Tamela Hancock Murray has been with Hartline since 2001 and has placed authors’ books in both CBA and ABA. Her client roster includes award-winning, best-selling authors as well as new authors. A Virginia native, she is an accomplished writer who has authored many inspirational romance novels and novellas and several nonfiction Bible trivia books for children and adults. She is honored to write for the inspirational market and enjoys encouraging new and established authors. She earned her degree in Journalism (with honors) from Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Virginia. Tamela is based at Hartline Literary Agency’s office in Manassas, Virginia. Learn more about Tamela’s work as an agent and author at tamela [at] hartlineliterary.com, or write her at 10383 Godwin Drive, Manassas, VA 20110.
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No New Thing Under the Sun
The thing that hath been, it is
that which shall be;
King Solomon wasn’t thinking about book plots when he wrote this verse, but when I peruse this passage, I can’t help but think about plots. The number of book plots is limited, although there is disagreement about just how limited. I once heard there are only nine plots. But 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them by Ronald Tobias sets another number. To the other extreme, there’s Masterplots: 1,801 Plot Stories and Critical Evaluations of the World’s Finest Literature by Frank Northen Magill, Dayton Kohler, and Laurence W. Mazzeno. Statistics show that anywhere from 80,000 to 150,000 new titles are published every year. If half of those are novels, then about one out of every fifty novels per annum would repeat a plot from another book. If you limit your reading selections to one genre, such as mystery or science fiction, you’re even more likely to encounter familiar story lines.
What’s a creative writer—and eager reader—to do? Apparently more of the same. Tried-and-true plots seem to be selling better than ever. For instance, within the past month I spotted an industry announcement that a major ABA publisher acquired a story about two students from diverse backgrounds who take a marriage course in school, whereupon chaos and then eventual understanding between them ensue. I could swear this was the topic of a back-to-school special in the late ’70s. And then the plot rose again in movie form in the ’80s. And again in the ’90s. Whether or not these plots were based on books, I’m not sure, but—wait for punny fun—you get the picture.
On a similar track, author Jordan Scott discovered in California Federal Court that it’s not easy to gain legal victories concerning plots. Scott lost his case alleging copyright infringement against Breaking Dawn (The Twilight Saga, Book 4) by Stephenie Meyer, saying the Twilight series author’s plot was just like his book, The Nocturne. Scott argued that the works were similar in the marriage sequence, consummation of the marriage on a beach, and the birth of a baby. The judge ruled against Scott on the basis that the plots and themes were different, as were the settings and characters.
I have not read either book, but based on this information, I agree with the decision. Had the ruling gone the other way, writers would have to be cautious about approaching any plot with a marriage, consummation (implied or explicit), and childbirth sequence. Since this sequence of events happens to many people and is therefore the topic of many books, eliminating this type of plot would gut many novels aimed at women in particular.
One of my college English professors explained copyright this way: You cannot put a copyright on how to build a chair. If you did, no one else could build a chair.
When I was a teenager, my school library held lots of books (old even then) cautioning girls about the difficulty of poverty and not to get pregnant before marriage. I wish I could remember the name of one I read, written from the little sister’s POV. Little Sis was in awe of Older Sis, who was sure to be Homecoming Queen. Little Sis didn’t know Older Sis was in Big Trouble. By book’s end, Older Sis sat by her bedroom window, serenaded by classmates congratulating her on her win. But Sis was crying. She was pregnant: therefore, she could not be Homecoming Queen. The message I got was her life was ruined.
I also read Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones (Signet Books) by Ann Head, a young couple forced into marriage by unwed
pregnancy. The trials and tribulations of a young couple not ready for marriage or parenthood sent me the message that their lives were ruined.
Joy in the Morning (Perennial Classics) by Betty Smith wasn’t about unwed pregnancy but about young marrieds dealing with poverty and unplanned pregnancy. If I recall correctly, the protagonist didn’t have enough money to buy lipstick. As a fan at the time of Maybelline’s Strawberry-flavored Kissing Potion lip gloss (retroland.com/pages/retropedia/fashion/item/3529), this was an especial nightmare to me. But at least she could take comfort in getting twilight sleep during childbirth. Now I’d be horrified if Guerlain discontinued Kiss Kiss lipstick, especially in Exces de Rouge or Insolence de Rouge (Guerlain - Kiss Kiss Lipstick - Saks.com—too bad I won’t get a freebie for the mention!). Do you notice the same colorful, glossy, romantic plot for both brands of lipstick?
Back to reading—these books served as cautionary tales of what it’s like to live in poverty and the Dire Consequences of what can happen if you decide to be a Bad Girl. Same message, similar elements. But no one would ever say these are the same book, or that the any of the authors plagiarized the other.
As CBA novelists, our overall message is that God Loves You and He Works in Your Life. We may express this message through mysteries, Westerns, suspense, romantic suspense, contemporary romance, historical romance, women’s fiction, adventure, fantasy, Amish and Mennonite stories, and general fiction. Within genres, there can be some overlap in plot elements, and maybe some plots might look similar. So how will you, as a writer, distinguish your plot from others so editors don’t yawn and send a form letter rejection? As an agent who reads a lot of plot ideas and receives feedback from editors, here are my suggestions:
1.) Make your writing sparkle. Readers will revisit a familiar plot if the characters and settings are charming and delightful. (Or scary, all-too-real, and dangerous, as appropriate.)
2.) Surprise the reader. Romance readers know the couple will find love, but what unique obstacles can you throw at them that will make your book different from others? The reader should ask, “How will they ever overcome this problem?”
3.) Educate the reader. Even leisure readers don’t want to feel a book is an utter waste of time, so if you can teach your audience about an era in history, or about an interesting place in a contemporary novel, your book will be special. Make sure any tidbits are organic to the plot so the reader may say, “Huh. I didn’t realize that.”
Whatever novel you’re writing, be confident that you are the only person with your unique perspective, past and present experience. You are the only person who writes exactly the way you do. By bringing yourself to the plot, no matter how many times the basic outline has appeared in other books, you will succeed in creating an individual work of art.
God bless you and your writing!