Subjects in Writing to Avoid

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Feb 17 2009

I’ve mentioned in passing a few things that agents often don’t want to see any more of because we’ve seen so much of it before. In one of my more recent posts I briefly mentioned Greek gods and insurance adjusters. Those “reasons for rejection” prompted a reader to ask me if I could give a list of those types of things that often lead to a rejection letter from an agent. And I refuse.

The truth is that not all Greek gods are an instant rejection, and while I haven’t yet seen an insurance adjuster that worked, it doesn’t mean someone else won’t come up with the perfect execution or another agent won’t feel differently. In fact, I want to say that just recently I asked to see more of a proposal from someone who was writing an insurance adjuster sleuth.

Nothing is an instant rejection in the publishing world; the point is that a lot of these things have been seen before or haven’t worked particularly well in the past. I’ve had a lot of editors tell me that they’ve tried to publish Greek gods and they haven’t worked. And yet, with the right execution, with the right idea, they might be a smash hit.

Try not to think too much about what an agent might be thinking or wanting. It will make you absolutely crazy. My best advice is to work as hard as you possibly can to think outside of the box. Push yourself and write a great book.


25 responses to “Subjects in Writing to Avoid”

  1. That’s an interesting combination: Greek gods and insurance adjustors… I have more interest in the former than the latter (by far).

    I participated in Nanowrimo this past November, and I noticed something that slightly disturbed me. The forums are very active with people eager and willing to help you navigate the writing process, which is great, but a lot of the forum topics contained the phrase “de-Twilighting my novel”. “My novel is too Twilighty!” “My MC is too Bella!” “How do I write vampires without writing Twilight?”

    It was mildly distressing to see completely different stories (often involving not a single vampire or werewolf) being labeled “Twilight copies” and sent along their way.

    What I’m wondering is if this happens in the publishing world or not. Do agents read part of a manuscript and see parallels in other books? I mean, it’s inevitable in some cases (have a family of vegetarian, golden-eyed vampires living in Washington and yes, you’re going to think Twilight), but is that something on your mind? How similiar it is to another book?

  2. Avatar jimnduncan says:

    This kind of ties in to something I was looking at yesterday, and the whole ‘when does certain subject matter become over done,’ that we as writers see so often coming from agents, editors, and the like. I have written a suspense and a fantasy novel. There’s been all kinds of complaining, much of it rightly so I believe, about the abundance of thrillers on the market and the fact that many of the story lines in them are strikingly similar. The same can be said for fantasy, at least on the contemporary end of things, with the flood of vampire oriented stories. Curious, I went to Amazon yesterday (albeit this is only one source, but probably the biggest) to look at the fantasy best seller lists, because I wanted to see what, if anything was out there in the more classic, epic fantasy genre that people were buying. To my dismay, in the top 70 fantasy books (I got discouraged at that point and stopped looking), there was one, ONE book that fit this description that had been published within the last year. There are likely lots of reasons for this. What struck me though was that the vast majority of fantasy on the best seller list were either vampire stories, or novels published years ago. Charlaine Harris is smiling all the way to the bank I suspect. Perhaps more annoying, was that even in the epic fantasy category, Amazon had these books listed. Apparently having a series makes something epic. Apparently, the Dresden Files qualifies for the ‘fairies and elves’ category. Can’t say I follow their logic, but it certainly skews the public eye.

    The point is, we hear how vampires/urban fantasy are over done in the market right now, but then look what’s selling. The buying public does not seem to be particularly tired of them. They sell. Of course, I suspect agents/editors are really tired of seeing them. Who wants to keep reading the same kind of thing over and over? Yet, they will because IF you can find the right one, you’ve got a certain winner on your hands.

    I wasn’t sure whether to be discouraged or inspired by the lack of anything new in ‘epic’ fantasy. It either means people will be jazzed for something good to come out or this category is not doing well right now, and I can kiss any chance of selling my epic fantasy goodbye. Still, I really want to smack the folks at Amazon upside the head for being rather out of touch regarding what defines certain genres. It’s either arrogance or ignorance, I’m not sure which.

    J Duncan

  3. Avatar Jessica says:

    Sounds right to me. 🙂

  4. And I’m just perverse enough that upon reading that I think, “Hmm, a Greek God who is an insurance adjustor. What fun!”

  5. Avatar jfaust says:


    All the time. Take a look at Publishers Lunch. How many books do you see that are compared to other books or other authors? it’s a great sales technique for agents and for editors and we use it regularly to easily describe how an author has taken a successful formula and put an exciting new spin on it. That’s the key though, we’re looking for that new spin and it can be completely different.

    J Duncan:

    You’re right, but try to fit in yet another vampire in that list. And what’s also interesting is that you point out how many of those books are not newly published. They are the old favorites that everyone has been copying. It certainly doesn’t mean you can’t do a vampire, it just has to be different.

    And yes the struggles of how bookstores categorize books continues…

  6. Avatar Mark Terry says:

    Or an insurance adjuster FOR the Greek Gods! “Yes, Mr., er, Zeus, do you have liability coverage for lightning strikes?”

  7. Avatar Scott says:

    I think writers should write about what interests them, what sparks their imigination. I don’t think it would work if you tried to write a book based strictly on what might be marketable. The bottom line with any manuscript is that the story has to be strong … it has to work. If you can accomplish that, the rest will take care of itself.

