The Problem Of Originality
*Sorry about being so late. I was up late yesterday working, and this morning had to get the older kid out of the door for finals at … an unholy hour (he should be back soon) so everything slipped.*
The Problem of Originality
What do I mean the problem? Why is it a problem? Have I gone around the bend? Isn’t the goal to be original?
No. The goal is to be somewhat original – original enough that people have never read anything QUITE like that. But not so original that people have to work really hard, no matter how accessible you make it.
Look, remember being in elementary school? I do. There were twelve of us, and an aged teacher. Sometimes the aged teacher got tired and just had us do something “creative.” For instance, she would tell us to write a story.
I’m sure you guys were in similar situations, or even worse, someone went to the blackboard and you were supposed to write a round robin short story. Remember that?
Let’s go with my class size for easy division. About four of those kids would dictate exactly whatever story we read last. They wouldn’t even change the names of the characters. They might in a fit of attempted creativity say it was Wednesday instead of Saturday. The rest of us would roll our eyes.
The next four would continue with the story we read last and maybe change it so the boy had a cat instead of a dog and went to the bakery instead of the candy store. I was unimpressed but the rest of the class was interested.
The next two would mash in bits of a story we’d read last week. The class would get excited and talk about how good it was.
Then you hit my friend and I (we were deskmates and sat in the last row the better to trade snark). She would reveal the whole thing was taking place in Sherwood Forest. I was somewhat impressed, but really, thought she had missed a great opportunity. I revealed that the little boy was really an alien masquerading as a little boy and that his species was hear to steal all our oak trees. My friend would get excited and add in Robin Hood’s men fighting the alien.
At which point we realized the rest of the class wasn’t along for the ride, and our contributions were struck from the story.
The sad thing is that real life is still like that. No, I am serious. Being original or very strange (which in my case comes to the same) is a handicap when it comes to finding an audience.
No? Browse the bestseller lists sometime. Most of them are AT BEST a mashup of two previous bestsellers. Some of the more creative steal bestsellers from another genre. No, seriously. The DaVinci code stole its central idea/plot from a book that was already a best seller in the new age community and had been for years. (Funny story, the authors of the book started a lawsuit for plagiarism. Then it was born upon them that the only way to win the lawsuit was to claim their book was fiction. Since they’d made a mint – and a name – out of claiming it was all true, away the suit went.) We all know fifty shades was Twilight fanfic. Twilight itself had the “fingerprint” of nineteen seventies young romances. Then there is hunger games, which is two hoary sf ideas wrapped around a game show. Shall I go on?
But Sarah, you’ll say, most of the people who loved the DaVinci code hadn’t read the original new age book.
No, of course not, but the new age book itself is based on a soup of free floating conspiracy theories (Just saying the word “Templars” in conjunction with “conspiracy” should get anyone sent for psychiatric evaluation. If you add in “Opus Dei” then you should be done. You should get a straight jacket by return mail. Not to say – I mean if I knew Opus Dei had assassins, I’d have joined decades ago.)
Now, I’ll grant you the market is somewhat distorted by the fact that for years most of it has been controlled by editors who were the sort of kid who dictated the last story read (in between eating glue) and so what got pushed into megabestseller status by dint of promotion was the blah.
To an extent indie is breaking that, but only to an extent. Sure, if you have a truly oddball book – Witchfinder, say – you can now get it before the public and it will sell. But how well it will sell remains a question. (It’s doing okay.) Though even there, note I hooked it into the regency romance archetypes.
Which brings us to romance, THE best selling genre ever. For a long time and to an extent still (though these days Western, which is just like western books but with sex, is a close second) if you wanted to become a bestseller in Romance, you took one of Heyer’s plots, mashed it with another and off you went. Don’t believe me? Pick any of them. Heck, I’ve even ENJOYED a few of them.
Science fiction – Heinlein wasn’t so much original. He took the plots other people were doing, did the same sort of thing and added depth and characters.
Patricia Wentworth in mystery made a good living out of stealing Christie’s plots, adding a woman in peril and throwing the whole thing down the road, running. We who like her see very well what she’s doing, but it’s low effort, and so amusing to read.
And that’s part of it. If a book is totally original, you sort of step back and go “Wha?” and have to make a greater effort to read it, because you need to remember all the little things that are different/strange so you can make sense of the plot.
In reality no one but my older son tries to build a completely new world. We all rely on each other’s framework or on reality, even in science fiction. To some extent, we all go with “everybody knows this.” And we should, for the side lines of the plot.
When you don’t rely on anyone you end up with my son’s “The Last Voice” in which telepathic dinosaurs build biological spaceships … and the thing almost doesn’t sell. Particularly since the entire dilemma is about the made up religion of the sentient dinosaurs.
Even for a short story, that’s too much work.
And that’s what you have to remember. For a mega bestseller, you need to interest practically every one in that class, even the people who think “original” means changing the day of the week something happens.
If you do much more than change the name of the characters, or maybe mash up another book, you’re going to lose the glue-devourers. BUT if you suddenly add in time travel or aliens, or… you’re going to lose the masher-uppers too.
Now, you have a little more leeway in science fiction because, yes, siree bob, we do venture into ODD territory. (Which is also why our audience is one of the smaller ones.) BUT even there, it’s good to have some sort of framework people recognize.
My older kid thinks it’s terrible I stole some props from Heinlein (flying cars – Hey, I LIKE flying cars. Everyone in golden age had them. I wanted them) and freshers (mine are a little different) and automated cookers and burners for instance. I had to tell him I stole them from the golden age not (just) Heinlein and it’s because it allows me to stretch the originality (bio solar collectors. Anti-grav flying “wand-bikes” ) without making people work too hard.
The truth about originality is that the more original the idea, the more you need to put it in a setting that goes down more easily and without the readers feeling like they must take notes. OTOH if your idea is “standard” you can afford to throw in more tweaks, bells and whistles around it, to make it memorable.
This is a lot like humor, btw. If you’re writing humor and make EVERYTHING absurd, from the situation to the plot to the characters, it’s not going to hit anyone as THAT funny. OTOH if you take a normal situation and throw a skewed plot and characters, or vice versa, into it, then it becomes hilarious. Because we’re not in totally new territory. We’re in “this is what I expected and, wow, that’s different.”
And this, ladies, gentlemen, dragons and sentient dinosaurs, is why you should read in the field. If you’re breaking wholly new ground you should know it and put it in a way that it’s not going to make the reader work too hard.