“This Has Never Been Done Before!”

by | Sep 22, 2009 | Query Letters | 131 comments

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!!”


Query: “No one has ever explained the history of philosophy in novel form.”


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.


  1. Eric

    If a riding lawnmower appears in act one, someone's foot has to be mutilated by act three.

  2. Douglas L. Perry

    They say "this has never been done before", but they forgot to add the phrase, "by me" 🙂

  3. Mira

    Hmmm. Well. Maybe this is a form of heresy, but I sort of don't get why an author needs to be well-read.

    In fact, personally, I'd rather not read anything similar to what I'm about to write. I deliberately stay away from humor books, for example. I don't want them to influence my style and result in unconscious plagerism.

    As for orginiality, I am not going to create a new genre. But I do have some ideas that are pretty darn original. They are. Of course, not being extremely well-read, I could be wrong, and they are a dime a dozen, but being me, I'm going to assume I'm right, and they are pretty fresh ideas.

    But I would not put that in a query letter. Well, not for fiction. For non-fiction, I think they want you to talk about how your proposal is different than what's on the market. But that's different than starting a new genre, or having a very new take on things.

    For fiction, I would let the idea speak for itself.

  4. Bane of Anubis

    When you say 'somewhat common,' could you provide a rough statistic?

    Overall (and conversely), just sorta curious about the percentage of queries you receive that seem like they come from people who understand the game.

  5. Nathan Bransford


    I think you just inspired a future You Tell Me: can you be a good writer without being well-read?

    I'm not so sure.

  6. Marilyn Peake

    I’ve heard such comments as well, which usually lead me to believe that the person either doesn’t read much or missed a similar book. "There is nothing new under the sun" applies to both human actions and literature. 🙂

  7. L. A. Carter

    Great advice, something my mentor has been drilling at me for quite some time. At first, I was discouraged because I wanted to be completely original but the originality is in the telling.

  8. Nathan Bransford


    Lately I'd say less than 25% of the queries I receive are from people who understand the game.

  9. Other Lisa

    Since you brought it up…I laughed an unseemly amount about the riding lawnmower tragedy…"no golf!"

  10. Mira

    Nathan – I'm honored to have inspired you, even in a somewhat negative sense, and I'm stunned at how quickly you read. I barely refreshed the page! 🙂

    Maybe it depends upon what you write. I'd be interested in people's thoughts too.

  11. Bane of Anubis

    Wow – sorry to hear that (I was expecting much, much higher, particularly given all the available resources).

  12. wishy the writer

    Has a Facebook novel been done before this collaborative chick lit novel on Slate?


    I know collaborative novels of one sort or another have been done, and chick lit has certainly been done, but I guess I'm just jealous I'm not finding thousands of people to help me write my novel! 😉

  13. abc

    Guy can't be an executive if he can't play golf. Poor Guy. He was such a winning, yes man.

    Can I get me one of those Dr. Pepper machines?

    Also, I am fully embracing my unoriginality thank you very much.

  14. Bane of Anubis

    Wishy, my wife told me about this the other day — what a great idea (one I'd definitely never come up with) if you're willing to compromise your story and 'vision' (whatever that may be) — you already have a built in readership who feels like they've got a lot invested.

  15. The Greens Committee

    I would bet that most of the 25% have visited this site. Thanks for the effort, Nathan.

    Word Verification: SCRATIC – the unfortunate condition one experiences when quickly removing undergarments from the dryer, and then sitting in traffic for an hour.


  16. Flemmily

    Totally love the Mad Men. Completely in love.

    …but, can't decide if the whole window washing/blood, sponge, squeegee episode was brilliant, or disgusting.
    The part of me that thinks it was pretty gross is trying not to think about it too much.

    I'd love to see a you tell me about whether or not writers need to be well read.

  17. Ulysses

    Eric: Chekhov's Lawnmower? I like it!

    I've got something that's never been done before: a 210K memoir about an elephant's time in the circus, told entirely in the past-passive second person by a one-eyed monkey with melanoma and an unfortunate banana aversion.

    Unfortunately nobody's who's tried to read it manages to stay awake though the first six pages of the dedication.

    Some things have never been done, and some things just shouldn't be done.

  18. erinn

    Ok so this one has never been done before, it the memoir of Hitler's Hamster who feels torn between his owner's actions and the need to eat. What is a hamster to do? This book examines good, evil and the metaphoric and literal hamster wheel we're all on.

    Thanks for the great advice Nathan.

  19. Lisa Dez

    This makes me laugh because I'm so the other way. I don't think of myself as all that creative, so I figure, if I could think of it, it must have already been done at least a thousand times. I'm shocked out of my socks when someone (agent, author) tells me that my work is unique or original. (Which has happened a lot in the last two weeks.) I'm running out of socks.

