Originality is overrated

by | Apr 21, 2009 | Writing Advice, Writing Novels | 208 comments

On Concepts

Here’s the thing about book concepts: originality is (somewhat) overrated.

There have been millions of books written in the course of human history. Before there were books there were plays, and before the were plays there were stories told around the campfire, and before there were stories around the campfire there were aliens who implanted DNA in our cave men ancestors that made us tell the same stories again and again. (It’s true, I read it on Wikipedia).

About once a generation a Mary Shelley or H.G. Wells or Tolkien or S.E. Hinton comes along to invent a new genre basically from scratch. Odds are you’re not that person (although if you are, I want to meet you).

All the rest of the mortals on the planet, even our best writers, are working within fairly established genres and tropes.

There were detective novels before George Pelecanos, there were dragon and boy stories before Christopher Paolini, there were wizard school books before J.K. Rowling, there were mistaken guilt stories before Ian Mcwan’s Atonement. What sets these writers apart is a unique take on an established trope. And ultimately that comes down to execution.

What is a unique take on an established trope? It varies from book to book. Sometimes it’s been done before, but never with such beautiful writing. Or maybe it’s been done before, but never for kids. Or maybe it’s been done before, but never funny. Or maybe it’s been done before, but never in combination with something else.

The shorthand for a unique take is that it’s like this, but also like this. It’s X meets X. It’s different, but not too different.

This isn’t because the publishing industry just wants what’s already popular. (Ok, fine, partly it’s because the publishing industry wants what’s already popular — you can “blame” that on readers who finish a book, love it, and want to read something else like it.)

But it’s also because it’s very nearly impossible to be wholly original. Even when new genres are invented they tend to use classic story arcs that have been around for millennia — the coming of age story, the great man with a fatal flaw, the hubris tragedy, the celebrity memoir. When new genres are invented they just place these stories in a new world.

Unless it is truly out there, pretty much everything is a fresh take on an existing trope. It really does need to feel fresh, but that’s not the same as being completely original. The originality is all about how it’s done, not what it’s about.

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Art: The Dream by Henri Rousseau

208 Comments

  1. Bane of Anubis

    Oh so true – I’m currently writing a story Ibut thought somewhat original – when I described it to my mother, she says “oh, that reminds me of book [x]” – well, I do some research and it turns out book x (which I’d never read or heard of, but was one of those long ago children’s classics) was written in 1872… not sure if that’s a good or bad thing, but it turns out that I am writing it from a different angle 🙂

    Reply
  2. Flavio Q Crunk

    That’s the same thing Don Maass said when I met him. I asked him how writers know when a specific genre is “full”.
    He said it doesn’t matter how full it is, if your stuff is good, it will sell.

    Reply
  3. Martin

    Well said. I think it’s very easy for writers to mistake “fresh take” with “invent something new from scratch”. We need a glossary! But make sure it has a fresh take, will ya?

    Reply
  4. Will Entrekin

    Who said there are no new ideas, only new ways to tell them? I tend to agree; even Shakespeare wrote from sources.

    Reply
  5. king

    Do you really want to use Paolini as a positive example? Really?

    Reply
  6. Professor Tarr

    My problem is that I can’t truly figure out what genre best describes my stuff. It is as if Yann Martel had his tiger mate with Frank Norris’ Octopus in the eyes of Upton Sinclair’s Carpenter using the setting of John leCarre, while the props come from John Irving with a dose of Dickens, the phrasing comes from Anne Rice and the action straight from Stephen King… all chopped up by Samuel Beckett and narrated by Albert Camus…

    I guess Literary is the best way to describe that mess…

    Reply
  7. L.C. Gant

    This is so true. To be honest, I don’t think I would want it any other way.

    The reason we keep recycling the same basic stories over and over is because we can all relate to them. They speak about things that define the human experience–love, hate, birth, death, rebirth, etc.

    If you do something that’s completely out in left-field, you set yourself up for failure by telling a story your readers can’t relate to at all. And no writer wants that. I know I don’t!

    Reply
  8. Mira

    I agree with this. Very well said.

    When we talk about story, I always start thinking about archtypes and the ‘hero’s journey.’ Joseph Campbell.

    I think stories are a way for us to work out how to deal with archtypal situations. There are different ways to tell those stories – and that’s where genre comes in – but at the root, there are probably about 12 different stories (I made that number up. I would actually bet that someone has come up with an actual number and listed the types of stories. Maybe Joseph Campbell did.) that are being told over and over again in different ways.

    In terms of selling – people like the familiar. It speaks to them, feels comfortable and secure.

    But they like new things because they are entertaining.

    So, publishers want the familiar combined with the new.

    Reply
  9. Dara

    I know when I first started writing back in high school, I had the misconception that everything new had to be original.

    Then I learned otherwise and was rather relieved 🙂

    Still, it can be difficult to come up with a “fresh take” on an existing trope, but that’s why we all have to keep writing until we find that story that will grab readers.

    Reply
  10. SeaHayes

    Nathan,
    All true, and yet this is what makes writing a query so daunting. There are no truly original ideas, only new ways to tell different stories. The query must, in about 250 words, get across the plot and the author’s different take on the subject. I find writing a 100,000 word novel so much easier than writing a 250 word query. But if you can’t master the query, no one will read your take on the story. AAARRRRR…

    Reply
  11. Niki Schoenfeldt

    Wow. That’s all I can say. I am amazed at the results. Although I did not participate, I have been keeping an eye on things. I never thought being an agent was an easy job. And as a reviewer, I totally agree that each story is subjective. All I can do as I search for an agent is hope I am not among those submitting bad queries and worse stories. Thanks for the insight.

    Reply
  12. Terri Nixon

    I think it was Polti who drew up a list of about 30 (?) possible plots. Will have to look into that one but something’s niggling in the back of my mind about that.

    Reply
  13. csmith

    It is finding a new slant on an old tale that makes things really interesting. I’m starting to see writing more and more like architecture, the more constraints you are aware of, the more creative you become within those constraints. Sort of like pruning a tree. Ah, rambling, so moving swiftly on…

    Very interesting (and rather encouraging) post.

    Thanks Nathan

    Reply
  14. Kristen Painter

    There are really only two plotlines anyway:

    1. Someone takes a journey.
    2. A stranger comes to town.

    And if you really want to boil it down, those are two sides of the same coin.

    Reply
  15. reader

    Thanks for this, Nathan.

    That makes sense. Execution is everything and that is the one thing that is unique to each writer.

    I feel better now. And also worse, as I constantly seem to have the execution that no one seems to want. Ugh.

    (Along the same line, your concept thoughts are true in other media as well; movie critic Roger Ebert says a movie isn’t WHAT it’s about but HOW its about it.)

    Reply
  16. Anne Dayton

    If only it weren’t so tough coming up with the interesting twist for the familiar story. That’a harder than most people give credit for.

    Great post!

    Reply
  17. Mira

    Anne Dayton – honestly, I’m not sure that a new twist is required. I also think if you just write it really, really well, that’s entertaining enough.

    I say, just write the book that’s inside you.

    That’s really all you can do anyway, isn’t it?

    Let genre and all that work itself out after you’ve written the book.

    Reply
  18. Natalie

    There are stories that just speak to us as humans—must be that alien programming. Using an “established” plot isn’t unoriginal. It’s smart. These stories work, they’ll always work. We connect with them every time.

    And if the new twist on them is done well enough, we don’t even realize it’s been done before until after.

    Reply
  19. Alex Green

    You open yourself up to queries that state “I’m the next Tolkien” when you say you want to meet these people. You know that right?

    Reply
  20. Mister Fweem

    If what we read hinges only on originality, we’re limiting ourselves severely. And, frankly, I’ve read some “original” works that were, when you get right to it, extremely bad as far as the writing went.

    Take these two examples: Robert Aspirin’s MYTH series, and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Both sound very familiar in a vary familiar genre: wise wizards help apprentices learn things, odd things happen in a fantasy world gone mad, et cetera. But both of these authors attack the genre with aplomb and create stories and characters that are fun to read. To reject them because Tolkein got to the genre first is unfair.

    And it’s Christopher Paolini, not Christian.

    Reply
  21. Enusan

    I’m curious though. If execution is so important (And I agree that it is), how can one accept or reject based on a query, which is almost the opposite of execution? Is the simple fact of the matter that agents don’t have time to be receiving partials of everything that gets submitted?

    Reply
  22. Kristi

    Niki – it’s so good to see a fellow critique group member posting here. If only there was an agent like Nathan who repped PB’s! Good post as always, Nathan 🙂

    Reply
  23. Furious D

    Thank Xenu that originality is overrated, it warms the hearts of hacks like me.

    But seriously…

    While I’m sure that there are still new literary frontiers out there, somewhere, there is still a lot of rich material to be mined from existing genre’s, motifs, and themes.

    Reply
  24. Bane of Anubis

    Enusan, IMO, a query is a microcosm of execution- if you can write one well, you can probably write well – the converse might not be accurate (i.e., a poor query might not be indicative of poor writing, though there’s a greater likelihood), but when you’re getting a boatload of queries a day, I’d imagine that you need this filter to afford yourself some time for extracurricular things like sleep and food (hence the whole BAAFAD concept).

    Reply
  25. Ian

    Borges’ El Aleph is totally original and utterly brilliant. Laurie Lee’s “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning” is unoriginal yet equally brilliant. Make what you will of that. What I make of it is that a great writer will prevail, inshallah.

    Reply
  26. Onovello

    Even Mary Shelley took an old idea — the legend of Prometheus — and reframed it to incorporate the science of her time. And that legend goes back to the Garden of Eden (Tree of Knowledge). Likewise, J.K Rowling took traditional fairy and folk tale themes and archetypes and reworked them in her series; and one can look back to Nordic myths and find the roots of Tolkien’s quests. Over and over the best writers have found ways of taking old material and updating it, giving it new relevance.

    That’s a rare gift indeed….

    Reply
  27. Kat Harris

    Thank you so much for this post, Nathan.

    It has given me the courage to believe and carry on. You’re wonderful.

    Reply
  28. Mira

    Ian – I completely agree.

    I’ve heard it said that J.K. Rowling borrowed alot from Camelot and the myth of King Author.

    Tolkien and H.G. Wells borrowed as well.

    Isn’t there a saying that Plato said it all? Or another saying that everything is just a footnote to Shakespeare?

