Comps – the Highs and the Lows

If you’re preparing a query, you’ve probably read a thousand times that you need comps: other books to compare your own with and set it alongside. And there’s varying conflicting advice on this too. Many people say it’s best to go with titles published in the last two years, to ensure you’re current and your type of book is selling right now (as opposed to ten years ago). But it’s not always that simple. Finding comps for my Austen-inspired dystopian romance has proved a road full of ups and downs, and I thought I’d share my journey with you.

To give you some background, dystopia was a genre that featured heavily in my reading in my formative years through high school… Mainly because my awesome English teacher was VERY into it. His reading list for the summer for me contained ‘Lord of the Flies’, ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’… It was a happy but bleak summer! He had taught me HG Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ for coursework and this is probably one of the earliest dystopian novels. The basic idea with dystopia is that it’s set in the future, and it’s bad. OK, that’s simplistic. Whereas Utopia depicts an idealised society, dystopian societies tend to be overly restrictive and toxic antagonists for any free-thinking protagonist.

But my genre of choice has always been romance. I love Austen, Gaskell, George Eliot… and their books are more than simple romance plots. Their novels are about the growth and maturity of female protagonists – often in the Bildungsroman structure of innocence to maturity.

So it was only natural that when I plotted out the story I most wanted to write, I found myself taking the bare bones of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and putting it into a very different setting: a dystopian society where there’s only one hundred people left on Earth. With the high stakes of humanity being on the brink of extinction, a system is put in place to ensure that young people are paired off for breeding. But secrets about the world are about to be uncovered…

I happily bashed out my first draft, with a fairly clear idea in my head of what I was trying to achieve. I wanted the pacing and tone of ‘The Hunger Games’, the Austen-style historical feel and slow burn romance, but elements of a world like ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Simple, right?

Well, I thought so. But there’s a lot of advice which says don’t use big classic titles for your comps. Hmmm: so maybe Jane Austen meets ‘The Hunger Games’ isn’t the best pitch, then. I like the way it says immediately what I’m trying to do. But neither title is ‘current’ and this suggests I’m not really up to date with what’s happening in the industry right now.

Cue searching for YA dystopian romances. Oh my word, there’s a lot of them. And the biggest blow was really seeing how many similar threads were in other stories (which I hadn’t even read) – and so it might look like I copied them. Argh!

So my comp journey began. I made a list (helped a lot by Goodreads, which is teeming with information like this), looked at the premises (the short description that you would read on Amazon), and downloaded free samples of everything which looked vaguely similar or had points of connection with my story. You can tell a lot about a story from the free sample. Usually, in YA, the first few pages include some life changing event or inciting incident, and the whole premise comes to life immediately. You also get a good sense of the ‘voice’ and character. The low points for me included seeing aspects of my story in someone else’s, and realising how my opening was not pacy and sharp enough to tick all the boxes. It hurt, but it was good. I took notes on the opening pages, then went back to my own, with a fresh sense of what I needed to do. I needed to get a much better balance of anchoring the reader in the world of my story, of creating enough mystery or interest that they had sufficient motive to read on, but also showing without telling the basics of who my protagonist was, and what their world was like.

With the comps that seemed to have the most in common with my story, I downloaded the full text and burned my way through them. Then I made notes on what I felt were the USPs (unique selling points) of my story eg. historical feel rather than tecchy. I learned from what was good, and I learned from what wasn’t so good too. It’s true that there’s a lot of stuff out there, that’s been published traditionally or self-published, that at times feels pretty ropey when you read it. But this then helped to build my confidence. If some of these stories can gain the readership and following they have done, then there’s space in the world for my story too. That’s given me hope and courage when writing and rewriting has felt slightly doomed by how saturated and out of mode dystopian romance is at the current time (oh, and did I mention coronavirus? Which apparently lessens people’s appetite for dystopia even more).

Some of the comps I read through compulsively. I may not have esteemed them of great literary value, but they were very readable and didn’t take themselves too seriously. Whenever I came across something that didn’t work for me as a reader, it helped me to think more clearly about my own story. The best ones I read gave me loads of inspiration. Ultimately, when you read the premise, you can easily panic and think that there’s too much overlap to warrant the need for your own story. But each story has its own voice. Just think of the different ways you could tell the story of Cinderella. As I’ve read comp titles, I’ve gone back to my own writing, and I’ve been better equipped to hone my own voice. Sometimes if even from knowing what I don’t want my book to be like!

One comp title leads to another. I finished Ally Condie’s ‘Matched’ trilogy, and then I read Kiera Cass’ ‘Selection’ trilogy. I read ‘Branded’ and ‘Only Ever Yours’. I’ve got a bunch of unread stories on my kindle, and I’ve branched out into other YA genres, which has given me a much better feel for the tone and pacing. Last year I went to a YA author’s talk and she mentioned reading hundreds of YA books. I’m not there yet but my reading stats have sky rocketed! (OK I know only Goodreads cares about this but hey). I feel I’ve got a better awareness of what’s been published and when. I still struggle to keep my reading really current because the dystopias I’m seeing right now are pretty gritty and bleak. I’ve read ‘The Power’ and ‘Vox’ (neither are YA, but both are feminist dystopias influenced by Atwood) and I need to get hold of ‘The Grace Year’ (did I mention my book budget has sky rocketed too?). I signed up to BookBub which has been pretty good at notifying me of 99p kindle bargains in the genres I’m interested in… But as I’ve blogged before, I tend to go in waves of reading and then waves of writing. I struggle to do both! I recently finished redrafting (for now) so I’m in a wave of reading. On my TBR (to be read) list (and did I mention how awesome the collection function is on kindle? Like the ‘shelves’ in Goodreads, you can just pool your dystopias into one happy place): ‘Eve’ by Anna Carey, ‘Cinder’ by Marissa Meyer, ‘A Curse so Dark and Lonely’ by Brigid Kemmerer, ‘Night of the Party’ by Tracey Mathias, ‘Burn’ by Patrick Ness and ‘The Places I’ve Cried in Public’ by Holly Bourne. Some are dystopias, some are YA, and some are just there because I love the author (I’m very in awe of Patrick Ness). If I get discouraged, I remind myself that this is actually a pretty fun task and comps don’t have to be an exact match. You can say ‘elements of’ something or ‘in the vein of…’ If you can find just the right combination of anchoring your work in its genre, but giving it a ‘twist’ with a comp that’s unexpected or surprising, then you’re onto a good elevator pitch that will whet an agent’s appetite for reading your story!

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