Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 22, 2018

Thoughts on "Originality" in Fiction

Turning Whine Into Gold
by Kathryn Craft

Earlier this year I ran across a social media post by Lauren Vaknine that evokes a concern so common among writers I thought we might discuss it here (used with permission):

“I watched the film Goodbye Christopher Robin last night, and seeing the adoration [A.A. Milne] got from creating Winnie-the-Pooh, it made me upset to live in a time when writers will never really be fully original. Yes, we can tell stories from a different perspective, but doesn’t it feel sometimes as if everything has been done and that same excitement for new stories, ones that excited people, unraveled new ways of thinking and in some cases, changed the world, will never happen again?”

Let’s lay some reality track: the glut in the market is real. The twitchiness among publishers, in these times of unstable political and social change, is real. Trends are real.

So where can we find the hope on which to hang our creative efforts?

First, let’s step back for a clearer historical perspective. We can use Winnie-the-Pooh as an example. The big step forward Milne made was to anthropomorphize stuffed animals, right? Hmm, maybe not. Stories have been attributing human characteristics to animals and objects since before written history. Examples can be found in almost every ancient culture, such as those featuring the trickster characters of Anansi the spider from west Africa and Br’er Rabbit of south and central Africa.

A timeline of select titles shows that Winnie-the-Pooh was doing nothing new.

300 BCE: The Panchatantra, an ancient Indian collection of interrelated animal fables in Sanskirt verse and prose.

100 CE: Aesop’s Fables embedded the notion of the “wily” fox and the “proud” lion.

~interlude while we wait for development of the printing press~

1865: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
1883: The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
1894: The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
1901: The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
1908: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
1922: The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
1923: Bambi, a Life in the Woods by Felix Salten
1926: Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne

Did this rich history make Winnie-the Pooh feel like a knock-off? Instead, maybe it set a stage: George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945)—an adult political novel featuring anthropomorphized animals—was named in 2005 by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels.

Think of your own experience: was the Velveteen Rabbit any less moving because 39 years earlier, Pinocchio had also longed to become real? Did this timeline of predecessors drain the emotional power from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, which didn’t arrive until 1952?

It would seem that one’s perception of originality aligns with one’s chronological frame of reference.

If you suffer from despair born of the perception that there is nothing new under the sun, here are some contributing factors you may not have thought about.

1. The social media bubble.

If your Facebook friends are mostly writers, you are living in a rarified bubble that Facebook works to reinforce. If it seems that everyone you know is writing, it’s because they may very well be! But your survey sample is similar to going to an AA meeting and finding that everyone is an alcoholic. While social media may seem like your world, many people still exist who have never met a writer. Many non-writers aren’t on social media. Guess why? They don’t like to write. But they may be looking to read a story just like yours.

2. Zeitgeist.

We can’t always explain the timing of contagious ideas, although the fact that titles with words derived from the word “liar” may not be too surprising at present. Who knows why multiple historical novels about Zelda Fitzgerald or the Spanish flu come out at the same time—but it happens. Many artists have said that an idea was in the air and they grabbed it—Elizabeth Gilbert writes of her experience with this in Big Magic—but even when more than one hung on, each can’t help but give it their own spin.

3. Inexperience.

We tend to reach within the easy boundaries of our life experience for our early novels, since a storytelling education is such a huge learning curve in itself. Eventually we will have to cast further afield for story material. Take more risks to amuse ourselves.

Maybe originality is a destination, not a starting point. That jives with the publishing reality. Truly original work requires a huge gamble, since the publisher won’t be sure how to market it. They may be more likely to take this risk with a known bestselling novelist (= loyal readership) who’s stretching, as opposed to a debut author.

4. Reading on trend.

Trends help the industry because readers want another book they liked as much as the last. If you don’t want to reinforce trends, stop reading in them. If you write women’s fiction, read just enough to know what’s selling and then read science fiction, a thriller, a young adult love story, and then creative nonfiction on a topic of interest. Read a poem. You’ll be supporting original work with your dollars, and the cross-fertilization will help your brain arc in new, exciting ways. Your comp will look less like “Bridget Jones meets the Nanny Diaries” and more like Bambi Meets Godzilla. (I loved that short!)

