One somewhat common refrain among queriers is, “This has never been done before!” or a related espousing of the belief that their novel is completely unlike anything that has ever been written.
This is almost never true. And what unfortunately ends up happening is that whenever someone says, “This has never been done before!” I immediately take it as a challenge and start thinking of the times it has been done before.
The queries below are made up, but they’re close to the mark. Here’s how these claims tend to go and what I start thinking:
Query: “There’s never been a bestselling novel written in the second person!!”
Me: Thinking…. thinking… THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST!!
Query: “No one has ever explained the history of philosophy in novel form.”
Me: SOPHIE’S WORLD!
Query: “No one has ever written a novel in Twitter form!”
Me: Just sold!
According to Google Books there have been 168,178,719 books published in the English language. In words (even more impressive) that’s one hundred sixty eight million one hundred seventy eight thousand seven hundred nineteen books published.
In the immortal words of Roger Sterling after Guy Mackendrick’s foot was run over by a riding lawnmower in the office of Sterling Cooper on Sunday’s episode of Mad Men: “Believe me, somewhere in this business, this has happened before.”
Now, I definitely understand that each book is unique: every single one of those 168 million books was different in its own way. Even the plagiarized ones!
And we agents do stress, with good reason, that it’s important to know how your novel will stand out among the books that are already out there. That might mean a fresh take, a unique setting, an interesting character, an original style. There is absolutely a premium on originality, and every once in a generation a new genre is created almost completely from scratch.
But it’s important to recognize the extent to which every novel draws upon traditions that have come before and to be well read enough to know where your novel stands among the popular ones in your genre. Even very unique novels draw upon a rich literary tradition and have their influences and predecessors. When an author immodestly declares “This has never been done before!” it makes it seem as if the author is unaware of the books that have come before that are similar to theirs, and makes the agent wonder why the author doesn’t seem to know about them.
It isn’t important that you write a novel that has never even remotely been done before. What’s important is that you write it well.