    Reply
  29. Samuel

    Some writers are very explicit in using already established ‘concepts’ or stories: Bridget Jones’ Diary and Pride and Prejudice; On Beauty and Howards End; Last Orders and As I Lay Dying.

    It can work very well.

    Reply
  30. Rick Daley

    Execution? Uh-oh.

    Check me if I’m wrong here, but if we execute all the writers you won’t have anyone to rep.

    Reply
  31. CindaChima

    That’s exactly what I tell teens when I do writing workshops. A common complaint I get is, “All the good ideas are taken. Every time I think of something, it’s already been done.”I tell them that they will put their own stamp on their story.
    It’s like quilting–give two quiltmakers the exact same fabrics, and they will create unique works of art.

    Reply
  32. Mechelle Avey

    Straight from an agent’s mouth: Retelling is selling. Got it.

    Shakespeare Retold, a BBC television production, is a brilliant example of retelling the bard in a contemporary fashion.

    It seems to me that the important point here is that it’s not just retelling, it’s retelling to a new generation, to a new audience, to that stranger who just got to town. That’s why writers should care about the demographics of readers.

    In fact, as I consider your premise, Nathan, the admonishment (too strong?) is not should we retell. It is how? To whom? What should we understand about the structure of the story we want to retell? What are the transcendent elements? What are the cultural elements (the parts that should be overhauled to reflect the now)?

    In retelling, are we concerned primarily with a generation’s culture markers? Are we revitalizing a story based on ethnic rhythm and perception? Are we updating a story to reflect thematic changes?

    Hmm. And then there is the question you raised of concept. High concept and retelling are not the same thing unless the foundational concept was already high concept.

    Anyway, you’ve given us a starting point. Retell and sell. Got it.

    Reply
  33. Ian

    Mira, I have great repect for people who completely agree with me. For that reason I have made a small contribution to your group story. I hope you like it.

    Reply
  34. jimnduncan

    Well said, Nathan. It’s one of those notions that bears repeating to writers on a regular basis. Readers don’t need original. They just need well written stories with interesting people doing interesting things in interesting places. Emphasis of course is on the well written part.

    Reply
  35. richfigel

    This is really true in the movie and TV biz: they want “familiar, but different.”

    In fact, most agents and managers have their repped screenwriters pitch dozens of loglines (one or two lines that sell the concept) before writing the script, then tell the writers what they think has the greatest potential.

    But it seems in the book world, most writers don’t test their concepts with agents until after they’ve written their first draft… or is that just for unpublished writers?

    Seems to me if you’re going to spend months or years working on a project, it would be a good idea to try pitching the concept in writers groups or to friends first — or agents and publishers if that’s possible.

    Reply
  36. Mira

    Ian – why did a shiver of terror run through me at those words?

    Then I carefully, cautiously, tenatively, carefully went and looked at the group story.

    That was funny. 🙂

    Reply
  37. Solvang Sherrie

    Good post. I guess since most stories aren’t original, that’s why so many agents and editors now say they’re looking for a unique voice?

    Reply
  38. Nathan Bransford

    (oops, posted that before I was ready).

    Solvang-

    Yes, exactly. Voice is part of execution, not concept, and it really can be a unique and original way to tell an old story.

    Reply
  39. Ian

    Solvang Sherrie. What a brilliant name! All I could think of was Ian and to be perfectly honest it wasn’t even my idea in the first place.

    Reply
  40. Mira

    Alex, you made a really good point.

    Nathan,

    You said:

    “Odds are you’re not that person, although if you are, I want to meet you.”

    Okay. Thanks.

    I’d like to meet you too.

    Because oddly enough, I am creating a completely new and original genre.

    I’m thinking lunch maybe.

    Someplace air conditioned.

    Reply
  41. Scott

    Great post, Nathan. Personally, I prefer authors who go into a story that they’re passionate about with the very idea to bring something new. In fact, I’d argue that the “something new” should be the initial spark behind the passion.

    What I don’t care for are lazily rehashed plots involving make-weight characters that don’t try and say something about the time in which they’re born. Even if you’re writing historical fiction, we all have a pulse of zeitgeist coursing through our veins, and we should effort to replenish it as often as we can by truly experiencing life.

    If we do, it will come through. And your readers will never recognize your story as anything other than its own creation, connected to their world and their lives.

    Reply
  42. Mira

    I’m just kidding of course.

    I realize that was an unrealistic request.

    Really. I’m asking for the impossible.

    Hardly any restuarants in the City have air conditioning.

    I’ll bring a picnic lunch to your workplace. I assume there’s air conditioning in your building.

    Reply
  43. Kia

    It kills me that S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was only 16.

    Reply
  44. Gwen

    I just wrote a blog entry about this a few days ago. Somebody who read the first three chapters of my book said ‘have you read this other book…?’ I flipped out because I love that book and thought maybe I inadvertently plagiarized even though I started planning my books before I ever read that book. Turns out our books are operating on the same theme, but with much different worlds/characters/etc.

    I think the whole ‘this reminds me of…’ phenomenon is a fact of psychology. We have schemas for just about everything, and it’s a lot more work to create a new schema, so when we encounter something novel we try to cram it into existing schemas. I would guess the ‘seen this before’ response wouldn’t have bypassed the published authors if people would have gone in with the assumption that it’s probably not the same, even if it seems like it on the surface, but it’s really hard to break out of that, especially when you’re not aware you’re doing it.

    (Excuse my psych nerdery. I can’t help it!)

    Reply
  45. Auburn

    Insightful post as usual, Nathan. As a writer and as a member of the publishing industry, it frustrates me to no end when I have to deal with a person’s beleif that an author is or isn’t good because of the ‘originality’ of their story, when what this argumentative person is generally saying in reality is that similar books of the same genre have been written. We know they have been written. We’ve read them. As you said, the key is a unique exploration of a subject in such a way that it feels fresh and new and interesting. The invention of the entirely new genre is an accident. A happy, happy accident.

    Reply
  46. Neil

    Case in point is this "Pride & Prejudice & Zombies" thing. Fresh take on existing material, currently selling like sexy fruit in honey sauce here in the UK. And while I'm here, RIP J G Ballard. You dark little genius you.

    Reply
  47. Rachel

    I think JK Rowling borrowed quite a bit from Star Wars, too. Not books, but definitely three of the coolest movies ever (the originals, I mean).

    Reply
  48. Scott

    Well, Neil, there’s “inspired by”, and then there’s “derivative”. More or less rewriting an existing book to add zombies cause they’re hot strikes me as “derivative”. 😉

    Reply
  49. Ulysses

    First of all, I don’t think you’re the first person to say this. Ha!

    Second, for entertaining and informative reading, I suggest TV Tropes, which discusses story bits – plots, characters and character development patterns, and every-bloody-other thing. It’s not limited to television, but includes a billion illustrations from literature, movies, comic books, and all other forms of story-telling entertainment. I doesn’t take much poking around in this wiki to find that one’s “wholly original” character/plot/device/concept is in fact, as old as dirt.

    Truly, as Ecclesiastes said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

    Reply
  50. Ian

    “It kills me that S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was only 16.”

    Yes, but Albert Camus had written it already, so she probably just copied it as a school exercise, which neatly wraps up this thread, apart from the fact that there are still hundreds of other people, apart from ourselves, who want to get Nathan to be their agent so this thread will just run and run.

    Reply
  51. Neil

    Scott — I'm certainly not endorsing this "literary mash-up" thing, dude. Frankly I think it'll get real old real fast — you know, Hamlet rewritten to include scenes of him battling zombies and all that — but prepare for a slew of them, because this concept is selling. AND there's an argument that says this "PP&Z" book will introduce a whole bunch of readers to Austen when they otherwise wouldn't have touched her with a ten-foot wooden stake. Personally, I think the whole thing screams "transient fad". But I ain't no oracle.

    Reply
  52. Mira

    Ian,

    I’m not coming here to get Nathan to be my agent.

    I’m coming here because I want to eat a good lunch.

    But.

    Really. Some people may want to add their thoughts to the topic. They may find it interesting. Even though someone said the same thing earlier in the thread, they want to say it in their own way, with their own slant.

    Sort of on topic, right?

    Reply
  53. Anonymous

    Ironically, my last rejection went something like this: “We enjoyed reading all three of your [requested] manuscripts and found them to be very unique and original. Unfortunately we didn’t connect with the voices and didn’t care about the characters as much as we would have liked.”

    Right. So my writing is unique and original but it sucks. I keep getting similar rejections so I guess I just have to accept that I’m an idea man and not an ‘execution’ man.

    Maybe I’m just cranky about the fact that people who /aren’t/ unique and original still seem to get published, even if their execution isn’t that great either. Am I the only one here who feels like more is expected of me than others?

    Reply
  54. Anonymous

    Don’t color too far outside the lines.

    Reply
  55. Anonymous

    Inventing a new genre is way out there. But what I thinkl is doable is to craft orginal plots/concpets within existing genres. Of course just having a unique plot is not enough–it must be well executed and conform to the expectations/tropes of that genre.

    Reply
  56. Anonymous

    Originality is definitely not everytthing. How many times has the old cop-on-his-last-day-before-retirement-gets-into-the-case-of-his-life trope been used in both movies and books?!

    Reply
  57. Scott

    I hear you, Neil. And it’s difficult to intelligently criticize something without coming off like you’re bitter about the author’s success or want them to do badly. That’s totally not the truth. More power to the author, here.

    Heck, any one of my larks–or concerted literary efforts–can get picked up and I’d be fine with it. It says more about the market than anything.

    Reply
  58. Christine H

    Mira,

    WILL YOU CUT IT OUT!!!! Ice cream now? Oh my goodness, girl, you are addicted to your profile pic!

    You’re as bad as Bo and women.

    Everyone else,

    My comment on the ACTUAL TOPIC OF THIS POST is this:

    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 So that’s what I’m doing. History (and perhaps Nathan) will decide if I succeeded.

    Reply
  59. T. Anne

    It would be an interesting exercise to give a group of writers the concept of a story, then see the different directions they each choose to run with.

    Reply
  60. Kristin Laughtin

    Aren’t there only seven unique storylines or something like that? I remember hearing something like that in some literature class years ago. If you condense a storyline down far enough, it will sound like hundreds of others. What makes it stand out is the details.

    Reply
  61. The Writers Canvas

    Good points, Nathan. My TV/film college professor always loved the “there are only 7 plots” speech.

