Fiction Workbench

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Agent…when? Hey, no Copying! & Footnotes in Fiction?

Posted by Meredith in Writing Advice (November 9, 2010 at 12:18 pm)
. 1 comment. .

I’m going to cover three short questions from Advanced Fiction Writing readers in this post today.

The first is from Susan, about contacting agents:

I had a wonderful Editor interview and she asked me to send a proposal. Since she knows that I do not have an agent at the moment and they only take on agented writers should I wait until I acquire an agent?  The fact is I’m 75 percent complete with the story and she seemed interested in my proposal. Also, I was wondering if you have any advice for the thank you notes for the apointments I attended?  My focus has been completely on studying story and structure and not on contacting agents and editors!!

Congrats, Susan, on such a successful editor appointment! That’s great news. My advice is to go ahead and send her your proposal even though you don’t have an agent. The fact that she requested it means that you can send it despite their agent-only policy. That’s the beauty of conference editor appointments. But while you are waiting to hear back from her, I’d suggest getting that manuscript finished ASAP. If the Dream comes true, and she wants to buy the manuscript, then at that point, you can contact some agents and say “I have an offer on the table and am looking for an agent to negotiate it for me.” It shouldn’t be too difficult to find a willing agent in that scenario.

For thank you notes, just write (I think hand-written is more special) a short, professional thank you to tell the editor that you enjoyed meeting with her and appreciated her time and encouragement, etc. It doesn’t have to be much–just an acknowledgment of her help is a thoughtful, kind thing to do.

Good luck, Susan!

Our second question is from Kyle who is worried about unintentionally copying ideas from other people:

Is there any way to avoid unintentionally copying other people’s ideas? I recently gave a friend a story I’ve written to read, and was shocked when she pointed out that much of the idea was the same as a book we’ve read together. (It was a very long time ago and I’ve forgotten about that book until now.) Since then I’ve started to notice that all the ideas I come up with and start writing on I can link to either some book I’ve read before, or a movie, or a comic. It’s very depressing and makes me think that I have no original ideas of my own. What should I do to come up with original ideas and not copy others even when I’m trying not to?

Kyle, it speaks well of your artistic integrity that you are concerned about this. I want to reassure you–there is nothing wrong with your ability to come up with original ideas. There’s an old saying (from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes) that goes, “There is nothing new under the sun,” and that observation was from thousands of years ago. We are all part of a very long literary and cultural chain or web of ideas that spans every nation and extends back through history. There are similar ideas and stories because humanity shares a similar set of experiences and desires. We are all influenced by the stories we’ve read or grown up with. We’re influenced by our culture, by our life experiences, and by those around us. It’s inevitable that you’ll find similarities between stories you’ve been exposed to and your own ideas.

What you can do about it is put your own twist on it. Infuse the story with your own perspective. If it’s feeling too derivative of some other story, then see how you can warp or bend the story to take a new, more unexpected direction. The most important part of this, though, is your voice. You bring a unique view and set of experiences and personality to the story that no one else can ever duplicate. YOU are what is original about the story. And as you become more experienced as a writer, you will learn to maximize that originality and build your special writing voice.

Having similarities to other work is not wholly a bad thing. Similarities give readers a reference point and make it easier for them to know if it’s a book they’ll be interested in. Most readers have preferred characteristics they look for in their books. They want a strange balance of “the same book over again” but “different and unique.” So a certain amount of echo between your story and others is not necessarily something to avoid. But finding that balance might take some practice.

And finally, our third question is from Victor, who wonders why footnotes are frowned on in fiction:

It is rare to see footnotes in fiction. Recently I came across a few footnotes in one of the very successful Stieg Larsson novels and I did not feel put off by them. Why is there such a universal disdain for this practical device? In writing fiction it is necessary, if not unavoidable, from time to time to use a foreign word or expression. When I come across such a thing, I feel either frustrated at not understanding it (if it is relevant to the story) or annoyed (if it isn’t). In either case, I think a footnote would reduce or eliminate the negative effect.

Thanks for your question, Victor. I think that most “standard practices” in fiction have arisen from reader preferences and demand. Typically, the average fiction reader doesn’t want to be distracted from the story. Footnotes tend to clutter the page, and they pull the reader out of the flow of the story. In general, if the author needs to use a foreign word/phrase, it’s best to make it understandable within the context of the story or figure out a way to subtly explain the meaning of the phrase within the narrative or dialogue instead of footnoting. Many novels, especially fantasy or science fiction, include a glossary at the back, but this is inconvenient and cumbersome as well.

This is not to say that an individual author couldn’t negotiate with their editor to include footnotes or other non-standard material in their novel if they could make a strong case for why it is necessary. I would imagine that part of the reason for the footnoting in the Larsson books is because they were not originally written in English, and it might have been necessary to footnote where translation was not as straightforward. That’s pure conjecture on my part, mind you, but it was obviously a decision that the publishers made.

Thanks, everyone, for the great questions! If you have a writing question, please feel free to ask it here at the Fiction Workbench or at Advanced Fiction Writing.

One response to “Agent…when? Hey, no Copying! & Footnotes in Fiction?”

  1. Ishana says:

    In regards to Kyle’s question, it’s been said that there are only three different kinds of plots in the world: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. self. The fact is, all plots have already been done innumerable times by just as many people. There are no original plots.

    However, and if you follow Janet Reid this will sound familiar, you can add something new to what has already been done. Stay away from cliches and overdone tropes. Find a way to bring new life to an old plot. Make it special, make it you, and it will be original in its own sense.

    Just don’t get too bizarre. As Meredith said, find a balance between unique and familiar.

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