When I embark on a new novel-project, I’m usually tempted to look for a short cut, a quick way to “get into” the effort. Sometimes I find one. Sometimes it’s suitable. More often, it proves to be a detriment, though that might not be obvious for some time.
The kind of temptation that’s proved least destructive to the ultimate creation is the substantial fund of short stories I’ve written over the decades, some of which prove extensible, with enough thought and effort. Love in the Time of Cinema emerged from such a story, and I’d say it worked out well. But needless to say, not all short tales lend themselves to being used in that fashion. I’m working on and with one such today, and it’s been giving me fits.
The most destructive temptation – and I’m pleased to be able to say that it’s one I’ve successfully resisted – is the one that whispers “Just borrow this idea, add a couple of characters and a few grace notes, and call it your own!” It’s not necessarily plagiarism to do so; the narrative archetypes are few, and their skeletons can be detected in every decent story ever written. But unless he can come up with an original motif or two and frame the story around them, the writer cannot honestly call the tale his own creation.
Yet innumerable writers copy well-trodden paths, add nothing significantly original or fresh, and publish the results. That’s the prevalent practice in fantasy today, especially “urban” fantasy. I have little respect for such “creators.” I disdain to read their “creations,” once I can discern their lineaments. But many of them are far more successful in dollars-and-cents terms than I.
In all fairness, it’s extremely difficult to remain within the confines of a long-established, strongly patterned genre yet produce something genuinely new. The difficulty romance writers have with it gave birth to the Harlequin line, which recycles a publication back to pulp after it’s been on the shelves for a single month. The grooves are too deep. They admit of too little innovation. Such books appeal directly to the reader who wants to keep reading “my favorite story” over and over and OVER.
The “short cut” available from such a strong, innovation-averse pattern can result in a long delay in a writer’s maturation – and no, I don’t mean “finding his voice.”
The late Isaac Asimov, when asked the most common of all fan questions – “Where do you get your ideas?” – replied that story ideas are all around us; just reach out and grab one. They practically attack the attentive writer, for a simple reason: they’re about people struggling with problems. Usually they’re problems of the sort people have always had.
If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while, you’ve seen these before:
1. The raw material of fiction is people.
2. The essence of story is change.
People’s problems are about the challenges they face and must surmount: from their surroundings, from their personal limitations and inhibitions, and (of course) from other people. Some problems are too trivial to produce drama – to the best of my knowledge, “He needed a clean pair of briefs and didn’t have one!” has never inspired any writer to greatness in storytelling – but there are innumerable ones that writers have used to evoke drama, heroism, and the reader’s sense of the breadth and depth of human existence. Even a barely educated person will be familiar with many such problems and their fictional exploitation.
In a way, the reason for the speculative genres – fantasy, science fiction, and horror – is that they allow the imaginative writer to shed new light on a classic problem. Consider the problem of survival. While there’s still ample room for stories of survival against great odds in the here and now, the unique moral-ethical cast it can acquire from a science fiction setting can enable it to stimulate readers who might never have considered its complexities. Perhaps the problem is how to defend an innocent against a predator, or a predatory force. A technological motif can make such a contest vivid in a way tales of Mafia dons or serial killers cannot. Possibilities abound; reach out and grab one!
Some short cuts can be useful as a “leg up” to prominence. For example, now and then, a precast setting, created by a successful writer, is offered to other, less well known writers as an environment in which to tell a tale and gain an expanded readership. This has become fairly common in the speculative genres. Larry Niven’s “Man-Kzin Wars” anthologies are a good example, as are George R. R. Martin’s “Wild Cards” collections. On August 6, military SF writer Tom Kratman will release an anthology of that sort, centered on his imagined colony world of Terra Nova. Our beloved Co-Conspirator Dystopic/Thales (he uses both monikers) will have a story therein, so don’t miss it. But such supports should not be regarded as reliable in perpetuity; to mature and earn personal distinction, a writer must strike out on a path he can justly call his personal creation.
“Short cuts make long delays,” saith John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. He would surely know. If you aspire to write fiction, be aware of the dangers inherent in mimicry. It can trap you as surely as quicksand, and to the same ultimate effect. A leg up here and there is one thing; walking slavishly and undeviatingly in the footsteps others have left is another. The only way to become a writer others will respect – and I don’t necessarily mean other writers, but I don’t necessarily not mean them, either – is to create your own brand from the fertile if tangled resources of your imagination, experience, and heart.