“What can I say that hasn’t been said before?”
I often ask myself this question when I’m about to start a new writing project. The short answer is, you can’t. Everything has been done before, even the Bible has been done before! (the First Testament came first).
You can, however, do your best to come up with a fresh new perspective on an old idea, or take a current idea and give it your own unique spin.
Why is this an important skill as an author? Originality sells. People love to read stories they’ve never come across before. Some people do want to read Harry Potter four times, but most of us want Harry Potter with a twist. Harriett Putter, female wizard, living on a different planet might be the way to go. Or, just don’t touch it – it’s been done before, and done well.
The story I’m currently working on has very likely been done before, so I’m making sure that I do it with my own voice, my own original characters, my own sense of humor, and also, I threw in a sarcastic, rude parrot, just for good measure.
With 625,327 self-published books published in the United States in 2015 alone, according to Bowker, the US agency for the administration of the ISBN, you will need to be original to stand out. That’s just the self-published books, and that number is for 2015. By now, thanks to the growing popularity of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) there are likely closer to 1 million books published every year. How can you stand out in that sea of books? First, create something that has not been done before.
How can you find original ideas?
-Search your local paper for news and human interest stories, then fictionalize them. Local news is always a safer bet than international news, because better known authors or screenwriters may jump on the international headline stories first. You need to look for small-town stories, then make them your own. This is how I came up with the idea for The Ticket.
-Use your own, or borrow someone’s alma-mater magazine/ online zine and read the wedding and death notices. I’m not being morbid; people summarize beautiful life stories in there. Newspapers also work, but the alumni magazines often go into greater detail.
-Listen to radio call in shows, or callers to DJs. Find your characters and tales in the various people who call in.
-Think of a movie or TV show that has taken off in the past, then ask yourself a series of “what if?” questions to try to put an original spin on the story. You can change the location, characters and put a twist on the premise and outcome to make it different from the original story. Mork and Mindy was a bit helpful to me when I wrote Strangely, Incredibly Good. Mork was from another planet, and he just appeared to help Mindy out (or wreak havoc in her life, I’m not sure). Aladdin was another story that had done well over time, in different renditions. I put my own spin on those stories, making my novel a contemporary romance and adding fantastical elements of a time-traveling genie.
Even if you come up with a new spin on an old idea, you will need to write it well, hire a great editor and designer, and be professional in every way that you market and advertise your book.
There’s no guarantee that even an original idea will become a bestselling book, but at least you’ll have a better chance at it than the competition.
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