I saw this video on Facebook. It’s amazing, so watch it.
If you scrolled without watching, allow me to summarize: many popular songs were written using the same four-chord progression. These guys crammed thirty-six (or so, I lost count) song snippets into five minutes without changing the four-chord structure. The transitions are seamless. They cross genres, including the Canadian national anthem and opera, among many pop hits. And there’s a kazoo.
Seriously. You should watch it. Because funny.
Anyway, it got me thinking about book writing and publishing. I’m not sure why but here we are. Maybe I’ll break out a kazoo for consistency.
The heart of the video is originality, or rather the lack of it. The singers/comedians suggest that if you want to write a hit song, all you have to do is follow a formula. Give the people what they think they want, even if it’s the same as all the other things out there. Guaranteed hit.
Now, there might not be anything wrong with this, per se. When I write my books, I follow a narrative structure that has shown to keep reader engagement high throughout the course of the novel. It has worked in many wildly famous works, including The Help and The Hunger Games.
But there’s more to it than that. Any writer who has written a query letter or pitched to an agent is familiar with the term comp titles. These are books that are “like yours,” and their purpose is for the agent to know where your book would be categorized. Knowing that gives them an idea of how easy it will be for them to sell to a publisher and later to customers. This involves doing homework, and if what you’ve written strays outside the standard literary boxes, it can be tricky.
I don’t know about you guys, but I read a lot, and I still suck at compiling comp titles. Back when I was figuring out what to do with The Fourth Descendant, I asked a group of betas if it reminded them of any other books they’d read. Most said no. One person said the courthouse basement scene reminded her of National Treasure (not a great comp. Also, not a book). So I was a little stuck.
Here’s the depressing part: If you spend much time researching comps, you start to get a sense that maybe the industry doesn’t want original ideas. You’ll be hard pressed to sell your book without comps (because it won’t fit in a tidy box), yet some trends are hard sells anyway because certain elements (I’m guessing teenage vampire stories, for example) have been overdone.
So be like the others, but not too much.
Does that mean that in literature, like the comedians demonstrated with music in the video, there is little room for originality?
I’ll address how I would answer that question in future posts, but I want to pose it to you first. What do you think?