    I really did enjoy the being an agent for a day exercise. It’s opened my eyes!

    Elaine

    Reply
  62. Mechelle Avey

    Ian said — “apart from the fact that there are still hundreds of other people, apart from ourselves, who want to get Nathan to be their agent so this thread will just run and run.”

    I’ve already been rejected by Nathan. Doesn’t mean I don’t think he’s a great agent. I see him as a must read because he is a lighting rod for agent thought at the moment. Don’t you all agree? If his blog is being written about in the UK, he could reasonably be seen as a cultural icon. Maybe it’s temporary, maybe it’s not. Time will tell. There are a lot of blogging agents, but Nathan seems to have touched off a sense of belonging in the writer psyche with his open and helpful nature. He is an agent who “clears the adversarial air” between writer and agent. Sorry, Nathan. I know you’re human and all…don’t mean to relegate you to culture icon.

    Reply
  63. lospi

    I still say there’s a difference between the canard of “only seven stories” and a shelf full of books where a civilian and a law-enforcement professional, one or both of whom have secrets from the past, fall in love while eluding a serial killer. It’s not archetypical, it’s derivative.

    Reply
  64. Neil

    Uh-oh, Mechelle. You gone and done it now. You called Nathan a “cultural icon”. Prepare for the emergence of his hitherto well-concealed gargantuan diva’s ego! *braces himself*

    Reply
  65. PurpleClover

    Of course you’re right.

    *says through clenched teeth*

    I thought it sounded “done” so I passed. But I should have considered that it was a new voice. Bad PC! But I agree with your post.

    And I have a new genre for you.

    Suburban Fantasy 😉

    Celebrity Philosophy :{

    SciFi Non-Fiction (?)

    Sorry. I’ll be serious now. Though I really think Suburban Fantasy can work…

    Reply
  66. frau

    I want to add this thought: not even truly new genres, ideas and plots come out of any one individual author, but from big societal shifts.

    The basic tropes we have here in the West are somewhat recurring within other cultures, but then again there are those tropes and story arches from, say, the African or Asian literature tradition that don’t resonate with us as much – because they’re not as familiar. So of course you can say there are “three fundamental plots”, but their fundaments came from the building blocks our culture used to build a tradition of thought. Linear thinking here in the West, for example.

    Anyway: new tropes and ideas come in spurts, as our society undergoes big shifts – the Sci-Fi genre, for example, was a direct reaction to the industrial revolution. It wasn’t any one writer or story, but a wave of individually unrelated authors cementing it.

    True originality seems to come from being able to fully understand a trope, then push and flex it in different ways. Consequently it frequently comes from authors that have a meta-insight into culture: I’m thinking of Murakami – I think he understands how to use elements of Japanese storytelling culture in a way that resonates with the Western reader, too.

    Am I making any sense? Anyone have more examples?

    Reply
  67. Marilyn Peake

    Nathan said:
    ” … it’s also because it’s very nearly impossible to be wholly original. Even when new genres are invented they tend to use classic story arcs that have been around for millennia — the coming of age story, the great man with a fatal flaw, the hubris tragedy, the celebrity memoir. When new genres are invented they just place these stories in a new world.”

    I think that’s because literature arises out of human need. People read books or see movies because they want to see human problems resolved. The arts are limited by human nature, not by lack of imagination. We live on Earth, we only have so many needs, we perceive a limited number of physical dimensions, we see a limited range of the light spectrum and hear a limited range of sound. In The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka wrote about a man waking up as an insect, but the short story dealt primarily with human emotions. If we were cockroaches with the I.Q. of Kafka, we might write horror stories about huge boots floating overhead trying to squash us, historical novels about how we used to inhabit the ancient civilization of Egypt, and romance novels in which … oops, that would be human literature.

    Reply
  68. Neil

    Marilyn —

    I think you’re onto something. I think “The Cockroach Chronicles” — if you’ll forgive the pun — has legs…

    Reply
  69. Laurel

    I was gratified to read this post. I AM that reader…finish a great book and after tearing through everything else by that author I immediately start trolling Amazon for “readers who bought this book also bought…”

    Rowling, Paolini, David Eddings, and dozens of others in the fantasy genres almost all do a version of Arthur and Merlin. Tolkein’s Gandalf is Middle Earth Merlin with Frodo as a humble Arthur. Pride and Prejudice gets redone because chicks dig Byronic heroes, not because everyone is trying to rip off Jane Austen. Rick Riordan has done great things with Greek mythology in his Percy Jackson series.

    When I see a story that looks familiar with a character I haven’t met yet, I can’t wait to read it. Sometimes the only new twist I need is a compelling character.

    But what do I know? I’m just the end consumer.

    Reply
  70. Mira

    Frau, you make a good point about the time creating the genre, but I’m not sure it holds true across the board.

    Let me give you two examples.

    My understanding is that Tolkien was heavily inspired by the horrors of World War II to create his saga.

    Whereas I’m creating a unique and original genre because I want to have lunch with Nathan.

    Now, granted these are two similar examples, but I think you can see that the indivdual motivations contributed to the scenarios.

    Reply
  71. Dorothy

    Guilty as charged. I am always the one looking for something different. In books and in the rest of my journeys. Wise words. Thanks

    Reply
  72. bukarella

    I think this is one of those things that everyone knows, but not everyone remembers. I guess nothing matters as much as voice. I think I can read just about any genre, if the voice appeals to me.

    Then of course, as a writer, you get this wonderful idea, and you are thrilled at how original and unique it is, until the day after… You do a little bit of research, and realize there are 20 books with the same premise already out on the shelves. heh!

    Reply
  73. Anonymous

    Nathan,

    That was beautiful. Hope to the hopeless, yet hard a work.

    Reply
  74. frau

    Mira,

    Haha. The desire to eat lunch with / via / served atop of cute guys is of course a natural engine of change, so that would be an exception.

    But I do think that, as much as individual situations enable writers to produce something, the mojo mind stuff that comes to infuse it with something new sneaks its way in by virtue of larger societal conditions having changed.

    I think, for example, that we’ll be seeing a lot more meta-tropes in literature because of the internet. We’ve gotten very self-conscious of what identity means and how easy it is to recreate it by yourself, so a possible new genre in the future would focus on that.

    Genres are a way to deal with some new addition or complication to human life, ultimately.

    Reply
  75. Anonymous

    T. Anne said…

    It would be an interesting exercise to give a group of writers the concept of a story, then see the different directions they each choose to run with.Wow, Anne, I love that.
    Maybe you could sponsor that or maybe Nathan could consider it for his next contest.

    (And, in my dreams, afterwards, we could possibly *nicely* workshop the results.)

    Reply
  76. Mira

    Actually, Frau, in all seriousness, I agree with you.

    I think it’s not just societal changes, but the collective unconscious.

    Sychronicity is a really interesting phenomenom, where several people think of the same new idea at the same time.

    It’s almost like the collective unconscious has decided it’s time for a new vision, and it tries to send that vision out several different channels until it’s been seen.

    Reply
  77. frau

    Mira,

    exactly! Originally I wanted to say something about how the light bulb, the telegraph, etc actually had two different people invent them at the same time – but I couldn’t remember names or details so I just didn’t go there.

    It really IS a question of a deeper, collective thought process suddenly finding the right moment to mature, at which point those people that’ve paid attention to its rumblings the most snatch it up and do something with it.

    I’m so psyched to see what kind of literature will start popping up in a couple of years. Internet has changed our whole way of living so much, SOMETHING’s gotta shake up.

    Reply
  78. Mira

    Frau – I know. The internet an amazing new playground for creativity.

    I do think that there is a relatively new genre that’s been created – narrative non-fiction, and the internet contributed to the creation of that.

    Never before, in the history of man, have so many people had so much access to information.

    You used to need to buy huge encylopedia sets that were rarely, if ever, updated. Now, constantly changing and updating information is available and the click of a mouse.

    In terms of the collective unconscious, it means we can go back and look at history with very fresh eyes.

    Thus, narrative non-fiction.

    In theory, anyway.

    Reply
  79. Beatriz Kim

    How can stories be really that original or different from what’s been done before? It can’t be done. Were human and we can’t help writing from that perspective…unless there really are aliens among us…just kidding!

    It’s also why stories still sell. In the end, we want to connect with the human experience. Thank goodness that we’re so different at the same time. Our different perspectives are influenced by our experiences, cultures, philosophy, and religious beliefs.

    Many readers are curious. They want to see new ways of looking at the same old thing. For example, Monet, Van Gogh, and Georgia O’Keefe painted flowers, but each had a very unique way of painting them. No one would deny that all three are masters at their craft.

    Writers must also work on their craft, to create masterpieces. They must take the same old story and give it a fresh appearance.

    Monet abandoned the classical and realistic paintings of flowers; he painted just the impression of them, using color and light. Van Gogh changed the world of impressionism by using an impasto style; his works were more violent and passionate than Monet. Georgia O’Keefe made a small Pansy the size of a 6 foot man; giving people the opportunity to feel like the hungry bee.

    Writing is the same. What makes your story special? Why should people read it?

    Like I do for painting, I study the masters. My favorite is Tolstoy. He can show you the personality of a character, by how they put away their coat or hold a cigar. Wow! If only I could have 50% of his talent!

    Sorry for the long entry. I was on the debate team; I’m always debating my point.

    Nathan,

    I could never do your job! I couldn’t get past 15 entries. I’m glad there are people like you in the world of publishing. How else would good books find their way to the readers?

    Have a great day everybody!

    Reply
  80. Lady Glamis

    Well said! I’ve had these same thoughts and always try to combine two different things to create something fresh and exciting, but comfortable for the reader.

    Reply
  81. Anonymous

    I don’t think any prospective writer should have an aversion to standing on the shoulders of giants.

    You will literally go insane if try and avoid all established literary tropes, themes and motifs. They exist because they work, and because readers respond to them.

    That being said I do think there are occasions where we have to call a spade a spade. There’s a difference between taking influence and inspiration from previous works, and putting yourself in a position where if Joe Eszterhas’ lawyer rings, you aren’t taking his call.

    Simon

    Reply
  82. Anonymous

    I would think this fear of repeating an idea would only be mortifying in those cases where a piece of writing relies heavily on one central conceit.

    eg. the perfect murder (you do it with a knife made of ice. don’t tell anyone)

    I guess it would be a crushing blow to find the revelatory twist in your whodunnit had been dunn before, but any story that rests so heavily on a single idea is likely to be seriously flawed regardless.

