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!

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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. That was a totally brilliant post, I really enjoyed it. I take your point about the story that only you can write. In fact I’ve take this to the point of finding things that in the category of “you can’t possibly say that” and using them.

    Given a stark choice between A and B my characters will consider C, discard D as too risky, wonder if E is a possibility and finally do F.

    My line on originality is like this:

    One of the bad guys captures Jane and gives her a choice of either giving him the means to build a faster than light drive, or having the information dragged out of her slowly and painfully. Realising that he has no idea what the drive looks like, she instead sells to him… Well, it’s pretty startling. You’ll need to read the book to find out.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s such a smart practice to get in the habit of discarding (or at least reevaluating) initial ideas. Too often, they’re habitual, based on what we’re using to seeing the media around us, rather than our best shot at something truly original.

  2. I understand not trying to be original. There’s a saying that there are only so plot lines, and that everything is simply a rewrite of one of those. One thing I would be careful of is copyright laws. You don’t want to get too close to an existing work, especially if that work is recent. For example, if I wrote about a boy who attends wizarding school, I might get a call from JK Rowling’s lawyers if the book is too close to Harry Potter. The key is to find balance.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ideas aren’t technically copyrightable. You and I could both write a story about a wizarding school, without its being plagiarism, as long as we’re still telling our own unique stories, and not just renaming the hero Carrie Hotter. :p

  3. Great article! I took lots of notes to tape on the wall of my writing space so I won’t forget!

  4. Jim Griffith says:

    This is the best and most helpful post I have read helping befuddled lost authors to know ‘you have to be you’ to find ones best writing. It was a long process for me to find my best writing . It came when I, in pros only, cut my gut open all over the keyboard.

    I estimate I read ten books a year. That is a minimum of 470 books since 1970. I have found two things. Most ideas have been written, good authors have found how to repackage them with effective writing. A good portion of those books were biographies which are original causing one to think this could never happen to a person, but it did. As my wife says, ‘I read slow’, but remember all I read which I have found very helpful in writing. I have read every night since high school, 1961. I say this because it is my firm belief if one is not an avid reader, writing may tend to suffer.

    My ideas come from one area. I ask, is this idea something a lot of people experience, or have few people experienced it. This is my originality, and then if I would personally never read about it, I dump it. I only write what I like, even if it’s never read by another person.

    My experience looking for an idea did changed this year. In that my last book I had a lead character that I like so much, I kept the character and researched an idea and story just for him. I know the idea is correct because the plot will not leave my mind, and I have to write each day to see what happens next.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Like your latest idea, most of my stories originate with a character. I don’t ask whether the idea is original. I just follow that character, and if he interests *me*, I know I have something.

  5. Well put.

    I’m going to hang onto that Russell Galen line: “blood of octopuses” is definitely just “stunt originality.” Meh indeed.

    In fact, trying to “add originality” is as likely to backfire as trying to add what “everyone has to put in” and sabotaging it. Aren’t those both the definition of a gimmick, something that might have been a good idea but you won’t do it justice? (Often because you know that gimmick doesn’t fit in *this* story.)

    But the ideas you *can* do justice to, and that do belong in the story… being true to those and your own spin on them wins every time. There’s more than enough uniqueness in an author’s view, spelled out in hundreds of pages, to make a book stand out.

    In fact, maybe “original” is just a *measure* of how well the story finds its own way to work.

    • I like “stunt originality” as a term.

      I think you are right. Just be yourself and write what you believe. Than it will turn out to be original anyway.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I often think of Blake Snyder’s term “double mumbo-jumbo” in reference to authors who throw in too many gimmicks, demanding too much suspension of disbelief, in an attempt to write something original. It almost always backfires.

  6. I liked the article. My book is original. I do have 19 characters. Some of whom are mer-folk.

  7. Sally M. Chetwynd says:

    Nobody knows for sure who actually said it, but it is usually attributed to Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”

    I hold dear to that idea that no one can write my story, and whenever I meet budding writers, who may be hesitant about their abilities, I tell them to just do it, because no one else can write the stories that inspire them. Yes, the first draft will likely be 90 percent junk, but winnowing the wheat (10%) from the chaff (90%) reveals the most amazing gems. (Let’s mix a metaphor or two…)

    I also find that my stories are brought to me by their characters, and the characters pester me no end to write their stories. I know other writers find that this happens, but it is a weird phenomenon. I don’t have to come up with the idea, it will come to me long before I am ready to write it.