  20. MeganRebekah

    BoA – Do you follow Janet Reid's query shark blog? The queries she dissects come from people who found her through that blog. You would expect that before they submitted their query to her (and subjected themselves to public humiliation) they would have read the rules of a good query, and would have read through her examples (there's over 100). But somehow the queries are still crazy and terrible. People are using her blog to send queries for novels that are 250,000 words. It's astonishing how people can have information in front of them and not utilize.

    That said, I also think that queries are tricky and require some practice to get them right. Like writing, the best thing is read other people's queries and see what works and what doesn't. What leaves you confused. And what leaves you begging for more.

  21. Rebecca Knight

    Just remember–even Shakespeare wasn't original half the time. He "rebooted" a ton of older stories.

    Just because it's been done before, doesn't mean you can't do it in a fresh way :).

  22. Mira

    Ulysses, Lol.

    Nathan, I realized I sort of missed your point. When you said that there are no original ideas, I immediately felt reversed challenged. Like, oh yeah. Let me tell you about THIS one. 🙂

    But your point – that originality is not the crucial element either in the quality or the marketability of book is a good one. I like that you're writing about this, because it lets people off the hook. We don't have to be ground-breaking, just well-written, with a fresh take.

  23. Capitol Clio

    Being well-read is not about knowing if you ideas are fresh. It's about absorbing how the English language works, having a conversation with writers who have come before you, and being challenged by new ideas.

    Want to be a good writer? Write, read, read, write, read, read, read. Repeat.

  24. Marilyn Peake

    Mira and Nathan,

    Really interesting discussion! Nathan, I hope you do run a You Tell Me: can you be a good writer without being well-read?

    Personally, I think writers need to be well-read, although I’m sure there are a few geniuses who aren’t well-read and nevertheless write a literary masterpiece because they possess some very powerful storytelling gene or something. It’s probably also possible to have a natural talent for language and such a unique idea that it doesn’t matter whether or not the author’s well-read. For most writers, however, I think the art of storytelling soaks into their neural pathways through the reading of many books.

    On the other hand, until recently, I wouldn’t read novels while I was actually in the process of writing a novel because I didn’t want to be influenced by a different style. Now that I know what my own style is, I read even when I’m in the process of writing my own novel. I remember seeing Norman Mailer interviewed years ago, saying that he never read other books while he was writing his own, but caught up on his reading after he completed the book he was writing.

    Elizabeth Kostova includes an incredible amount of background information about vampires, Bram Stoker’s DRACULA, the Ottoman Empire, Europe, and so on in her vampire novel, THE HISTORIAN. Stephenie Meyer has said that she refused to read anything at all about vampires before writing the TWILIGHT series, so that she wouldn’t be influenced by other vampire stories. Personally, I think THE HISTORIAN is a much richer book, full of symbolism, history and legend.

  25. The Guru of EVERYTHING

    Authors do need to be well read. Every professional stands on the shoulders of his predecessors whether he knows or acknowledges it.

    That said, I also refrain from reading too much while actively writing because I know I need to work through my own story problems.

  26. Fawn Neun

    Of course everything's been done before, didn't the Beatles say so?

  27. Livia

    There is nothing new under the sun. Even in neuroscience, which is supposed to be the new scientific frontier of 21st century (or something), it's remarkable how often we think of a cool idea, and then some older researcher goes "Oh yeah, someone did all these experiments in the 80's." The only thing that saves us is the fact that we have new pretty brain scanning machines.

  28. Jil

    I really like what you say today, Nathan

    Being well read. in my opinion, opens our minds to so many lives we do not have time to explore in our own alloted span. It instills the feeling and rhythm of good writing, opens new vistas, expands vocabulary. One can always learn from others instead of starting from the beginning and making mistakes previously worked through;discover what works and what does not.
    Why stumble about in the dark? See with the light of others, then go out and shine your own.

  29. Kimberly Kincaid

    I think the last comment really hammers it home-

    "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."

    I'm plastering that on Post Its all over my desk. Really.

    BTW, for what it's worth (insert snickering here), I'll add that I do think one should be well-read in order to write effectively. When I get jammed up with my writing, I scoop up something unread from the immense pile next to my desk. Hearing the different voices that come from other writers, seeing the characters from someone else's head and feeling the textures that go with their conflicts almost always helps me along. And not in a way that I'd lift, consciously or otherwise. It just helps me find a groove.

    Just my 2/c. Reading well is a bit different than reading often. What's the definition of "well-read"?

  30. confused

    Nathan!! I'm glad you posted your examples because this has confused me. Is TRF really second person? I know he says you because he is talking to the guy, but he is still telling his story, like "I did this, I studied here, I got this job." Jhumpa Lahiri does a similar thing in her last story in Unaccostomed Earth–where it starts with "You…" but it is like she is telling it to her lover. I thought second person was "You go into the room, it's dark, you turn on a light…"

    Now I'm confused!! Please help. 🙂
    P.S. Thanks for keeping the anon funtion so I don't have to telegraph my stupidity.

  31. Marilyn Peake

    Quote from Hemingway, somewhat relevant to the discussion: "If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."

