Monday, November 07, 2011

How to Be an Original Writer

From the Memoirs of Edward R. Hound, Gloria Turkey: Biggest Bird on Broadway

Years ago on the SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) boards, the topic of edginess came up. Several writers were upset, because a few editors and agents at a SCBWI conference said they were interested in edgy books. 

“But how can I write edgy?” the writers cried. “I write picture books! I live in the Midwest. I can’t write young-adult novels about sex, violence and drugs. What’s wrong with sweet, cute picture books? Why can’t they like quiet books too?”  

My take on this was that their definition of edgy was wrong. In my opinion, edgy means different. Not in the center, not the mainstream, but on the cutting edge, something people haven’t seen before. And any writer can have that, as long as she is being true to who she is. Each of us has a unique perspective on the world. We’re each capable of telling unique stories. We’re each capable of looking at the world from our own unique edge of it. I think this was what those editors and agents meant too, which is why they’ve stopped asking for edgy and are now asking for something that will surprise them, something with a great and original voice. It’s the same thing, but it helps out those writers who thought they couldn’t write edgy unless they wrote issue books.

The problem with books that aren’t edgy by this definition is that they’ve already been written. If someone is looking for Winnie the Pooh, they’re going to buy Winnie the Pooh. They’re not going to buy a new book that’s like Winnie the Pooh. And that’s why it’s important for each writer to try to find his or her voice and write books that only he or she can write. Agents and editors want to be surprised, so surprise them. Show them something they’ve never seen before, something only you could have written. Show them your own unique take on the world in your own unique voice. 

If you think your life doesn’t have an edge and that you’re just like everyone else, you probably haven’t looked hard enough. Take another, deeper look. What do you see? 

What are you passionate about? 

What scares you?

What moves you? 

What are you insatiably curious about?

What’s the funniest thing you ever saw or heard about?

Your life is filled with stories that only you can tell. 

“Okay,” I hear you saying. “But I’m not writing books based on my real life. What if I write picture books? Or what if I write fantasy? How do I use my unique edge of the world to write picture books or fantasy?”

Everyone says that an aspiring writer has to do three things: read, read, and read some more.
An illustration from Dan Quixote: Boy of Nuevo Jersey by Shevi Arnold

Read classics in your genre of choice. Read current popular books in your genre to get a feel for what what’s already out there and what readers want. And read books on writing, editing, and publishing. 

That’s great advice, but it does, in my opinion, require a couple of clarifications. 

First, when it comes to reading fiction, a writer should learn to read like a writer, not only like a reader.
As a reader, you’re receptive to whatever the writer throws at you. There may be things that bug you, but you don’t dwell on them. You either make the choice to read it or you don’t, but you don’t try to get behind why the things that bug you bug you. There may also be things that excite or move you, or other things that make you laugh. You don’t try to get behind how these things work; you just enjoy that they do. 

As a writer, though, you need to figure out why books, or characters, or chapter breaks during tense scenes, or a specific wording affects you the way it does. You need to figure out how to avoid the things that bug you, and you need to figure out how to make the things that work for you a part of your own writing so that you can excite and move and make readers laugh too.

And that leads me to the second clarification, which is that you shouldn’t let what you read affect you so much that it drowns your own voice. If you are too influenced by another writer’s work, you will never be more than that writer’s shadow. Your aim should never be to become the next J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Stephanie Meyer, Terry Pratchett or even Amanda Hocking. They never aimed to be the next anybody else, and neither should you. Your aim should always be to become the writer that only you can become. 

Just find your unique edge in whatever genre or type of book you’d like to write.

For example, let’s say you like fantasy, and you have a passion for roses. (I’m just pulling this out of my hat. It could be anything.) Are there any fantasy stories with roses? I can think of two. There’s the rose in Beauty and the Beast, the one Beauty’s father takes from the Beast’s garden in the traditional tale. How could you shake that up? What if you told the story of Beauty and the Beast from the rose’s point of view? Or what if the rose is the only thing the Beast ever loved, and what if he willingly gives it to the Beauty near the end of the story? 

And then there are the Queen of Hearts’ roses in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. What if you wrote a story about the Queen of Hearts explaining why she needed the roses to be red? What if there’s a curse that says the roses will be red, and if they’re not, they’ll be painted with blood? Or what if the white roses remind her of Snow White, a child she vaguely remembers was hers before she died?

Or maybe you could write a story based on some facts about roses? Roses have thorns. Thorns are sharp. Sharp things can be weapons. Maybe in your story the rose will be used as a weapon by warring mice who don’t notice the rose’s beauty until a young squirrel captures it in a painting. 

Or maybe you could write a creation myth that explains why roses have thorns. 

You don’t have to stick to facts and old fantasy stories. You can be inspired by poems, songs, art, experiences, and more.  Look at both what the rose is and isn’t. Look at what’s missing in your genre of choice. If you like roses, you must like gardening. You know, I’ve never read a story about a magical gardener, have you? Maybe you could write it? Of you if you want to go science fiction, what if you wrote a story about a gardener who insists on growing roses on Mars, even though they can’t be eaten and have no use? Imagine that gardener explaining why he should be allowed to grow roses on Mars. What if he’s forbidden, but he grows them anyway in secret? Who is he doing this for? What will the gift of a single rose mean? It could be fascinating. 

Reading a lot gives you better idea of what’s already been done, but more importantly, it gives you an idea of what hasn’t been done. And if what hasn’t been done coincides with something that excites, scares, moves, intrigues, or just amuses you, you’ve found the seed of a story that will probably excite, scare, move, intrigue, or amuse others: a story only you can write. 

You’ve found out how—instead of writing like an original—you can be an original.  


Joanna said...

Thank you. As a new writer and doing PiBoIdMo this month, I have had a few ideas, only to research and find they've been done, BUT, not my way ;)

Anthony J. Langford said...

I always try to write original work. You'll never find me writing about vampires.
For example, I worte a children's fantasy, with, wait for it.. no dragons! Or witches. Or warlocks. Or goblins.
It's all possible. It just takes some imagination. Amazingly, many writers seem to lack this.

I agree, reading helps.

Great post.