How Do I Make My Familiar Book Premise Fresh?

There’s not a single new book premise  in the world. I’m sorry, but there really isn’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.

book premise, book ideas to write
There are countless love stories out there — how are you going to make yours stand out?

What Do You Do When Your Book Premise is Overdone?

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 book premise, 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?”

When you’re considering book ideas to write, remember that 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.

The Devil is in the Details

So, how do you go about defusing that resistance you’re likely to encounter with a familiar book premise? 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 considering book ideas to write 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.

Be Specific

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 worldbuilding) 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.

Put A Spin On It!

This is literally the first thing that came to mind, but I was trying to establish a book premise that puts 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 book premise? If it’s a kid with powers, how specific and interesting can the powers get? If it’s a school for wizards, what worldbuilding 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 that particular book premise 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 for the fantasy premise. 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 a familiar book premise.

Are you struggling with coming up with fresh book ideas to write? Hire my developmental editing services and I’ll help you shape a premise that’s unique.

Identifying Your Writing Genre

This question about identifying your writing genre comes in from Kimberly:

I find identifying the genre to be very difficult. What if your novel is a mash-up of two different genres? Is it bad to mention this? What about saying something like, “YA suspense with paranormal elements”? Any guidance you could give would be much appreciated!

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Which writing genre fits your book? What if you don’t slot in neatly enough?

What is Writing Genre?

You’ve heard of writing genre, even if you haven’t tried to determine writing genre for your own work. Books are referred to as “fantasy” if they have strong worldbuilding and elements of magic, “paranormal” if they feature creatures like vampires or ghosts, “romance” if a love relationship is at their core, and “sci-fi” if there’s a strong technology aspect.

(For children’s books, by the way, the different age groups are generally referred to as “categories” rather than “genres,” therefore “picture book” is a category. There’s no such thing as the “picture book genre.” Learn more about the different children’s book categories.)

If your book doesn’t have a writing genre, it might fit into the “general fiction” bucket, or maybe “contemporary realistic.” In middle grade fiction, stories that concentrate on real life and regular issues are often called “coming of age.”

Determine Writing Genre as Best as You Can

Writing genre isn’t rigid, and many high-concept ideas borrow from multiple genres. For example, Emily Hainsworth’s Through to You was pitched to me as “YA paranormal.” Then I pitched it as a “magical realism YA” because I thought that it wasn’t quite paranormal in the way that today’s YA market takes the term. Then the published decided to market it as a “YA paranormal thriller,” but emphasizing the book’s romantic and sci-fi elements as well.

While it’s very difficult to aim into the mists in between different audience categories, say, “upper MG” or “younger YA” or “tween” and I actually wouldn’t recommend it at all, genre is a completely different beast and, in today’s more evolved MG and YA markets, is more malleable.

Pick the Strongest Writing Genre for Your Pitch

Kimberly’s example of “YA suspense with paranormal elements” is fine, though I would choose “thriller” over “suspense,” personally. “Thriller” is more of a buzzword in today’s market. Still, as you can tell from my Through to You example, everyone has a slightly different way of describing genre.

What’s important to note here is that we’re picking one writing genre to highlight. It’s not a “YA thriller paranormal,” where both genres fight for attention. A “thriller with paranormal elements” tells an agent or publisher that you have written a fast-paced, action-centric plot, and there may be a werewolf here or there. If it was a “paranormal with thriller elements,” that would communicate a focus on otherworldly characters, with an extra kick for the plot.

At the end of the day, your literary agent or publisher will make the decision of how to position it, just like they will end up choosing the final title. Title and genre are both subject to change on the road to publication. Pitch your writing genre accurately and to the best of your ability, and that’s good enough for the query!

Having trouble deciding where you fit? Wondering if you’re hitting the right notes of your chosen writing genre? I’m a novel editor who works in every category and genre, with a special emphasis on children’s books.

Historical Fiction in Children’s Books

Some editors are definitely changing their minds about historical fiction in children’s books and period settings. They are looking for these kinds of projects more actively, but it’s no secret that they have been a bit of a hard sell in the last few years. The market is cyclical, though, so nothing stays down forever. While I’m not calling historical a trend or anything, by any stretch of the imagination, I wanted to talk a little bit about how to use a historical setting in the best possible way in your book.

historical setting in a novel, period piece, period setting, historical fiction, historical setting
If you write a novel with a historical setting, it’ll automatically look like this.

