up after one does really well. Some of them are even better than the original that sparked all the "copycats" in the first place.

    What I can't stand is when someone tries to do something like write a novel using Jane Austen's characters. It's great that someone loves these characters enough to want to make their adventures continue, but trying to directly copy another author's voice and style like that rarely turns out well.

    It's fine if Harry Potter inspired someone to create a similar character, but if it inspired someone to write a novel about the Potter children going to Hogwarts I may have to hunt them down and break their fingers.

  18. These plots existed long before Harry Potter or Twilight or even Superman. And people were already complaining that they were old, trite, overdone. When these bestsellers come out it just goes to show that a timeless plot can ALWAYS be retold in a new voice, in a new way.

  19. I think as writers one also have to consider the difference between writing an archetypal plot anew and writing something which is really derivative. 90% of fantasy concerns a downtrodden somebody who discovers they have magic powers to fight the Big Bad, but I have seen stories which were so derivative I could name exactly which character in their story corresponded to which Harry Potter character, and so on. That's the point where you really have to work a little harder at bringing something new to the picture.

  20. If I'm stuck with Twilight, Harry Potter and Hello Kitty as my options, let the book burning begin.

  21. Wow, great discussion here! I agree with Tara Maya. These plots existed long before the popular books that you're mentioning. Also, people do write what sells and what's hot at the moment. I try to stay away from it, but my plots have also been done a billion times over. It's how we tell the story, which is why querying can be so maddening. We try and show that even though our premise might sound overdone, the story is truly unique. Tough concept.

    I know some people don't agree that the same plots are told over and over, but perhaps "plot" is the wrong word. As humans, we're fascinated and thrive off of specific scenarios that bring out the raw human traits that make us human. Telling stories that show those human traits is natural and unavoidable. And after awhile, they just start to look like the same plot over and over.

  22. I'm late to this discussion, but I think it's a good one!

    Another thing about repeating stories and plots--maybe one reason we're drawn to a few stories over and over is because we kind of forget after the story is over. I'm not saying we forget the basic plot and what the characters were like, but I mean all the observations about Life the author (hopefully) put in the novel along the way. There are so many times when I'm reading and something happens, or a character notices something, and I have an "Aha!" moment, and I think, "Omigosh, I totally know we're you're coming from. I've noticed that, too." And then in the next book or so the same realization will happen, and it's like I'm discovering it all over again.

    Does that make sense?

    I guess that is one reason reading all these writing blogs doesn't get old, because I often find something great to be reminded about by the blogger.


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