  8. Every time you mention insurance adjusters it makes me laugh so hard… by day I work as an insurance adjuster and every time a co-worker finds out that I also write they tell me I should write a novel about an insurance adjuster because there’s just so many interesting things that happen in our job… little do they know just how boring our line of work really is!! I always just smile and laugh and tell them it’s a great idea…

  9. Avatar Kelley Nyrae says:

    It is so hard to come up with a completely new idea. Though we should strive for that, our goal also had to be to make our voice different so that if there are some similarities, we will stand out. I’m going to write an insurnace adjuster completely different than you might but hopefully one of us the right ingredient to make it work. In some ways it comes down to execution, voice, and style, IMO. Great blog, Jessica!

  10. Avatar Dara says:

    There aren’t any completely “new” ideas, at least none that I’ve seen. Most stories follow some sort of archetypal template. But that doesn’t mean it can’t have a different take on things.

    I think it’s important to write what your passionate about and let your own unique voice shine through.

  11. Will sex and violence still sell?

    I’ve a story about an insurance adjuster who kept 12 white Greek God statues in his swimming pool. He decides to marry. Does. And tells his new wife… “Honey, we’ll get along fine as long as you don’t ask me why I keep the Greek Statues in my swimming pool.” “No problem!” Says the new wife… but several months go by and she’s curious now, so she asks him. He murders her.
    He sets out to find another wife and is successful. He tells her about getting along fine as long as she never asks about the Greek God statues in the swimming pool. “Never will.” She says. But, sure enough it gets the best of her. She asks him about the statues. He murders her and sets out to find another wife. BUT the police are noticing a pattern with the adjuster and his wives. They set him up with a plant – a woman detective. Yep, they marry. He tells her not to ask about the statues. She agrees but is secretly telling all to the police.
    She sets him up, tells the police about the question and to get ready. They do. She asks the question. He’s about to kill her when the police break in and save her.
    Now, on the way to the police station the detective driving just can’t help himself so he asks the Greek God/swimming pool question.
    Contrite, the adjuster feels it time to “fess” up, so he says. “I keep them in the swimming pool because…

    Hmmm, guess you’ll just have to ask me for pages!

    Haste yee back 😉

  12. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    Just a hint on doing something popular but a little different–play the “What if?” game with your idea. In 2004, when I first began writing Wolf Tales online, werewolves were hugely popular. I took the werewolf idea and asked, “What if mine turned into wolves, but were shapeshifters, not ‘traditional’ werewolves?” It worked–in fact, I have a character who is highly insulted whenever someone compares him to a werewolve…point being, you can take the familiar and make it unique, and therein lies your hook. (And, of course, in my case, I added a whole lot of unconventional sex…)

  13. Avatar Anne-Marie says:

    There was a great little novel that came out last year called Gods Behaving Badly about Greek gods living in a derelict house in modern London. I believe it was a debut novel and I enjoyed it very much. A quick google search will give you the author’s name, if anyone is interested.

  14. Avatar Anita says:

    I do think it’s helpful when playing Kate’s “what if” game to include a couple trusted advisors, if you’ve got them. I just posted an interview with writer extraordinaire John Green on my blog. One of the questions/answers has to do with his ideas that sort of end up in the toilet and the process that gets them there. Very funny and relevant, but my major point is that he has a couple trusted advisors…and while I’m no John Green, I do (luckily) have a couple people who keep me from writing absolute toilet magnets.

  15. Avatar Sooki Scott says:

    Think outside the box? Got it!

    All right. Come on now. Who hid the box?

    Confucius says; man who sneezes without tissue takes matter into own hands

  16. Avatar Serenissima says:

    This is timely for me. I’m pitching a book with Satan as the protagonist and am wondering if the subject matter is a turn-off.

  17. Avatar Jenna says:

    The Greek (and Roman) gods have been used well so many times that I imagine authors think they’re good for another go.

    Star Wars was very Roman

    Neil Gaiman used gods in ‘American Gods’ and ‘Anansi Boys’ and ‘Sandman’ and several of his other works to great effect. He mixes his gods and origins, but it’s done well.

    So many stories are based on these mythologies that it doesn’t surprise me that there are a glut of them.

    I suppose that Greek gods aren’t simply a subject to avoid: it’s just you must do it EXTREMELY well to get a contract, because you have to get past that “heard that one already” reaction once the agent sees your character name is Zeus.

  18. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Working in the insurance field, I’m not so certain I would want to read a book about an insurance adjuster 🙂

  19. Avatar Anonymous says:

    How about accountants and aliens?

  20. Avatar AstonWest says:

    Whew! Space pirates made the cut…maybe I still have a shot after all!


  21. Avatar Sheila Deeth says:

    Dresden as fairies and elves? Have to confess, we’re a household of Dresden fans. But this was a great discussion. Thanks.

  22. Wasn’t Barnaby Jones (TV mystery protag played by Buddy Ebsen) an insurance adjustor? Or maybe he was an insurance investigator.

  23. Avatar bunnygirl says:

    This post made me laugh because I chose an insurance adjuster for my MC’s girlfriend because I wanted her to be an unimaginative, by-the-rules sort, totally inappropriate for my MC. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to have an insurance adjuster in anything but a peripheral role, but I don’t write mysteries so I’m probably missing something.

    I agree it’s a mistake to write for the agent or the market. Success as a writer isn’t a paint-by-numbers. Who would’ve thought sparkly “vegetarian” vampires would be a hit? Tell a good story and the rest will usually sort itself out. If the market isn’t ready for the story, go write another one.

  24. The protagonist of “About Schmidt” worked in the insurance business. In Nebraska.

  25. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Isn’t Kenyon’s series really Greek Gods? And Deidre Knight?