Why Writers Should Never Worry About Originality

The Lazy Author’s 6-Question Guide to Writing an Original Book

Why Writers Should Never Worry About Originality

Never once have I worried that I might not be writing an original book.

Even just saying that kinda sounds like a dirty secret—like maybe the only kind of author who could say such a thing is either one who lacks anxiety enough to care if her stories are original and/or one who lacks integrity enough to check if her stories are original.

Granted, it is kind of a secret. But not a dirty one. Rather, it’s a completely liberating secret that lets me focus on doing my own thing without ever having to wonder if a story will have this so-called magic ingredient of “originality”—which we’re told so often is crucial for making agents swoon and readers buy.

So what is the secret?

Easy. Instead of focusing on what everyone else is doing, so I can avoid doing the same thing (leaving a very narrow window for creativity, indeed), I simply focus on doing my own thing.

Here’s how it works.

Forget Writing an Original Book: Seek Individuality

Honestly, the whole idea of writing an original book is soooo overrated. (Blasphemy, I know.) It isn’t that originality isn’t important or that it doesn’t often have that coveted effect of hypnotism on agents, editors, and readers. Rather, it’s that writing an original book is a product, not a process.

If you pursue originality, you may finally snag it in your butterfly net. But that may end up being the only thing in your net. Originality isn’t, in fact, so very hypnotizing by itself. Agent Russell Galen pointed out in the September 2016 Writer’s Digest article “Science Fiction and Fantasy Today”:

I’m interested in individuality, not originality for its own sake. If you have a vampire who drinks only the blood of octopuses, so what? I see a lot of stunt originality.

In short, individuality is the process that leads to originality. Stop worrying about writing an original book and start focusing on being “all of you” in everything you write. How do you that? Here are six important questions to get you started.

You Just Gestured to All of Me How to Train Your Dragon

1. Do You Like This Idea?

This is where writing an original book begins. It’s also where that sound advice about “following your heart, not the market” gets its foundation. If you don’t genuinely like a story idea, then you’ve got no more business writing it than you would marrying someone you didn’t like.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but sometimes when authors end up overthinking the inspiration process, they actually can end up trying to write stories they’re not in love with. How does this happen?

Maybe you’re just desperate to break into bestseller status—so you figure you better jump on the latest trend, even though you actually have no interest in dystopia or angels or zombies or whatever.

Or maybe you’ve come up with a genuinely good idea. Logically, you know it might be a winner. But your heart just isn’t in it. This has happened to me a couple times with ideas that range from straight-up romance to police thrillers—neither of which I have the slightest interest in writing. So the great ideas, sadly, must be relegated to the Mental Cabinet of Pretty But Neglected Curiosities.

For Example:

I always know when I’ve found an idea I genuinely like. The images that suddenly flood my mind are ones that excite me. They’re ones I wish I could read about or watch on the big screen right now. This is a story I would pay to experience if another author were executing it. Lucky for me, I get to be that author!

Rule 1 Write Only Stories You Want to Read

2. Are You Passionate About This Idea?

“Of course, I’m passionate about it! I just told you I liked this idea, didn’t I?”

Yeppers, but even just liking an idea isn’t enough to imbue it with the life force that may eventually spawn true originality. You’re gonna marry this sucker, remember? That means you’ve got to be able to give it everything you’ve got.

The Lie That Tells a Truth John DufresneWhen you’re asking yourself if you’re “passionate” about a story idea, what you really want to be asking yourself is if this idea is one capable of becoming a vessel for the fundamental passions that already drive your life. As John Dufresne wrote in The Lie That Tells a Truth:

You don’t waste your time or the reader’s by writing about what is not of crucial importance in your life.

These passions might be:

  • Causes you’re invested in
  • Credos you live by
  • Topics, people, and places that attract you
  • Theories that fascinate you

This is where we find the beating heart of the oft-maligned writing advice “write what you know.” This doesn’t mean you have to write about a whale biologist just because that’s what you do in real life or—more likely—write about a writer who stares at the blank screen, does laundry, goes shopping, and reads books. What it does mean is that stories should always reflect what you care about.

