It's been well over 17 years since I started writing what became my first published novel. I set a simple goal for myself, which was to finish a draft. I'd started so many "manuscripts" before that I'd abandoned that I realized the next step in my growth was finishing one.
During that time, I was terrified of reading other books. I was afraid that I'd pull a book off the shelf and discover that someone had already written my idea.
At that Ypoint, I needed the confidence boost of bringing a project to completion and the pressure of being completely original or perfect was too much. I compartmentalized. I told myself every day, "Just write the story" and that's what I did. I also told myself not to worry about if it was good (although I hoped it was). I set one clear focus, and that enabled me to stay on course.
Once I had a draft, having a manuscript draft wasn't enough. I wanted it to be a good manuscript draft. Then I wanted it to be appreciated... I wanted to be published.
I think that my approach was actually a very good one. What I find from working with new writers is that many of them have decided they want to be published, and then they write something thinking that it will garner them a big publishing deal and critical acclaim.
Yes, I had to learn about the publishing industry. I still had to learn how to revise my work and make it marketable. I just had this period of time before all of that when I was in love with the writing process and enjoyed immersing myself in my work.
I wrote a story I was passionate about, and I spent time with characters I loved, but I do know what it's like to read submissions. I saw a headline earlier about a man dying in a freak elevator accident, and the article pointed out this was the second death from an elevator accident recently.
I groaned. I thought, "Somewhere, some poor editor is about to get a slew of stories about freak elevator deaths."
You might be thinking, "Yeah, right!" but I assure you that all too often, something connects with a lot of people around the same time and you find yourself reading submission after submission that have similar themes.
If you've submitted a story or manuscript and had it rejected with a note about how it's just too similar to other submissions, I assure you, the editor isn't lying. All too often, I find myself choosing between Gala and Yellow Delicious when picking an apple for publication. And I find that the stories that end up standing out for me do so because the story is original.
That doesn't mean you can't write a story about revenge or a heist or something that's been done before, but there are a couple of critical things that will set your work apart.
One is the writing. We get better the more we write, and honing your skills is important. Although I do occasionally get paid to edit other people's work for them, it's my least favorite type of editing work. I firmly believe that any serious writer will learn to make their own corrections because they take their craft seriously. In some cases, writers are getting rejections and self-published writers are getting bad reviews, because the writing isn't that strong. That is a valid complaint.
The other is infusing an original perspective into your work. Something that sets it apart. Seriously. Want to know a memorable crime fiction show? Whitechapel. The lead DI is not a rogue cop who goes out on his own, spends half his time climbing into a bottle, and has already messed up his marriage and role as a parent. Nope. He's single, smart, leads a team and cares about the people he works with. He does have OCD and finds himself trying to leave his office and needing to flick the light on and off again and again as part of his compulsion.
I know that for myself, I've gotten bored with the same old, same old. Noir is so much more than watching the downward spiral of someone who's already inside the drain. It's the essentially decent person faced with misfortune after misfortune contributing to bad decisions that were the best of all the bad decisions they had, and still end up destroying their life.
Don't just write what you think is popular and well sell. Write what you are passionate about. Take your story and put your twist on it. You'll love spending time writing because you love your characters and story. And you'll be more likely to gain the interest of editors and agents who are looking for a story that stands out.