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?