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Boring Book Flaps - Some Notes on Originality

By Chris Stewart

It seems every time I read someone's bio for whatever reason they are working on a novel. Everyone and their brother, mother, ex-boyfriend, homeopath, babysitter, work crush, realtor, and massage therapist are writers. It's enough to make you give up and go to law school.

We all like to think we have original ideas that will catch an agent's or editor's attention, but do we really? (And how much originality is a good thing? Too much and you're not marketable. Not enough and your ms ends up in the trash. Perhaps that's a subject for another post....)

To find out where you fit in, I encourage you to take a field trip to your local bookstore or library and check out the offerings in your genre. This is also a good exercise for those of you out there working on pitches for agents and editors for an upcoming conference (or to use in your query letters). Make sure you bring change for the copier (if you go to the library). You're going to copy some book flaps. If you're an emotional person, you might want to make plans to drink first or after to get you through the experience.

My own recent foray into the contemporary women's fiction section of my local library yielded the following discovery: A lot of REALLY BORING BOOK FLAPS. Really. I kept checking the publisher's name to see who would publish such drivel - yes, the big houses! Shocking, I know. There are a lot of books by women about:

1) women whose husband has died/cheated and they find out their marriage/life has been a lie

2) women whose husband has left them and they embark on a journey to find themselves

3) women contacted by children they gave up for adoption and then embark on journey to find themselves

4) women giving up children for adoption, then later finding that child and embarking on a journey...

5) women embarking on a journey to find themselves and finding a man and getting married (clearly end of journey!)

6) women leaving husbands to embark on a journey...

7) women leaving good jobs and husbands/boyfriends to follow their dream

Are you still awake? If any of these women were my friends I would have dumped them a long time ago. Women must have something better to do than this journey business. All books are going to have some element of this, but it shouldn't dominate. I mean, surely someone must have arrived at their destination by now and can report back so we can move on.

Or at least someone can throw in a twist--a transgender man or woman finding another transgender man or woman (just think - there are at least four people in that equation!), or a lesbian? How about this: a woman who's partner dies leaving her to embark on a journey to find the sperm donor for the child they had together (and herself, of course).

Try this exercise (and don't forget to meet some writer friends at a nearby bar afterwards). You need this wake up call. We all do. I think originality boils down to voice more than anything else, but your story shouldn't be a yawner either. Take the copies of book flaps and tape them to the walls near your desk as a reminder of what not to do. And dig deep!

Chris Stewart is a writing mentor and founding director of the Write Here, Write Now workshops in Baltimore. Her website is www.therealwriter.com.

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