10 Novels Agents Have Already Seen a Billion Times

Looking for inspiration? Don’t go with any of these

Trash can full of books
Photo by Paul Sableman on Flickr

As a literary agent, I receive roughly 500 queries, or book pitches, a month. After 11 years of doing this job, I have seen a lot of book ideas. Obviously I’ve noticed trends (did you know all vampires live in Seattle now?) but there are other similarities outside of pop culture or critical mass made evident by the slush pile. When an agent or editor says they are looking for something they’ve never seen before, these are the things we don’t mean.

If what you’re already writing looks like something on this list, don’t panic. To misquote a friend, publishing is a rich tapestry; lots of books like these have been published (you can probably think of a bunch off the top of your head), and some are even great. Your book might be great, too! But if your gut tells you it isn’t after reading this list, don’t fall back on the assumption that publishing will make an exception for you just because all the other options are terrifying. Take some time to think about it and adjust your course as necessary. And if you want to write a book but haven’t started, or if you’re still trying to get going on your NaNoWriMo novel, don’t do one of these:

1. The Axe To Grind Novel

This book sure will show your stupid boss/girlfriend/teacher/parent they were an idiot for firing/dumping/failing/not loving you! Unfortunately, your personal injustices are your own, and it’s hard for the reader to generate enough sympathy for the infallible “protagonist” when everyone else is 100% horrible and wrong. If your life was The Glass Castle, then yeah, write that, but I sure hope it wasn’t.

A subcategory of The Axe To Grind Book of Non-Fiction is the Stunning Work from a Fearless Whistleblower that will Set the World of [Industry] on Fire. Maybe it will! But I usually learn about these stories from the news, as they are genuine news, and not in the query pile.

2. I Didn’t Ask For This!

These fantasy novels (for any age reader) feature a Chosen One who would really rather not, thanks, but will anyway for Reasons. YA has been doing this for a while, but as per usual, adult books are just catching up. Good for the grownups. The problem here is that if the main character doesn’t want to do the thing, then I probably agree with them! I don’t want to do most things. The Reasons need to be specific and relatable to get me to care and follow along with a protagonist who harumphs a lot.

3. Strange But True

If you have to say ‘but it really happened!’ to convince the reader, Anne Lamott comes over and takes back your copy of Bird by Bird.

All those wacky stories from your grandpa/hairdresser/neighbor/ex-friend that are just soooooo good that you could make them into a story, kinda like Life of Pi but maybe not so Indian and more about your mom’s summer camp in Connecticut? A series of anecdotes does not add up to a novel. If you have to say “but it really happened!” to convince the reader, Anne Lamott comes over and takes back your copy of Bird by Bird.

4. You Can Trust Me

These usually start: I’ve been a parent/teacher/writer/blogger/chef/ ornithologist for five minutes so here is a manual on how to do That Thing right. I can really tell it like it is because I didn’t waste time getting things like “credentials” or “formal training.” What the writer doesn’t know here is that people like credentials, or at least a writer with a well-known Twitter, when it comes to handing over $17–25 for advice or information. Why? Because of the illusion of trust, i.e. Oprahness. We trust the person we recognize more than the one we don’t. Would you buy a book from someone you’ve never heard of purporting to solve a problem serious enough you want to read a book about it and not just Google it? Probably not.

5. Anything Zombie

Clarkesworld said it best: No more zombies, please.

6. Greatest Hits

Your collection of 30 years as a syndicated columnist/your journal/your blog. You need a better reason than it’s all just sitting here so…. to write a book. That’s why you want to publish it; it’s not why any reader wants to read it. Plus, you need new stuff so people who actually know you — your primary market — have a reason to buy your book.

7. Picture Books for Adults

Just don’t. What reason do adults have to walk into a store and hand over cash money for a thing that they can’t read to children and that other adults have so few impulses to really read? When was the last time you said: “you know what I’m in the mood to read? A Dick and Jane book, but with thinly veiled references to meth and masturbation”? Never.

When was the last time you said: ‘you know what I’m in the mood to read? A Dick and Jane book, but with thinly veiled references to meth and masturbation’?

8. Eat, Pray, Whatever

These stories of enlightenment in the face of illness/divorce/loss/grief as an important personal journey, most often written by women, are heartbreaking and profound. These issues are serious and so is the self-actualization (of women. Sorry dudes, we’ve heard enough about your self-actualization). But this formula of illness etc. leading to radical life change has crossed my desk so many times that it no longer holds any meaning. It’s a familiar jumble of medical jargon, empty white wine bottles, and taillights in the mist.

9. “Historical” YA

These young adult novels are usually set in the ’80s or ’90s and are chock full of awesome nostalgia and references that happened at least ten years before actual teen-aged readers of YA were born. What’s clear to me now is that they are just thinly veiled Axe to Grind novels starring cheerleaders and jocks instead of your boss and ex-wife. You aren’t fooling anyone.

10. Professor Wonderful

Yes, academia is just like Dante’s Inferno and all the young coeds are hot, but what is a middle-aged professor supposed to do but burn it all down in a madcap romp of alcohol, questionable professional practices, and probably pot? I liked Wonder Boys too, a lot, but academia hasn’t changed in a long, long time, and neither has this story.

Writing books is hard, and I respect the effort you’ve put into your novel, even if it’s on the list. But reading bad books is also hard, and together, we can stop these tired ideas before they start.

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