How Do I Make My Familiar Premise Fresh?

There are no new stories in the world. I’m sorry, but there really aren’t. Every story ever told can be boiled down to archetypes. So where does that leave the story you’re writing right now? No, not in the trash can. Don’t worry! But, it does leave you with some work to do on that story if you want it to stand out.

In the last few months, I have had a lot of clients come to me and say, “Mary, I’ve written yet another boarding-school-for-wizards story. I know it’s probably not a great idea, but I can’t just not write this novel. It has gripped me. Yet the odds seem so high against a story that’s been done and done and done, maybe to death. What do I do?”

There are a lot of stories that would fit in this category of “overdone.” A lot of them happen to be “high concept” stories, instead of, say, contemporary realism. Examples: Birthdays that bequeath magical powers. Vampires. Dystopian worlds. Time travel. Apocalypses. Schools for those kids with magical powers. It’s not that these stories are bad, it’s that they were trendy at one point or another, and now the shelves are full of them. And for every one that’s published, there are probably a thousand more in manuscript form that didn’t make it past the agent or editor’s slush pile.

And yet there are still extremely well-meaning writers who want to toss their hats into these crowded arenas. And that’s okay. Now, some agents will flat out say, “No vampires. Don’t even try. I don’t want to see it.” And that’s okay, too. But I’m here to say that all hope is not lost just because you want to write in a familiar category.

So, how do you go about defusing that resistance you’re likely to encounter, and standing out? Well, the devil is in the details in your case. Truly. Let’s take everyone’s favorite dead horse: vampire books. (Though it has been so long since the Twilight days that you may be able to sneak one in at this point.) The biggest mistake that people make when writing in a familiar category is that they don’t innovate. They take for granted that everyone knows the basic deal about vampires, and they don’t even think to build on that or turn it on its head.

Since you’re smarter than that, dear reader, I really want you to think about what could make your vampires, or the world they operate in, unique. And instead of being more general about it, be specific. Design all of their powers from scratch. Maybe these vampires can only recharge on the blood of those with a certain virus that makes them vulnerable. Some poor people have this virus naturally. Other unfortunates catch it. Criminals are injected with it and pawned off as vampire fodder to keep the beasts away from the more desirable members of the population. Now you have a slight dystopian tinge to your vampire story. And your protagonist, lo and behold, comes from a family tasked with keeping the vampire menace at bay. Then he’s in a terrible hovercar accident (another specific detail of the world-building) and ends up…catching the virus that makes his a prime vampire target. Now his family turns their backs on him because they cannot be seen as vulnerable, etc. etc. etc.

This is literally the first thing that came to mind, but I was trying to establish a world and a spin on the familiar vampire story. What I’ve tried to do here is come up with specific details about the world, a new twist on how vampires function, and something interesting and high stakes that will provide plenty of plot fodder for the story.

If you find yourself working on a familiar-sounding premise and worrying that it looks like everything else that has come before it, this is the thinking you must be doing. What is unique about your idea? If it’s a kid with powers, how specific and interesting can the powers get? If it’s a school for wizards, what world-building details will make it stand out? Don’t just have them go to the same boring classes and do the same boring training exercises. What else can be part of the curriculum? What can you bring to your chosen genre that will turn it on its head?

Don’t be lazy. Treat your vampire or wizard or love triangle or sorcery summer camp like nobody has ever heard of such a thing before. Forget everything you’ve ever known about mermaids and unleash your imagination, populating your water-based world with creatures and details and magical rules that set new boundaries. Free yourself from the conventions of the genre and take some risks.

Yes, you may have a harder row to hoe, and you may get bounced by your dream agent because they have five other similar projects already. So a certain level of psychological preparedness should happen on your end. And yes, you’ll have to take some care when pitching the project. But you don’t have to abandon ship.

Series Beginnings

A few weeks back, I reached out to see who had questions. Rachel had a great one:

Back when I read the Baby Sitters Club as a kid, I would always skim over the whole “introduction” to the club and group, which appeared in each book. I am currently working on a chapter series and wonder if each book needs the “introduction” to the story, or if they are a bit unnecessary these days?

This astute reader is totally right. A catch-up introduction is no longer the norm in a series. Whew! No need to write a dry and skip-able synopsis for your manuscripts. (Though, unfortunately, you’ll still have to craft one for when you submit.) However, this opens up a bigger question: “So how do you begin a series without boring readers who are familiar with your premise?”