    Simon

    Reply
  83. Marilyn Peake

    frau said:
    “I’m so psyched to see what kind of literature will start popping up in a couple of years. Internet has changed our whole way of living so much, SOMETHING’s gotta shake up.”

    I think that’s already happening. I think one of the main reasons emphasis is now placed on tightly-written novels is because computers have made editing so much easier. I think that the demand to strip down writing to its bare essentials, taking out extra adjectives and adverbs is because readers have been trained to soak up huge amounts of information from social networking sites, and have come to appreciate information in thoughtfully worded sound bites. Readers don’t want to ponder and decipher long Russian literature type paragraphs. They want info. And they want it now. In as few character spaces as possible. Flash fiction’s a popular modern art form. I heard someone’s creating a flash fiction anthology over at Twitter where every entry must be 140 characters or less (don’t know if it’s true or not).

    I read today that Susan Boyle doesn’t own a computer. She might not even know what a sound bite is. Is there no end to her lack of conformity? 🙂

    Reply
  84. lotusgirl

    Holy cow! You’ve gotten so popular I can hardly scroll down to the bottom of your comments anymore, and I wonder sometime, “What’s the point of adding my voice to the rest of these?” My voice is unique, though, so I add it even if it’s repetitious. Nothing new under the sun and all that jazz. It’s at least as much about the storyteller as it is about the story. Execution! Do we slay the story or the readers?

    Reply
  85. Robena Grant

    For what it’s worth, I read an article years ago on The Seven Original Story Ideas. Don’t have the original to give credit, only my notes. The article claimed all plots whether simple or complex, novel, poem, play, or movie, were born from one of only seven possibilities:

    Fact
    Failure
    Fantasy
    Fear
    Fidelity
    Freedom
    Fortune

    What do you think?

    Reply
  86. PurpleClover

    We were having a similar discussion at the blog Lisa & Laura Write (Lisa & Laura Roecker).

    We've had the experience to write something and then pick up a book (obviously a genre we love) and find that certain aspects are very close to what we've written. Spooky.

    Even those with brand-spanking new ideas probably share these ideas with others.

    So Mira – I like your concept on the collective unconscious.

    We will always have a WOW artist. But for the most part we just have to give different spins on the same ol' idea.

    word ver: tatte

    Reply
  87. Aimless Writer

    After playing agent I have a few questions.
    1. Does the kiss-up in the first paragraph really mean anything to you? When I say I love your blog and think you’re the best agent in the world …do you even read that? (I found myself skimming)
    2. If they say its one genre but you can tell it doesn’t fit there but the hook looked good would you still request?
    3. What would make you stop dead? Is there anything that would make you toss it before reading the whole page? Punctuation mistakes? A misspelled word?
    4. Do you like it when we attach a chapter?
    Which famous author would you love to have in your stable?

    Reply
  88. Max Cool

    This is a really interesting place, but you’re wrong about the alien DNA theory.

    What really happened – this was about 65,000 BC – there were two groups of competing humanoids.

    One colony had 6 fingers on each hand, had mastered construction, domestication of animals, hydraulics, and even basic flight.

    On the other side of the valley was a bunch of inbred hick good ‘ole boy wifebeaters who only knew how to brew alcohol and cook crack cocaine.

    Then there was a war.

    Reply
  89. Dawn Maria

    If anyone has read Jasper Fforde’s wonderful Tuesday Next series (well worth the time), one of the plot devices he uses in his Book World is the last (and highly guarded) original story idea. Some even doubt if it actually exists.

    Reply
  90. Jen C

    I don’t agree at all that it’s impossible to create an original plot. Just because none of us can come up with one, doesn’t mean that some bright genius won’t be able to do it in the future.

    After all, it was our ancestors who invented the plots we have in the first place, so it stands to reason that someone with a massive uber-brain in this day and age could have the capacity to invent something new.

    It’s only that tiny, minuscule number of people who are able to truly dream up something new, but that gosh for them…

    Reply
  91. Mechelle Avey

    I know Neil. It sounds like pandering, doesn’t it? Nathan seems remarkably lacking in ego, but what do we really know about him?
    Then again, when you are surrounded by the titans of publishing, it’s hard to be a big-head.

    By the way, Marilyn, I tried to post compliments about your submission to the blog yesterday. For some reason, they never took. I requested your story anon… I also loved the Japanese one. Inunga? Can’t remember the title. I requested 8 stories in all. Oops. Stopped requesting after I realized that this was not a free-for-all. There were many more that I would have liked to request.

    Reply
  92. Endless Secrets

    Nathan,
    Of course I must agree and this is what kills me when I sit down to write because my characters are so alive inside of me, but the story that they are set in can be connected to millions of others.

    But I do have a very significant difference that to my knowledge has never been done.

    Great Post Nathan!

    Reply
  93. Anonymous

    Just remember what Einstein said: “The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.”

    Reply
  94. TecZ aka Dalton C Teczon - Writer

    What you said makes sense. I think it’s that human need to find something familiar to anchor to while you explore something new.

    Reply
  95. Marilyn Peake

    Mechelle Avey said:
    “By the way, Marilyn, I tried to post compliments about your submission to the blog yesterday. For some reason, they never took. I requested your story anon…”

    Thank you very much! That means so much to me. I’m struggling to finish a novel by this week or next, and that was like a pep talk for me.

    Reply
  96. Jen C

    Marilyn, good luck with finishing your latest book! I just downloaded Cannon Fodder from Fictionwise and I’m trying to not get busted reading it at work! So far, it’s excellent and I can’t wait to get home and read the rest.

    Reply
  97. Kimber An

    “About once a generation a Mary Shelley or H.G. Wells or Tolkien or S.E. Hinton comes along to invent a new genre basically from scratch. Odds are you’re not that person (although if you are, I want to meet you).”

    If originality is so overrated, how on earth will you know such a person when you do meet him or her?

    Reply
  98. Christine H

    Readers don’t want to ponder and decipher long Russian literature type paragraphs. Oh, Marilyn, I do! I do!

    How I long for a real book… one that lets me savor the experience of reading it… one that I have to read through a couple of times to get all of the meanings.

    I am so tired of neat, concise little info packages. It’s like the entire world has turned into a 10-second commercial.

    Isn’t this really a type of cultural ADHD? Aren’t we requiring less of our readers because we think they aren’t willing to give it? And does that not feed the cultural attention deficit even more?

    I know this is all hypothetical, and it doesn’t sell books. But I just love books that start with “info dumps.” Please, let me get to know something about the characters and their backgrounds before you start messing with them! Is that too much to ask?

    “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. She was the youngest of two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father…” –Emma by Jane Austen

    Reply
  99. Christine H

    It would be an interesting exercise to give a group of writers the concept of a story, then see the different directions they each choose to run with.Awesome, awesome idea!!!!

    Reply
  100. Martin

    Isn’t that exactly what we’ve been talking about? Different writers taking the SAME idea and putting their own spin on it? You just described mass market publishing! 🙂

    Reply
  101. Anonymous

    Nathan, my respect for you as an agent and person just grows and grows.

    Reply
  102. Hope Clark

    It’s called voice. Voice is what sells a story – any story. It’s more how you tell it, not what you tell.

    Reply
  103. Christine H

    I was just thinking how cool it would be to have all the stories (or a selection of them) published in one volume. It would be such a great teaching tool, for college professors, adult writing classes, and the like.

    Reply
  104. Christine H

    I mean, short stories, that is. Under 4,000 words.

    Reply
  105. Vic K

    I might be the one dissenting voice amongst this chorus of agreement…

    Bravely then;

    As Agent-for-a-day, I focused on original concepts. That’s because I actively look for original ideas when I’m shopping for new books – and when I’m writing too of course – and so I reasoned agents would be on the look out for what readers want.

    My argument here, very respectfully Nathan, is that I think you’re confusing plot with concept.

    I absolutely agree that there are no new original plots to be found.

    I do believe however that there are many original concepts. Just off the top of my head, Naomi Novik’s bestselling Temeraire series delivered an original concept – dragons alive in the Napoleonic era. Robin Hobb’s wizard wood ‘Ship of Magic’ series, Melanie Rawn’s Sunrunners, Anne McCaffery’s ‘Ship who sang’ series, ‘Crystal Singer’ series and ‘Dragons of Pern’ series – those were all original concepts delivered within a plot framework that was not so original.

    So two things; first my list is mostly fantasy. (If you missed it, that’s my genre.) Second, I believe original concepts are more important in fantasy than other genres. I venture to say that we fantasy writers and readers search for original ideas and are excited when we find them.

    (Which is exactly why Paolini is not a good example for dedicated fantasists. Few to zero original ideas.)

    Anyway, my argument here boils down to this; amongst fantasy, (Maybe various other genres too, but I’m prepared to comment only on my own for the moment) there should be a continual striving for original concepts and ideas. The plot doesn’t matter, so long as it is half way interesting, but the delivery of original concepts is important.

    Hm. I might stretch to include science fiction. After all, don’t we read futuristic stories to partly get our brain stretched y encountering thoughts, imagery and concepts we’ve never met or considered before?

    I agree that occasionally you do find a rip-roaring yarn that doesn’t have a huge amount to offer in the way of original concepts (Name of the Wind say, which had many little brilliant ideas but no breathtakingly large one) but the delivery and writing is so good no one cares and it never impacts on sales.

    So I’m in agreement that original concepts arenn’t the only important factor. Sure, maybe they’re not even that high on the list in comparison to other elements. A unique take or a unique voice is just as essential.

    I just wouldn’t ever discount original concepts as being overrated in fiction.

    Vic K

    Reply
  106. Mira

    Hmmm.

    I ate lunch today. After awhile it dawned on me that you weren't there, Nathan.

    Something seems to have gone wrong with my plan here. All the elements were there:

    >Told Nathan I had a unique genre idea.

    Check.

    >Told him I was available to discuss it at lunch.

    Check.

    >Ate lunch.

    Check.

    Hmmm. What's missing here? What piece of the equation is missing?

    I'm bothered. I'm bewildered. I'd say I was bewitched but that's just silly.

    After all, I'm trying to be rational here.

    There's something missing. What part of my machiavellian plan has gone awry?

    What? What am I missing? What?

