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.
Haha, about 10% of the time I think I must be a good writer (not Tolkien, but still good) and the rest of the time, my writing’s horrible, awful, cliche, and cheesy (not to mention that everyone who reads it is likely to scream Star Wars or Lord of the Rings at me…)
So, for example, after writing a really good page and a half scene out of my steampunk novel night before last, I felt good whenever I thought about it, and then when I turned to my story plot, structure, etc for the steampunk novel and fantasy webcomic I’m working on, I felt pretty awful. 😛
I need that happy medium. 😉 Being depressed about my writing is so not fun. It’s not like I could even get out of writing – I’d be depressed not-writing. 😉
Is it okay to feel good about your writing? “I know this is a good scene”, etc? Is that different from feeling brilliant? ;D
Sonja Hutchinson says
I have days where everything I write is garbage, and days when it’s all pretty good. I don’t think I’ve ever hit “genius” level, though. Other writer friends of mine report the same symptoms, so I’m guessing it’s a sickness.
Great question and great answer, I really needed this. I kind of felt really discouraged this summer when I thought that my story was too similar to something I was watching and reading.
Will Jonassen says
If I could add to the discussion (many years late, but who’s counting, and what’s this time thing, anyway?), I would point out a fundamental aspect in the heart of all storytelling. The one ageless thing about it is that it presents a moral. Like the frets on a guitar, these offer only a certain number of possible chord combinations, but in any number of hands, these combinations may be rearranged to fit any new design. For uncounted eons, humanity memorized its most cherished stories and required each subsequent generation to learn them verbatim, repeating-repeating. Many of these were of the same need to establish basic human value that we still carry today. We simply don’t do it verbatim. The potential for lack in pure (that is, absolutely pure) originality then is overshadowed by the vital need and duty that writing represents, even regarding fiction. No. Especially regarding fiction.
For the writer, then, the task becomes finding which story is most pressing in the moment, and your originality may after stem from finding, in a social context, how best to place it into the mind of the masses where it has somehow become forgotten, whether that moral be empathy, love, stewardship of the Earth, the soul, life, on and on ad infinitum…
Meredith Efken says
I think someone once came up with the theory that there are really only 36 plots in the world. That might be unnecessarily narrow, but the point is that most of the time the most original stuff is not really that original. It’s the unique, personal twist each writer brings to their story. I like what Randy said–it’s the voice of the writer that is original.
Jenni, yes, it’s GOOD and HEALTHY to feel good about what you write. I understand the back-and-forth emotions. I almost always go through a phase of “my writing sucks!”–every single novel I’ve written so far, and I’ve got four published to date. But it’s good to re-read them and realize, wow, they’re actually not bad. It really is a matter of balance.
And Sonja–yeah, it’s a sickness. We all have it. Welcome to the crazy-house. 🙂
Melissa Prado says
Kailyn, that same thought used to cross my mind from time to time (“What can I even write about?? It’s all been done before!”) But guess what. People still love a good story, even if it’s similar to something that came before, because you will put your own unique spin on things. Spending a little time on the TV Tropes site (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Tropes) should cheer you up. Not only has every cliche in the book been done a thousand times before, but the antithesis to every cliche has ALSO been done a thousand times before! 🙂
An author’s unique perspective and combination of elements will make the work their own. One of my favorite movies is 10 Things I Hate About You… which is simply a modernized rom-com version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. And look at one recent blockbuster success, Avatar – which was nothing more than a sci-fi version of Disney’s Pocahontas. 😉
So push those doubts aside and write, write, write! 🙂
Adam Heine says
Don’t quit, Kailyn. Whatever you do.
In highschool, I wrote a fantastic novel about a peaceful race of short folks who got wrapped up in a quest to defeat the world’s most evil sorceror. To do so, they had to destroy his magic ring…
(I’m sure when I wrote it, it wasn’t a ring, but it might as well have been).
When I realized I had re-written the first three chapters of Fellowship of the Ring, I quit writing for years. I wish to God I hadn’t. Don’t you quit either. None of us are original, we all just like to think we are 🙂
Daaaamn I had that moment too. I was very excited to have wrote the ‘best’ book, in my history, so when my classmate told me, “Oh, that’s Twilight.” I was really disappointed because my plot wasn’t original like I thought it was.
Alastair Mayer says
Robert Heinlein is supposed to have answered a similar question by gesturing at several full bookcases and saying “there are thousands of stories out there, just file off the serial numbers.”
How do you file off the serial numbers? Swap in different characters, or different settings. Abstract out the “three disasters and an ending” from several different books, shuffle, and pick out the makings of a new story. Change points of view. Make the hero the villain, and vice versa. Then write.
And write some more. And keep reading — your subconscious needs raw material to process.
It’s been said many times that a beginning writer has to write about a million words before they’re consistently good enough to sell. Your mileage may vary, but it’s true that nobody gets good at anything without practicing.
One thing I’ve found is that the more you write — even if it’s crud and you know it — the harder your subconscious works to come up with stuff to keep the pipeline full, and that fresher stuff gets better and better.
Also remember that writers are the worst judges of their own work. What might seem lame to you — because it’s in your voice that you live with every day — may be completely fresh to somebody else.