    I am also a firm believer in maintaining one’s integrity in telling any given story. As you point out, avoid falling into the temporary traps of current cultural idolatry, just for the sake of riding on the marketing coattails of contemporary fads.

    I also refuse to dumb down my prose, and have taken a page from Beatrix Potter’s book – use big words where appropriate, and children will learn their meanings from their context. A few of my beta readers told me they had to dig out their dictionaries to identify some of the words I use in my current novel in progress. It would have been helpful if they had identified those words, but I think I know which words most of them are. What is dismaying is 1) the words I think they are referring to are words that I learned from my favorite childhood books – Black Beauty, Beautiful Joe, Just So Stories, The Jungle Books, Albert Terhune’s dog stories from Sunnybank Farm, Thornton W. Burgess’ stories of animal life, and many others – and 2) these readers are all at least as well educated as I am, some of them much more so. My primary education came from a group of dirt-poor nuns in a small rural town in Maine, and since then, I have found this foundation to be superior to that of many from far wealthier means.

    I may have gone on longer here than necessary, but my basic message is that your message is valuable! Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Always be yourself. Unless you can be Batman. Then be Batman. 😉

      • Sally M. Chetwynd says:

        But only Batman (and Alfred and Robin) knows who Batman is. So it could be a great cover for one who wants to be someone else. But whoever takes on the masquerade does have a huge pile of research to do, to come up with (as the Joker said in the first Batman movie) “all those wonderful toys!”

  8. Congrats on finishing the outline! That’s a big landmark and it must feel great having it behind you 🙂

    This is unbelievably strange, but this very morning I was writing an email for a course I’m working on about taking creative projects to the finish line. The subject was, you guessed it, originality. Though shorter and not focused on writing specifically, I mentioned many of the same points you have. I must be on the write track (pun apologies). Or there’s something in the water.

    Anyways, thanks for writing this unintentional confirmation!

    “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
    -C. S. Lewis

  9. The freaky thing about this post today… driving home from another galaxy far, far away I was discussing this very thing with my husband. I’d been struggling with originality and imposter syndrome in a big way lately and feeling about as original as a zero.

    Husband glanced back at me, eyes glazed over. I knew there’d be no significant feedback coming from his direction. Totally frustrated, I wondered if I ‘really’ knew what I was doing. We get home, I feel like trashing all the dang WIPs and the first post that pops up on my screen is this. Thank you. Thank you again. And, thank you again, Katie.

    I’ll get there yet. Back to the rough draft…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yay for good timing. 🙂 Have fun with that first draft! If you’re having fun, that’s half the battle right there.

  10. Hannah Killian says:

    Now I want to read a love story between a spoiled society queen and grumpy detective. . . .

  11. Awesome–this cuts right to the heart of it and drives it home, that elusive answer to every author’s “What on earth am I doing here in front of this keyboard?!” Thanks.

  12. Writer’s wisdom, Katie, and then some!

    Your last two points stand out for me.
    The challenge (and art) as a writer/author is to remain authentic while continuing growing in our ability to create stronger work, with fewer words. One way is by reading more, and wider, but critically and more analytically.
    And your last point is perhaps what many of us are reluctant to do—to bleed our soul on the page. Become vulnerable. Perhaps because we confuse vulnerability with weakness.
    Not so.
    It requires a stronger individual to be willing to show the “laid bare” side of us. That is often where the beauty will be found.

    Thanks for the post, Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. It requires a truly strong individual to be comfortable with vulnerability. As artists, we have a unique ability to practice and improve on that score.

  13. I really have to work on the 5th and 6th rules. If I see my past writing errors, they are all based on failing to grasp and follow the principles you have shown in these two rules (and, obviously, the other too).
    I’ll write them in my mind and I’ll stop trying to be original! Thanks a lot for your posts.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Seeing our failures isn’t a fun step in the process, but it’s entirely necessary to improving ourselves ad coming to a conscious understanding of how to master our art. Keep on keeping on! 🙂

  14. WOW! Love your points 🙂 I have definitely found myself getting caught up in the whole “my story must be original” idea. I have tried and failed with many ideas because it didn’t interest me…I’m finally learning my lesson on writing about things that I’m passionate or fascinated about 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Can’t go wrong writing what you love. That passion will tap into the deepest parts of your unique self, and readers will respond to the earnestness, excitement, and honesty of it.

  15. Absolutely. Dream of something uniquely yours, then write it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like a life I could enjoy living. 🙂

      • That is in fact a very profound statement.