    Reply
  107. Martin

    Actually, years ago at a convention I picked up a little Japanese anthology (translated to English) called “There was a knock”. It was a collection of stories that all started with that sentence. Not exactly the same thing, but it was fascinating to read.

    Reply
  108. morphine-moniza

    Oh there definietly is no such thing as truly unique fiction. There cannot be. Fiction has to be derivitive because that’s what appeals to readers. We expect certain tropes when we read books, and if our expectations are flouted for no good reason the book feels unsatisfactory.

    The tools we have to use to create novels already exist, the best books conceal this fact.

    Reply
  109. Nathan Bransford

    vic-

    That’s a great comment. I think you’re right that in fantasy and probably science fiction there are more wholly original concepts because by nature they’re dealing with the impossible. But I still think it fits into the overall framework of the post because even if they’re still set in very unique worlds they’re often even more dependent upon classical plot tropes to anchor them.

    But that’s a great addendum to the post.

    Reply
  110. Anonymous

    I actually think fantasy and hard SF are less original than most genres. It’s all the same–wizards, dragons, aliens–what’s so original about that? Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

    Reply
  111. Anonymous

    How ’bout Brokeback Mountain from the POV of the horses?

    Bounce up on it, genre bandwagon riders!

    Reply
  112. Christine H

    Dear Anonymous,

    Just wait ’til you read my fantasy novel. Then you’ll find out what original is!

    (Whenever I stop posting here and get around to finishing it, that is.)

    (Yes, Mira, I’m changing my profile pic. Playing around to see which one I like best. Should I be myself, or a sunrise, or something else? Not sure.)

    Reply
  113. Marilyn Peake

    Christine H,

    I’m also a huge fan of Russian novels. I’m guessing that one day someone will write an amazingly thick book with lots of adjectives, adverbs, flowery prose and complicated ideas, and it will be the next hot thing. The Harry Potter books proved that kids like to read, even when popular rumor had it that they didn’t.

    Reply
  114. Marilyn Peake

    Nathan said:
    ” … in fantasy and probably science fiction there are more wholly original concepts because by nature they’re dealing with the impossible.”

    I love that science fiction has led to real-world scientific inventions. I’ve been doing quite a bit of research into time travel for the science fiction novel I’ve just about completed, and it amazes me that scientists quote both Einstein and science fiction writers in explaining theories they’re developing. Very exciting!

    Reply
  115. Mira

    Marilyn,

    Lol. You could be right about the Russian novel. I can just see it. Then suddenly EVERYONE will write one.

    So, back to you Nathan.

    I’m trying to figure out where I went wrong here.

    Maybe it was that I invited you to lunch. Perhaps that wasn’t appropriate given that we’ve never met and I would have made you pay for it.

    Of course you didn’t know I would have made you pay, but it’s possible something about our prior interacts would have led you to intuit it.

    Maybe our first meeting should be in a more appropriate venue. A place where two strangers can meet for the first time to have a sedate and productive business discussion.

    Breakfast.

    Breakfast tomorrow, okay?

    Your treat. Just let me know where.

    Cool. Breakfast with Nathan. Has a ring to it.

    Reply
  116. Marilyn Peake

    Mira said:
    “Lol. You could be right about the Russian novel. I can just see it. Then suddenly EVERYONE will write one.”

    Uh-oh. It could take a whole lot more time to write those kind of tomes. We might have to give up Twitter and changing our blog pics.

    Reply
  117. Vic K

    Thanks Nathan. : ) And I do agree – many of these novels do rest their original concepts upon classical plot tropes. As a reader and writer, I absolutely don’t have a problem with that so long as the concepts they are delivering within that framework are original.

    I know there is plenty of fantasy writing out there that is just a regurgitation of the same ideas and concepts – as Anon 7:06 points out – but I’m not writing it, and (sorry Paolini) I’m not reading it either.

    When fantasy is done well, it still takes the world by storm; of the top bestselling books worldwide, (including Tolkien and Rowling amongst others) a surprising amount of them are fantasy novels.

    Anyway, I’m getting a little off-topic, but my point was mainly the importance of originality in the genre – the very best writers have it at some level in their work.

    (By best, I’m taking the definition decided on in Nathan’s blog some months back when we were discussing the long term impact a book has on society.)

    Agreed, Rowling may not have had an original plot with the wizard school but the originality at the execution level of her work is legendary for a reason. You could potentially make a sound argument that those wildly exciting and original concepts are part of the reason her work is so popular.

    Vic K

    Reply
  118. Pattie Garner

    Okay Nathan, so this has nothing to do with your topic–sorry–but that’s why I like you. I want a serious answer. When do you give up? When do you realize you just aren’t going to get an agent and your writing sucks? How do you come to terms with that simple fact?

    Reply
  119. PurpleClover

    Marilyn –

    That was actually what I was hinting towards with the “scifi non-fiction”…lol.

    It’s amazing what was scifi only decades ago (Portable phones you say??! YEAH RIGHT! Flying cars?? NO WAY!)

    I guess its still an old story with a new spin? sigh.

    SciFi definitely deserves its kudos though. It is pushing our society forward.

    Reply
  120. fatcaster

    Anon 7:07

    Brokeback w/horse POV wouldn’t be a new genre. It’s A Stranger Comes to Town plus Someone Takes a Ride–err, Journey (Well, maybe you could call it a genrebender):

    Horse #1: “They’re at it again. Again!”
    Horse #2: “Yep. Just like rabbits.”

    Reply
  121. PurpleClover

    Mira – Hmm…you want a contract with Nathan.

    I can think of a document with your name on it he might consider signing right now…

    😉 (I kid.)

    Reply
  122. Mira

    Pattie – I’ll answer that one, even though you didn’t ask me.

    Never. It’s okay to take a break for awhile. But don’t give up.

    William Saroyan had a pile of rejections 30 inches high.

    Keep going. Keep on. Keep on. Keep on.

    Marilyn, that’s awful. No twitter and blog pictures? We can’t have that. Let’s start an anti-russian novel movement and nip this looming evil in the bud.

    Uh, well, we can form the movement after we do our important twitter and blog picture work, of course.

    Reply
  123. Mira

    Purple Clover

    What? What document? A signing contract? A publishing agreement? A breakfast menu?

    What? What?

    Now I can’t sleep. What does Purple Clover know that I don’t.

    What?

    Reply
  124. Marilyn Peake

    PurpleClover said:
    “It’s amazing what was scifi only decades ago (Portable phones you say??! YEAH RIGHT! Flying cars?? NO WAY!)”

    I know. Right? I’ve been reading some amazing non-fiction books about time travel by scientists at major universities … and, man, they’ve got me convinced it could happen in our lifetime, even though I can’t really wrap my brain around that as a reality.

    Reply
  125. PurpleClover

    Marilyn-

    I’ve been doing physics research *smacks face* for a MS and if I mention one more iota of theory and/or revelation, my husband and friends are going to abandon me. I think it’s fascinating! But how silly our grandchildren will think us when we tell them it wasn’t invented yet in our time. 😉

    My gramma likes to remind me of all the things that did not exist before I came along. I’m sure I’ll be doing the same. 🙂

    Reply
  126. Mira

    Oh I get it. Purple Clover is just torturing me.

    This isn’t the first time she’s done this – tormented poor, innocent Mira.

    I’ll tell Nathan all about it at breakfast. I’m sure he’ll be very nice – pat me on the head and tell me I don’t deserve to be treated this way.

    So there.

    Pffffttttt.

    Then we’ll have a very mature, professional discussion about genres.

    Reply
  127. frau

    Mira, I think he’s getting at the bunny-boiling woman trope? How unimaginative (of him, not you – I’m pretty sure you’d come up with something way better than bunnies, which are so very 80’s).

    I think there needs to be a distinction between “original” and “unique”.

    Since nothing can ever truly be original, in the sense of coming out of nowhere, what you as writers (THAT’S RIGHT I AM NOT A WRITER YET I AM ON THIS BLOG! UNIVERSE PLOTLINE: IMPLODED) would be striving for is the “unique”.

    Combining mojo words and ideas in such a way that they reflect already existing concepts, but in a way that puts them in a new light. Or putting into words new concepts emerging in the real world nobody has recognized or grappled with yet (see modernity, surveillance society).

    Yes, the hero gets the girl, but what if the hero is a massively depressed gerbil and the girl actually has a chromosome syndrome?

    I also think most basic plots stem from basic social needs. In a culture that prizes individual identity and a linear conception of time, the basic plot will rely heavily on these things.

    In a culture that prizes collective might and functions within ideas of circular time, though, the basic plot will still involve love and social redemption but have a very different arc and tropes.

    Reply
  128. Jil

    Christine H. I so agree with you! Some people do still want the experience of being taken to another place, feeling the breeze, hearing the sounds and savoring the land. It’s about sharing another person’s life. Looking deeply into another’s heart and taking time to feel their emotions. These readers like to have their souls touched or memories stirred so when they have finished reading they sit quietly, not wanting to leave that other world and its characters.

    Science fiction seldom makes one cry and the books I remember from when I was a child were the ones that moved me most and even brought me to tears.

    Lastly:
    Whatever is written will be original to somebody.

    Reply
  129. Mira

    Um, I almost hate to ask this, but what is a bunny-boiling troupe?

    Why is this blog suddenly so unfamiliar and confusing?

    Bunny-boiling troupes? Nathan signing unknown contracts?

    Have I changed my blog picture so many times that I’ve entered an alternate universe where people speak in words that are oddly familiar, yet strangly unintelligible?

    Am I in a different story arc than I thought?

    Ooooo.

    Maybe I’m in a new genre.

    That’s it. The way to create a new genre. I discovered it. Me.

    First you change your blog picture a million times. Then reality shifts and ta da! New genre.

    Boy. I can’t wait to tell Nathan at breakfast. Now, I actually have a new genre to talk about. I thought I’d have to dodge that question with witty repartee about waffles.

    Which isn’t easy. Conventional wisdom may tell you otherwise, but there really is only so much you can say about waffles.

    I can go to bed tonight with a clear conscience.

    Thank you, my odd but strangly unintelligible friends. You have brought me peace.

    Reply
  130. Mira

    I don’t know if anyone’s noticed, but I’m practicing writing comedy on Nathan’s blog.

    The situations here strike me as hilarious sometimes. The muse swoops in. I also find that the subtle pressure, and the feeling of pushing the envelope doesn’t hurt.

