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.
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.
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?
* * * * *
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 Writing, both from Writer’s Digest Books.