For a more modern feel, you want to include that information in your opening few chapters. However, you don’t want to bog the opening down with tons of facts right off the bat. So what I would do is pick several key facts about your main characters and their relationships, about the world in which your story is set (even if it’s in our modern non-fantasy world, each “world” has its own rules and climate, like a high school cafeteria from a popular person’s POV vs. an underdog’s, those “worlds” look very different), and anything else from previous installments that’s crucial to know.

By providing this context but weaving it into the first few chapters of the story, you will be welcoming your existing readers back into the story while simultaneously giving new readers a chance to catch up. All without info-dumping. The important thing to remember is to keep everything brief and relevant. The story should start in action that continues the plot you’ve already been telling. This way, it’s easy to keep pacing quick while providing some relevant context.

For example, if your characters are at war at the end of Book 1, open Book 2 with them gearing up for an important battle. From the action, new readers will be able to gather that they’re at war and something important is coming up. During that scene, you will want to drop hints concerning why they’re at war, who they’re fighting against, what the stakes are, etc. Since characters will be interacting as they prepare, you can start introducing a sense of their relationships, values, personal objectives, and motivations. Sure, you have all this juicy backstory about the king and some palace intrigue, but leave it for later. Open with big action that carries the pacing and buys you a few moments to balance it with information.

I have recently been reading some craft books and if you want to delve more deeply into the topic of starting your novel, whether it’s a stand-alone manuscript or part of a planned series, I’d recommend The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.

Agents and Editors With Their Own Books

I opened up the blog for questions last week and got an interesting one from Frank:

Why is my social media filled with juvenile editors, agents, and art directors pimping their own books? Is this unethical as they are on salary or commission to help sell and promote the books they work on with their clients? I hardly see them promoting for anyone but themselves. What is this saying to those clients and anyone else trying to get published? This seems backwards (and gross).

Now, there’s a lot to this question. Remember that I was once a literary agent with a book of my own to hawk. So I don’t know if I can get on board with some of the more judgmental language here (“pimping,” “backwards,” “gross,” etc.). But I’m sure a lot of aspiring writers have seen this and wondered about it, so I thought I’d take a stab at my experience with this particular perspective.

First and most importantly of all, let’s break down an assumption that Frank makes: “…they are on salary or commission to help sell and promote the books they work on with their clients.” Yes and no. Yes to “sell” and no to “promote.” An agent’s primary job is to scout talent, get a manuscript ready for submission, and sell rights and subrights to the manuscripts to agents and other entities that will exploit those rights. Agents sell rights, basically. That’s it in a nutshell. This is how an agent makes their money, and how they earn money for their client. An editor is employed by a publishing house to acquire properties that stand a good chance at selling to the publisher’s customers (book resellers, mind you, not quite readers), getting that property into shape, organizing all of the moving parts involved in bringing that book to market, and doing some limited promotional support. An art director’s job is similar, but with the visual elements of a property. These are the jobs they are paid to do.

The great fallacy about modern publishing is that it’s anybody but the author’s job to promote a book. As some of you know, for the most part, a book will only get limited promotional assistance from the publisher. It is, largely, a writer’s job to promote their own work. In fact, a writer’s “platform” (or ability to reach potential customers, online and through other channels) is a large part of any acquisitions conversation these days. So an agent’s, editor’s, art director’s, etc. actual job is to get the book where it needs to go in the publication process, but not necessarily to sell it once it is released. That job goes to the marketing department and the reseller who has purchased the book to sell to customers. Everyone benefits if it sells well, but, really, promoting the book is primarily the creator’s place.

Remember, also, that agents have X clients, editors have X authors on their lists. While all of those lovely people are important, an agent or editor must practice fairness. I see many agents and editors broadcasting about a book when a) it is acquired, b) when it is about to publish, c) when there is other news happening with the creator of it, and d) when subrights are exploited, it goes into paperback, etc. etc. etc. This is at least two and possibly four or more mentions of a project. Anything above and beyond this may start to seem one-sided if the agent/editor isn’t also doing it for their other clients.