On a similar note, I was recently chatting about writing and plot ideas with a friend and fellow writer at work and this other lady butted into the conversation and asked about my idea. I briefly summed up the plotline for the book I’ve been writing in my spare time and she immediately responded, “well, I’ve heard of that before!”, kind of, like, condescendingly. How rude. I responded, “well, unfortunately, Romeo and Juliet has already been done too, so I guess the rest of us should just throw in the towel.”. Its bad enough that we give ourselves such a hard time. Other people (unless we are soliciting advice from them) should mind their pees and q’s. Songs are comprised of rhythm, lyrics, melody, speed and a hundred different variables. Each individual variable has been done before, but once you combine everthing, you get an infinite number of ways to express the same idea. Fiction is exactly the same.
Judith Robl says
You are already on the right track by reading this blog. Now you have to give yourself permission to write the junk stuff. Get it down on paper. The real writing begins when you edit and rework. Read it and find what doesn’t work. Then figure out what to change to make it work.
If you don’t already have Randy’s Snowflake, get it. Read it, follow it, use it. It will help you make these tired old plots uniquely your own.
I wish you well in your writing.
Judith Robl says
PS, Randy, I just read the e-zine. Be advised that if the sequel to Retribution is not on your ebook list, I’ll be after you on my broom. -J-
Randy sez: Thanks, Judith! RETRIBUTION is what I consider my best published book. However, it’s not my best book. I think my best book is RABBI YESHUA, which crashed and burned during the pre-publication stage. Meredith Efken was my freelance editor on that one and she helped me make it better than I thought was possible. Tosca Lee, one of my writing buddies, tells me that it’ll be a crime if I don’t publish it. I respect Tosca’s opinion, and my plan is to publish it as an e-book original later this year or early next year.
As for that pesky RETRIBUTION sequel, I originally had a sequel contracted, but the series was prematurely terminated before I had a chance to write it. I plan to write several sequels, probably 3 or 4, to take the story all the way through Masada. That may happen as early as next year, depending on how well all these e-books do. (I’m about to release all my previously published novels as e-books, now that I’ve got the rights reverted back to me for all of them. I’m just working with my artist on the cover art.) So put away that pesky broom, Judith!
Psssst Randy, wasn’t George MacDonald writing fantasy before Tolkein. 🙂
Randy sez: Were those labeled as fantasy or as fairy tales or something else? For sure, MacDonald was a precursor to Tolkien. Like I said, nothing is really original.
The longer at this, the less drastic the mood swings. I’m not “the greatest writer since God” I’m pretty good and I’m not the worst writer since uh, well me 6 months ago. I make mistakes…that can actually be fixed if I knuckle down a bit and stop sulking.
Lisa Keck says
I think there’s a saying in theatre that there are no new stories, just new actors. I did a comparative title analysis for my memoir and it seemed like a unique take on a universal subject. My novel is a fresh idea to me so therefore it’s fresh. Even if you feel it’s been done before your style of writing may appeal to a different audience. Good luck.
Musicians have a similar creative problem. The composer / conductor Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story, etc.) once said (in effect) that when he sat down to compose his own works he had to consciously put out of his head all the previous music (Beethoven, Mozart, and so on) he knew. And yet he still managed to pen a few items….
I have only ever been able to buy Retribution (um, for $1 from CBD’s clearance section) and really want the rest since I jumped in at the end of the series. 😀
Continuing the series sounds like a great idea; I love that period of history!! Will the modern characters ever return to our time?
George MacDonald is generally considered in fantasy circles to be the step between fairy tale and fantasy.
There’s a great amount of advice here; I have been encouraged greatly. 🙂
Lois Hudson says
As for originality, I’ve discovered that often, when I’m writing scenes I’ve planned well in advance, some totally new twist will occur to me that will make it better. So, I guess my advice iw to write, write, write.
Asking the “What if…” question also helps.
I’m reading RETRIBUTION also. Randy is using one of my favorite names for God: HaShem.
I loved the premise of TRANSGRESSION (that got the couple into Jerusalem in the first place) – assassinating the apostle Paul, so that Christianity would die. AS IF!
Thanks for your encouragement and “tutoring” with this blog, Randy.
I went through a bit of the same a couple years ago, when I first started getting really interested in writing. Every storyline I came up with and pitched to a friend, my friend came back with other books, movies, and even videogames that followed the same or similar plot. It’s a little disheartening, but in the end, it’s still your plot. I realized that since I hadn’t seen these movies, played these games, or read those books, my plot was still my own, which meant it was original in its own sense.
I think I’ve since dropped all of those plots, but I don’t think the ones I’m working on now are any different in sense of originality.
As others have said, don’t stop writing. Keep your chin up and write!
Cori Fedyna says
Ugh! Thanks for posting this. I needed the wake up call that I am not alone in my writing struggles.
On a different note, I am reading your Writing Fiction for Dummies. I have read many HOW TO BOOKS, not only on the subject of writing, but also in many other areas. So far, I am loving the way you organized the material and integrated all the components. It’s like learning to play piano…getting that right hand to play in sync with the left. Hopefully, I will move beyond paying so much attention to the technical aspects, so that my writing starts to breathe on its own.
