Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Same but Different: Part II

I sat in a conference audience, listening to a panel of literary agents discuss what they were looking for, the types of queries they were accepting, and any personal quirks they might have. The most honest, by far, was the lovely Alice Volpe of Northwest Literary Agency, Inc. She said, and I quote, that she "accepts anything that sells."

I burst into nervous laughter, surrounded by a sea of adventuring writers, who also nurtured dreams of publishing. Their laughter, too, though just as genuine as mine, was nervous.

How does one gauge the pecuniary worth of an unpublished novel?

There is an entire debate raging over the "write what sells" vs. "be true to your gut" methods, and, while I suspect that the answer lies somewhere in the middle, I've little desire to embark on a discussion of something I also suspect resembles a dead horse.

One key, one of many on a jangling and massive keyring, is the tried and true Same but Different method. It's easier to provide examples than steps, but I will try.

1. Have a brilliant idea? Tweak it.
2. Have an idea no one has ever thought of before? Tweak it.
3. Suddenly inspired to write about fairies/faeries/fah-rees? You got it: Tweak it.

Fortunately, I've recently read a couple of books that are perfect examples of this: Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter by R. J. Anderson and Wings by Aprilynne Pike. I read them both on the same day -- they're both about faeries. And, oddly enough, neither reminded me of the other. In fact, they were completely and entirely different. But the same. Well, you get it.

1. Dying faery world; human world secondary
2. Faeries are born of eggs
3. There are no male faeries
4. Faery protagonist is kick-butt, defiant, and unraveling the mystery of the dearth of magic within the faery-world.
5. Ultimately (and I ruin nothing), it's pleasant to see yet another difference: instead of humans being the evil in the world, this particular view holds that the two species are essential to each other's creative health.

1. Normal girl who doesn't want to go to school; threatened faery world secondary
2. Girl discovers she's not human but a faery --> but faeries are plant material, not flesh at all
3. Male faeries impregnate female faeries through pollination, which has nothing to do with sex. Sex is just for fun.
4. Trolls are trying to take over a faery kingdom, and need access to the "gate".
5. Although girl is key, she finds herself in the midst of a battle she knows nothing about.

After reading these two books, things started to fall into place for me. I started to get this whole "same but different" idea. And I started to realize that what annoyed me as a kid is essential in this world of publishing. Because, oddly enough, it's the "different" ingredient that often drives the conflict. And, as you know, conflict is the story.

[Author note: I thoroughly enjoyed both of the books and urge you to check them out.]

How do you view "same but different"? Is there something I'm missing here?


  1. The first part of my comment is probably something you already know: If you don't write what you want to write, you won't get to read what you want to read.

    Regarding the Same But Different concept, I recently went to a concert in downtown LA by a group called the Fab Faux. This group is composed of five very successful musicians who occasional get together to replicate Beatles Music. They are not about being original when they do these performances. They are about having fun and celebrating music that they love. I personally love Tolstoy, and anyone who could write like him today, even if it wasn't different, would be okay by me.

  2. I start writing with one idea in mind, but once into the story I go off in an entirely different direction. Therefore, I don’t think it's possible for me to use the ‘write what sells’ approach. All I can do is write and hope for the best!

  3. Come up with a "What if..." that you want to know the answer to. Then write it. If it's boring for you to write then you need a new "What if". Figure why you love your favorite books and use that knowledge to write your own. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Oh, well.


  4. I totally get the agent saying "I accept what sells", because she has to, to keep bread on the table. How that translates to what you write, is different. There are people that can "write what sells", and maybe I fall into that category, because I write commercial fiction, but, it's also what I like to read.

    I still am a firm believer in that you have to write what you have passion about. If writing about fairies is your passion, then that's what you should write.

    In terms of making it sell, that's harder. If your craft is of professional grade, then it should come down to a matter of taste, and there is no magic potion for that, other than to find "the right" agent.

    I am also a firm believer in the same but different strategy. My latest book is a twist on "The Star Chamber", an eighties(?) movie starring Michael Douglas, and Hal Holbrook where a clandestine organization of judges carry out justice outside the law. The movie is told from the point of view of a judge. I want to tell a similar story, but from the view of an assassin working for the judges. It's the same, but there will be enough twists, that it's different. We'll see if it works, but I'm having a lot of fun with it now.