Just because sales and marketing departments love a trend doesn’t mean that fresh-seeming novels aren’t being written. I just (finally, I know) read Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003) and I’ve never read anything like it. I adored Bryn Greenwood’s All the Ugly and Wonderful Things (2016), along with each one of her 16 points of view. No doubt about it, novels are out there making fresh tracks.

Let’s agree that we can take the word “original” off the table. How are you ensuring that your novel will be a fresh take? What novels have you read lately whose creativity really knocked your socks off? Who here has read more than one novel on a single historic event and can compare original elements?


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About Kathryn

Kathryn Craft  is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” was included in the writing guide Author in Progress, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, has been reprinted in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writingboth from Writer’s Digest Books.

35 comments on “Thoughts on "Originality" in Fiction”

  1. As always you manage to pick the right thing to say at the right time I need to hear it. Love this, Kathryn!

    1. I'm in your head, Gina, hahahaha!! Reality is, we writers (and all artists, for that matter), "unique" and "original" as we long to be, suffer from many of the same insecurities and anxieties. As a matter of fact, the tagline for my developmental editing business, Writing-Parter.com, is "You don't have to go it alone," and most of my nonprofit writing work through the years has been geared toward establishing a communal experience for the who undertake this very solitary endeavor. Thanks to WITS, we have a safe place to discuss these issues.

  2. This speaks to me as I believe we can find our own originality within other stories. They can strike us with our own unique ideas.

    I recently was the afternoon keynote at the Women Who Write Conference in NJ and sat in on an information-packed session with agent Rachel Orr, and she spoke about how to come up with ideas and characters related to this very topic! When looking for ideas and characters she recommends looking to ready-made characters and stories to spark our own ideas, whether through TV, movies or books. One of her clients recently had a book come out where she channeled The Canterbury Tales into it - a new and refreshing spin for young readers. One way to make these stories unique as well is to make the characters and setting very specific to the story.

    Thanks for a great and insightful post, Kathryn!

    1. Thanks for the great ideas, Donna! Your comment reminds me of a session at the Pennwriters conference given by Tim Esaias. He suggested thinking about rewriting one of your favorite stories in another genre. This would allow you to add your own stamp to a story you are bound to love, but all the changes necessitated by the genre shift would make it your own.

  3. I have been rolling this around in my head so much I think its been worrying me and causing me not to write along with all the other writer ailments. Thanks for posting lets hope I can get better soon.

    1. Oh Jeri, I'm so sorry you've been suffering, and hope this post offers some insight for you. Keep up with the comments (especially Maggie's below) for added wisdom!

  4. I was struck watching "The Miniaturist" on PBS this week with the central part a doll house plays in the narrative- and realized doll houses have also appeared in the last year as a major motif in both Hereditary (horror movie) and Sharp Objects (suspense thriller) - but in all three cases, it was used in a completely original way. Does this mean we should all start writing women's fiction with doll houses in it ?- no, just that it illustrates how it's not the plot or the object but the originality the writer brings to the work which makes it unique. And in fact as the agent was pointing out, using a "trope" that writers are familiar with in an unusual way can initially add comfort for the reader while surprising and delighting her by twisting it around in a way they didn't expect.

    1. Great point, Maggie! "Trope with a twist" is the way to go. You provide publishers a way to sell it and readers some handholds that will assure them that this will be a story they'll like. Thanks for your insightful comment!

  5. THIS: "If you don’t want to reinforce trends, stop reading in them."

    I do not read many books in my genre. And I haven't read any of the hot books everyone is talking about. Ever. There, I've said it. In fact, I RARELY read WF, which I write. I don't read what I can do. I read what I want to be able to do in the future. My most beloved reading experiences are of difficult books where style and structure are unique and odd and sometimes counterintuitive. But they stretch me in ways more commercial books do not.