Why write about war in Afghanistan when your heart is really in education for the underprivileged? Why write about Paris when your heart is really in Skagway? Why write about forensic science when your heart is really into stormchasing?

Don’t try to cram popular, accepted, or intellectual ideas into your story just because they’re popular, accepted, or intellectual. Write what interests you. Your enthusiasm will be contagious.

For Example:

One of my chief rules of thumb in fleshing out my own ideas is “if bores me, fuhgeddaboutit.” Try it. It’s completely liberating! This rule makes it almost effortless to follow my passions in my writing. They pop up without much conscious thought at all. I write stories of redemption because I’m passionate about them. I write about ideas of honor and sacrifice because they fascinate me. I write about knights and pilots and history and epic fantasy because I love that stuff.

Rule 2 The Moment your writing starts to feel like school stop

3. Do You Understand This Idea?

The first two questions on our list are really just about opening yourself to your subconscious and taking advantage of the great stuff you find already living there. But now, it’s time to get a little more conscious.

It’s not enough to have a good idea or even an honest idea. You also need to (at some point in the process) understand that idea. W.H. Auden said:

Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.

The vast majority of truly great premises are wasted because their authors failed to understand their ideas well enough to take full advantage of them.

I’ve done whole posts on this important topic, but suffice it that once an idea has begun to gel for you, you must take it out, hold it up to the light, and turn it around to see it from every angle. Ask yourself:

Don’t just dance on the surface of a great idea. Follow it down the rabbit hole as far as you can possibly go.

For Example:

One of my favorite parts of the outlining process is sitting down at the very beginning to brainstorm “what if?” questions. I consciously explore every answer I can dig up in response to the questions “what will readers expect from this story?” and “what won’t they expect?”

Rule 3 Good Ideas Dont Make Good Stories Its the Other Way Around

4. Are You Doing This Idea Justice?

Sometimes it can be ridiculously tempting to add something to a story just because it seems like every story of this type has that something: heroes with amazing skills / funny little sidekicks / love-story subplots / you name it.

But to truly do justice to the individuality of your ideas, you must be able to distance yourself from the often reflexive urge to include genre tropes just because. Most of us do this at least once or twice per story without even really thinking about it.

Or maybe you do think about it: “Hmm, I better add this, or readers will be disappointed!”

Perhaps surprisingly, that’s not a good reason to include something in a story. Readers care far less about genre tropes than they do a cohesive story that follows its own rules and delivers its own satisfying surprises.

Hand-in-hand with the above exercise of mining your idea for its every unique and interesting aspect, you also need to be questioning every element you find yourself adding. Are you adding it just because it seems appropriate? Or are you adding because it’s true to the needs of this story?

For Example:

This is a trap I have to constantly guard against. Even when I attempt to be consciously aware of all my story choices, often I end up throwing in something here or there that really isn’t an honest reflection of the characters or story world I’ve created. I rely on my beta readers to point out where I’ve tossed in a trope or cliché for no good reason. Inevitably, I stand back and realize I was subconsciously including this element just to please a shallow genre convention.

Rule 4 Follow the rules of your own story not other people's story

5. Why Is This Idea Something Only You Can Write?

This is a question authors are frequently encouraged to ask themselves, and, yeah, I know it’s confusing as all get-out. “An idea only you can write”–what’s that supposed to mean anyway? Are you the only person who can write about dragons? Well, err, no. Are you the only person who can write a love story between a spoiled society queen and a grumpy detective? Uhhhhh, nooo. Are you the only person who can write about bewildered teens searching for the big answers? Sigh.

Those stories have already been written a gabillion times. Guess that means we’re all doomed to either pack it up and call it a day or just resign ourselves to writing the same old hackneyed stories. Or… not.

What “write something only you can write” really means is write your story as only you can write it. Put your own spin on it, your own style.