  5. Oh, yes. This is something I've bumped into lately. What I like to write the most and what is more saleable aren't always in sync with each other. It is a difficult balance and one I am still trying to achieve.

  6. I like the two examples that you point out. I can see that these are two very different faery stories, but obviously similiar in that there are faeries.

    Same but different at it's best means that I can pick up a book and feel confident because it is the type of book that I like. I sometimes like comic book movies (like Iron Man) because they do a good job of following through with what I expect: origin story, action, humor, challenging bad guys or bad chicks, bigger than life problems, suspense, a human dimension, and an action packed and hopefully inteligent resolution.

    Same, but different at its worst is just plain boring, and it happens often in fantasy movies. The young kid has no idea of is super powers and is called into action. He must refuse the call, because it is in Vogler's book. Once that is out of the way a darker than dark bad buy emerges and we all know that the kid will beat the bad guy despite the odds. It is so predictable that it gets boring.

    I like fantasy because of the cool worlds, not the predictable plots. The world building is what makes the fantasy stories I like enjoyable. If there is something unpredictable (or different) that makes it a great read.

    I loved City of Ember. Kids win the day is a predictable ending, but somehow the way that it came together was unique. I think that it had to do with the way the boy and the girl worked together to solve a mystery. Mystery in fantasy is good and helps to avoid the problem of magic weapon or kick butt fighting wins the day.

    I should just post this for my post. It's long enough. Anyway, I'd be glad to know what you think on this.

    Thanks or delving into what I think is one of the most important topics we as a group could be talking about.

  7. @Davin Malasarn: ah yes -- and maybe, ultimately, i get to sit around and read my own collection of "what i like" :) you have a point tho: when you write what you like, passion shines through. And that, i think, is probably what sells...

    @Jane Kennedy Sutton: i hope i didn't come across that way, because i'm really not arguing for writing what sells. it's just that i've had a difficult time wrapping my brain around that whole "same but different" thing. I'm sure you've seen those agent blogs that say something to the effect of "if i see another fairy book, i'll vomit. on the other hand, if it's a really good fairy book, sent it to me." that's always been confusing to me. i think the tweaking part confused me too :)

    @Elspeth Antonelli: not easy at all! there's this elusive quality about books i love. can't nail anything down ;) i just know they're not angsty and guilt-ridden and full of girl-drama. is this what you do?

    @Douglas: you're right, of course. there's nothing wrong w/ writing what sells. and it annoys me when people refer to that as "selling out" -- i think they're just jealous, personally, because they don't have the million dollar checks rolling in ;P i believe that successful writers keep *everything* in perspective but write with passion. good luck w/ your WIP!!

    @Tess: i guess the good news is that everything oeprates on a cycle of sorts. i found it really funny when i read (last week?) that vampires have never really gone out of style. yet, i do remember a time when they were so passe & no one wanted to represent them... it's a tough gig but a kick-butt fun one, this writing life.

  8. @dave: Isn't the plot line essentially the same w/ every book w/ few variations? Exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, etc etc? The details, the writing, the foreshadowing and red herrings, the character development -- those are the things that truly make the book unique. Make it stand out. Make it different:)

    But all those pieces -- they all have to add up. For me.

    This doesn't seem to be true in the publishing world. I've read any number of books, especially this last year as i'm "researching" of sorts, that are truly unique when it comes to world building or "tweaked" or same but different. I've been pleasantly surprised and even wow'd. But many of them are also penned in hideous writing that distracts the heck out of me. (of course, that's the downside of being an english teacher, i guess.) some to the point of making my skin crawl. some to the point of being tossed aside. This is what surprises me. But it also makes me think: great writing doesn't ultimately matter. it's the uniqueness of the tweak that does.

    this epiphany will not, of course, inform my own writing. I will continue to write the best that I can: unfortunately, just because i can recognize the genius of Shakespeare does not mean that I can write like him :)


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