        When I started writing SF seriously I made a positive decision that I did not want to do post-apo on the grounds that a post-apo world was somewhere I didn’t want to be.

        I want to wander through a galactic civilisation at its peak, a place where anyone can afford (if they save up a little) a ticket to the other side of colonised space. I want medicine to be almost magically effective, the arts totally stunning, the sciences advancing and the food magnificent. I want my worldbuilding to include the “Guide Michelin”, only now four stars denote a restaurant that’s worth taking a trip through space. I want the word “terrorist” to be an archaism, and when one of the characters uses it there is an immediate call for an explanation.

        So how do you get a plot out of that?

        Well, firstly it produces strong people with a powerful moral compass. They know that life is good and are determined to defend it to the death.

        But secondly that vein of evil that runs through the human soul is still there. There are still a few people who would bring back all the pain and suffering if they thought it would give them money or power.

        So where there are villains there must be heroes and heroines.

        And on that hang all the stories.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Having that kind of conscious awareness of the type of story you *want* to tell is a huge step toward tapping your own originality. You have a guiding light right from the beginning.

          • Totally agree. Once the idea of the Confederate period occurred to me it just grew and grew. Then Jane came bouncing in and made sense of it all. It’s certainly been fun.

        • Andrewiswriting says:

          I LOVE that civilisation! I want to live in it!

          • Yes, but just wait until you’ve sat at the controls of an eighty-footer spaceship, with Jane in the other seat. Then you’ll be homesick for somewhere that only exists on paper, and in love with an imaginary woman.

            That’s what happened to me.

  16. Sally M. Chetwynd says:

    Trying to be original is like trying to be funny – if you have to work too hard at it, the spirit, the authenticity, vanishes. Since no one else is you, if you let loose your style with abandon, it will be original.

    I like to brain-storm in a stream-of-consciousness style when I’m first writing, and usually to find the solution to a problem I’m having. I write down everything and anything as it comes to mind. I edit nothing. If I want to evoke a certain feeling and can’t remember the word, I draw a long dash where that word will go when I think of it, sometimes with a couple of other, related words in parentheses to prompt me when I come back. I write questions to myself: “What if Jane goes to John and does this? No, that wouldn’t work, because John already did this other thing. But maybe if Jane went at it this other way…” Sometimes it takes pages and pages of scribbled scrap paper, but all of a sudden, there it is, shining on the page: my solution.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great analogy, regarding originality and humor. If a writer is willing to be honest in fiction, originality is almost always right there for the picking.

  17. LOVE this! Wonderful post as always. It was really encouraging to read #6, since sometimes I find myself cringing at how vulnerable and transparent I feel about myself on the page when I re-read what I’ve written. But it sounds like I’m on the right track! It’s so easy to think that those that know me will see straight through the story and become bored by me, the writer underneath. This was a great reminder of why I love certain authors, and that a sizable part of quality writing is just being authentically who you are in the midst of it. It’s so mindless to me to be myself that I don’t realize how unique I come across to others (and this not boring). Now just to finish my WIP! 😁

    • Thus* not boring

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Being vulnerable is always hard, especially in an artistic medium, in which we have no choice but to sit still and accept random criticism. But aside from being personally empowering in itself, it’s also the surest way to write powerful fiction.

  18. Andrewiswriting says:

    “For example, if I wrote about a boy who attends wizarding school, I might get a call from JK Rowling’s lawyers if the book is too close to Harry Potter. The key is to find balance.”

    “Ideas aren’t technically copyrightable. You and I could both write a story about a wizarding school, without its being plagiarism, as long as we’re still telling our own unique stories, and not just renaming the hero Carrie Hotter. :p”

    Yeah…

    One of the earliest comments I got – and got a few times – when I began the Abraham Frost series was “Aren’t you worried about being too derivative/compared/like HP?”

    For those playing at home, Abraham Frost is a twelve-year-old boy growing up in Sydney’s Western Suburbs, who discovers that he’s one of the Fae, with magical powers and abilities, and ends up going to a school for the Fae, in Faulconbridge in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. He makes friends there, there are teachers, they do classes, and extra-curricular hijinks ensue. There are bad guys, the main bad guy’s identity is a secret, and I hit a bunch of genre conventions along the way. Nah, scratch that – I embrace a bunch of genre conventions along the way.

    So, am I/was I worried?