  32. Nathan Bransford


    Yeah, I think it's second person. It's a restrained second person and he's easy on the "you"s, but he's telling the story to someone.

  33. Heather Lane

    I like knowing that books fit into an existing fabric of literature. I think if you are too far out in one direction, you might be excellent, but have trouble getting published. (I can think of a few authors like L'Engle that might have been ahead of their time.) It's good to know where you fit, as a writer.

  34. Kat Harris

    I'm with Marilyn.

    Nathan, I'm looking forward to that edition of You tell me.

  35. Bane of Anubis

    Megan, RE: JR's queryshark — she also posts the worst or best(IHO) queries she receives without giving statistical numbers to how many she receives in total, so it's hard to know the statistical breakdown…

    Going sideways, what defines well-read?

  36. Kristi

    I would think it would be difficult to write well without being well-read. More importantly, if you didn't love books then I'm not sure why you'd be drawn to writing them in the first place. That being said, I don't read the same genre while I'm writing an ms – so as to avoid undue influence.

    I would also like to take a second and congratulate regular commenter Rick Daley on getting an agent – yeah!!!

  37. Marilyn Peake

    Rick Daley got an agent? I hadn't heard. Way to go, Rick!! Congratulations!!

  38. Mira

    Yes, I've been waiting for Rick to post so I can say: yippee!

    He was so smart in how he got his MG agent, too. But that's his story.

    Well, hopefully he's reading, and so I can add congratulations!!

  39. Anonymous

    But I thought that second person wasn't telling it to someone but where you actually are the main character.

    Like this: "As you walk up the hill, you realize that the atmosphere's just too quiet. There's no sound from the cardinal you know is almost always singing from the top of the maple tree. You think you see a shadow move high up on the slope, but when you look again it's gone. You shudder as you feel a silent threat pass over you. You feel cold, like a cloud just passed over the sun."

    Now you've got me thinking…

  40. Nathan Bransford

    I could be wrong, but my understanding is that second person is just a mode of speech whether you're talking to someone directly or using it to create a "you" as protagonist.

  41. Laurel

    This has never been done before is a classic oversell. Its cousins are:

    The next bestseller
    Like Twilight/DaVinci/Harry Potter

    wvs: wometer-the measure of how much a query claim makes the agent say, "Whoa. Pass on this one."

  42. Bane of Anubis

    I always thought of 2nd person like anon does — e.g., The Choose Your Own Adventure stories.

    But were it a story written mainly addressing the reader, I could see that being 2nd person, too… I'm a bit confuddled, too, anon.

  43. Anonymous

    I'm sure as between the two of us you would be right–that's why I asked! I think maybe my understanding of second person was too limited.

    I just googled it and the author calls it a monologue:

    "For me, writing a novel is like solving a puzzle. I try many different things and see what works. So my first draft was an utterly spare, utterly minimalist third person. A later draft was straight-up first person, but with an oral cadence and an American accent. I found the voice I was looking for, and the frame of the dramatic monologue, very close to the end of the writing process. As I was writing that version, I could feel that the puzzle had been solved and that this would be the final draft."


    Thanks for indulging me!

  44. Thermocline

    It's so easy to get wrapped up in trying to force originality (what type of spaceship/super power/dwarf beard/fleck of eye color) and lose sight of the core of the story has to be interesting. Originality in trappings doesn't make up for a lack of substance. Pretty decorations won't cover hollowness.

  45. J.J. Bennett

    Okay, wait a minute here… Why would you need to state the obvious if it's really "never been done before"? I'd think the work would speak for it's self. Maybe I'm wrong on this one. I don't know? But, the fact someone would make a comment like this, leads me to believe the author is delusional.

  46. Wendy Sparrow

    I read a completely different genre from what I write in typically because my "voice" gets garbled when I get too far into the story I'm reading. I've actually been really getting into non-fiction and philosophy books lately. (Ie. "Einstein's Space and Van Gogh's Sky" is what is next up.) Maybe I lack discipline, but my characters aren't as distinct when I'm reading other books. I keep intending to read in-between completing projects, but with rewriting and more writing… in-between isn't happening.

    I don't mind when books are similar to other books… it's much easier to recommend a book that way.

  47. Rachel

    Seriously, I love your advice. You're so generous to offer it all the time.

    I think all anyone really wants to publish or read is a really well-written book.

    Thanks again!

  48. Whirlochre

    Even "money for old tropes" has been done to death.

  49. Anonymous

    My daughter informed me never trust Wikepedia. The info on it can be submitted by anyone and isn't always accurate. Does anyone know if this true?

  50. Lyn Miller-Lachmann

    Originality isn't necessarily a good thing, especially if there's no recognizable audience for it. I'm learning that a writer's energy is better utilized in improving the writing rather than concocting something original.

  51. Emily White


    Let me see if I understand you. You are saying that my completely original novel about a knight in shining armor who saves a princess has been done before?

    What about vampires? Surely no one has written about them! 🙂

    Thanks for reminding us that it's hard to get our foot in the door of the publishing world when our head gets too big for the jamb.


