Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Originality is overrated

Here’s a good post at Terrible Minds: Originality is Overrated.

And the worry comes that you’ve nothing to add to the canon of ideas, that whatever story you’re going to tell isn’t particularly original. Surely someone has told a story like this.

You’re right. They probably have.

In the history of storytelling, it’s very, very hard to have an entirely original take on something. When you’re pitching a book to an agent, or when your agent is pitching a book to editors, you might be asked what the “comp” titles are — meaning, what books are like it already. And in Hollywoodland, pitching a story is often you trying to feign originality by smashing up two pre-existing properties — “It’s like Terminator meets Gilmore Girls! It’s Pinnocchio, but set on the Titanic — in space!

That last bit made me laugh. Pinnocchio, but set on the Titanic — in space! Ha ha ha!

Full confession: I have never worried about this. Probably because I often get ideas by stealing them from someone else’s book, a phenomenon I am quite aware of and make no effort to resist. This is a great character! I think. But the author isn’t doing nearly enough with him. Hmmm… 

This is a great world … a great moment … a great scene, but OMG, why didn’t the author end it this great way instead of that terrible way?

I can’t believe the author did this to that character.

Why didn’t the author linger on this scene the way it so clearly deserved? It’s good but it could have been so much more.

Remember that scene in CJC’s Fortress in the Eye of Time, when Cefwin’s father dies, and right at the end rejects Cefwin one more time? Remember how crushing that was? I’m telling you, that is brutal. At least I thought so. I felt terrible for Cefwin, as I’m sure CJC intended.

That moment stuck in my head, and when I wrote The City in the Lake, I redeemed that exact moment by ending the similar scene between Neill and his father in a different way. Do you remember? You might. It is, judging by the comments from my beta readers and editor and the copy editor and various readers, a memorable couple of sentences.

To, uh, relax, after finishing my big WIP, I kind of started a different book.

This is not always how I respond to finishing a first draft. More often I turn off my laptop and don’t even look at it for a month. This time I’ve whipped through 54 pages of a new story in five days, which is incredibly fast. I figure I’ll do another little bit, maybe get it closer to 100 pages or so, and then probably send it to my agent to see what she thinks while I start editing the actual official WIP.  The new one may be too YA-ish. (YA is a tough sell right now, I hear.)

And the reason it may be too YA-ish is that I stole the character and the basic situation from a book I read earlier this year, and that character was a very YA sort of character.

I liked the this book quite a bit in some ways and not so much in others. Obviously I found the basic scenario quite compelling. That’s why I wanted to pick it up and play with it myself.

To play with the same kind of situation, I made my protagonist about five years older and changed his personality, and also changed the personality of the most important secondary character and began building a different cast around the two of them. I also altered the situation quite a lot and redesigned the world (drawing on but not copying my favorite worldbuilding detail from Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy: the sky that changes depending on what polity you’re in). I also changed both societies the main characters belong to to make one less grim and the other less nice.

I would say I’ve changed the plot entirely as well except heaven knows what the plot will end up being. I don’t have a plot yet. I have a faint intention of something I may possibly want to happen way later in the story, maybe.

The question of whether my story is original didn’t really occur to me at any point. It will be original enough when it’s done. It was inspired by this other book, but it is obviously not remotely a copy of that story. It was also inspired by other things, like the Eternal Sky trilogy, and probably other things I don’t remember specifically. 

In his post, Wendig goes on:

I consider there to be very few Actual Truths in writing, in storytelling, in making cool shit — but this, I think, comes as close to Actual Truth as I can muster.

Every story has one original thing about it.

And that original thing is

You.

Yep. Various stories may capture the same eternal truth, either explicitly — remember when LMB had Ekaterin say, “Adulthood is not a good conduct prize you get for being a good child” in A Civil Campaign?

I expect any number of other stories have made the same point, either just as explicitly or (more likely) implicitly. That is the sort of Actual Truth a story can capture. But everyone is going to capture it differently.

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7 Comments Originality is overrated

  1. SarahZ

    When you see examples of where different writers went with the same prompt, it really shows how much more the execution matters than the initial genesis. I liked that aspect of The Merry Sisters of Fate site, and the Machine of Death story collections (particularly the 2nd one).

  2. Mary Catelli

    Ripping off other people’s stories is the sort of thing that improves with practice.

    Thought it does work best when you thought the author botched an idea, or left something in the background that could make a story on its own (a better than the foreground story even).

  3. Rachel

    You are probably correct, although I think it depends more on how much of the idea you want to keep. If it’s just a germ and you build everything else around it from scratch, I doubt even the original author could tell.

    Something that illustrates the idea of an author backgrounding something that might be more interesting than the foreground: I thought, when I read Elizabeth Moon’s Oath of Fealty, that she picked the wrong character for the point-of-view role for Arcolin’s story line. I would have picked the injured captain Arcolin hired, who imo is a much more interesting character. So … that is the kind of germ I might use. Injured captain, newly hired, go!

  4. Mike S

    Shakespeare is exhibit A for how originality is a local and ephemeral concern rather than something inherent to good art. Shakespeare never made up a plot he could lift from Holinshed or his competitors or some other author in translation, and he didn’t bother with the modern fashion of filing off the serial numbers. And no one is bothered that he wasn’t the first person to tell Hamlet’s story, or that Romeo and Juliet is Pyramus and Thisbe fanfic by way of Italy.

    Modern custom and law means that the remixes have to be more deniable (at least in the commercial realm). But it’s pretty clear that total originality is at best orthogonal to greatness.

  5. Rachel

    Pyramus and Thisbe fanfic! Hah!

    Since we agree originality is trivial, I will certainly steal your line about originality being orthogonal to greatness.

  6. Mary Catelli

    “If it’s just a germ and you build everything else around it from scratch, I doubt even the original author could tell.”

    Sometimes I can’t tell and have to rack my memory for the original inspiration.

    Especially when I introduce three germs from different works.

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