September 7, 2023

How to Find a Unique Angle About a Trendy Topic

Book Publishing
big idea
book planning
book proposals

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Topics tend to ebb and flow in popularity. Depending on what cultural circles you run in, you’ve probably noticed outpourings of books on topics like trauma, mental health, midlife transformations, motherhood, and deconstructing the church and Christianity in recent years. These are all very popular topics right now, and I have helped authors plan and pitch successful books on all of them. As a book coach and proposal writer, one of my constant challenges is helping authors who want to write on these and other trendy topics find a unique angle to write from. 

The danger of writing about a trendy topic is that the same arguments tend to get recycled over and over and over. For example, Bessel Van Der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score awakened the world with the bold idea that trauma manifests itself in our bodies, even years after the trauma occurred. This was a jaw-dropping, aha-moment idea for the public consciousness in 2014 when the book came out (even though, technically, it wasn’t a new idea - Van Der Kolk just popularized it). Since then, we’ve had lots of memoirs and other books exploring this same idea, through the authors’ own lenses and experiences:

  • What My Bones Know by Stephanie Foo
  • What Happened to You? by Oprah and Dr. Bruce Perry
  • The Deepest Well by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris
  • The Tender Parts by Ilyse Kennedy
  • And so many more 

Because there is already so much noise around topics like trauma, because the space is so crowded and the competition so fierce, these and other authors absolutely MUST have something interesting and provocative to say. If they’re writing a memoir about the topic, then their personal experience with it MUST be so unique and extraordinary that it’ll be able to cut through all of that noise and attract all of the readers who want to read something new and different about a topic they already love.

That’s why I’m not at all against authors writing on popular topics. By all means, go for it! You’ve got built-in readers primed and ready and asking for authors to take their money, bookstores can’t stock the shelves fast enough with these books—but only if the book you’re proposing is going to give them something truly insightful and different about that topic. 

And that’s the challenge. How do you find something new and different to say, when so many other people are already talking and writing about it? Here are my tips.

#1: Read and analyze the other books on this topic, especially recent ones.

I recently ghosted a proposal for a book that has to do with trauma. (I can’t share the specifics, for obvious reasons!) In preparation, I read at least five different, recent books on the topic so that I could help the author articulate a new and novel argument about it. Using Publishers Marketplace, I also looked up all of the books on trauma that had been signed in the last couple years so that I could see what other unique angles authors had been pitching. 

We positioned my author’s book not as competing with all of these other books on trauma, but as complementary to them. In the competitive analysis section of the proposal, I was able to write thoroughly about the contributions that my client’s book would be making to the public discourse around the topic and point out the growing need for a book that explored this new, unique angle. 

Guess what? Within a week of pitching her proposal, she had an offer from a highly reputable agent (who has represented several other books on trauma) and her book is going out on submission soon!

Too many authors get wrapped up in thinking their perspective is unique without actually doing the homework to test whether that’s true. Do the research. Read the books. You need to know what other authors have to say about your topic, because agents and publishers do. 

#2: Memoir writers: Your writing and your experience MUST be extraordinary!

The more I study successful memoirs, the more I believe this to be true: If you want a memoir to succeed in traditional publishing, your experience and your writing must be extraordinary in some way—especially if you’re writing on a trendy topic.

For example, another one of my proposal clients is writing about motherhood and how it’s tested her and helped her grow in many ways—a beautiful and also very common sentiment. Motherhood is complex and hard and absolutely worthy of writing about, which is why SO many mothers want to write about their experience. To make this topic (or any other trendy topic) work, though, you’ve absolutely got to have something unique about your story. In my client’s case, she experienced motherhood in the extreme through a special needs adoption and surviving a natural disaster with her family. Plus, her writing style is filled with biting sarcasm and dark humor. This is no Instagram/Pinterest version of motherhood. It’s not pretty or wholesome or filled with flowery language. It’s gritty and raw, and it goes places most other authors on this topic don’t dare to go. 

That is the kind of memoir that will grab an agents’ or publishers’ attention.

Here’s another example of a recent signing for a memoir about midlife (another trendy topic):

Author of THANKS, OBAMA and former Obama speechwriter David Litt's IT'S ONLY DROWNING, a comic memoir pitched as A WALK IN THE WOODS meets BARBARIAN DAYS, about overcoming pandemic-induced depression and early-onset midlife crisis by taking up surfing at 35, and learning to face his greatest fears, except for sharks, to Max Meltzer at Gallery, in a pre-empt, in a two-book deal, by Daniel Greenberg at Levine Greenberg Rostan (world).

This isn’t just a memoir of someone struggling in midlife and somehow muddling through; this is a memoir of someone who does something extraordinary: the author takes up surfing and purposely faces his greatest fears. Now you’ve got my attention.

#3: Make surprising connections and applications.