    Hope it doesn’t bug anyone.

    But writing comedy is hard sometimes. Sometimes it flows like water, other times it gets all clunky.

    I think the trick is to not push it. Well, I’m still learning the trick of it.

    Anyway, thanks for putting up with my practicing. Thanks especially to Nathan.

    Reply
  131. Whirlochre

    Most of the tropes have been tackled in an ironic way too.

    Reply
  132. Newbee

    I could say so much on this topic today. But,…this is what I will say… I do agree with you Nathan. People want something like other famous books out there, but different. I hope to have such a thing. In creating my story, this was exactly my thought process. (Fingers Crossed)…Hopefully hitting the nail on the head.

    Reply
  133. knight_tour

    This resonated strongly with me. On the writing forum I frequent one cannot post any query or chapter sample with an elf or a dragon in it without people criticizing the work as derivative. I would argue that there are many fantasy lovers, including myself, who love the traditional elements of fantasy, such as trolls, goblins, wizards and so on. In fantasy, at least, I wish they would stop harping on originality so much and focus on the freshness of the story.

    Reply
  134. Neil

    Wow, did anyone see this (from The Guardian): “Random House…yesterday announced the record-breaking first print run of 6.5 million copies of The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown’s follow-up to The Da Vinci Code…an unprecedented number for a new fiction title.” 6.5 MILLION. Muh-illion. Whatever you want to say about Dan Brown’s writing — and the guy certainly has his detractors — that’s a LOT of books. What I want to hope for out of this is that this print run translates into massive blockbusting sales, and therefore Random House has much more spare cash to spend on new, exciting, emerging authors. At least, that’s what they *should* be doing with the profits. I can dream…

    Reply
  135. knight_tour

    Sorry to add another comment, but I just saw Vic K’s comments about fantasy readers wanting completely new takes on plots. I agree that many fantasy readers do want that, but I would argue that there are a great many who disagree. When I read the back cover of a fantasy novel and see something like ‘dragons in the age of Napoleon’, my eyes glaze over and I drop it right back on the shelf. To me, that may be ‘original’ but it doesn’t feel authentic to me. I think there are a good number of fantasy lovers who prefer a great new story but set in a traditional, realistic setting. One can complain about an author putting dwarves in mountains as derivative, but I would say that this is just where dwarves live. You can make a story about dwarves living in high rises, and I am sure you would find an audience, but I wouldn’t read it. Different tastes and all that.

    Reply
  136. Anonymous

    In response to Vic.

    An admirable championing of the fantasy genre, but for those of us on the outside looking in, the positives that you site are possibly the very barriers we can’t/won’t overcome.

    I consciously swerve any book with an innovative or ‘high’ concept (as I do with films), whether that be Wizard Schools, or dragons in Napoleonic era France.

    The best new book I’ve read in the last year could be summed up as ‘a cross-continental family saga’. Nothing there that sounds innovative or even particularly interesting, but I bought ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ because I heard it was brilliantly written. And it was. Completely.

    Not trying to start an inter-genre war (I respect anyone’s thirst for books) just pointing out that one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

    Simon

    Reply
  137. Kate

    A fascinating post, thanks.

    It’s interesting how the same idea can be told in so many different ways. I’ve used the same basic concepts in more than one of my stories and always been surprised at how redically different the end result can be!

    Reply
  138. Christine H

    I totally agree with knight-tour on the fantasy stuff. If I saw a book about dwarves in high rises, I would put it down, too.

    Fantasy has its rules, just as real life does. These rules are not arbitrary, but are the product of hundreds of years of lore and cultural presence. Even Tolkein’s elves – the big, strong, magical people not in the least like Santa’s – were based on Norse mythology.

    I am writing fantasy. I never really thought I would. But this story has very real, living characters in it who are the focus of the story. Any magic or mystical stuff is sort of incidental to the plot.

    What makes fantasy work as a genre is the way it takes us out of ourselves and the real world we have to deal with every day, and puts the distilled concepts of truth, loyalty, love, honor, etc. into a setting in which they can be more easily understood.

    I have no elves or dwarves. I invented my own race, and their own language. I don’t know if that’s original enough to count as something totally different, but I’m hoping the story itself will move my readers into feeling they were a part of my world for a little while.

    Aden fath! Have Faith!

    Reply
  139. Vic K

    Responding to knight_tour and Simon;

    Thanks guys, for your comments. It’s great to be opening a wider discussion on the subject of fantasy.

    Knight_tour, it’s interesting to hear you think there is a market out there for readers who prefer the same-old same-old. Clearly you’re right, or Paolini wouldn’t be able to make a sale. I’d love to see some solid statistics on this, but I’ve heard that fantasy readers are split rather interestingly across a gender bias line; male readers apparently prefer the basic archetypes provided by Tolkien, Terry Brooks and the like – elves, dwarves, wizards and so on. Female readers are apparently looking for more innovative concepts.

    I’d like to think there is room for all styles of fantasy on the shelf, but I’m beginning to think that might not be so as publishers tighten their belts. I have to hope that their direction will lie in choosing more interesting and concept-driven works of originality going forward. If only because I am certain there are wonderful ideas out there I haven’t read yet that I’m going to love… and I’d rather be falling in love with something new than re-reading the same old stuff written slightly differently.

    For the record, I would rather not write than have a elf, wizard, troll or orc in my work. I’m all for making up new and fresh monsters myself.

    The point you are making is along the lines of what Nathan is saying, but let me ask you this; if you have no new worlds or creatures or concepts, and we’ve more or less agreed there are only seven basic storylines… how do you make your work stand out from the crowd on a fantasy shelf?

    (I’m not saying it can’t be done, but surely it is just as difficult thinking up a new way to say the same old stuff as it is to think up new stuff altogether?)

    Simon, I absolutely agree one man’s meat is another man’s poison. However, I read widely and across numerous genres. I hope you do too, because some of the loveliest writing out there is sitting on the fantasy shelves.

    I’d like to think every writer reads widely and respectfully. There’s beautiful writing to be found in fantasy, just as there is in literary classics and erotic romance novels.

    The reason I write fantasy is because I enjoy the freedom it gives me to say what I want to say about life, living and the world, but wrapped up inside another world. The egg of truth hidden inside the egg of the fantastic, as it were. Sometimes ‘high’ concepts can be a way of delivering a rather interesting truth.

    I don’t think I (or any other writer) are less or more because we’ve chosen to write in the field of genre fiction.

    Vic K

    Reply
  140. Mechelle Avey

    Pattie Garner said…

    Okay Nathan, so this has nothing to do with your topic–sorry–but that’s why I like you. I want a serious answer. When do you give up? When do you realize you just aren’t going to get an agent and your writing sucks? How do you come to terms with that simple fact?–

    —-
    Pattie,

    You give up when they pry the keyboard (or pen, or other writing instrument) from your cold, dead fingers. Writing is a disease. You can run, but you cannot hide. What most of us must realize is that, while Nathan educates and advocates traditional routes for publication, there are limits to the number of writers that traditional publication can support. Books have life cycles in publishing and attention spans are limited. By way of example, my child applied to Georgetown U. Really wanted to go. Even looked good enough on paper for an interview. Unfortunately, didn’t get accepted. Why? Because there were 19,000 other kids applying for 2,000 spaces. Does that mean my child is not smart? Of course not. She got accepted to a great school. She is still doing what she wants to do. All writers struggle with self-image because we get rejected so much. You may be a bad writer. Then again, maybe you’re a good writer and you just need to find that one publisher or agent. If you give up, you won’t ever know. And, having your book in a bookstore is not the only way to be a writer. You can write a blog. You can write stories in your creativity journal. You can write on the bathroom wall (just don’t get caught). Writing for an audience of one is still writing for an audience. I guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t give up. Not yet. Reevaluate, yes. Refine, yes. Relearn. Rewrite, but don’t give up.

    Reply
  141. Christine H

    I also just want to add a quick comment about Tolkein, since Nathan mentioned him as having “invented” a whole new genre.

    I just want to point out that he did this by breaking all the rules. He wrote a very long, very descriptive work that takes 6 books to contain it. And he took a lot of criticism for it, but basically he was out to please himself. He says his was “the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story.”

    He wrote LOTR over a period of 13 years, during which he was employed full time in a very demanding position and had to tend to all the needs of family and such that all of us do, as well as getting through WWII along with the rest of Britain.

    I felt much better when I found out the “13 years” bit, since I’m on my third year of my little piece.

    He drew on his own experiences as a soldier in WWI for the narrative, which causes the obsession with terrain, weather, and food to make sense. As I explained to my ten-year-old nephew, getting from place to place wasn’t easy when you had no cars or McDonald’s! You really did have to worry about these details, or you could die before you got where you were going. Especially a soldier.

    The dead bodies in the water were drawn from his memories of the dead in rain-filled trenches.

    With all that said, I skimmed a lot of the books on the first couple of readings, but what I skimmed were the battle scenes. I read it for the wonderful descriptions, the characters and the poetry.

    The books were published in the fifties, but didn’t actually become popular until the post-Vietnam era, when people were suddenly trying to make sense of the horrible things that had happened. Suddenly, LOTR became culturally relevant. Forty years later, we have these blockbuster movies and the phenomenon is still going strong.

    My point: Don’t be afraid to break the rules, but don’t be upset if people don’t respond right away, either. And… establish yourself first!

    Reply
  142. Matthew R. Loney

    At the same time, I don’t believe that many publishers give off the impression that experimentation – formally or otherwise – is a fruitful endeavor. Up here in Canada, we seem to have a formula for how to write if you ever want to get published.

    Fresh takes on old tropes are great, but the odd run-on sentence or dropping quotation marks seem to be token gestures so that the literary world can still call itself “art” without having to take a risk.

    Experimentation has to be encouraged before it can flourish. And then turn into a trope of its own….

    Reply
  143. Ulysses

    “It would be an interesting exercise to give a group of writers the concept of a story, then see the different directions they each choose to run with.”

    For those of you who find this idea fascinating, you may wish to check out Thema Magazine. Their concept is simple: they propose a theme (eg: “The box under the bed.” “Not recognized at the airport.”) for each issue, and that issue contains stories written around that theme. The variations are remarkable, and one theme was the springboard for one of my own published short stories.