Try this. Think of five of your favorite authors. Then imagine how your story would be if they wrote it. No doubt all of their iterations would be awesome (you have excellent taste in authors, after all). But they would all be different. Yours will be different too. Don’t try to write your story as another author might write it. Write it to the fullness of your own unique capabilities and style.

For Example:

Patrick O’Brian, author of the highly stylistic Aubrey/Maturin series, is probably my all-time favorite author. I adore Dickens’s lush and cutting verbosity. I am fascinated by Patrick Rothfuss’s rambling exploration of his mysterious protagonist’s life. The painful, poetic, dreamy prose of Milena McGraw’s After Dunkirk makes me a little more than jealous every time I read it. But I am not these authors. Were I to try to be, my stories would inevitably suffer. Instead, I focus my energy on pouring my best sensibility and ability into each word I choose.

Rule 5 Learn from your favorite authors don't become them

6. How Is This Idea an Introduction to You the Author?

One of the scariest thing about good writing is its total vulnerability. There is no place to hide on the page. Your deepest, rawest, most subconscious self is out there for the whole world to see. In fact, they may even end up seeing you more clearly than you see yourself.

And that’s exactly what you want. If you’re being dishonest or trying to hide yourself on the page, readers will always sense your disingenuousness and they will fail to engage. Readers come into a story wanting to know and understand your characters down their very souls. What that really means is that they’ve come to know you. Agent Russell Galen went on to insist one of the things he looks for first in a story is the sense that he is getting to know the author herself through her writing:

If so I will want to represent it, even if it’s about taking a ring to be destroyed or some cliché like that. Tropes go in and out of fashion. Just write the stories you want to write. If you are writing about authentic characters, we (agents, then editors, then readers) will care.

For Example:

Dreamlander NIEA Finalist

Possibly my all-time favorite comment I’ve ever received about my writing was from a review of my portal fantasy Dreamlander on Amazon. The reviewer made an observation that initially blew me away. She said:

The consistent theme in each of her books is finding the best in human relationships and coming to an understanding about who you are and what you believe.

It blew me away because I never consciously put any of that into my stories, and yet these are themes I pursue passionately every day. They are the epicenter of my most primal questions. They represent some of the fundamental values of my own life. Whether she knew or not, what this reader had found in my stories was me.

Rule 6 Ask what makes me most vulnerable and write it

You can’t manufacture originality. But you can strive to be your most vulnerable, honest, principled, and unique self. When you do that, you will write powerful stories. And the awesome thing about about powerful stories is that they have a way of finding their own originality.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What do you feel is your biggest challenge to writing an original book? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Joe Long says:

    This post renews my confidence as I believe I score well on all the points.

    Boy meets girl. Now that’s original! Along the way I take a deep look at myself, my relationship with my father, how I struggled as a teen and the things I’ve learned since then.

    Being my first attempt at fiction I’ve had to do a lot of learning over the past two and a half years, but even then I’ve saved some places to do it my own way. For example, it won’t have a typical ending for a romance. There’s also sensitive topics and situations.

    In the end, these are things I have to say, even if few may read them. On the other hand, maybe it will become a major motion picture. Once can dream.

    • Sally M. Chetwynd says:

      “Boy meets girl.” Many (perhaps most?) stories have some kind of love interest going on, but that does not automatically make them romances. There are as many ways for “boy to meet girl” as there are authors to write them. Your originality comes with your take, your rendition, your interpretation of it.

      One of my beta readers is quite determined that my current novel-in-progress is a romance, although it is far from it. It has none of the characteristics of a romance. The two main characters do not fall in love with each other. They have a deeply intimate connection, but it is more like the relationship between identical twins. This story reveals the struggle between these characters to identify that connection and its meaning.

      I used to have a book on plots, and it identified three basic plot types, into one of which every story falls: Man against Nature, Man against Man, and Man against Himself.

      • Joe Long says:

        I can call it a romance because they fall in love and do things that kids in love do. When he finally gets the girl, it’s the girl he’s not allowed to have. Why did he wait so long to become socially active? Why did she start so soon? But that is a vehicle. It’s two young people coming of age, finding their way, as their paths intertwine for awhile. It’s the experiences they share, good and bad, and the people they know along that journey. He’s on a positive arc, while she ends up on a negative one.

