Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Critical Writing Skills: Originality

Today kicks off my new blog series, Critical Writing Skills. Each post will cover one skill that I think is essential to novelists. Feel free to suggest skills in the comments section. I would be really interested to learn what other people think is “critical” for a writer. Today’s topic, as you may have gleaned from the title, is Originality.

Ahhhhhh originality. The bane of all writers. Every single piece of information out there about writing says you need to have a good book idea. And by good, they really mean original. But what are we to do when it fells like EVERY idea has been written already? And by someone more talented than we are? And better looking? And richer? (maybe those last few are just my personal worries…)

It’s almost seems like a subversive form of torture, to tell us we have to write something original. There are only so many basic scenarios that people can get into, after all. Some experts claim there are as little as seven basic plots, and others say 20, and so on. The type of conflict your character will come up against can be boiled down in a few basic types.

On top of that, within each genre there are conventions that you are expected to uphold, so that further reigns in some possibilities. For example, in romance, neither the female love interest nor the male love interest can die. Period. It’s not considered a romance novel if one of the main characters dies (or so I have been told/read).

So what’s a writer to do? Imagine the horror of writing a query letter, which is boiling your novel down to it’s core components, and realizing the book sounds just like Romeo and Juliet, or A Farewell to Arms. That’s not going to catch the mailman’s eye, much less an agent’s.

I’ve talked to many different writers, and most don’t have a problem coming up with an original idea. A post man who lives underwater, let’s say. But my personal theory is most writers run afoul of the Cliché Monster by not pushing this idea further. Most writers, with that kernel of an idea, would move on to developing the underwater environment for their post man, and the post man’s family, and the kraken that is trying to swallow him whole before he makes his deliveries. After all, the post office’s motto is through rain or shine, snow or sleet…and kraken, apparently.

This starfish wants to grow up to be a kraken.

So today I am going to give you this suggestion. The next time you have a book idea, try to tinker with it some more. I know everyone’s process is different, so fit this in however you need to, but if you feel like your ideas are a little lackluster, then spend some more time with them. You’re heard a lot of different book ideas—there’s a lot of them out there. Some of these ideas are even published. Browsing your local library or bookstore will reveal that. But not every one of those ideas grab you, do they? Some of this is because it’s not your personal taste in reading material, but I think a good part of it is because the idea is similar to something you’ve already read. There’s no pressing desire to find out what happens.

I suspect people are feeling that way about paranormal-vampire YA. There could be the most original character hiding in the latest paranormal YA romance, but because it’s so very much like Twilight (normal girl meets hot abnormal guy who is a supernatural something or other. Normal girl is in danger, and hot guy has to protect her. They have a forbidden romance for various reasons.) the YA authors are either going to have to steer clear of that concept, or write something shockingly brilliant to break out above the slew of other novels similar to it.

On the other hand, look at Harry Potter. Most elements from the series are not original, but the way Rowling puts the “chosen one---boy finds out he has special powers---magical school of learning---secret magic world on Earth” elements together felt fresh and new at the time.

The idea behind originality is not coming up with something no one has ever thought of, but packaging familiar elements into a book that FEELS brand new.

How one goes about this is tricky. Personally, I usually make sure my ideas are “original” by combining them with other ideas I have. I have tons and tons of ideas floating around in my head. I think about them, play with them, wonder what would happen if I tweaked the idea slightly like so, and after a while I come up with an idea that feels new to me, and doesn’t sound like something I have already read. Sometimes the ideas will naturally do the Transformer thing where they merge into something awesome, and sometimes I have to intentionally nudge them.

I discovered a new way of nudging ideas into originality just this past weekend. If you’ve kept up with my blog, you’ll know that I have been struggling with ideas to write. I have plenty of them, but none of them felt so pressing that I had to write the book RIGHT NOW. I’ve looked at my idea folder dozens of times, and tinkered around with several ideas.

This flower is even more original than me!

 I decided to look at all the ideas I had at once, and in doing so, discovered magic.

I took four big pieces of white printer paper and taped them together. On one side I wrote down all the character ideas I had in green Sharpie pen, and circled their name like a cluster map without the center.

Next to the character ideas I wrote the basic plot ideas I have, as well as various elements I enjoy. Again, I just wrote a quick blurb and circled it, this time with a black Sharpie pen. So I had things like “characters forced to be together” and “walking into a gas station and everything changes” next to each other.

On the right side of the paper, in red Sharpie, I wrote down all the setting ideas I have, along with various character jobs and magic abilities. So things like “snowy ice world”, “hacker”, and “siren” wound up next to each other.

The end result was three different colored columns of several different types of ideas you can have for a story.

I was going to start connecting the ideas together using another Sharpie, but I was so pleased with the results I decided to leave it as it. Now whenever I need to brainstorm for a book, I can just look at my cluster map. It’s a really great way of connecting ideas you wouldn’t have considered before, because everything is right there.

Well, this entry is long enough, so we’re going to leave it here for today. What about you guys? Do you give thoughts to making sure your idea is a strong one or do you just trust everything will work out?


  1. Being weird helps. I'm at my most original when I indulge myself and combine all the things *I* like best. ;)

  2. wow what an informative post. thanks for all the food for thought!

  3. Thanks guys! I find being weird and combining interests helps too!