  52. Rick Daley

    This had never been done before yesterday:

    a literary agent said they would represent my work.

  53. Nathan Bransford

    Haha, congrats again, Rick. I think we can all get behind that kind of originality.

  54. J.J. Bennett

    Oh, by the way… I have a "never been done before" contest on my blog this week. Up for grabs a Barnes and Noble giftcard!

  55. Rick Daley

    Now I read back and I see that my thunder is merely an echo 😉

    Thanks Kristi / Mira / Marilyn. Boy do I have a lot more writing to do!

  56. Marilyn Peake

    Hi, Rick,

    Will you be posting details anywhere? We want details, man, details. 🙂 Congratulations! I'm so happy this has happened to such a nice person who's been so helpful to other writers with your query site and all!

  57. Roy Hayward

    Being well read is important. At least in your genre, and the more the better.

    I remember a fellow writer that came to a workshop with me once. They had written a short story that was as tired as the day is long. We were kind, but they were really embarrassed that it was such a common theme.

    And that is one of the tricks of being well read. You know, (or at least have an idea) that your (plot, character, etc) has been used before. Thus you have a chance to either acknowledge the fact, offering homage to the others, or make some edits that set this one apart and distinct.

    Now taking the, "Never been done," angle. If nothing like it has ever been done, there might be a reason…

  58. Marilyn Peake

    Rick –

    Oooops, just found details on one of your websites. Congrats again!

  59. Susan Quinn

    Nathan –

    If you do a You Tell Me about whether we need to be well read to be good writers, I'd also like to know what people consider well read.

    168 million books. Which ones?

    The classics?
    The ones in your genre?
    The classics in your genre?
    Or just the contemporary ones?
    A bit of non-fiction thrown in for fun?

    There used to be a classic liberal education definition of well read – classics, philosophy – but I'm not even sure that exists anymore.

    I think you are more likely to bring fresh, complex ideas to your writing if you are well read, and have a well lived life . But you are only going to improve your writing by . . . writing.

  60. Etiquette Bitch

    maybe this is a "duh" comment on my part, but one would think that claiming "[anything] has never been done before" would be the mark of an amateur.

    your work – and your awesome query – should speak for themselves, yes?

  61. Lyn Miller-Lachmann

    Congratulations, Rick! Can't wait to read the book.

  62. Etiquette Bitch

    Nathan – re: your 12:52 comment, I'm not sure either, BUT I've know a handful of well-read "writers" who were abysmal writers, but who happened to think they were going to give Dan Brown, Lauren Baratz-Logsted, Jonathan Lethem, Anne Tyler, Shakespeare, you name it, a run for their money.

  63. Etiquette Bitch

    *whoops* I meant, "I've KNOWN a handful…."

  64. Literary Cowgirl

    I believe it was Samuel Clemens who said something along the lines of a writer who has no time for reading is like a craftsman who has no time to learn how to use his tools. (maybe someone could help me out here)

    Every master was once an apprentice. Did they poses a natural talent, even genuis? Yes, and they could have picked up a brush and went at it on their own, but then they would have been lacking the understanding of the fundamentals. Fundamentals that helped create masterpieces. Reading is like a writer's apreticeship.

    Until I discovered Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy, I had no idea that anyone else was writing the types of things that I was. I was walking around with all of these stories in my head, unsure how to frame them, or if I should even bother. Like my husband would say, "If you cut the swearing, you could be published by Western Horseman Magazine." (I wirte literary fiction)

    After discovering Proulx's Half-Skinned Steer, a whole new world opened up for me. I knew how to tell my stories. I have built from what I have seen her do, and gained a great deal of inspiration. People were already saying that my style was similar, before I was familiar with her work. So, I think I can honestly say I am not immitating her, at all. But I learn from how she pairs deep questions about the human conditions with the kind of stories that spring out of the rocky ground of the West.

  65. P.A.Brown

    I think writers need to be well-read. Any time someone asks me for what piece of advice I would give to people who want to be writers I say read. Then read some more. I've met a couple of people who want to write and when I ask them what they like to read they say nothing. They don't read. I doubt they will ever be writers. How else do you learn the craft? Know what's wrong? Or see things that work and those that don't? That to me is like saying you can be a professional ball player without ever studying the game or knowing the rules. Go out in the middle of Dodger's Stadium and try pitching a game without having ever seen a game played.

  66. spiziks

    An author =must= be well-read. Trying to be an author without reading is like being a painter who doesn't look at painted artwork, a sculptor who refuses to examine sculpture, or a director who doesn't go to movies.

  67. JohnO

    “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out the window.” William Faulkner

    Kids, it's your quote of the day.

  68. Louise

    I thought I HAD wrote the original novel in Eden (sci-fi romance), I was even told it as too unusual by some agents.
    THEN I had it published, and THEN I saw the genre was by no means original. In fact, there's an entire website dedicated to sci-fi romance!


    Is this where we prove our talents, and acknowledge our limitations..?