There’s also audience to consider. And this is a big one. Who follows agents and editors on Twitter? Other publishing people and aspiring writers, mostly. It starts to sound like an echo chamber after a while, because these people are very interested in one thing (getting published and publishing behind-the-scenes), but the people who are buying that new work are not really in this loop. So if an agent is tweeting relentlessly about a client’s picture book, the true audience for that picture book (parents, booksellers, librarians, children) might not be plugged into their stream.

So, an agent (editor, art director, etc.) has many considerations when they tweet. Is there something timely going on with the project? If not, they may sound like they’re spamming people about it after a while. Who is listening? Are they being fair to my other clients when they tweet about this project and not others? And finally, frankly, the agent is the agent, not the marketer. I fully expect a publisher’s marketing squad to be tweeting nothing but book news from that house. Because that’s what they’re being paid to do.

Here’s where we get into the part of the conversation that Frank considers gross. All these agents and editors have their own work that they want to talk about. I can see how it looks like conflict of interest. But here are the realities of what the landscape looks like from the agent or editor’s POV. First, most of the people in publishing are in publishing because they love language and/or writing and/or art. I’ve met a few people who work in publishing that haven’t been interested in creating books of their own, but they are in the minority (in my experience). Second, agents and editors are a dime a dozen these days. Anyone can get into it, often very easily. So how do they differentiate themselves? How do they get out there? How do they attract submissions? Those are, after all, their bread and butter. The more visible you are, the more people submit to you.

Self-promotion is everywhere these days. Authors do it. Agents do it. Editors do it. Art directors do it. I did it when I was agenting and simultaneously promoting my book. So I obviously have a certain tolerance for this blurry line. I would say that, as long as an agent/editor/art director is also making an effort to promote their client projects in a fair and balanced way when it’s appropriate to do so, they are free to advance their own careers. When aspiring writers and that agent/editor/art director’s clients see this, I should hope that they learn an important lesson about how necessary self-promotion is, even for those on the “inside.”

If you don’t like it, seek out the people who don’t do this.

Burning Questions

It’s the summer slump and I’m looking to beat the heat with some new questions from blog readers. I have a lot of ideas for new content that I’ve been encountering in my editing, but I’m curious to know what questions you have.

Post them in the comments. They can be anything to do with writing, publishing, the children’s market, etc. I’ll write responses as articles on the blog in the coming month.

The Evolution of Relationships

Sorry for the radio silence, beautiful readers. I’ve had a crazy summer trying to juggle everything. Luckily, August is my quietest month of freelancing as my primary clients, parents and teachers, get ready for back to school. We plan on spending a chunk of time up at the cabin with Theo and living life on the river in a few weeks. In the meantime, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about characters and relationships, and wanted to share some of that with you.

I was editing a manuscript in July where two characters had a contentious relationship. Let’s call them Jackie and Mike. Truth be told, Jackie didn’t trust Mike. The writer did a good job of establishing the initial distrust. As with so many craft considerations, though, we had to move past that to the “And? So?” element.

She doesn’t trust him… And? So? In ordinary life, Jackie would just move on from Mike and call it a day. After all, there’s no good reason to stick around with someone you don’t trust. But Jackie and Mike were trapped in a situation. This is good fiction writing. Instead of letting Jackie separate herself from Mike, the writer created a reason for her to also need something from Mike.

Remember this as you’re writing: You always want to be turning the screw. Jackie doesn’t like Mike but, darn, she needs him. Let’s say he possesses knowledge that she wants in order for Jackie to get what she wants from the story.

The place where my client had gotten stuck, though, was on the relationship that Jackie and Mike were having. The distrust was established, and established well. Maybe too well. It was starting to seem like we were going in circles. That’s where my favorite questions, “And? So?” came into play. Because if we’re going to commit to the premise that Jackie and Mike aren’t in a good relationship but they need one another, then there needs to be some movement with the relationship piece. Otherwise, this element of development stagnates.

In other words, something needs to happen to move the relationship forward. Does Mike apologize for being so shifty? Maybe it comes out that he was wary of trusting Jackie, as it happens. Or maybe Mike does something that softens his character. And Jackie starts to question her initial conclusions about Mike. Maybe Mike does something so endearing, that Jackie starts to feel some ill-advised affection for him. Or she decides to trust him but he lets her down, and now she not only doesn’t trust him, but she feels betrayed by him and stupid for allowing herself to believe him in the first place. Lots and lots of conflict to be had!