Gillian Arsenault says
Hi, Kailyn, a few ideas of the top of my head –
Start by making a list of the most interesting people you know (know personally, I mean) and what about them makes them interesting. Every time you get a chance, watch the people around you. From how they look, react, hold their bodies, from the expressions on their faces, and what they say, try and figure out what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, what might be their backgrounds and what could be the current challenges, joys, fears, and hopes in their lives. This will help you build up a mental database you can draw on when one of your characters is facing a situation – you’ll have many real life people showing you many ways that an individual can react, and – if your character is “real” to you, then you’ll know exactly how your character is going to react. In fact, I’ll bet if you try to make your character react in a way that doesn’t fit, your character will flat-out refuse. If so, then you’ll have to study your character just as you’ve been studying all the real live people around you, to figure out what your character is thinking and feeling.
To find the world for your story: pick either your own real world, or a world you’d like to explore (some other part of Earth either now or in another time; an alternate earth; other planets congenital to our type of life or to life based on alternate chemistry such as silicone, a virtual world, the heart of a sun, a universe where magic is possible and humans use it with the same skill and thought that real-world humans use internal combustion engines, etc., etc.) Move to your world in your mind, set up your alternate self: who you are, where you live, how you earn your living and/or how you are being trained. What is it like to live in that world? Spend time in your world until you can see it, smell it, taste it, navigate in it; go there until the other beings who populate that world start to take shape and to interact with you. (You want your world to be believable for your readers. If it’s a world that actually exists or did exist, then read all you can about it. If it’s a world that doesn’t actually exist – at least, not that we know of – then learn all you can about the rules that would govern such a world, such as physics and chemistry for extraterrestial environments, or the mechanisms and laws by which magic would work for a magical environment.)
To find a main character: go to your story world and sit quietly. Watch the other people (life-forms, cognitive nexi, or whatever lives there) go about their business. Which of them gradually becomes more real to you? Get to know that person. You’ve made the connection when the character’s point of view starts intruding in your real-world life, when vignettes from the character’s life start running like little videos in your head when you’re busy trying to do something else.
You should now be in a good position to dump a problem in front of your character and see what happens . . . .
Hey, anybody here study Shakespeare? All of his plots were older stories that he revamped, put his own spin (and his own words) on the tale, and called it new. Yes, Romeo and Juliet has been done before, as “Mariotto and Gianozza” and “Pyramus and Thisbe” both before Shakespeare’s time. That didn’t stop him from rewriting it how he wanted to. After all, “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.” Right?
I have to agree that you can’t shut yourself down just because there are no original ideas. What makes something new, fresh and “original” is what the author brings to it in the way of his telling.
Developing characters into real people with real struggles … that is, not having them become two dimensional … helps any story. Very few people in real life are only pure good or pure bad. Having a hero that never slips up, or an antagonist that only has one side diminishes the tale.
How that all relates is that … “original” is really in the telling of the story … the voicing of the author and the weaving of the tale.
For me, I find, as far as ideas go, that if I take a normal situation, turn it upside down or inside out and say WHAT IF? I usually end up with a pretty good starting place for a story. Do they all work out? Of course not. But most do, and those that don’t and usually be redigested into something else later on.
Audrey Keown says
Hey, I’m new on here. (Don’t tell anyone, but this is actually my very first post).
I just want to thank you all for the inspiration and advice, and especially to Randy: I thank God for you. Before reading your blog, web pages and e-zine, I had never truly felt inspired in any career field (and I’ve worked in quite a few). It’s rare to find anyone who shares so much of himself without charging you for it. Randy, you’re the peanut butter on my apple. Now, here’s hoping I have a lick of talent!
kinjal kishor says
peaceful race of short folks who got wrapped up in a quest to -defend- the world’s most evil sorceror. To do so, they had to -deploy- his magic ring.
Now this is a great twist on the very unoriginal story. Try this anyone and see how personal take can make a great story.
Just changing the two words has raised plethora of questions an story ideas.
I just read the word defend instead of defeat by mistake and got this idea 🙂
But this is a good example of adding personal twist.
Dorothea Brande, in her classic volume Becoming a Writer, stressed that anything you write will inevitably be branded with your inalienable uniqueness, and it is this you can rely on when questioning the originality of your “story ideas.”
It seems Ms. Brande, who was a writing teacher in the 1920’s, would illustrate her point by assigning her class the task of writing a story based on a single, sparse, and often deliberately trite, story outline. Always, the stories that were developed from the outline were so disparate that the students – who’d begun by being certain that there was only one way to tell that particular story – came away assured that there were, in fact, a breathtakingly broad number of ways to tell the story.
Brande says, “…it is true that not even twins will see the same story idea from the same angle. There will always be differences of emphasis, a choice of different factors to bring about the dilemma and different actions to solve it.”
Horatio Belvedere III says
You can tell that this was written nearly a decade ago when the author asks who could relate to a new gender, although it was a dated attitude even back then in fiction writing, considering transhumanism in the cyberpunk genre, etc.