Manuscript Revision IV: Preserving that freshness seal

Welcome back to my continuing series on revising your manuscript for more successful submissions. Today, I want to talk about not the nit-picking little concerns that agents and editors so love to jump upon as evidence of a manuscript’s not being ready for print — remember, the first reader at an agency or publishing house is usually given explicit criteria for weeding out submissions, so the screener is often not looking to like the book in front of him — but a larger issue that traditionally causes editorial eyes to roll and agents to mutter, “Oh, God, not another one.”

The time has come, my friends, to speak about freshness: the industry term for projects that are exciting because no one has written something like it before — or hasn’t made a success with something like it recently.

Freshness is one of those concepts that people in the publishing industry talk about a lot without ever defining with any precision. It is not synonymous with cutting-edge — although cutting-edge concepts are often marketed as fresh. And it doesn’t, contrary to popular opinion amongst late middle-aged writers, mean something aimed at the youth market. Nor does it mean original, because originality, in the eyes of the industry, often translates into the kind of strange topics that don’t make sense within either a Manhattan or LA context: cow tipping, for instance, or rural tractor-racing. Although, of course, in some cases, all of these things are true of fresh manuscripts.

Confused yet? Don’t worry; you will be.

As a basic rule of thumb, a fresh story is either one that has never been told before, never been told from that particular point of view before, or contains elements that make the reader say, “Wow — I didn’t expect THAT.”

Yet, as I pointed out above, original stories are not automatically fresh ones. In the eyes of the industry, a fresh story is generally not an absolutely unique one, but a new twist on an old theme: BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, to use a common example, is certainly not the first tragedy ever written about socially frowned-upon love, or even the first one involving either cowboys or two men. It was the combination of all of these elements — and, I suspect, the fact that it was written by a woman, not a man — that made for a fresh story.

Had it been more explicitly sexual, or overtly political, or had a happy ending, or even been written by an author less well-established than Annie Proulx, I suspect that publishing types would have dismissed it as weird.

Weird, incidentally, is defined even more nebulously than fresh in the industry lexicon: it is anything too original (or seldom written-about) to appeal to the agent or editor’s conception of who buys books in the already-established publishing categories. Graphic novels, for instance, were considered until about 15 years ago not to have broad enough market appeal to be comfortably sold in mainstream bookstores, and thus were weird; practically overnight, though, a few successful graphic novels (Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer prize-winning MAUS or THE DARK KNIGHT, anyone?) established the genre, and editors started searching eagerly for fresh concepts.

THE DARK KNIGHT is a useful example, I think, of how a creative author can turn a well-worn story into a fresh concept. For those of you not familiar with it, THE DARK KNIGHT was a retelling of the story of Batman — who, at the time, had a sort of friendly, light-hearted reputation from both decades of comic books and a tongue-in-cheek TV show. Batty was, by the 1980s, considered pretty old hat (or old mask-with-pointed-ears, if you prefer.) But in THE DARK KNIGHT, the focus switched from Batty’s do-gooding to his many, many deep-seated psychological problems — after all, the guy gets his jollies by hanging out in a damp cave, right? That can’t be healthy. He is not saving Gotham time and time again because he happens to like prancing around in tights; it serves to ease his pain, and he very frequently resents it.

And that, my friends, was a fresh take on a well-traveled old bat.

It is endlessly fascinating to me that when people in the industry talk about literary freshness, they almost invariably resort to other art forms for examples. WEST SIDE STORY was a fresh take on ROMEO AND JULIET; RENT was a fresh retelling of LA BOHÈME, which was in itself a retelling of an earlier book, Henri Murger’s Scenes del la Vie de Boheme; almost any episode of any sitcom originally aired in December is a fresh take on A CHRISTMAS CAROL. (Or maybe not so fresh.) And can we even count how many Horatio Alger-type stories are made into movies — like, say, ERIN BROCKOVICH?

Hey, just because a story is true doesn’t mean its contours do not conform to standing rules of drama.

