Writing With Found Objects 1


But I Wanna be Original


A friend asked me to explain how a writer can use reader cookies (the things readers expect in a certain type of book, and which in fact reward the reader for reading the book) and clichés (and the use there of) as well as genre tropes and other expected “set-pieces” in narration.

And then I realized this was not a post but a series of posts.  A mini workshop, if you will.  Something that will allow you to amplify and improve your writing by becoming conscious of the expectations and either playing to them or against them.

To begin with, you’re probably sitting there, scratching your head, going “but I wanna be original?  Isn’t the purpose of a book to be startlingly new?”

Well… no.

Perhaps I’m more aware of this because I came from a different culture as an adult, and had to learn to tell stories the American people will want to read.

All right – eh – we all have to learn that as writers, but there are degrees.  What I mean is that I not only had to figure out how to talk to people outside my head, I also had to learn what the expectations in the reader’s head were for certain genres, so that I knew what I was working with, or dispelling.  And what made me aware of it is that I carried a completely different set of assumptions in my head.

Since I came from a culture in which Romeo and Juliet is almost the ideal romance (to be ideal she should have survived and mourned him all her life) you can see where I expected stories to hit different points, right?

It took my first writers groups and then writing fan fic to get that Americans had different expectations.  Oh, I knew it intellectually, and figuring out, for instance, that Romance was supposed to have a Happy Ever After here, was easy but I didn’t know how to hit the unspoken things in people’s heads.  When I introduced my male character as big and rough, for instance, I didn’t know I was cuing him as the villain in people’s heads.

But I got it.  Eh.  Eventually.  And it made it clear to me once and for all that even the most original of writers is not creating things out of whole cloth, nor is it desirable that he or she should.

I’m not talking here about the sort of copycat stuff that traditional publishing worshipped.  I’m not saying “Twilight sold a bazillion copies, so do run right out and write a lot of sparkly emo vampires.”

I’m not even talking about stuff like “Well, Cinderella stories sell pretty well, so I’ll base all my books on that.  That’s not the level I’m speaking at.  I’m speaking at a deeper, more basic level, like… like if the first glimpse the readers get of your character is when he’s drowning puppies, it’s going to set up certain expectations.

But Sarah, you say, I don’t want to count on what might or might not be in the readers’ heads.  I want to set up my whole world, the full story and explanations, and not have to worry about how they might perceive things. I want my work to be immortal, even if culture changes.

I’m here to tell you that you want the impossible.  It’s sort of like saying But I want to control the weather.

I’m not going to tell you that you can’t setup an entire world inside a book.  You probably can.  It would just take you a century or so to write and be unreadable.  Even books that are set in “the real world” make use of what is in the reader’s head to round out the details and setup explanations.

Say a beautiful blonde shows up in the first paragraph of your book.  She might be a shy wallflower raised in a world where blondes are considered ugly.  BUT until that’s established – and hammered in – you won’t know that.  You will see the typical cheerleader who’s been prized for her beauty her whole life.  You’ll expect that.  And even after that is dispelled, you will always have that knowledge too.  What I mean is, if THE READER had grown up in a world where blonds are ugly, then the feeling wouldn’t be the same as in a world where pretty blondes are prized, knowing that this one lives in a world that isn’t.

The “furniture” in the reader’s head matters, and you have to be aware of it, and make use of it to elicit the emotions you wish to.

To put it another way, you can’t tell the story to a reader that never read a story in his life (or if you can that reader is too rare to sustain a career.)  So you’d best be aware of what stories the reader has read, and what expectations he has, or your story will confuse him, upset him, or lose his interest.

This is why people who don’t want to read in the genre they write because they want to be original are shooting themselves in their collective foot.  Writing is a sort of collaboration between you and the reader.

This used to be more explicit when story tellers stood up at banquets (or on the street corner) and told their tale.  If you’ve ever seen a master storyteller work, you know they take their cues from audience questions, interjections and even body language.  (The best way to get that now is one of the fanfic sites with heavy comments.  I did my time in austen fanfic and advise it to anyone not sure they’re hitting the right notes.)

Now you have to fill in what your ideal reader would think/say/feel.  And the best way to do that is to be a reader of that genre or sub-genre.  (Which doesn’t mean you should like every type of story that fits there, btw.)

Now, no one is saying you slavishly imitate what you read.  No.  You should still strive for originality.  But you need to know why the reader picked up your book, what he expects of the genre and how to satisfy the reader.  Or at least not to disappoint the reader.

Next up “Reader Wants Cookie” next week, same batplace, same battime.