    My friends may fly through page-turning psychological thrillers or romances or whatever, but I like books that reward a slow first reading and multiple readings thereafter, where every time you discover more layers and hints and symbols. The English major in me will not die. 🙂

    1. Amen, sister! I'd have to confess the same thing about reading the books in the hot trends, Erin. I am soooo happy for my author friends who hit the (whatever) wave at the right time, but those are rarely the books I need to infuse and inspire me. Like you, I have to "read up," and then add other experiences (museum trips, walks in nature, shopping in odd places where I have no intention of purchasing, etc.) to the brain stew. If we think of "original" this way—as originating from a stew of our own trademark mix of interests and desires, then filtered through our worldview—we can't help but offer something fresh.

      1. Yes! It's one of the reasons I read a lot of poetry and nonfiction as well, about historical events and persons, about writers, about nature, about art, etc. Once those ideas cross-pollinate with what's going on in your real life or the places you visit, there's no stopping the brain stew!

  6. Excellent article. If it comes out of me, then it’s original even if the topic, premise, whatever has been used.

    Thank you for a great example of professional writing also.

    1. Thanks Mershon! It wasn't until I read your comment that I even stopped to think, "Wow, I thought I had something original to say about originality? What hubris!" 😉

  7. I went out on a limb and wrote a novel set in the early California rancho period (think Zorro), and while I used tried and true tropes, I've found the setting and time period (pre-gold rush California) is not common and hard to market. But it's an area of history I know well and I found a small publisher who took a chance. The "blew me away book" I just finished was Susanna Kearsley's The Winter Sea.I don't read time travel, but she did this so well I am now hooked on that subgenre. It's good to read other genres, although this book is also an excellent historical romance, so I didn't step too far away.

    1. Glad you found a home for your story, Pamela, and thrilled that you discovered Susanna! The Winter Sea was my first of hers as well and I loved it. I don't write historicals, so more of a stretch for me, especially with the elements of magical realism.

  8. Kathryn, thank you for this great post and the encouragement that goes along with it.

    I don't think of myself as being terribly original on my own, but I find reading and watching movies provides me with lots of ideas.Some of them plant a seed in my imagination that sprouts into a story.

    I recently read "The Trouble With Goats and Sheep" by Joanna Cannon and found it to be a delightful and fresh take on mystery.

  9. I hope that what I write is fresh and original, might not be a new trope or HEA, but it's certainly not plagiarism. I think that's what can be a defining line. A fresh take on something that's been around for a while. Don't want to copy someone else.


  10. I'm a huge fan of learning from those who have gone before me. If I need my brain to click with fresh words, I read Dr. Seuss for a few minutes before I write. The rhythm of his words is amazing. I read other others to get my brain geared for sex scenes or sad scenes.

    In the memoir I'm working on, I had the scenes, but I had a really difficult time structuring them into a cohesive order. I checked out WILD from the library, deconstructed her scene order and book structure and that's what turned the lock for my own book.

    Just because we read or study other writers doesn't mean our own work isn't original. I think your post shows that beautifully.

    1. I love that you use beloved work of other writers as motivation to write specific scenes, Jenny. And I am a HUGE fan of deconstructing stories. If a story has worked well on you, figuring out why can be an amazing education for our own storytelling.

  11. I write historical fiction, and I have read so many WWII books, both fiction and non-fiction, that I'm absolutely saturated. Thanks for your encouragement, Kathryn, to read other genres, and seek my originality through them. A writer I found a few years ago, who writes lush, magnificent stories set in South-East Asia, is Tan Twan Eng. Try his book, The Garden of Evening Mists, if any readers here are up for a change from the usual.

  12. Great insights Kathryn (as usual)!! This post gives my inner worrier permission to feel the worry (knowing others feel it too), while granting space to release it. As a teen, I used to write music and gave it up because I thought everything I wrote sounded familiar (had been written already). Haven’t given up on writing but can feel the same worry creeping in sometimes. Timely post!

  13. Another way to look at this is that each of us builds on a foundation created by the stories we heard as children and then read from an early age. Reading told us what we like and trying to tell our own stories gives us a chance to add to the foundation. To the extent we succeed in creating something that a single reader admires, we have joined the line of authors that extends from a time when story telling was entirely oral to the present day of digital media. We're part of the great train of story tellers. Welcome on board.

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