Making Historical Fiction in Children’s Books Work

The number one (and, really, only good) reason to place your book in a historical setting is if the book’s events depend on that historical period. For example, if a lot of your plot is going to be informed by the political climate in Germany, say, in 1934, when a new leader has taken the political stage, and about the tensions boiling then, etc., then 1934 it is. That’s a great reason for historical fiction in children’s books.

Or if you’re writing a Victorian period piece. Or something set in San Francisco or Berkeley during the Summer of Love. Maybe a story about the Columbine shootings or another famous, time-specific event or historical period.

Now, there is a caveat to this. The event or period really has to be central to the events of your own novel. In other words, there has to be a dang good reason for you to be setting your book in another time. If you’re setting your book in the 90s just because there’s a scene of your characters finding out that Princess Di has died in a car crash and then reacting to that, but there’s really no bigger plot or theme connection than that one scene, I don’t think that’s a strong enough reason for the “historical” story setting.

The 20th Century is Considered Historical Fiction (Don’t Shoot the Messenger)

Just in case I offended you there, that wasn’t my intention. While I think it sounds a little silly, believe it or not, the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s are now considered historical fiction in children’s books — especially in a market where the overwhelming number of books are set in an undefined contemporary, near-future, or future setting. So if you think you’re writing an awesome contemporary book that just so happens to be set in the 80s and everyone is doing their hair like Molly Ringwald…you’re writing historical.

So the good reason for a historical setting is if the time period is woven inextricably with your plot. There are several bad reasons for writing historical, and some of them are difficult to let go of.

What to Avoid When Writing Historical Fiction

First, don’t set a book in a past decade just because you grew up that way. Sure, there are coming of age stories that are set in various 20th century decades that go on to win awards and whatnot. Rebecca Stead set WHEN YOU REACH ME in the 70s not because it had to be set in the 70s, but because she grew up in that era in New York City and really loved it…that’s when, to her, kids were given more freedom and independence than they are in the cities now.

That’s totally valid. But that’s also Rebecca Stead and the book is brilliantly done. At no point does it fail to be relatable or seem dated.

While it’s really tempting to “write what you know” in this regard, do be aware that historical fiction in children’s books that seems “old-fashioned” is a really tough sell right now. I know I’m always looking for fresh, modern voices, as are a lot of editors.

There’s a balance between making something resonate currently and writing something timeless…but the answer isn’t always to set it in the past. (Going back to Molly Ringwald for a second…there was one summer, when chick lit YA was still pretty big, when it seemed like every spunky YA heroine I read in slush had the cute “quirk” of just loooooving 80s movies and watching them with all her friends. Is that really the YA character talking…or the thirtysomething writer who is obsessed with John Hughes?)

Writing Historical Fiction Around Technology

Second, don’t go for historical fiction in children’s books to eliminate the biggest thriller/adventure/mystery plot problems: cell phones and the Internet. Lots of writers think about setting their action stories in the past so that the kids can’t just call the police or so that the answer isn’t immediately obvious to all parties after five minutes on Google. This is a tough one.

For all of those writers crafting twisty yarns that rely on the character getting in high danger or the withholding of important information, cell phones and the Internet are hugely problematic. I can really, really get why a writer would long for the disconnected 80s for their serial killer novel. I’d imagine the same ruffling of feathers happened when pay phones hit the streets. Now the girl being chased by the murderer could potentially save herself. Remember pay phones? Well, fiction survived that, too (though pay phones didn’t…).

Here’s the reality: Kids today are attached to their cell phones and their computers. There are fewer and fewer places on this planet where we are cut off from communication, achieving that total isolation that lets evil characters and conspiracies and mysterious plot twists work their machinations. But technology and connectedness are, for better or worse, how kids relate to the world today.

While this is at odds with a lot of good and suspenseful fiction, writers are going to have to adapt, especially in the future, as information becomes more and more accessible. You have to figure out your own solutions to cutting characters off from information, because in 20 years, all of our mystery novels just can’t be set in the 80s to take the shortcut around it. That’s not realistic.

