Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How do I make sure I'm being original in my writing?

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

A writer emailed me and asked, "How do I stay an original author? I found that I have to stop reading books, or I'll end up copying the author one way or another in my own writing. Please help!"

If you're a young or new writer, you're (likely) still hunting down your voice. Borrowing from what you've read is part of that journey.

Like when I read This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen about 10 years ago, I discovered two techniques that were totally new to me. One is Sarah's tendency to start a scene, then flash back for a couple paragraphs to something that happened in between this scene and the last, and then come back to the current scene. The other was how she uses em-dashes to separate an action beat in the middle of dialogue. (“Do you have any idea”—the voice is husky and warm in my ear—“how obvious that is?”)

These are techniques that I've grafted into my own writing style, and that's an okay thing to do. But what about story ideas?

One thing I would say is that it's okay if your story has elements of other stories, and might even help you when you're trying to sell it. Which is why book ideas get pitched as things like, "It's Indiana Jones meets Pride and Prejudice!" or "It's Harry Potter but with Amish!"

Something has to spark a story idea - and if it's the movie you just watched or the book you just read, that's okay. Your job becomes making it yours. A premise can sound similar to another book, yet be so completely different in execution, you never think to compare the two. (Jill Williamson's The New Recruit is a good example of this - I had never even considered the similarities to Harry Potter until she pointed them out to me!)

If you're worried you're copying too much of another idea, I would make a list. I would list in very specific terms what you're concerned about copying. 

Not just "the plot." Are you worried that your characters have to fight to the death like in The Hunger Games? That your vampires also sparkle in the sun? What is it? The more specific you are, the better chance you have of fixing the problem early on.

And then I would look at each thing one-by-one and brainstorm new solutions. Say your character is an orphaned boy left on a doorstep and you've decided you want to fix that cliche, so you set to work on your "instead" list. Here's what it might look like:

He's not orphaned - he was kidnapped as a baby and never realized it until now
His parents are actually in jail.
His parents work a lot, so his big sister practically raises him

And so on. Pretty soon, I bet you'll hit on something you like. And if you do this for each story element that you think is a bit too close to something else, at the end of the day, you'll probably be the only one who knows your book idea was inspired by The Devil Wears Prada



Awhile ago, I read the craft book Story by Robert McKee, which is intended for screenwriters but has a lot of great stuff for novelists as well. I adored his chapter on setting, and how a story's setting is the author's best weapon in the "war on cliche."

He said, "Knowledge of and insight into the world of your story is fundamental to the achievement of originality and excellence."

That really rang true to me. So while it may be that, while working on a first draft, you need to put aside reading books in the same genre, I wouldn't overlook the value of deeply understanding the story world, characters, and the conflict in your book when it comes to achieving originality.

Do any of you have advice to offer our writer friend on being original? 


22 comments:

  1. This was something that I struggled with often in my early novels. In fact, 13 Chambers (my first novel) was really a Percy Jackson knock-off and I only realized that this year. Yeesh.

    But something I find makes thins easier is developing unique characters. After all, if your characters are unlike any others, than how is it possible that they would make the same choices as whatever books you're mirroring?

    -Shaneene

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    1. Interesting point. I never thought about that before... cool!

      And this whole post was awesome. As always.

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  2. I've been poking around a bit on Wattpad, and a lot of the stories I've seen on there are really bad, and that's affecting my style. What would you recommend for that?

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    1. That happened to me, lol. The cure was simple: no more Wattpad. Make sure you read quality literature (not necessarily Dickens, just a traditionally published book, because that way you know is gone through go knows how many rounds of edits and mtiple people thought it iOS enough to grace our shelves) that way, if you do subconsciously adopt a writing quirk, it will help rather than hinder you. Hope that helps! :)

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    2. I learned to not read a lot of bad writing. We write well if we read well. I would say to read less from Wattpad and more from authors you like and admire. That way, your writing comes up rather than down.

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  3. I'm reminded of one of the quotes in the Go Teen Writers book. It says, "When you take stuff from one writer, it's plagiarism; but when you take it from many writers, it's research."