        I look at his relationship with his father, which mirrors my own, but then also of the father with his father. What do we expect of our children and how do we express it? How long do we carry the hurt?

        City vs farm life, republicans vs democrats. Most of it is fiction, but there’s a lot of me in it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If there’s one thing you’ve proven, I think it’s that you’re wiling to be vulnerable on the page. 🙂

      • Joe Long says:

        Thanks, that really means a lot.

        I just got back from seeing a high school musical production of “Footloose” at the school my fictional Pineland High is based on. (Very well performed!) As I was watching the climactic scene between Ren and Rev. Moore, I was comparing it to my own story and was struck by a comment that I decided to “borrow.” I have the pieces in place but never saw how I could take that particular gun off the shelf. At an upcoming point of emotional weakness, she can express one of the same feelings as Ren. It will make it a more powerful scene.

        • Joe Long says:

          More specifically, years later the Reverend was still mourning the loss of his son. Ren replies that he’s alone and hurting too after his father left him, and wonders if he’s to blame.

          I’d written early on about how my love interest Hannah was from a broken home. Three children by three fathers, and hers had left before she was two. She had expressed frustration and contempt, but it hadn’t been mentioned for quite a while. This scene from Footloose reminded me that this is something which is still likely hurting her deep down. It would make her be afraid of being left again, so that drives her personality trait of always trying to please him. I didn’t originally realize that it fits well. Like Ren, I can have her confess it at an emotional breaking point.

          So it’s not an original idea, I borrowed it from another story, but I’m confident I can realistically fit it into the context of my story. It was that little light bulb going on.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            As Willa Cather said, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened.”

          • Joe Long says:

            Ha! Yes.

            Also, I brought it up and I wasn’t fully using it. Make those characters suffer.

          • Joe Long says:

            But that leads to one more question – as the author, I’ve decided that her father leaving is a prime reason why she now has the “I’m afraid I’m not good enough to make you happy and you’ll leave when you find someone better attitude” attitude – but do I have her voice that herself, in that she consciously realizes it, or do I depend on the reader putting together the pieces?

            My tendency has been to leave it for the reader. A handful of chapters before this upcoming one, I’ve already written an exchange where she comments on how the family situation has affected her younger sister’s attitudes for the worse. Her dad hasn’t been mentioned since early on, so as the subject is already in play I could have him ask, “What about your dad?” “He got married and I guess he has a couple kids now. I don’t want to talk about it.” and that should be enough to remind the reader.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            I am, of course, a big fan of subtext. I’d say leave it for the readers, then run it past betas, see if it’s *too* subtle for them, and adjust accordingly.

          • Joe Long says:

            And after you’ve finished a dialogue, it can be tricky to go back and insert a new topic. I’ve touched this up a half a dozen times, but now I think it flows well.

            “As you know, the three of us all have different dads. For most of our lives, it was her dad, Tom, who was living with us.”

            “Where’s your dad now?”

            “Florida. Married with a couple kids – but I‘d rather not talk about him.”

            “Sorry.”

            She looked down and took a deep breath. “As I was saying, Donna could always run to her daddy while the rest of us got in trouble.”

            “That sucks.”

            Speaking of subtext – in this newer version, she knows exactly where he is. She’s keeping track and quickly rattles off the facts. She hasn’t let it go.

          • Joe Long says:

            I know, multiple uses of italics, but the speech there is very emphatic. I’ll reconsider it in editing.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            I noticed that, but figured it must be intentional.

          • Joe Long says:

            I knew you’d notice!

            Also, been binging on “Riverdale” this week and they’ve been using movie titles for titles of their episodes. Now I feel compelled to watch “The Last Picture Show” for $2.99 on Amazon as it has a similar theme to my story and I haven’t seen it since college. Might pick up some useful ideas.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Saw the preview for that. Any good?

