Confessions from a Writer Whose Second Novel is not that Unique

I’ve just spent two days in mourning after reading The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. I felt wrecked (a new trendy word that I loathe but am using for the first time in hopes of never having to use it again). The book destroyed me not because it was unputdownable, which is how everyone else seems to describe Taylor Jenkins Reid’s fifth novel, a book which just happens to be having a moment right now thanks to Netflix. I was shattered because my second novel, the one I have just finished writing has such a similar premise that I fear the book summary in my query letter may sound a little too familiar to any literary agent who has read Reid’s 2017 bestseller.

My teenage daughter introduced Evelyn Hugo to me last weekend after reading my query letter. Though she hasn’t read my novel, my daughter said the summary sounded similar to a book that’s been blowing up on social media lately. I did a quick Google search and realized I didn’t want to associate myself with a book that sounded oddly similar to the story I’ve been working on for over five years. But when both Google and Amazon started recommending Evelyn Hugo to me, I took the plunge and added it to my cart.

My dread turned to panic the moment I started reading, yet I powered through the pages feeling every emotion any writer would if it seemed she’d been two-timed by her muse. While the stories themselves are nothing alike (virtually no husbands make an appearance in my novel), the set-up and structure and theme, in other words the parts you squeeze into a query letter, felt a little too close for comfort.

This morning, as I began to come out of my book hangover, I stumbled upon a tweet from the 6th literary agent on my maybe-query list:

“Writers! Puhleeeeze, don’t tell me that your book is unique in all the world. It’s not. The best you can ever do, is to present a fresh take on an old theme. Deal with it.” #literaryagent

Steven Hutson @wordwiselit

This tweet, despite being 6 months old, felt like a little sign from the universe. So this afternoon, feeling a little less destroyed, I dumped Evelyn in a friend’s mailbox (had to get it out of the house, despite devouring it), and began a plan to rework my book summary, focusing on what is fresh and weeding out what might feel a bit too familiar. I’ll keep my current comp (oddly also featuring “Hugo”—Erin Somers’ Stay Up with Hugo Best), but will consider renaming a minor character called Monique, because it feels just a bit too woo-woo that both books would have a character with this kind-of-unique name. I’m thinking maybe I’ll call her Stevie, in honor of the agent who unknowingly helped me recover from this “amusing” experience, though I had to cross him off my maybe-query list since he doesn’t rep upmarket or literary fiction.

Writers! Have you ever felt wrecked by a book because it made you or your idea feel less unique? Do you ever wonder if a muse may have visited you and another creator at the same time?

Rip, Shred, Tear

When you write books and you get really close to your characters, you sometimes forget that they aren’t real. This past week, I found myself mourning for Robin Williams from Caroline’s perspective (my MC from The Proper Order of Things). Caroline grew up watching Mork & Mindy with her siblings:

“You can keep your shoes on, kids,” Dad said as we entered our new home where everything was either white or black. We unpinched our noses once we were out of the hallway, and Dad told us to go on in and explore. Desiree followed me from room to room as if she were afraid of getting lost. We bumped into the twins around every corner, and when they stepped out of the shower that was shaped like a telephone booth saying Nanoo Nanoo, I knew exactly what they meant. This place is so weird it doesn’t even have a bathtub.

While watching this clip from Dead Poets Society today, I couldn’t help but think about Caroline. How would she react to this scene if she were watching this movie? With all of that ripping and tearing and shredding, it would undoubtedly give her those nightmares that make her to talk in her sleep.

This clip inspired me to open a .doc version of my novel and do a search for the word “paper”. I found a few scenes that brought me back to that Robin Williams clip.

I waited for the sound of the paper. When it came it wasn’t just a rustling or flipping sound like usual. This time it was a slamming and scraping and tearing as if Mother were wrapping a present she didn’t want to give away.

And later…

“God cares about love, and love isn’t something that belongs on a lousy piece of paper.” She picked up the first piece of paper in reach and began to rip it in pieces. I threw up in my mouth and swallowed as the shreds floated to the floor. The sound of paper always did that to me.

And then…

When I held it up closely, I noticed small trails running up and down the page, and I had to flip the letter over to see the Scotch tape. It had been pieced back together so perfectly I might not have noticed it wasn’t a single sheet if I hadn’t taken it in my hands and smoothed the folds out with my palms. I took the second last letter out of the pile and felt it. All of the letters from the first few years had been operated on. The sound of paper filled the closet as I remembered the tearing. I could hear the ripping and shredding and breathing as if I were still a twelve-year-old hiding underneath the bed. Mother called my name.
“Sweet Caroline?”

And finally, a note from Chester…

I promised your mother I wouldn’t tell you what she told me. She wants to tell you herself when you are old enough. You’re older than me, so I’m going to tell you everything. I’ll write short notes on tissue paper and she’ll think they’re just paper flowers.

I was more than pleased to discover the theme of my novel by doing this simple search using the word “paper”. All of the most important elements of my story and its main characters relate to this simple word. If you’re a fiction writer and you have a work-in-progress, this little Find word exercise might help you too. Which word could you search for to find or rediscover your theme?