    Nah. Because Abe isn’t Harry. He’s not an orphan, there are no Dursleys, he doesn’t ‘why me’ all the time, there’s no Hermione, because Grimm isn’t Dumbledore, Svarovic isn’t Voldemort, the story, the characters, the setting are all completely different, and ultimately this 53yo Australian former offensive lineman with five kids and two grandkids might just have a different worldview and voice than a late-twenties single mother of one in Britain.

    And also, because at some point these cyphers I hung faces and names and descriptions and personalities on took over and began telling their own story, and it became something (corny as it may sound) that I wanted to deliver, to do justice to, and to be worthy of.

    I do think JK Rowling and I share some viewpoints and opinions, but the things that happened in her life to colour her writing are different to the things that have happened in mine, and the things I want to say are my own.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Your story description has also always put me in mind of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books–which are also alike but different from Harry Potter. There is room for everyone’s iteration.

  19. Kate Johnston says:

    Love this post! I often worry about not being original enough, so your words are validating. Just focus on writing the story the way I want to write it. Reassure myself that I have something different to say than the other gal. And don’t be afraid if a reader finds me in my own stories. 🙂

  20. This was a great post. My chief writing vice is over-planning, and the dark side of that is I tend to measure everything I do against what already exists, then shape my plan so that I’m “getting everything right.” Unsurprisingly, I end up having to put a lot of extra work in to de-bland the result. This post got me reflecting on my assumptions and processes in a good way.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The trick is to keep creativity and logic balanced in the planning stage. Because the planning stages are so forgiving in terms of execution (e.g., no need for perfect prose), they’re the optimal time to really unleash your creativity.

  21. This post was such a pleasure to read! My favorite books are those that give me a sense of interacting with someone else’s mind. No matter how many times I have seen this plot scenario (and there are only so many types of plots in the world, after all), each story is the first time I’m experiencing that particular author’s take and that particular story’s details. It’s the little particulars that make a story great, not the flashiness of the ideas–at least that’s my view of the world! We live our own lives at the level of the small and concrete, and the best stories show me why this level of life is intensely meaningful.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s true! We’re all the same, and yet we’re all beautifully unique. Just because I’ve met one brown-eyed woman who loves skiing and hates seafood doesn’t mean I won’t find equal pleasure in meeting another person who meets that description–because she will be utterly new and fresh as an individual in her own right. Same goes for stories.

      • There was a lovely demonstration of this a few years ago. Holly Lisle posted a one line starter. and invited all the regulars on her site to post one page of story that it suggested. No two were even vaguely similar. Mine got absorbed by the “branching, acquisitive theme” and became part of the main timeline.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Writer’s Digest runs a contest like this every month. It’s always fascinating to see how the creative and different ideas people come up with.

  22. Mary Kimani says:

    I absolutely love you Katie! how do you do that 😉 great articles always…you are my greatest motivation

  23. Sister in the Lord,

    I loved this article, and now you are among my favorite authors such as Ted Dekker and Paul Bunyan. The book I already have self-published is my attempt at a modern Pilgrims Progress, and now I’m working on (a ton of stories to include) my attempt at a novel with several characters like George Martin. I appreciate your encouragement to “be myself” by following my own rules of writing instead of anyone else’s, but it seemed to me contradictory to advice I’ve read regarding writing that explains why so much of it stinks. I started writing because I was dissatisfied with how books I read progressed, and it seems to me, based on my beta readers’ opinions, that I am unique in the universe regarding the way I want stories to be told. Could you elaborate on the “happy medium”, or marriage as you might say, between “writing the story I want to read” and writing something that other people (the more the better) want to read? Or if you already have, please give me a link to that.

    Side note: medieval fantasy is my go-to genre. I’ll have to check out Dreamlander!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      When I say “be yourself” in this article, I’m specifically talking about individuality in pursuit of ideas, not execution. Great ideas are always a very personal thing. The best approach you can take to writing is to try to write the kind of story *you* enjoy reading by other authors.

      On the other hand, most of the advice you’re hearing about “not breaking the rules” has to do with execution. Although there are certainly brilliant exceptions, most stories will find their optimal form only in adhering to accepted and time-tested forms–such as those found in knowledgeable approach to structure, theme, and character.

  24. Another great “hang on the wall in my office” post. Points 5 & 6 are things I had never really thought about. Especially 6…every new thing you write has the potential to be an introduction to your work for somebody. It means you can never phone it in or get lazy.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s true. There are bestselling authors whose work I have only attempted once. It may be the rest of their work lives up to their reputation, but because of that one bad experience, I’ll likely never give them another try.

  25. 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*

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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. 🙂

  31. 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.

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