  70. margosita

    NO FAIR throwing in a "Mad Men" spolier with no warning! Some of us aren't caught up!

  71. Nathan Bransford


    48 hour rule!

    Or is there a rule? When are you allowed to discuss things that happened?

  72. Phyllis

    I should start saying I've deanonized.

    Discussions like these make me think of my newly found mantra for myself (and other writers, especially unpublished ones): I'm the rule, not the exception.

    I'm sure there are a few exceptions, creative people who did things that have never been done before. Someone did invent novel-twittering. But what about the novel content? Was it that original? (I don't know, I didn't follow.) It's a single part of the novel writing process that was new.

    Most of us, if not all, follow a tradition. We'd better have one or the other original idea, but still.

    As for myself, I find it safer to assume that I'm the rule, not the exception. There may be exceptions, but the rule is writers have to be well read. (Just as an example.) If I assume that I'm the rule it means I've got to read more. If I assume I'm the exception I may conclude that I'm a genius. But I'll never be able to judge.

  73. Laura Martone

    While I have no illusion that my novel has "never been done before," I must admit that I've found it difficult to find a novel (in my genre – literary fiction) that compares. Most underground communities are found in fantasy and sci-fi novels, not lit fiction. But, if anyone has a suggestion, I'm all ears!

    'Cause some days, I think it would be a LOT easier for me if I could compare my book to another.

  74. margosita

    Haha, is the 48 hour rule like the ten second rule for food dropped on the floor?

    Dangerous world for me, then, when I'm not on top of things… 🙂

  75. margosita

    (But I think this might be a "your blog, your rules" situation.)

  76. Dana Fredsti

    I think Pride, Prejudice and Zombies was a unique idea, but now we're gonna have Wuthering Bites, Sense, Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and god knows how many other classics- meets-monster novels.

    Make them stop.

  77. JES

    That 168 million figure from GBooks masks a truly staggering statistic: all the books that are POSSIBLE.

    Jorge Luis Borges's story (?) "The Library of Babel" describes a library which holds every single book. There's a copy of A Tale of Two Cities as we know it, for example, and there's a copy which begins "Ot was the best if tomes…" Books consisting of nothing but a single letter, over and over… And so on.

    I think what people are saying when they assert "this has never been done before" is "this exact sequence of plot elements, characters, and words has never been assembled before."

    But, y'know, the exact words, specific plot points and such is the least interesting thing about nearly every book. What really matters is: Does this book do something to this reader's head that no other book s/he's encountered has done? If there are a lot of precedents for the reader in terms of psychological/emotional/funny-bone/thrilling/etc. impact then, sorry: done before.

    (Which I think may be the killer argument for why you need to read as much as possible — and the more you read, the better you'll write.)

  78. Rick Daley

    JohnO- I want to print that quote out and frame it for my desk, that's sage advice from Mr. Faulkner.

    I can't wait for the "Do you have to be well read" thread, that's going to be some interesting reading.

  79. Dana Fredsti

    Oh, and I'm in total agreement with those who say writers need to read. This is without trying to define 'well-read' at the moment…

  80. D. G. Hudson

    Thanks for posting your thoughts on writers who make unsubstantiated claims.

    A little modesty might be nice, but don't we have to sell ourselves a bit, too? There is a fine line we walk to catch attention before the story is even read.

    BTW – a late congrats on the rice harvest.

  81. Jarucia

    I agree with all of what your talking about here, but I mostly had to post a comment regarding the awesomely appropriate Mad Men connection.

    Just watched that episode last night and kept finding myself laughing at one dark insight after another.

    The one you quoted was almost the best for that episode.


  82. AM

    I think that the market place and social climate also influences when rehashing a familiar storyline with a unique twist will be successful or not. A story could be well written, but it just isn't the most appropriate time for the topic or the topic is currently over done.

    Like Marilyn, I use not to read while I was writing. I worried that my voice would change as my reading list changed.

    Now that I have developed MY voice, I read all the time. I read several books a week. I read books from all the genres and periods, and I learn.

    So I understand a new author's reasoning for limiting their influences when they are trying to develop THEIR voice the first time. I also know that when they’ve found themselves they will be reading again, but with an entirely new perspective.

    Congratulations, Rick!

  83. Author Guy

    When I write my novels I often find myself coming up on scenes that have been done before – the scene where the bumbling neophyte gets his skill with the sword is a classic. I also make it a point of never doing these scenes in any way in which I've seen them done before. My story is recognizably within the cycle of the Hero with a Thousand Faces, but hopefully not sharing its spot with too many others. If I am unique it is in my style, which one reader described as a third person story that feels like a first-person. I know of no one who writes the way I write, but I don't claim to know everything.

  84. Robert A Meacham

    The old cart before the horse makes me dizzy.
    1. write a great novel
    2. write a great query
    3. find a great agent
    Your novel will speak for you even if the genre has been done before.

  85. ryan field

    I did this once in a query…"This has never been done before." Where was this post when I needed it back then?