24 thoughts on “Writing With Found Objects 1

  1. Hmmm. So you need to read enough to recognize when you get chocolate (sci-fi) in your peanut-butter (alt-hist or romance), and vice versa. Especially if you think you’re going to be selling a cookie-and-caramel bar. 🙂

    (No, I have not had my mid-day snack yet, why?)

  2. Must have taken a lot of work to get where you are from whence you came. I’m glad to be spared the struggle, with no inclination to write outside the genre I read.

    I was assuming a lot of the furniture and my “first reader”, who never read the genre, came back with a ton of questions. Now to figure out how much is his lack of furniture and how much is my lack of explication.

    I have a friend who wrote a fantasy, magic and all, who refuses to read in the genre because he wants his to be fresh. We had a brief discussion about the generally accepted rules of magic and variations but he didn’t want to hear it. I tried.

    1. Without reading the genre, and other stories, how do you sort the ‘twists I want to try’ into those that are obvious to everyone, hence getting stale, and those that stem from personal weirdness, which might be novel?

      1. Or tell whether your fresh is really fresh or just fresh to you.
        Dunno, he didn’t want to hear it.

      2. Extensive reading in TVTropes. Just make sure you have a safety harness before you start trawling, those links are a maze of twisty little passages. Or you could drop breadcrumbs, but the crows would be bound to eat them…

    2. Without reading in your genre, how do you KNOW your story is fresh and original? Most people I know who’ve attempted this wind up writing the same stale, trite story a hundred others have written before – usually because while they may not read within their genre, they DO watch movies within their genre. (Hell, how else do you know you like the genre, without having some experience with it?)

    3. I think that the trick would be, then, not to expect to *sell* in the genre. Which is where we end up with “literary” writers and their amazingly innovative speculative (or magic) story-world that has people who actually read in fantasy or science fiction rolling their eyes, but gets a great deal of critical acclaim.

      Related to that is some of the difficulty introducing new people to the genre. Some books are so heavily coded that someone not already fluent just bounces off.

  3. Re: using interjections and comments, and seeing such in fanfic.

    I can think of at least a couple examples of having seen this in fanfic off the top of my head.

      1. Perhaps you could do a guide to fanfic? Something along the lines of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland?

  4. I know, I know. Part of my problem is that a goodly chunk of my audience should come from people like me – and we don’t have the energy to read much! I’m hoping for some overlap with their families and friends, and there are other sources of readers in other kinds of groups who may like what I write.

    The idea was to nit the niche of people who deal with chronic illnesses, but NOT to make the illness the focus of the story (no inspiration porn – how wonderful that she can do that, poor dear, with all her problems). As the Left Behind books found their niche in fundamentalist Christians, and ‘people who hate the Catholic church’ in Dan Brown’s books, I hope to find the people who don’t read because all the stories are about ‘well’ people, and they get tired of that, and can’t identify.

    Just a bit more diversity, see?

    Also, okay, I’m writing the book I want to read, but isn’t that supposed to be what many of us do?

    I’m going to take a bit of time before finishing, and certainly before marketing, to think very carefully about the content of this post: what is the mental furniture of the people I hope will like this book? And I’m going to do some of it by ASKING. If y’all have any contributions to this idea, send them my way. And if you want more involvement (a lot to ask from people whose energy is severely limited), I’m still looking for a few good beta readers.

    Thanks for the ideas – that’s why I read blogs.

    1. People who actually _read_ Dan Brown, don’t hate the Catholic Church. They hate any authority, and anyone who can actually _think_. I read most of one, and a small part of a second, so I can truthfully say. He doesn’t even bother to file the serial numbers off of the characters, much less the plot. Talk about a lazy “writer.”

  5. Beta readers are invaluable for finding holes that need to be plugged, or when you’re doing the expected to the point of boring. And especially when you’ve strayed from what they actually expected, and again, when you stray too far, as opposed to introducing an delightful twist.

    And for reader reactions, you can’t beat posting chapters. Don’t think for a minute that Sarah doesn’t pay attention to the things we’re saying about _Elf Blood_. Mind you, I haven’t figured out yet which fellow is the good guy, which is the bad guy, or whether Sarah’s setting up a romantic rivalry or a three-some . . . But just by saying that, she’ll realize that at least one reader missed the (she thought) obvious cue that the satyr in the garden was the hero of the whole story.

    1. Elf Blood sounds like it could be the name of a carnographic tale. Never mind that I haven’t seen such from her before, or all the cues for noir mystery. Everybody with Elf blood except the lady will end up dead, and she’ll be promoted into Jones’ shoes. That’s the story I’m going to stick to about my predictions and guesses, until I’m proven wrong or get bored with saying so.

  6. “It’s not the tale, it’s the telling.”

    I seem to recall from a literature class ages ago that it used to be that people didn’t WANT to hear new tales, and that explained the structure of things like the Decameron and the Canterbury Tales, where new stories were embedded in a known framework.