Integrating Technology Instead

In this battle of Writers vs. Technology, Technology has won, so it’s up to you to use your writerly imagination to make your plot work. It’s, personally, a pet peeve of mine when a writer doesn’t acknowledge that technology exists. I always find myself asking, “Why doesn’t s/he just Google this? I know everyone who writes books is in love with libraries, but does s/he really have to go to the musty old archives?” And I’m over a decade older than your target market. It’s a knee-jerk thought even for me.

Now, I know not everyone has a cell phone or an Internet connection — there’s a big socioeconomic divide here — but everyone can have access to technology in class and at the library. So put on your creative cap for the Technology Problem, and at least acknowledge that technology exists…that’s what your reader will be thinking.

So don’t fall back on the decade of your youth, and don’t go back to the 90s to avoid technology. If you really have a great reason for using a historical setting, do it. If not, I always recommend contemporary, near-future, or the far future as a setting for your story in today’s market.

I’ve worked on dozens of historical novels and read hundreds more. Let me bring my experience to your project and hire me as your freelance editor.

Writing in Different Genres or for Multiple Audiences

I got a great question about writing in different genres the other week from Gisele:

I had a random thought this morning–do agents typically prefer to represent writers who write in multiple genres (like YA, MG, picture books, etc.) or authors that focus on one or two? Are there advantages or disadvantages to writing in different genres or sticking to one? Or, does the issue depend on the agent?

writing in different genres, writing in multiple genres, multiple genres, writing for multiple audiences
If you write for multiple genres, you may have more career juggling to do.

Writing in Different Genres as a Career Path

As an agent, considering a client’s career trajectory is part of the job. We make sure the author has the kind of career they want, we help them choose their next projects, we position them in carefully chosen ways to editors and houses.

I know that a lot of writers want to write in multiple genres or for more than one audience within the juvenile market. Luckily, kidlit lends itself well to this. In adult publishing, it’s harder to go from a hard-boiled mystery, say, to nonfiction investing “how to.” In children’s, it’s a bit easier to transition from middle-grade to picture book to YA, if your voice is flexible enough and you’re familiar with the particulars of each audience.

There are about as many different answers to Gisele’s question, however, as there are agents. Some people believe that a writer should stay with one market audience and establish themselves with a few books before switching. This type of agent will argue that John Green, for example, who has published four contemporary/realistic YA novels, can now switch to another market. There’s a lot of good rationale here.

A writer should consider writing at least two books in a row for one audience before switching markets and writing in multiple genres. The benefit of this is that you’ll establish a readership and build a reputation. Once you’ve got a foundation in one market, you’ll start getting a sales record, too, and it will be easier to attract a publisher for that picture book you’ve always wanted to write. (If you’re having trouble identifying your genre or category, start here.)

How to Pull Off Writing Multiple Genres

Others don’t see the harm in diversifying. Some suggest market-hopping openly, others might suggest a pseudonym. The conventional wisdom is that you don’t spread yourself thin over too many houses and that you don’t compete with yourself. That means, you shouldn’t sell two fantasy MG novels to two publishers and have them both come out the same season, for example, or any other countless permutation of this scenario. As long as your publishers are happy with your schedule and the variety of projects you’re doing, you’ll be okay.

Personally, I’m happy to work with someone who wants to diversify. At the point where we’re planning career strategy, it really will go on a case by case basis. It’s very difficult to generalize about this. The one constant with everyone who writes across markets, though, is the talent and aptitude to do so. If a writer has a truly excellent picture book and an amazing YA that they want to bring to market, what could possibly be stopping them? Surely not me.

It will be a bit more challenging to sell to multiple publishers for multiple markets right from the beginning, sure. Even if you have sold one or two books already, those books aren’t out yet and you haven’t established a sales record for prospective future publishers to consider. And each time you pick a new market, you’re basically starting from scratch in terms of the money they’ll offer, especially when you’re at the beginning of your career. But such are the growing pains at the start of every journey.

If you want to start diversifying right from square one in multiple genres or establish yourself and then branch out, I will personally welcome the adventure of charting the exact career path you want. For every published writer, though, their career path and the markets they break into will be on a case by case basis between them and their agent.

Have diverse writing interests? My editing services cover many different genres and categories, from children’s book to memoir to fantasy.