    Reply
  144. knight_tour

    Responding to Vic:

    I am not saying that the traditionalists like bad writing (I won’t direct this at Paolini since I have not read him, but this may apply to him from what I have read). We like authenticity and great writing, such as George R.R. Martin, Fritz Leiber, or Ursula Le Guin to name but a few. My only real point was that I am dismayed when critters on forums cut someone to ribbons in the fantasy genre for being ‘derivative’ when there may be nothing wrong at all with the writing, and I suspect many agents would also hit ‘reject’ right away on many such fantasy stories, failing to understand that there is a huge audience out here craving more. I know it won’t ever be possible, but I would love to see a great writer take some of the more general pieces from Tolkien’s Silmarillion and flesh them out into true books. I also appreciated McKiernan, even though his Iron Tower trilogy was clearly derivative of Tolkien – he was giving us more of what we craved.

    Reply
  145. Terri Nixon

    Just wanted to address this:

    T. Anne said…

    It would be an interesting exercise to give a group of writers the concept of a story, then see the different directions they each choose to run with.This kind of thing goes on all the time on writing forums, it’s a really interesting exercise. On the Kelley Armstrong forum, for instance, we have a word count, a topic and one or two ‘rules’ and then all go off for 2 weeks with those. After that time all the stories are posted (anonymously) and we all vote for our favourite.
    It’s astonishing how different the stories will be, given the strictness of the guidelines.

    Reply
  146. Simon

    FAO Vic K

    thanks for the well reasoned response. Of course you’re bang on about reading widely, and I would like to think I do (European AND American literary fiction, ha!)

    I’m sure there are great works within the fantasy cannon, it’s just I won’t feel compelled to read them until I run out of great literature that doesn’t contain elves.

    I’m sure that’s a frustrating response, and I’m not intending to be willfully obtuse, it’s just where I’m at.

    In my defense I would add that my favourite book of all time could probably be summarised in the single line: the devil comes to Moscow.

    and I’m currently writing something with a mermaid in it, so maybe I’m in need of some genre re-allignment therapy

    Simon

    Reply
  147. Anonymous

    In response to Vic.
    I’m a female fantasy reader/writer and I love elves, dwarves, wizards and dragons and would be greatly disappointed if they were ever completely removed from the fantasy genre. Fresher stories with some familiar concepts is just fine with me.
    Oh, and I enjoyed Eargon. It wasn’t wonderful, but I enjoyed it and it wasn’t until the later books when he lost me (boy needs to listen to his editor :P). Just throwing that out there. 🙂
    -JS
    (Long time reader, first time poster. Nathan, I love your blog!)

    Reply
  148. PurpleClover

    Sorry Mira –

    It was after midnight so I went to bed. I didn’t mean to leave you hanging but I thought you got the joke.

    I was referring to a restraining order. 😉

    I hate when I have to explain punchlines…cause then it means I was laughing alone. 🙁

    Reply
  149. csmith

    @purpleclover

    Nope. Was laughing right along with you and polishing the ice-cream patterned fluffy restraints for Mira’s arrival!

    Reply
  150. Sooki Scott

    No laughing alone for PurpleClover. Like csmith, I got it, too. I chuckled aloud.

    Confucius says, “He who speaks without modesty will find it difficult to make his words good.”

    Reply
  151. Mechelle Avey

    Pattie —

    Don’t give up, that is, unless you’re seriously depressed and considering ending it all because some agent or editor crushed your dreams. In that case, it may be time to take a break. Or take a break from submitting stories. As I thought about my previous post, it occurred to me that no one can tell you when, or if, you should give up. That’s your decision. The only thing Nathan, or any of us, can do is tell you about The Others. You know The Others, don’t you? Stephen King is one of The Others. He threw Carrie into the garbage because he didn’t think he could finish it. He wanted to give up. His wife pulled the story from the trash. She told him to get his butt in gear and finish (my words). That’s what he did. Ultimately, he sold the story for an insultingly low advance, and the rest is history. Carrie earned $400,000 during its first year in publication (at least according to Wikipedia). There are many stories like this in publishing. The Others are the ones who get discouraged, think about giving up, but don’t. Eventually, they make peace with the writing life. They get published or produced. They find a bathroom wall and write their magnum opus. Maybe you, too, are an Other. Maybe you can add to the writer legends, the ones that keep us all going when we get discouraged. Anyway, whether you stick out the rough patch, or strike gold using your creativity in a different way, I wish you luck.

    Reply
  152. Mira

    Purple Clover –

    Restraining order? That’s okay. I don’t need to put out a restraining order on Nathan.

    Thanks for the thought though. But really, he’s been very appropriate in his communications with me.

    So, anyway, it’s almost breakfast time. I was thinking of just showing up at his house and surprising him. What do you think? Yes, I agree, I think that’s a great idea.

    Reply
  153. Mira

    Mechelle, that’s a great story about Stephen King. I didn’t know that.

    I thought everything you said to Pattie was in both posts was really well-spoken.

    I also want to add one thing though. Let’s say the worst is true. You are a bad writer.

    So?

    Get better.

    Musicians practice for hours every day. They do scales over and over and over just to get it right.

    But writers sometimes feel that if it’s a natural gift, it should be effortless.

    I don’t think so. For most people, talent is something that is developed and honed over time.

    Even if you were a ‘bad’ writer, that’s not a static condition.

    Become a better one.

    Reply
  154. csmith

    @Mira

    Well said. Nothing is effortless. Writing is hard graft.

    xx

    Reply
  155. coppervale

    I asked Neil Gaiman to write an intro to my second graphic novel (which he did), because of all the negative letters I’d been getting for the issues being reprinted.

    A lot of people were utterly CONVINCED that I had stolen two characters, Oberon and Titania, from Neil’s SANDMAN, and they were terribly offended that I would just lift his creations that way.

    Neil explained in the intro that I didn’t steal them from him – that we’d BOTH gotten them from Shakespeare, who got them from someone ELSE. That’s the nature of stories. We take what we find, and borrow, steal, reinterpret, reinvent, and eventually (hopefully) produce something that is a unique product of our own sensibilities.

    Reply
  156. Mira

    csmith,

    thanks. your comment was well-said, too.

    Reply
  157. Christine H

    Um, Mira, sweetie… Nathan’s not going to have lunch with you. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is.

    Come back to CIC and I’ll have Faldur make you a sandwich.

    (Just kidding… I have to work now.)

    Wonderful discussion here. I’m totally addicted and am prying my fingers off the keyboard… right… now…

    Reply
  158. Mira

    Christine H,

    Duh. I know Nathan’s not going to have lunch with me.

    We’re meeting for breakfast.

    Oh. I should get ready.

    Reply
  159. Laura Martone

    I agree that nothing is completely original – but stories can be told in such a way (perhaps in a different time, by reversing gender roles, etc.) that they might feel like an original concept. You see this in movies all the time – “Clueless” serving as an updated, valley-girl version of “Emma” / “West Side Story” as the urban musical take on “Romeo and Juliet”.

    But, with the queries we read, I wasn’t just looking for originality; I was looking for an intriguing story told by a professionally-minded writer. Although I considered #9 for a long time, I ultimately wanted to know more about the author, and the query was lacking in that department. #39 was a much better query – as far as structure, info about the author, etc. – but the idea simply didn’t grab me, and while I thought there were better YA concepts in the “Be an Agent for a Day” group, I did appreciate the personal touch in #21.

    Even before the contest, I knew how difficult an agent’s job must be – to find a “gem” in a one-page letter – which is, I’m sure, why many agents (like NB) require the first few pages of the manuscript. Then, with the query, five (or more) pages, and perhaps a brief synopsis, the author at least has a fighting chance to convince an agent of his talent/worth/whatever, and an agent has a better sense of the rest of the book. Then, everybody’s happy, right?

    Reply
  160. Laurel

    In defense of Paolini:

    He’s taking a lot of hits here. I liked his books. I don’t imagine they will ever make a high school required reading list, but they were fun for me to read. At the end of the day it seems not a bad strategy: write a book you would like to read.

    Possession was an amazing book. I don’t see how anyone could read it and not be floored with Byatt’s accomplishment. I thoroughly enjoyed it but it wasn’t as fun as Eragon.

    And finally, he started that series when he was SEVENTEEN. No college degree, no MFA, nothing but a love of the genre and an idea he wanted to flesh out. He thought it would be cool to have a dragon. He couldn’t get published by anyone so he self-pubbed and sold enough books on his own to attract the attention of a publisher. If either one of my kids pulls that off at age seventeen I will be very, very proud.

    There seems to be a lot of focus on concept and originality while everyone laments their inability to get an agent. I don’t know what agents are really looking for but since I buy books I assume it should bear some resemblence to what I look for. It’s great to be ambitious but I don’t always want a Pulitzer caliber book. Obviously I am not alone. Heard of Twilight? Honestly, which one of us didn’t pick that up in the bookstore, read the back cover, and snicker as we put it back on the shelf? A few months later I read it and bought the other three although I was pretty ashamed of myself for liking them.

    And regarding getting published, self pub is intimidating but getting easier all the time, especially with POD and ebooks drastically reducing the cost associated with a classic first print. It sounds like there are so many fantastic books out there that I have never heard of because no one will take a chance on them. How unfair! Come on, people, help the unwashed masses get what they want. Get your books out there!

    Reply
  161. Nathan Bransford

    I also liked ERAGON, and what I think was unique about it was its innocent, fun spirit. It was more than just good relative to his age, he really captured the wide-eyed wonderment that you feel when you’re that age. It was more than the sum of its parts.

    There is fantasy that has a fun spirit and fantasy with dragons, but ERAGON really captures and embodies that teenage time where everything seems possible.

    Reply
  162. Laurel

    I think you hit the nail on the head, Nathan. Eragon was the best of the three published so far and I never could put my finger on it. The other two just feel a tad too “epic fantasy.” Still good, though.

    Reply
  163. Mira

    Eragon, for me, was alright. I kept thinking it felt derivative – but – that may have to do with my gender. I’ve noticed that men tend to like it more than women do.

    That’s not based on scientific data, just an impression.

    But in this case, I think Paolini captured a sort of fantasy that really speaks to men – or the young man inside them.

    Reply
  164. Mira

    Obviously not only men, Laurel. Sorry. I’m not saying it’s exlusive.

    I just find there’s a wish fulfillment element to most fantasy, especially YA fantasy. I think Paolini captured something in Eragon that really resonated with a certain yearning young men have.

    Sort of like: Toy Story.