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  4. I find that, if I'm reading a book while writing something, I sometimes adopt te other author's voice, and it was driving me crazy because I didn't want to be a, for example, Meg Cabot knockoff. "An original is worth more than a copy", after all. I found that to fix this, I have to read a couple pages of my WIP to get the feel of my voice back before I start writing again. That also helps me get into my MC's mood and remember where I am in the plot. Being original is definitely something I stress about, probably more than necessary. Thanks for the post, Stephanie!

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    1. This is something I do, too - reread the previous few pages before I start writing. It helps me to engross myself in the story, and get excited about what happens next.

      Awesome post!

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  5. That was really helpful because I struggled with that in the book I'm currently editing. Thanks!

    --NatalieNoel

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  6. I struggled with this "copycatting" problem myself early in my writing, but now I realize that many of the things I allegedly copied from other books (story ideas, characters, etc.) became my own creation after a while. It's hard to totally copy someone else; eventually you end up changing the copied material so much to fit your story that before long it's not copied anymore. You've tweaked it and changed it so much that it has become your own original (but inspired!) idea.

    -A.C.

    yournotsoaverageteenwriter.blogspot.com

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  7. I have a bunch of good ideas for stories, but I don't know how to get them started. (I know this is off-topic, sorry.) Any suggestions?

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    1. It sounds like you have "first line phobia". My friend once told me that you can alwys change the first line/beginning of your story, and it helped me feel more confident when writing. So my advice is to just start and see where it takes you.:)

      --NatalieNoel

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    2. Ask someone to give you a sentence (any sentence, preferably completely random) and use it as the catalyst for your first scene. You can go back and take it out later, but it's a good way to get started. I find that the very first scenes I write in my MC's POV get cut anyways, because I'm unused to the way they think and act and the scenes come across as information-dumpy later.

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    3. Thank you for your help! I'll try these, thanks! :)

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  8. Okay, so this question does not in anyway relate to being original, but I need to know: Are "toward" and "towards" interchangeable while writing? Or are there specific rules?

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  9. Another thing to watch out for when trying to be original is cliches.
    The first attempt at a novel I ever made was pretty bad, mostly because it was so derivative. Even if there were no distinct similarities between it and any other work, it was still clear how influenced I was by what I watched and read - because it was full of cliches and tropes of the genre that I was writing (which was fantasy).
    Now, I still write fantasy, but it's much more original (I hope), as I'm aware of these tropes and how to avoid them.
    Some ideas - orphaned protagonists, girls disguised as guys, love triangles, etc - are so overworked that it's very challenging to make them work well in your story and feel original. I find it's generally better to steer clear of them.

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  10. I agree; I'd just try to make it my own. As I've been finishing the first draft, I realized that my novel was a mashup of several books I love (The Giver meets Fahrenheit 451, but in a hospital), with new characters and an age limit.
    And as you're writing, make it your own. For me, I started with the characters, who are unlike most others that I've read, so that was a big help.

    Sometimes it does take deeper thinking to realize it, though. Until one of my friends told me, I didn't realize that my dystopia was basically Communist. Oops.

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  11. There's this quote I heard once, something about if you try to be original you won't be and if you just write what you have to say you will become original without even noticing it. I couldn't find the quote, and I don't even know who said it, but that's basically what it said. This one's funny, too.
    "A real writer learns from earlier writers the way a boy learns from an apple tree- by stealing what he has a taste for and can carry off."
    -Archibald MacLeish

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  12. What happens if you're working on a story you're convinced is original, then read a book a few months later and realize someone's already taken a bunch of your ideas?

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    1. That's happened to me, and it's extremely painful, Jenneth. If their book is already published (or contracted to be published) then you just have to go a different way or shelve it for a while.

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  13. Hi.
    I am currently in the process of writing a novel, that I aim to publish as an ebook. The worry I have is that my ideas may be similar to another novel that I do not know about. So my fear would be that legal issues will be raised.
    How can I try to avoid this?

    Many thanks.

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