This is one of my favorite tips for finding a unique angle, and it’s the first thing I explore when trying to help authors who are writing about a trendy topic. To do this, think of another novel or surprising topic that could be combined with the trendy topic you want to write about. Here’s the formula:

[Trendy topic] + [surprising/novel connection/application] = interesting new book!

Here are some examples:

  • Right now, I’m writing a book on Stoicism (trendy topic) for educators (unique application) with educators Daniel Bauer and Glenn Robbins.
  • Jeannette McCurdy’s popular book I’m Glad My Mother Died explores grief (trendy topic), but with a dark humor twist (surprising application)
  • A recent signing for a forthcoming book My Oceans by Christina Rivera dives into the quest for belonging in motherhood (trendy topic) and the lessons she’s learned from marine life and exploring the ocean (surprising connection)
  • Another recent signing, I Was Told There’d Be a Village, is about the importance of friendships (unique angle) during motherhood (trendy topic). 

#4: Pick a fight.

Another popular way to find a unique angle is to pick a fight with the popular narrative around your trendy topic. People are already interested in the topic, but you’ll delight and surprise them by turning something they thought they knew on its head.  

Author Jeff Goins articulates this idea as: “Everybody thinks X, but the truth is Y.” 

Here’s how it works:

  • “Everybody thinks to get a book deal you have to have a massive platform, but the truth is you need a great idea and a plan.” - Hungry Authors
  • “Everybody thinks artists are poor and starving, but the truth is artists can be incredibly successful and financially secure if you know how.” - Real Artists Don’t Starve
  • “Most Christians think younger generations are apostates, but the truth is they’re seeking deeper spiritual connection and integrity from churches.” - Exvangelical and Beyond by Blake Chastain

This is one you have to be careful with, though—because opposite arguments can catch on and become trends in their own right. For example, I’ve seen several books recently making the argument: “Everybody thinks midlife is depressing and hard, but midlife can actually be a time of reinvention and growth (especially for women).” Similarly, the argument that “Everybody thinks motherhood is about caring for children, but mothers actually need to care for themselves” has already been said many times. These arguments lose their power because they’ve already been accepted and integrated with popular thought. Authors who try to pitch books with these arguments are no longer saying something edgy and unique; they’re just preaching to the choir. No one disagrees with these ideas anymore.

#5: Become a journalist.

Lately I’ve noticed a new hybrid genre that combines memoir with investigative journalism. If you want to write about a common, hard experience you’ve been through (like motherhood or miscarriage/infertility or divorce), then one way you can bring a unique angle to that topic is to explore it not just from your personal lens, but also from a global lens. 

For example, the book While You Were Out explores the author’s family experience with mental illness but also looks at the state of mental health care in the United States, pointing out the ways our system falls short. Jennie Agg’s book Life, Almost is not just the story of her experience with recurrent miscarriage, but also an exploration of the science behind infertility and miscarriage, revealing just how much we still don’t know about the miracle of life. Then there’s Orphaned Believers by Sara Billups, in which she tells the story of her disenchantment with the church and provides significant research about the common experiences of 80s and 90s Christian kids and why so many of them have left the church, if not the faith altogether. 

#6: Pitch a novel solution to a common problem.

Finally, to find your unique angle, you can pitch a novel solution to a common problem. This one doesn’t work for every trendy topic, but if your trendy topic is a problem that a lot of people deal with, then it might be a good candidate. 

For example, among recent signings for books on trauma (common problem), there are books offering the following different novel solutions:

  • Ritual (Ritual by Heather Stringer)
  • Psychedelics (Healing, Transformation, and Safety with Psychedelics by Micah Stover)
  • Writing (Writing the Wrongs by Michele DeMarco)

I recently read Catherine Baab-Muguira’s book Poe for Your Problems, which was a hilarious application of this principle! In the book, which is part-biography, part-self help, Baab-Muguira offers “advice” and lessons derived from Edgar Allan Poe’s life. It’s funny because Edgar Allan Poe did basically everything wrong (he sought vengeance, dwelled on his mistakes and grudges, got drunk, made messes, blew up his life, went broke, etc.), and yet he ended up one of the most successful and beloved poets of American literature, so if it worked for him, why not??

Get out of your comfort zone.

The point in all of this is: If you want to write about a trendy topic, do it. Absolutely go for it. Just make sure that you are saying something new and unique and different about that topic. It’s likely that saying something new and unique will stretch you. It’ll feel uncomfortable. You’ll think things like, “But I’m not an expert” or “I’m not sure I could do that.” But that’s exactly the point—most people don’t push trends into new and novel territory. That’s why they need authors who are willing to do so! Your readers want to read books that explore things they never thought of and might be afraid to. This is the value that you can provide for your readers. So expect that it will feel uncomfortable. Expect that you will be challenged. Expect that you will feel intimidated. And know that that means you’re doing it right.