    Congrats, Rick!! You know that I'll be buying anything you write.

  86. D. G. Hudson

    Congrats, Rick, forgot to add that to my earlier post. It's great to hear of a fellow reader & blogger's success.

  87. Lucinda

    You call it a game. What a sport it is to be a writer.

    First, we write, then we learn we don't know the rules to the game.

    If we take writing seriously, we set out to learn the rules.

    Then we learn to not take writing too seriously.

    Even King Solomon knew there was nothing new upon the earth. Therefore, we need new angles, new approaches to the old, tried and true.

    When telling someone of the stories I am writing, it never fails, "That sounds like…" or "Have you ever seen (or read)…"

    Thanks Nathan for another lesson

    grasshopper Lucinda

  88. Lydia Sharp

    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.

    That pretty much sums it up.

    All I can add is a "Congrats!" to Rick, and a "Thanks for the awesome Faulkner quote!" to John. 🙂

  89. Steve

    First comment:

    Robert Heinlein once caused a character who made his living writing commercial fiction to say that publishers claim to be looking for originality, but they are not. What they want is "mixture as before". In more than one location he has had a writer-character explain that he "files the serial numbers off" previously published work and resells it. (This implies, of course, sufficient modification that readers, editors and copyright lawyers would recognize it as a "different" story.)

    Second comment:

    I'm working on a YA novel that I believe actually does have a genuinely unique aspect about it. If anything like this has been done, I'd surely like to know. It would imply the existence of a kindred spirit.

    The novel revolves around high school kids starting a band. It's narrated by the young female bass player. Not too unusual so far. But now get this.

    Although the novel is secu;ar themed and in no sense "Christian" fiction, our protagonist attends church! Stranger yet, she is not an evangelical! (I think she is probably a Methodist). She doesn't make a big point of being "Christian". I don't think she even wears a WWJD bracelet.

    I depicted her that way because I wanted to create a character who reflected the situation of actual young people I have known. And in the real world, lines are not as strictly drawn as in literature.

    And, although this is a secular-themed novel, an important subplot revolves around her church life. (She writes and causes to be performed a song probably best described as "Christian punk" called "Blessed Are the Hypocrites". This causes her to be invited to leave the contemporary worship youth band with which she has been playing).

    If anybody else has ever featured a church-going teen in a secular YA novel, I'd like to know.


  90. Literary Cowgirl

    I would just like to point out that, especially in non-fiction, there can be firsts and not yet dones. They can apply to pop culture, current events, and even historical ones (as is the case with my book). There was a first (insert celeb's name) biography, a first book about cars, a first book about hip-hop, a first about the Taliban. Yes, authors do get carried away with their claims, but being the first to pen an authorized biography of a private celeb, or an underground tren that is about to explode into the mainstream can be a major selling point.

  91. Andrew the author

    My novel really is a first though!

    Mine is about a futuristic amusement park where dinosaurs are brought to life through advanced cloning techniques. I call it "Billy and the Cloneasaurus."

    P.S. For an extra layer, note that I'm quoting someone else's joke about unoriginality

  92. Francy

    Francy Stoller Nothing is original/and there were poets before printing presses/ I never forget this yet no one wants to read our novel/The Memoirs of an Unknown Artist/no agent will give it a read/I've been trying for a year. My family loves it/ my husband's vision but I wrote it in my language/it's signed John Serpent. I didn't follow rules for the query/I cannot face looking at it or the novel/it's finished. I have never followed rules in my life/so why now/I work hard at writing/not typing/my best friend who is a prominent Boston poet cried when she read it/took her off her feet,(Of course she's in it) and an important rock star collector (We sell my husband's art) read the novel and he loved it but won't show it to Hollywood people he knows/these rules I understand/the way of the world…Do you want to read it

  93. Thermocline

    Hey Rick,

    Congratulations! I meant to say that earlier but got in a rush when I realized I was running late. I am thrilled for you.

  94. Anonymous

    I get what you're saying Nathan, however there are some stories – I'm thinking multicultural – that seem unique in their own right, like "The Kite Runner" the classic "Invisible Man" by Richard Wright, more recently "Say You're One of Them," "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" among others.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is I'm hoping more world view stories about other cultures see their way to an agent's desk and wind up getting published. The young boy who wound up in third place in the paper plane contest in Japan, a kid who realized his dream though he's been told he's a citizen of no country, if this kid was from the US, Disney would probalby already own the rights to his story (they may already be negotiating it as I write this, but far too often stories have to follow a certain formula to get attention these days. And maybe that's another reason why everything feels so been there, read that before.

  95. Nathan Bransford


    I don't know, I feel like your argument is a bit self-nullifying. You're citing some tremendously popular books while saying that everything has to be formulaic to be successful.

    I agree there was a lot that was original about those books and that's what made them special, but I would also bet that the authors could rattle off a list of the people who influenced them.

    Even in this Slate interview, for instance, Junot Diaz cites Rick Moody as someone who influenced the narrative style.

