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.
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.
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!
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.
When 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.
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.
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:
- What is this story really about–on the level of plot, theme, and character?
- What kind of scenes do you need to create to take full advantage of all the best aspects?
- What are the aspects of this type of story that have never or rarely been fully explored?
- What can you and your unique life experience bring to this story?
Don’t just dance on the surface of a great idea. Follow it down the rabbit hole as far as you can possibly go.
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?”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).