What do you write about when everything you want to write has been done before by a thousand other authors?
Kailyn posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I’m a teenager, and I’ve been writing for years. I love writing fantasy stories, and recently I started seriously thinking about trying to get published. The problem is, good plot ideas are few and far between.
I really want to write SOMETHING, but every idea for a plot that goes through my head has already been written and rewritten in a thousand different ways, in hundreds of different settings, with countless different characters. And I don’t want to copy, because it’s really obvious when an author imitates another one, and it can be really lame.
I can write and have written with no plot idea in mind, and made it turn out okay, but it’s really miserable. I have nothing to use. What can I do? I HAVE to write something, or I’ll go crazy. But I need an inspiration, something that will make me actually care about my work. What can I do?
Randy sez: If fiction writing were easy, anyone could do it.
There are two extremes to avoid in writing a novel.
One extreme is to say, “I’ll just write about any old thing that comes to mind and not worry about whether it’s fresh and original.” The result is writing that’s not fresh and original.
The other extreme is to say, “Well, I’d really like to write about this idea, but it’s not completely original and the characters are pretty much like every other character that ever walked the pages of a novel, so I guess I better nuke that idea before I even start.” The result is brain-lock, which is what you’re experiencing, Kailyn.
Because you’re at one end of the spectrum, I’m going to ignore all the usual hazards that lurk at the other end. So what I say today won’t be completely true, but it should hopefully pull you back into the middle of the road so you can get yourself on track.
Listen, there is absolutely no way to have completely original characters that your reader can identify with. Go ahead, anyone. Try to come up with something totally new. Most characters are human, so if your character is too, then she’s already been done — a thousand times.
Want to make her a hobbit instead? (We’ll assume this is 1920, and hobbits have never been done before.) Not good enough. Those annoying hobbits still have two eyes, a nose, a mouth, two arms, two legs, etc. Hobbits are hardly new — practically every bit of them has been done before.
How might we make your character original? Make her a vampire? Been done. Make her a werewolf? Done. Make her a golem? Ditto. Make her a two-headed, seven-armed, grtwflbz from the planet Zblfwtrg? She’s still a female, and how many times has that been done? Make her some totally new gender? Who could relate to that?
Likewise, there aren’t any original plots worth writing. You’ve got either man against environment, man against man, or man against self. All of those, tragically, have been done to death. To death.
New genres get invented, oh maybe once per fifty years. Fantasy is probably the most recent genre, invented by Tolkien, and that was really based on the far more ancient fairy tale, so maybe it doesn’t count. New subcategories come along every five to ten years. Chick-lit and technothrillers are fairly recent subcategories. But those are both really variations on much older themes.
There is nothing new under the sun, as a wise man said roughly three thousand years ago, so even that observation isn’t new.
But wait. There is one thing that’s new. One thing that didn’t exist AT ALL as recently as twenty years ago. Can you guess what it is?
It’s you, Kailyn. You’re a teen, so you weren’t around twenty years ago. You’re new. Not completely new, of course, but you’re still unique.
When you write fiction, you’re going to mix something old and something new. The “something old” will come from character archetypes and plot ideas that amused your ancestors sitting around the fire five thousand years ago. The “something new” will come from inside you.
How do you get that “something new” on the page?
Only one way, and you know it as well as I do:
Write. Start writing and keep writing. It’ll start out lame and boring and it’ll be about as original as the air molecules you’re breathing. No matter. Keep writing.
If you’ve got any talent or creative spark in that skull of yours (and I don’t know for sure if you do), it’ll eventually come out. After a few hundred or a few thousand hours of that lame and boring writing that every writer on the planet has to do to get there.
Don’t let yourself get brainlocked by the need for absolute originality. Won’t happen. Just go write and keep writing and keep doing it until you wear out or get bored or wake up someday to find out that you’re brilliant.
Any of those is possible. Do what it takes to make that brilliant thing a reality.
End of pep talk. I know it won’t apply to all my Loyal Blog Readers. It will, in fact, be deadly poison for some of my Loyal Blog Readers. Some of you are convinced that you are God’s gift to Hemingway after only five minutes of writing. I would give you the spanking you need right now, but it’s probably easier to just lock you in a room and make you write Kailyn’s question five hundred times until you shrink your head back down to no more than the size of the average weather balloon.
Writers, keep to the middle of the road. Don’t get your brain fixated on the idea that you’re hopeless or brilliant. Leave that kind of judgment to editors and agents and other people who are more objective than you. (Mortal and inferior though they be.)
OK, Loyal Blog Readers, any thoughts on this? Have any of you ever felt as Kailyn does? Or felt like you were so savagely brilliant that the world just might not be able to contain the heat of your genius? Leave a comment and tell us all about it. For the record, when I started writing, I was pretty sure that fame and fortune would be mine within weeks. That was about 22 years ago. Still waiting, but it’s only a matter of hours now, I’d guess.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Blog of the Day: If you’re a fan of Sherlock, you might want to check out the blog of Loyal Blog Reader Andy Van Loenen. I’ve always like Sherlock, and Andy’s got some interesting goodies that you might enjoy.
Also, check out Meredith’s two part response to the burning question of how much money fiction writers can expect to make. This is hard reality, folks. Don’t be discouraged by it, but don’t ignore it either. The better you understand the battefield, the better equipped you’ll be to win.