To make a long story short, emotions need to evolve. When I see one dynamic playing out, I want to see where it goes. All too often, it goes nowhere. Jackie still doesn’t trust Mike, even though now they’re stuck together. But all of their interactions are tinged with distrust. There’s no evolution. The distrust is established, and that’s the way it stays.

For every one of your character relationships, big and small, think of what the leading emotion is. Then ask yourself, “And? So?” Where can you go from there, and how can it evolve? Each relationship should be an arc, not a flat line.

Loft Workshop in Minneapolis

If you are in or near Minneapolis, please come see my workshop on Interiority: Exploring a Character’s Inner Life. This topic is always on my mind. I find myself constantly commenting on interiority (thoughts, feelings, emotions) in client manuscripts. There isn’t a protagonist out there, in my humble opinion, that couldn’t stand to be developed more fully from the inside out.

This is an in-depth three-hour workshop where we’ll really dive into my favorite fiction craft topic. I hope to arm you with some inspiration and knowledge so that you can dive into your protagonist more confidently and deepen your own craft as a fiction writer.

The Loft is still taking registrations and you can find more information here. I’d love to see you on July 23rd.

Dropping Threads

I’ve worked with a few manuscripts recently where the writers established and then promptly forgot about important threads. In my book, I talk about shining a spotlight. If something is important, it’s your job as a writer to shine the spotlight on it. You pick where to aim that light, and how bright it is.

What do I mean about dropping threads? Well, let’s say that your character is a musician. They speak in musical metaphors and seem to see the world through a Beautiful Mind-esque musical lens. Until this fades from the manuscript about a third of the way through. And music doesn’t really factor into the plot itself.

I often see this in manuscripts. Just like voice sometimes fades in and out (the writer is focusing on voice when they’re writing certain passages, then they shift focus to something else and the narrative tone changes), so do various other elements of novel craft.

Character attributes (musicality), secondary characters (a supposed best friend disappears for 50 pages and nobody thinks anything of it), world-building elements (the world is on the brink of war and yet there’s no danger or news of danger in the middle of a story), and plot points (the character says their objective is to seek something, then they get wrapped up in a romance and the desired object seems to fade into the background) can all be lost in the shuffle.

Your job as a writer is to analyze your story and see if you’re dropping any threads. Are you swearing up and down that something is important, then abandoning it? Does everything that’s vital to the story and introduced at the beginning wrap up by the end? Do all of the important elements get some kind of closure?

This is a common note that I give. “Whatever happened to XYZ?” Make sure your story feels cohesive from beginning to end, leaving nothing/nobody of note behind.

Scaffolding in Scene

There are two types of writers when it comes to scene, I’ve found. One type takes a minimal approach to the stuff around the dialogue. One uses dialogue tags, adverbs, and narrative to construct scaffolding. If you’ve ever worked with me no a manuscript, you know that I don’t take kindly to a lot of scaffolding. I feel that it distracts from the dialogue, which is the rightful star of scene. It’s usually totally unnecessary. When I see a lot of scaffolding, I often remind writers to trust themselves and their readers. Trust themselves to come across as intended, and trust their readers to pick up on what’s being conveyed.

The point is, if you can’t be clear using dialogue alone, you need to look twice at what’s within the quotation marks, not what’s around them. Take a look at the following examples. The first is dialogue with no scaffolding. I’ve only used dialogue tags twice, one for each character at the beginning:

“Hey,” Sara said.
“What’s up?” Zach asked.
“Oh, you know.”
“The usual?”
“The usual.”

I would say that there’s not enough here. We don’t know enough about the characters, what they’re feeling, or why they’re talking in the moment. So I would say that something needs to be added. But how much something? Let’s say that you want to really convey what’s going on with Zach and Sara. How might you achieve that? Well, let’s add some emotions, tags, fancy “said” synonyms, and choreography. The simple scene can easily become:

“Hey,” Sara snarled.
“What’s up?” Zach said, icily.
She waved her hand in the air, as if dismissing him. “Oh, you know.”
“The usual?” He made sure to roll his eyes.
Quite annoyed, she dropped her voice to a near-whisper. “The usual.”