Like it or not, folks in the publishing industry just love the incorporation of contemporary elements into classic stories. There is just no other way to explain industry enthusiasm for BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY (well, okay, the sales might have had something to do with it), which reproduced the plot of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE so completely that many of the characters’ names remained the same. (Trust me, Darcy is not all that common a first name for Englishmen.) In the mid-1980s, publishing professionals regularly described THE COLOR PURPLE as “THE UGLY DUCKLING with racial issues” — dismissive of the great artistry of the writing, I thought, and the fact that THE UGLY DUCKLING in its original form is absolutely about race.

That sad little signet was on the receiving end of a whole lot of nasty ethnic stereotyping, if you ask me.

I hear some of you murmuring out there: “Gee, Anne, this would be very helpful indeed if I were starting a book from scratch. But at the moment, I am packaging an already-existing manuscript for submission to an agent or editor. How does the freshness issue affect ME?”

A fine question, and one that richly deserves an answer. Actually, it is almost more important to consider your story’s freshness at the point that you are about to send it out the door than when you first start the process — because once the manuscript is complete, it is far easier to see where the storyline (or argument; the freshness test applies to NF, too) falls into too-familiar grooves. Because absolutely the last thing you want an agent to think when reading your submission is, “Oh, I’ve seen this before,” right?

Since a big selling point of a fresh manuscript is its surprise, you will want to play up — both in your marketing materials and your editing — how your manuscript is unique. And quickly. If you begin it like just another Batman story, the reader is going to have a hard time catching on where your work is fresh and different from what is already on the market.

And yes, Virginia, you DO need to make the freshness apparent from page 1. I hate to be the one to tell you this (and yet I seem to do so very frequently, don’t I?), but people who work in the publishing industry tend to have knee-jerk reactions, deciding whether they like a writer’s voice or story within a very few pages. It’s not a good idea, generally speaking, to make them wait 50 pages, or even 5, to find out why your submission is special — and so very, very marketable.

Oh, dear, I’m afraid I’ve made the average agency screener sound a bit shallow, a trifle ill-tempered, a smidge impatient. Oh, I WOULD hate it if you got that impression.

Read over your manuscript, and ask yourself a few questions — or, better yet, have a reader you trust peruse it, and then start grilling. How is this book unlike anything else currently in print within its genre? Is that difference readily apparent within the first chapter? Within the first couple of pages? In the first paragraph? Are the unusual elements carried consistently throughout the book, or does it relapse into conventional devices for this kind of story?

Would, in short, a well-read reader be tempted to say, “Oh, I’ve seen this a dozen times this month,” or “Wow, I’ve never seen this before!” upon glancing over your submission?

If the story is a familiar one, is it being told in a new voice? If the story is surprising and new, are there enough familiar stylistic elements that the reader feels grounded and trusts that the plot will unfold in a dramatically satisfying manner? (And yes, you should be able to answer this last question in the affirmative, even if your book takes place on Planet Targ.)

It’s better to ask these questions BEFORE you send out your work, of course, than after, because as that tired old aphorism goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression. Make sure those early pages cry out, “I’m so fresh you could eat me!”

Yes, I know: I sound like your mother before you went out on your first date. You’re not going to wear THAT, are you?

I also know that getting hooked up with an agent with whom you plan to have a lifetime relationship via a level of scrutiny that seems suspiciously like speed-dating (oh, come on: that analogy has never occurred to you when you were pitching at a conference?) may strike you as a bad idea…  well, I have to say I agree. All of our work deserves more careful reading than the average agency gives it. We are all, after all, human beings, timorous souls who are putting the fruits of our stolen hours on the line for scrutiny. Our work should be treated with respect.

And oh, how I wish I could assure you that it always will be. But don’t you think it is prudent to prepare it for the dates where it won’t be? Button up that top button, and axe the nail polish.

In my next, more on an automatic freshness-spoiler seldom mentioned in writing classes. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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