          • Joe Long says:

            Not too bad, has me coming back for more.

            Archie, Betty, Veronica & Jughead are sophomores at Riverdale High when one of their classmates turns up murdered. It then goes on a Twin Peaks style story line where they explore the characters and all their secrets, with the murder investigation as the ongoing plot thread, with lots of other teenage drama and relationships along the way, as well as the machinations of the adults. It’s fairly dark but not violent. The acting is a little uneven, but several good performances from Luke Perry (Archie’s dad), Cole Sprouse (Jughead) and the girl who plays Betty.

            CW’s website shows the last 5 episodes and they’ve pinned the pilot, so right now it’s eps 1,3,4,5,6 and 2 is expiring in a few days. They may all be available at Netflix.

          • Joe Long says:

            and ep3 is expiring in a few days*

  2. Passion = that for which you are willing to suffer! If the story you are considering is something you are willing to suffer to write it, via isolation from the world, struggling to figure out the story, characters, setting, agonize over word choice, pacing, imagery, etc. then that IS a book you are passionate about, and thus worth writing.

    • Sounds like writing as edgework (a sociological notion of activities where people use a carefully cultivated skill set to overcome risk to demonstrate mastery in an uncertain world)… 🙂 To me, passion for the work is not so much a willingness to endure the compromises inherent to the activity as it is a tendency not to notice them. When I’m really wrapped up in a project, sometimes it can be as meditative as gazing into a candle.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great way to put it! I think, too, the stories that are worth writing are the stories that bring us so much joy they make any suffering worth our while.

  3. K.M., I read your post three times before I decided to respond and am going to write the six points on a notepad beside my laptop. Originality vs. Individuality. Is that like Batman vs. Superman. Ha,ha,ha! I read your posts because they both teach and inspire me to write, to write better words, to write the best story. When I think about the subjects of E.L. James’ 50 shades series and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, I know that these books aren’t original. But each author has spun her individual web ideas to capture an extensive audience. I do write what I want to read but I’m not sure if I’m as vulnerable as I can be. How can be more vulnerable? I love my stories. They make me scream, laugh, cry, feel. I’m my worst critic though because I do comparisons of my work with other writers who use captivating words and vocabulary in their dialogue and descriptions of characters and settings. The other writers seem to do so with little or no effort. Whether I have a readership of just me or millions, I’m not going to stop writing. It keeps me alive. Great post, thank you.

  4. Excellent post – thank you! Bookmarking it to come back to when I need to do some hard thinking about my writing. I’ve fallen into a slump recently, mainly because I’m intimidated/confused by my idea, but these questions definitely seem like they’ll help everything become clearer.

    Especially loved the anecdote about a reader finding themes in your books that you hadn’t consciously implemented, but that shone through all the same. Definitely the sign of an authentic, cohesive story – something every writer strives to create.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post! I find that if one of my own ideas has grown confusing to me, it’s probably because I’m not able to distill it down to its simplest manifestation. Premise sentences are great for this.

    • Sally M. Chetwynd says:

      When I am stumped by whatever I’m trying to write, it’s usually because I haven’t taken the time to think the thing out, whether it is a challenging chapter or the whole premise of the story. Usually because I don’t know where it’s going or where it needs to go, I get hung up in my head over it.

      My favorite way to work through this problem is to grab a mess of scrap paper on a clipboard, and begin writing down everything that comes to mind – a brain-storming, stream-of-consciousness thing. I edit nothing from coming out of the end of the pen or pencil. I write questions to myself – “Should Jane go to John and bare her soul about her love for Fred? No, that won’t work because John hasn’t met Fred yet. But if I move John up in the story to meet Fred, then Jane won’t be in a position to do this other thing over here. So what if I have Fred join the company first?…”

      And so forth. Sometimes it takes a week or two (or three months!), but if I keep scribbling, one day the solution emerges, and there it lies on the paper, and I have that “aha!” moment! This is what I did on my current novel-in-progress – it took two weeks of noodling, and one day, four or five scrap-paper sheets into my noodling, there it was, the only possible ending to my story, which then clarified the premise because now I knew where I was going.

