I’m a writer. Therefore, I read.
A bit too much of a jump for you, Gentle Reader? Nevertheless, it is so. A writer must read. Nonfiction writers must read to know what’s going on, and who’s covering it, and to what effect. Fiction writers must read for pretty much the same reasons. The penalty for stinting one’s reading is unoriginality: If you don’t read, you’re practically guaranteed to reproduce the works of others. Something about the “great oceanic racial unconscious,” or some such rot.
However, the reverse is not true: reading widely and determinedly doesn’t guarantee the originality of one’s own work. As exhibits 1 through 10100 I offer just about everything that’s been written these past fifty years.
This is of particular importance in the speculative genres: fantasy, horror, and science fiction. These genres exist solely to provide room in which to explore possibilities that go beyond the realities around us. But one who reads extensively in those genres can’t help but notice that the same motifs and tropes are being used to exhaustion. The sin is not confined to a few hacks; it’s afflicted damned near everyone in the field.
Fantasy – especially fantasy set in the present day – is particularly badly afflicted by unoriginality. Vampires. Werewolves. Shapeshifters. Zombies. Magic. Every now and then, an angel. Find me a writer of contemporary fantasy who’s completely eschewed those motifs. There aren’t many.
I know, I know: A lot of writers are afraid to try something new for fear that it won’t find an audience. It’s a legitimate concern, though it was more so before indie publishing exploded. But what does it profit it a man to gain an audience at the price of seeing someone else’s reflection in the mirror?
Why do something others have done before you – possibly more vividly than you?
If you’re a writer, probably the worst advice anyone has ever offered you (or ever will) is about your “voice.” “Find your unique voice.” “Respect your voice.” “Don’t imitate the voices of others.” Bah! For reasons beyond human comprehension, this “voice” crap has almost completely obscured the most important aspects of storytelling:
For those who consider those “undefined terms,” I will elaborate:
- Plot: The events in your story and the causal connections that link them together.
- Characterization: The values, motivations, and individualities of your Marquee and Supporting Cast characters.
- Theme: The aspect of human nature you intend to illuminate with your story.
These are the meat and bones of a good story. And none of them have a single damned thing to do with “voice.”
What’s that you say? What about your style? Permit me to guffaw. If you’re at all concerned with your “style,” you’re more concerned with self-glorification than with your story.
Tell it clearly and transparently. Resolve not to become a part of it: i.e., not to inject your desire to be noticed into the text. Be guided by how you would tell it orally, to a friend or acquaintance sitting next to you. What would you want from such an effort?
- His undivided attention from beginning to end;
- His apprehension and appreciation of the reasons your characters did what they did.
You won’t get either of those things if you permit yourself to become concerned with “style.” Yet “style” has become so important to so many writers that they’ve ceased to care about plot, characterization, and theme.
The above segment might appear to be a digression from the opening subject of originality. It is not. It’s a look at what too many writers are focused on at the expense of their stories. Originality lies in the story, not in “voice” or “style.”
I have a naughty suspicion that when Flannery O’Connor said:
Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.
...she had this obsession with “voice” / “style” in mind. On another occasion, she said that “The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live.” There is nothing of “voice” or “style” in what one is “able to make live.” That’s a function of human nature: what God has made us.
By implication, we cannot be original about our themes, for they must proceed from human nature and the way it operates among us. There are also severe limits on originality in character construction: some from the extent of the writer’s acquaintance with others, still more from human nature itself. But at the minimum we can be original about the setting into which we cast our characters and the events in which they become embroiled.
A few nuggets for consideration, specifically for science-fiction writers:
Space travel as a motif is all very well...but why are your characters doing it? What do they hope to gain, and what price must they pay for it? What conflicts will arise among them along the way?
Superhuman powers? Well, they’ve certainly been used quite a lot...but the patterns SF writers have followed have worn the tread off most of them, and as for the comic-book industry...well, perhaps we shouldn’t go there. Can you come up with a new one? This writer did.
Time travel? I’m not sure you want to go there. The problems involved are so great that even Gregory Benford, one of SF’s true geniuses, had trouble making such a story consistent – and his story won the Nebula Award.
Indefinitely prolonged life? This is another extremely familiar motif in SF. Many have fantasized about its attractions...but who has written even a word about its drawbacks? Who has dared to speculate upon the emotional maladies that would afflict one who cannot die – or is afraid to die? Who has dared to write about the upheavals that would arise in a longevity-capable society in which some choose to live no more that threescore and ten? And what about the possibility of an unanticipated, severe contraction in human lifespans? Who has written about what would flow from that?
Use any or all of the above if you must -- I did -- but try to do something new with them. Find a conflict no one has thought to use before. Make it one that forces your Marquee characters to come to grips with desires or fears others have not thought to address. If you can, give them antagonists that aren’t merely standard-issue villains.
I’m about ranted out for the moment, but I trust the message is clear: If you must write, be original. Produce something that, at least as far as you know, is yours alone – and by that I don’t mean a story written entirely in anagrams, or every third word in Esperanto, or told without use of the letter “t.” Readers everywhere are desperate for new experiences, experiences that go beyond what the writers of the past have explored. They want to feel the great emotions, and they’ll be very generous to you if you can take them on such a journey, but in the name of God give them a new vehicle in which to do it.
I have spoken.