    I'm always looking for originality in the novels I take on — but very little that is good is wholly original.

  96. Literary Cowgirl

    Nathan, I'd have to say you are right. Nothing is completely original, but I still maintain there are firsts left to be explored out there.

  97. Nathan Bransford

    I think it's more that there are books that haven't been done in this particular way. Every book is unique and some are more unique than others, but not completely unique.

  98. Sarah Erber

    (Just rambling my thoughts here – might be a little off topic.)

    I don't know if you've read, The Hollow Kingdom Trilogy by Clare B. Dunkle, but I think that comes pretty darn close to "this has never been done before."

    Pst If there is something similar to this, Tell me so I can buy the book!

  99. suzie

    Queries should just avoid sweeping generalizations.
    No "This has never been done before"
    No "This is the next Harry Potter meets Twilight meets Dan Brown"
    No "This is going to be the next bestseller and make you millions of dollars"
    No "Everyone who has read this loves it"

    They scream logical fallacy and lack of creativity

    Sarah – I'm putting The Hollow Kingdom Trilogy on my TBR list!

  100. Mira

    Well, I think if you wanted truly original, that would be close to impossible.

    Everyone is influenced – even Tolkein was influenced by mythology.

    But, could it be done? Well, maybe. To be truly original, I think there is one way to do it. Whether this is possible or not, I don't know.

    ** If you came up with a new tense. Something other than past/present/future, for example. Or a new POV – something completely different than 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. Or a new type of voice, that hasn't been seen before.

    But, we've been talking about form of writing. Another form of originality is in ideas. 2+2 can equal 5. There is more acknowledgement that new ideas can be discovered in the sciences. But it can also exist in the arts, in terms of the meaning of what the writing conveys; the 'message.' That can be new. New truths do emerge.

  101. Beth Terrell

    Congratulations, Rick!

    Nathan, good point. There's not much (worth doing) that hasn't been done in some form or another. It's a writer's unique voice and perception that makes a work original.

    And yes I think a writer must be well-read (with very few exceptions, who are probably either mutants or space aliens). I don't think it matters so much which particular works we has read, just that we immerse ourselves in stories and language.

    I love what Jill said: "See with the light of others, then go out and shine your own."

  102. Bane of Anubis

    Nathan, just noticed the Jacob Wonderbar addition on the sidebar… When are/Are you gonna launch a dedicated website?

  103. Terresa

    Cliche — never say never, no matter what station of life you're in, writer, poet, playwright, parent.

  104. Masonian

    So, where does that leave sparkly vampires?
    "There's nothing new under the sun." So says an old book. And I'm inclined to agree. (except silly putty. That was pretty novel when it came out.)
    As far as writers using that as a hook: they don't read enough.
    Heck, I predominately read what people call classics and it was all done then–long before this decade.
    Nathan, you are right when you point us to the author writing it well. If a writer can make me feel like it's never been done before, it's almost the same as it being utterly novel.

  105. Hat Man

    In the immortal words of Dear Abby, "Nothing is so weird that somebody, somewhere, hasn't done it."

  106. wendy

    I sometimes think I'm writing new concepts, but then after I'm finished, someone else gets similar work out there. I wrote a fantasy novel about penguins nearly six years ago and had it e-published, and then followed Happy Feet, etc. But, perhaps, there was something about penguins around before that. There was my vampire novel which I thought had an original focus, however not only was Twilight done a few years later, I've since learnt that the Vampire Diaries (based on a novel) was written even before mine – about 14 years ago. I somehow must be tapping into the international consciousness and not thinking up new ideas. (Not read the Vampire Diaries or seen the TV show yet, but I'm assuming it's similiar from what I've heard.)

    Many people who take part in new trends are not usually inspired to begin by other work but by their own inspiration. The impressionists, e.g. Van Gogh and Monet, had all made individual strides towards this new style in their art and were later inspired to refine and develop even further by the innovations of like-minded others.

    So this commonality of ideas and inspiration is a good thing and might be how new styles and genres can grow and become perfected.

    Maybe the powerful Arthurian legend grew the same way through a variety of story-tellers inspired to tell of this golden age; and then gradually the most popular stories or sections of the saga were preserved through repeated telling and have become the unified legend we know today. To me, this legend is the ultimate story as it has everything from unforgetable characters from the fairy world (Merlin and the Lady of the Lake, Nimue. Well, Merlin is half fay in some traditions) and from the human world (King Arthur and his knights) to mystic Chrisitanity combined with magic and also new concepts to advance the culture and our lives. I'm assuming the concepts of chivalry and democracy – via the round table – were new at the time the tales were woven.

  107. John

    Nathan and confused,

    Reluctant Fundamentalist was hard for me to classify, because there is an "I" character sitting at the table addressing the "You" who is also at the table. It reads more like 1st person to me.

    A great example of straight-up 2nd person is Bright Lights Big City.

  108. Matthew R. Loney

    Re: The Twitter Book

    I hope the author has considered McLuhan's "The medium is the message" in choosing to publish via Tweets.