Well, I would say it’s quite clear now how Zach and Sara are feeling. The dialogue is exactly the same, but now I’ve festooned the scene with all sorts of little extras that clearly tell the reader that Zach and Sara are having some kind of fight. Maybe they’re avoiding one another. Maybe Zach has come into Sara’s coffee shop and she has to serve him but she doesn’t want to.

There’s tension in the scene, I’ll admit. But maybe it’s also a bit of overkill? After all, after reading this, my head is almost ringing from being hit too many times. The writer here (me) is explaining the emotions way too much. “Snarled” conveys anger. Waving a hand in the air is a cliché gesture for dismissing. If that wasn’t enough, the dismissal is also explained (“as if dismissing him”). Eye rolls are another cliché gesture. Then the emotion of annoyance is named, and a tone of voice is introduced that further underscores the tension between the two. We usually only whisper things if we’re trying to be quiet or if we’ve tightened our throats in anger.

The second scene would have too much “scaffolding,” as I call it. Whereas the first scene has not enough. If Zach and Sara were really fighting with one another, there would be no way to tell without some help. You might think that I’m playing the scaffolding up to provide an example, and while that was my objective, I am not lying when I say that I’ve seen scaffolding that thick in manuscripts. And sometimes even thicker scaffolding.

Oftentimes, writers don’t trust themselves to be clear about what they’re saying. And they (subconsciously) don’t trust readers to “get it.” So they go overboard. You will know if you put up a lot of scaffolding because you’ll see that almost none of your dialogue exists “naked” on the page (without any tags or narration).

So what’s the solution? Pare way down. And let the dialogue itself do the emotional talking for you, instead of putting everything in the scaffolding. I’ve changed the dialogue itself to have more emotional energy. You can also use interiority to convey feelings, like I do with a peek into Zach’s head here. This would be my ideal third example, a sort of middle ground:

Sara looked up from the register. “Oh. Hey.”
“Oh.” Zach fumbled with his wallet. He should’ve known her schedule better. Maybe she swapped shifts? This was the last thing he needed. “Um, what’s up?”
“What’s up? What’s up. Really? You know.”
“The usual?”
“Yeah, let’s go with that. The usual.”

There’s a sense of tension here between Zach and Sara, but it’s not hammered home. There’s some breathing room for the reader to wonder what they might be thinking or going through, and it opens the door for more of an interaction than “I HATE YOU”/”WELL I HATE YOU MORE!!!” That’s sort of the tone of the middle example, and you can definitely find more nuance.

Fiction and Non-Fiction Blend Picture Books

I often work with clients who are writing a blend of fiction and non-fiction in their picture books. This is a tough proposition to publish. Let me explain what I mean. The book features characters and a plot, and also a sizeable number of facts. For example, a girl finds an unusual frog, learns that it belongs in a rain forest, and journeys there to return it. In the process, we have a character with a strong objective, plot points, as well as a lot of interesting information.

In theory, this is a great idea. We have all the charm and imagination of fiction, as well as that all-important educational value. So what goes wrong with this type of manuscript? It lies in the non-fiction part that the writer is attempting to attach to the fiction. There are two problems that usually arise. Too much information, and too little.

When there is too much information, that means the character and plot elements of the fiction part are too thin. The issue is usually that a person really wants to write non-fiction, but they worry that it won’t have enough pizzazz in the marketplace, so they try to spice it up with a protagonist. There are characters, but they don’t do much of anything, for example. It’s if we had Dora the Explorer but we didn’t know anything about her. She just had a name and a little bit of a personality, but she was only really there to have a learning experience. A glorified tour guide, if you will. In my original frog premise, it would be if the girl just went to the rain forest (without a frog or a mission to return it) and walked around, learning about the various plants and animals. There’s technically a fictional “frame” on this book (the girl whose eyes we are seeing things through) but it’s mostly non-fiction.

My recommendation, in that case, would be to rewrite the manuscript as straight non-fiction. It’s going to be easier to place, anyway, if it’s easier to categorize. A fact-based look at the rain forest (or any other topic) without any distracting character element is the bread and butter of school and library NF picture book programs. The lesson? You don’t have to tack a character on to a manuscript if your passion is non-fiction. If you are qualified to write factually on a subject, do your best at that and pitch it as NF.