  7. I think I have an example. I’ve read my share of Regency romances, starting with Georgette Heyer, and seen plenty of romantic comedies. This exposure no doubt embedded certain of the romance tropes in my head. I was reading The Sharing Knife series by Bujold, which has a lovely romantic aspect to it. When the relationship reached a certain point I became convinced that the two main characters were about to have a big stupid misunderstanding so that they could be separated for the rest of the book. I couldn’t believe she was going to do this to these fairly sensible, lovely people. It was very upsetting and I was so disappointed in her. Spoiler Alert.

    She didn’t! I was surprised and pleased, but that’s what they do in romances, here was a romance, surely it was coming. This was an adventure book, so it didn’t happen. Is that an example?

    1. I think that’s a perfect example (although I haven’t personally read that many romances…)

      Another example that comes to mind was in a class taught by Orson Scott Card. They were reading a story that took place, in part, at an airport, and the author mentioned something about serpentine luggage carriers (or something to that effect). The class started speculating: do they have genetically engineered lizards? Is this some sort of snakelike robot? The one non-science-fiction reader in the class pointed out that serpentine luggage carriers was the name for the golf-cart-like things that carry luggage to airplanes….

      I can’t remember if the story was science fiction or not (sometimes the real world leaks into such stories :.) but I think it’s a classic example of how science fiction readers look at the literary world in a different way than everyone else.

  8. I am now reading “Platform” and one of the early lessons of the book is that the writer who wants to stand above the rest should aim at “wow” and creating a wow product is not a matter of meeting expectations. Consider the following alternatives: 1) you fail to meet expectations, 2) you meet expectations, 3) you exceed expectations. Note that in cases #1 and #2 you do not get wow.

    The lesson you (Sarah) did not take for granted is learning what the reader expects. That’s something a lot of us kids born and raised in the USA take for granted. We need to become as aware of what the reader expects as you say.

    However, originality is seen in the exceeding of expectations. Yes, you expect the fella with a six-gun on his hip riding into town to meet a pretty girl, and an unpleasant guy. Yes, you expect him to go through adventures ending with a gunfight with the unpleasant guy, and rescue of the pretty girl. Louis L’Amour did that literally hundreds of times. Yet, he exceeded these expectations by salting his prose with “wow” historical details that arose from his exhaustive pre-google research into the old west.

    If someone says that meeting expectations gets in the way of originality, that someone is not trying to exceed those expectations.

    1. Oy. Steve, you don’t get what I’m saying. I’m not saying your book shouldn’t exceed expectations. I’m saying if you sell a book as “science fiction” and then the entire book is about growing tomatoes people will be upset. That’s the level I’m talking at. Also including reader cookies can include hattips to the greats of the genre, but that’s next week.
      Of course you should strive for originality. You just shouldn’t reinvent the wheel and avoid meeting reader’s PROPER expectations in the process

  9. “This used to be more explicit when story tellers stood up at banquets (or on the street corner) and told their tale. If you’ve ever seen a master storyteller work, you know they take their cues from audience questions, interjections and even body language.”

    If any of y’all are around Southern Appalachia in early October next year, you can check out the annual Jonesborough Storytelling Festival. There are quite a few fine voices there every year, and the storytelling workshops are usually pretty darned good- or were the years I went, oh, fifteen years or so ago, and secondhand from my grandfather while he was alive up till a couple years back. Those classes sell out quick, so sign up early if you plan on going.

    Body language, facial expression, stance and breathing are rather good informal cues. Most non-socially-handicapped folks learn these things when they are still infants and toddlers. Writers don’t get the luxury of instant feedback. It always amazes me how subtle the emotional cues are when it’s done right. That has to be a skill you can learn, because I can’t see anyone being born knowing how to do that!

    As a reader, I love it when books interrelate well. Whether it’s stealing from history, echoing notes from the symphonies of the greats, or giving a nod to other contemporary works that are well-written, it all makes me smile. It also adds depth cheaply- reading Honor Harrington with the knowledge that she’s a hat-tip to Horation Hornblower, who shares many historical similarities with Sir George Cockburn, Lord Cochrane, Sir James Gordon, etc. gives cues to the reader that the writer doesn’t need to make explicit.

    It can add meaning on multiple levels (why yes, I do enjoy punning, why do you ask?), and that can make the story better. If you’re telling a hard-boiled whodunit, calling back to Arthur Conan Doyle by having your MC utter “elementary, my dear X,” can give a bit of the ghost of that author’s work to the scene (this is rather blatant, but then, I’m no writer). There are those of us Odd people that actually *like* seeing these things in stuff we read…

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