    Judging by the comments on GalleyCat, his "innovation" hasn't really blown anyone away. It seems to have become the norm to use the next technological medium and apply it to writing/publishing.

    I don't believe true innovation can be predicted, otherwise, it just turns into a "who-can-be-the-first-to…"

  109. No longer confused

    John, I went back and re read some last night. (Yesterday I was going by what I remembered from reading it last year.) In my opinion, it is clearly first person and, as he himself characterizes it, a monologue. He is talking to someone, yes, but he is talking. From the opening:

    "Excuse me, Sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America…"

    It is similar to Lolita where, in the third para Nabakov has the first person narrator, Humbert Humbert, address the "Ladies and Gentlement of the Jury" and often later begins passages with things like, "Gentlewoman of the jury! Bear with me!" He's talking to someone, just like Changez is in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. But in both cases it is told from the protagonists' point of view in first person narration.

  110. Not confused

    Sorry, that should say Nabokov with an o.

  111. P.A.Brown

    There's a weird concept I've heard in some philosophy circuits that there are 'times' for events. When it's time for electricity, a dozen people will independently 'discover' electricity. Usually one person gets the credit but seldom is it just one person who makes the discovery. It happened with steam, the internal combustion engine, with radio, with the telephone, basketball… and on and on.

    Terry Pratchett does a hilarious take on this phenomena in his Discworld series where ideas literally fall out of the sky like radiation and hit people. But then Terry Pratchett does hilarious takes on just about every modern institution and myth.

    Pat Brown

    Killer interview: http://lavengra.wordpress.com/2009/09/21/p-a-brown/

  112. Nick Kimbro

    The question of originality is one of the more self-defeating ones a writer can take up. How many stories have you read in workshop that seem to be constructed around the sole premise of their own originality? Of originality, there are two kinds: that which blazes ahead, and that which completely misses the mark.

  113. SZ

    Stop me if you have heard this one.

  114. Terry

    Congratulations, Rick! The best of luck with it.

    It's funny, it's been my experience that most of us write in the genre we love to read. Guess not.

    To me, the story is in the telling.

    You listen to a joke told by one person and it's not funny. Another person can tell the same joke with lots of antics and whatnot and it's hilarious.

    I'll wait for the blog to answer your Mira-inspired post.

  115. wendy

    Congratulations, Rick! Happy for you!

    You would have written a winner query with so much practise on your blog. Thanks for all the help you've given us there.

  116. kathleen duey

    Great discussion, thanks to all. I think claiming (or seeking) complete originality is silly. Using it as a sales approach is beyond silly. But we are writing in an era that offers more chances to be original than almost any other. We have so many broad shoulders to stand upon, so many shiny new tools to apply, and a screen-culture audience of readers who welcome new channels, complex structures, innovation of all kinds.

  117. Mira

    P.A. Brown – I like your point alot.

  118. Dan Geilman

    Amazing that the best blood splatter in recent T.V. memory came from a 60s era advertising agency and not a medical drama. Best moment of new T.V. for 2009.

  119. Wendy Sparrow

    I thought "Jennifer Government" was something that had never been done before.

    I think it happens… maybe not often, but it happens. I wonder if it makes agents reluctant to pick up a book if it's too "original." I guess you would know that better than me, though.

  120. Monica

    The hardest thing for any writer to learn, is that you need to be confident about your work but also realistic.

    In my own work, I'll let someone else sing my praises; if someone wants to call me different and innovative that's great! But you'll never catch me saying that about my own work because there's always going to be someone who's more well-read and more knowledgeable on a subject than I am.

  121. Alicia Hicks

    Rule of thumb: If it hasn't been done before there's probably a very good reason. Try not to over think it.

    After 24 years in the advertising business I can tell you with confidence, Roger Sterling was right.

  122. Ricki

    Stories of horrid queries never cease to amaze me; stories of human arrogance don't either.

    I recently had to make a decision with a YA manuscript – do I overhaul it *one more time* (groan) and get it to conform more to the the conventions of what's already out there in YA lit (in terms of time span), or do I forge ahead with what I already have and become a pioneer for an under-represented age group?

    In the end, I decided to edit more because, why mess with what works? I realize I am no pioneer, and I'd rather stick out because of voice or spin than because of intended audience. I think that would sound much less risky to literary agents looking to sell the thing.

    Thanks for the great post!

    Ricki Schultz

  123. Rebecca LuElla Miller

    Interesting to note that Tolkien, one of those you and practically everyone else today credits with inventing a genre was, in his day, accused of being derivative. Some claimed he got his ideas from Wagner. His famous reply was "Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases."

    However, he went on to acknowledge other influences such as Homer and Sophocles.

    In other words, while he rejected the idea that he was purposefully retelling someone else's story, he happily admitted others helped shape his writing.

    Interesting balance.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Nathan.


  124. DanielB

    About half of Iain Banks's "Complicity" is told in the second person. So is Italo Calvino's "If On A Winter's Night A Traveller".


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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