      I find it helpful, too, to discuss my problem(s) with other writers. Their perspective and suggestions often prompt me to find the solution. Sometimes it’s like the game “Gossip” or “Telephone” – their suggestions start the mental conversation, which morphs over time and noodling into something completely different from the original suggestions, but those roots are there.

      (Not necessarily premise-related, but) I also look to others with experience in events that I have not had, to inform my writing about that experience with authenticity. I’ve been struggling lately with a chapter that is heavily charged with emotion, involving a young teen who has recently lost his father in an industrial accident, and his mother is ready to look for a new husband. I have waffled for months over this chapter – how to write it, what would such a boy be thinking, how would he react to his mother’s needs, and so forth. I picked up a book by a woman who lost her husband suddenly, which helped me understand the depth of her loss.

      Finally I contacted one of my nephews, whose mother died of cancer when he was 9, and asked him if he would be willing to talk with me about his thoughts and feelings when this happened. Mother vs. father, nine years old vs. twelve, long illness vs. unexpected death – significant differences. But I believed that his thoughts and insight might help direct me in developing my chapter.

      My nephew did write back to me with astonishing statements and analysis, all of which I was not aware of from my family point of view. There was nothing immediate in his response that I could use, but I kept reading and re-reading his letter over the course of several days, and it informed my heart to the degree that I began to write the chapter. I will be sending it to my nephew for his comments, and to thank him for opening his heart to me.

      I guess the upshot of all this rambling is to jump in with both feet. Until that story goes to print, it’s there for you to scribble on, mark up, noodle over, etc. If you write nothing, you have nothing to work with.

  5. It’s kind of like the punk (authenticity) vs. prog (originality) wars. Somebody said that rock ‘n’ roll is not an art form, but a raw wail from the bottom of the soul. I like to think that writing can encompass both, but I won’t sacrifice authenticity for originality.

    The main problem I’ve had with this is using Dramatica as a religious text, rather than an analytical tool.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      While there are obviously many tenets of the storycraft that ring true (and are codified by the likes of Dramatica, etc.), art is inherently a personal venture. That means that, while we may all need those fundamental tenets, we won’t be able to use them in a useful way until we’ve internalized them into personal truths.

  6. I’m a tad late to this post but I love it! I was looking for a new book to read and a blurb was exactly the blurb I would have loved to write for the story I’m working on. I had a panic attack. Then I read more; it’s the fifth in a series and absolutely nothing like my book. But it killed my momentum. Just last night I sat and reevaluated the whole thing. Which parts were the parts I loved? That got me started? Which parts are the bits that I asked others opinions of or thought up because I thought the story needed something just to keep working? I’m going back to the things I love and not worrying about if it’s original or if someone else is going to write it first.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like you’re on the right track. Now read that book and enjoy a story you obviously resonate but from someone else’s imagination. 🙂

  7. Joanne Poulton says:

    What a brilliant and refreshing take on originality. You are completely correct (which I’m thinking you already knew) in saying that writers need to write the story in their own voice over coming up with something ‘new’ and ‘original’. My favourite all time story is that of Beauty and the Beast, (and I am half way through my own urban fantasy version) and I NEVER get sick of reading other takes on the same story because each author has a different vision. Good examples of the same tale but told in completely different ways are Twilight series, The Rose Daughter (Robin McKinley), Cruel Beauty (Rosamund Hodge?). Same premise, completely different takes. I have read some works which have been hailed as original recently and rather than setting my imagination on fire, I thought they were rubbish. Originality for the sake of being ‘different’ from the pack just comes across as contrived and the characters usually suffer the most from it, and if the characters are paper cut outs, then the story nose dives. Thank you so much for this post. It has given me a renewed confidence in my own WIP.

Trackbacks

  1. […] story will be the reasons that either carry it through to the end or let it fall flat. Choose to write a story that excites you so the process can be […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.