When there is too little information, it raises a lot of questions. It would be if the girl went to the rain forest, had some really awesome adventures, but only learned about one plant and two other animals. Why that plant? Why those animals? Why those facts about that plant and those animals? If your goal is to teach, why not teach more comprehensively? Why pick only five facts to span the course of a book?

I recently encountered this issue in a client’s premise. (I’m going to change the details of the premise for the sake of confidentiality.) The writer a century’s worth of decades, let’s say the 20th century. And their character stopped in each decade for one page. They learned one thing about each decade. Why that thing? Out of everything that happened in that decade, why that one thing? The educational element was too thin.

If you’re going to cover a topic (the 20th century), then you need to pick a specific angle and really dive in. A picture book on the 20th century isn’t going to sell that well, no matter how charismatic your characters are. It’s too broad. Now, a tour of the Roaring 20s? Getting there. Maybe just the music of the Roaring 20s or the fashion of the Roaring 20s? Very specific. A character recreating the fashion of the 1920s for a fashion show? Bingo. That represents a good blend of fiction and non-fiction.

I would say that a good blend of fiction and non-fiction is the Magic Schoolbus franchise. The class is always up to something. There’s action involved, a mystery to solve, etc. The learning happens almost “under the table” as they pursue an objective. But the books are chock-full of information, and they represent a very comprehensive look at a particular topic.

If you find yourself stuck halfway between fiction and non-fiction, make sure you have enough substance for each category, otherwise, you may be better off committing fully in one direction or the other.


I’ve been doing some work with difficult characters over the last few months. Either the character in question has some pretty obvious flaws (which are part of who they are), or they do some pretty flawed things over the course of the story. Or both. It’s not that the characters I’ve been working with in my editorial practice are unlikeable, it’s that they’re human, quirky, realistic.

People are not all good, all the time. That doesn’t happen in real life, nor should it happen in fiction. But in fiction, you have to always keep in mind the idea of “relatability.” Because a character doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Like Tinkerbell needs applause, the characters in novels need readers to believe in them and relate to them in order to be real. In the publishing world, if I can’t relate to your character, as a reader, chances are, I’m not going to get too deep into the story. I may even put the story down.

But sometimes characters must do things that aren’t exactly relatable. They must be mean, or selfish. They must act in a way that hurts others, or themselves. They must get away from their own best interest.

So how do you make a character like this accessible to the reader through good times and bad?


Sounds simple, but what does that look like on the page? I’ll prescribe my magic solution: Let the character admit that they’re being a butt, and it will humanize the behavior. It will get the reader on the character’s side. Just like in real life, in fictional life, an apology or owning up to a mistake go a long, long way.

Here are some examples. If a character is being cruel to another character, they could do something like this:

“Takes one to know one!” I shouted. I was being so terrible to Brady, but I couldn’t get past him telling the teacher on me. He was supposed to be my friend.

While the reader may not agree with the behavior, at least they know that the character acknowledges it and has a reason for it. Even if that reason isn’t that valid, at least the character knows they’re in the wrong. Even if the emotion blows over soon, the character has taken the time to guide the reader through their less-than-noble feelings. The character here is being a butt, but the behavior is coming from a place of hurt. In other words, vulnerability.

If they admit that woundedness, they become more human and less of a jerk in the reader’s eyes.

The same applies to actions. Play with vulnerability and motivation there, too. For example:

I knew it was wrong to steal. That’s the first thing we learned in Sunday School. And yet here I was, sitting in my car with a brand new MP3 player, still in the box, burning in my pockets. They hadn’t even stopped me. I can sell it and help Mom with rent. I can sell it and help Mom with rent. I kept that on a loop in my head, but it didn’t make me feel any better about what I’d done.

In this example, the character has shoplifted something expensive. But they feel bad, which is one layer of vulnerability. And they did it for a noble reason, which is another. So we have two things that help sell the reader on the behavior.

The other vulnerable thing to smooth over tough-to-swallow words or actions is how they handle themselves after the fact. Does the first character apologize to Brady, even if it’s at the very end of the story? Does the second character go back to the store and pay them for the MP3 player once the financial emergency is over? Admitting their wrongs to the reader in the moment, and admitting their wrongs to others in the story: a two-pronged approach to broadcasting vulnerability.

If you have tough-to-motivate stuff in your manuscript, how might you use vulnerability to help build a bridge between the character and the reader?