    I think women can appreciate it, and many love it, but it’s really a guy’s archtype.

    Reply
  165. Laurel

    Mira,

    No offense taken. I think you’re probably right. That is also one of the elements of fantasy that I really like. Most fantasy authors aren’t afraid to write characters that are better than real people. The books I like best hold humanity to a higher standard by setting an example. I don’t really mind if the example battles evil dragons and immortal war lords. And if he has a crush on a hot elf, that works, too!

    And obviously gender plays a big part in who buys books. I don’t know any men who’ve read Twilight and I would never recommend it to any of the men I know. That also plays to an uber-stereotype a lot of women like: selfless superhero protector guy falls in love with hapless heroine. I do wish the heroine didn’t faint quite so much, though.

    If I want subtelty, I read Zora Neale Hurston. After putting a 5 and 2 year old to bed I read bestsellers.

    Reply
  166. Laurel

    Oh, and Eragon was absolutely derivative. The most original thing about it was that he used EVERY archetype all in the same book. Some of the details reminded me so much of David Eddings that I felt positive he must have read those…turned out I was right. And I didn’t care one bit.

    Reply
  167. PurpleClover

    Oh yay, not alone in my jokes. Glad someone gets them.

    Mira – you are hilarious…but I’m starting to think you are a character and not a real person?? I’m wondering if your blog is a ploy…

    *ponders*

    Reply
  168. Mira

    Laurel – Really, we all have masculine and feminine parts of us, so any book can speak to any of us.

    With Eragon – it also may be generational. The ‘hot’ book of your time. I know a 21 who loves fantasy, but he couldn’t get past chapter one in Tolkien. He ate Eragon up.

    Whereas I love Tolkien, and always will – even though it only has two female characters in 3 books.

    Btw I know men, a couple of them, that enjoyed Twilight.

    Clearly, Eragon absolutely spoke to you. That is cool. I love when I find a book that does that for me.

    Reply
  169. Mira

    P.C.

    You caught me. I’m not a real person.

    I’m, ummmm, let’s see. Who am I today?

    Oh shoot. I forgot to write myself a note. Today, I was going to be either Scarlett O’hara or Minnie Mouse.

    I hate when I forget to tell myself who I am. Now, I’m going to be dealing with existential identity crises all day long.

    Sucks.

    Reply
  170. Laurel

    Mira,

    It’s not so much that Eragon “spoke” to me as I really think Nathan is exactly right about originality. Despite the lack of originality, I really enjoyed the book. In the genre I’d have to say the books that spoke to me the most were probably CS Lewis and I was too young to know it at the time. There was also a great book called The Unlikely Ones by Mary Brown that touched me.

    I just think we miss out on so much when we read books as critics instead of settling into someone else’s fantasy for a little while. Of course, there are books you just can’t like for whatever reason and that’s different.

    Gender preferences are really only an important consideration if you’re trying to sell one, not if you’re buying one.

    How are your lunch plans coming?

    Reply
  171. Christine H

    Personally, I think Mira is Mrs. Fettleston’s alter ego.

    In real life, she crochets doilies and says “dear” a lot.

    This whole fantasy discussion has me itching to get back to work on my novel. But I can’t. I have to go teach statistics!!! ARRRRGGGHHH!!!

    (16 days novel-free and counting.)

    Reply
  172. Marilyn Peake

    Christine H said:

    Personally, I think Mira is Mrs. Fettleston’s alter ego.

    In real life, she crochets doilies and says “dear” a lot.
    ————-

    I’ve thought the same thing. If Mira were to start a humor blog, she might develop a following. Her humor cracks me up.

    Mira, are you still sitting at breakfast? Your pancakes are getting cold.

    Reply
  173. Mira

    Christine,

    Yes, dear.

    Lauren,

    My lunch plans. Were actually not lunch plans. They were breakfast plans.

    In case, you’re wondering what happened, I was stood up.

    I was. Nathan did not show for breakfast.

    At first, I was a tad miffed. I had prepared a whole breakfast for him. A special one.

    First there was the milk, then the sugar, then the Cheerios. It was a production.

    But then it dawned on me. There are really only two things that would cause Nathan to stand up a stranger who stalks him on his blog. They are:

    a. He has the bubonic plague.

    b. There is no other reason.

    Nathan. I’m so sorry. I had no idea.

    Please go take care of yourself. We’ll have breakfast some other time.

    Really. Don’t say another word about it.

    Contrary to how we usually interact.

    I just want you to take care of you.

    Reply
  174. Mira

    Hi Marilyn,

    Thanks for the compliment. Means alot. 🙂

    I’m going to write a humor book. I just need to nail the concept down.

    I created Come In Character to help me do that.

    In terms of breakfast, you can see what happened.

    Reply
  175. Mira

    Disclaimer:

    Just to be very clear here, the above comment that Nathan has the bubonic plague is a joke.

    Nathan does not, and most likely never will, have the bubonic plague.

    To my knowledge.

    He has more than enough just dealing with the scurvy.

    Just a joke, too. Nathan does not have scurvy.

    This entire exercise was designed to send home to you the very clear message that diseases are nothing to joke about.

    No diseased jokes.

    Okay?

    Good. My work here is done.

    Reply
  176. Laurel

    So sorry the cheerios got soggy. Maybe he’s not a breakfast guy.

    Try showing up with coffee. I get the feeling caffeine is his favorite food group since apparently he never sleeps.

    Reply
  177. Jovanna

    What happens if you have absolutely no idea what genre your story is? I feel so ignorant… wait, maybe that’s because I am!

    New genre? I doubt it, I just don’t know what all the genres are because they confuse me, although I have to admit, I haven’t quite seen any other stories like mine… but wait again, that might be because I live in a black hole with horrible abridged versions of various classics rewritten for kids, and nothing else to read but the same books over and over and over and over and over the hills and far away. Why are books so hard to come by these days? Why?

    Mira, you’re humour is affecting me like a sinister contagion, and well, I know I’m bad at humour. sigh. So while I would love to barf up more about campfire DNA that was implanted into aliens by our ancient cave men, I will now retreat back into my black hole and under the trap door where all the bad jokes belong.

    Reply
  178. Marilyn Peake

    Mira said:
    “I’m going to write a humor book. I just need to nail the concept down.”

    Excellent!! Sounds wonderful!!

    Reply
  179. hippokrene

    Someone else said:

    “eg. the perfect murder (you do it with a knife made of ice. don’t tell anyone)” How in the world would that be the perfect murder weapon? The police are will notice the stab wound and people have been sentenced for murders when the weapon was never found.

    Reply
  180. Ben

    I embrace the tropes. One of my favourite writing exercises is to go to TVTropes.org and select one or more tropes, usually at random, then write something (I say “something” because I don’t always produce what resembles a complete story) that uses all of the selected tropes. It’s actually very liberating, because it allows me to focus more on the execution and less on the plotting.

    Similarly, attempting to avert a trope is a good way to get a story. This isn’t the same as being original (since trope aversions are far from original themselves). It’s just a way to get two stories out of one trope. And its fun to turn worlds on their heads.

    Reply
  181. Mira

    Marilyn –

    Thanks!! 🙂

    Reply
  182. Simon

    FAO: Hippokrene

    thanks for kind of illustrating my point. Therein lies the problem of staking the success of your writing on a single device or ‘orginal’ idea.

    There’s always a chance someone will point out that it’s either a) not that original, or b) a stupid idea that doesn’t make sense.

    Reply
  183. csmith

    @ Simon:

    I don’t know if you had the dubious pleasure of seeing “The Apprentice” last night on BBC1 (UK TV). If you want to know exactly what happens to a “stupid idea” which is original just for the sake of it with no thought behind it, it is really something to watch. Because boy did it go down like a lead balloon. Now, don’t get me wrong, I rather like originality – what I’m writing now is relatively original (not fanstasy, historical). But because of that, I’m being sure to stick to existing tropes in other areas. People like the familiar, to a greater or lesser extent, in my experience.

    All the best,

    chris

    Reply
  184. Simon

    @ Chris smith

    I did have that ‘pleasure’, albeit watched between my fingers (it was worse than a horror film)

    a perfect example of the dangers that can come with an obsessive pursuit for originality.

    Reply
  185. csmith

    @Simon.

    Ah yes. Then you understand. I had to leave the room when they were pitching. It was embarassing – more so because their “project manager” was so completely incompetant at controlling the direction in which the project was going.

    So moral – don’t be original for the hell of it, and pray to god you have an editor/agent who can tell you when you’ve left the shallow shores of “original” and wandered into the deeps of “needs psychiatric care”?

    Reply
  186. Toni De Palma

    Nathan, thanks for this post. I struggle with the whole originality-monkey-on-my-shoulder thing. And sometimes trying to be original turns into the exact opposite when I weaken and attempt to write to a current fad.

    That said, how is one to be original within the framework of a query? Queries are formulaic in that they need to be tight and contain bullet points. I’m afraid that attempting to be too original within the confines of a query also puts the writer at risk for appearing loopy or outlandish if not done with the right style and panache.

    Reply
  187. Nathan Bransford

    Toni-

    In form, queries shouldn’t be original. There’s a formula to follow. But the best ones are written in a unique voice.

    Reply
  188. Alessa Ellefson

    I think you’re completely right. And even for the Shelleys and Wells that introduced new genres to our palates, they wouldn’t have made it if they hadn’t some how resonated with us.

    And how can they resonate with us if the characters don’t somehow face the same flaws as we do (whether human or alien or a little bit of both)?

    Reply
  189. archangelbeth

    Waaaay up at the top, Kristen Painter said…
    There are really only two plotlines anyway:

    1. Someone takes a journey.
    2. A stranger comes to town.
    I beg to differ. There’s also “Sexual/mating interest A meets sexual/mating interest B.” (Usually “boy meets girl,” but let’s face it, the aliens who altered our DNA may have been a bit more metrosexual. And/or multi-gendered, in which case, add a C, D, or however many is proper for the species.)

    [I do hope that this isn’t double-posting.]

    Reply
  190. Laurel

    archangelbeth,

    That’s still a journey, just a different kind 😉

    Reply
  191. Vic K

    I didn’t get back here the other night, so I’m probably talking to myself at this point, but I just wanted to make thank Simon and knight_tour for the replies re fantasy.

    Simon, you might like Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series. Strong re-imagined historical fantasy and not an elf in sight.

    Knight_tour and Anon, I respect your choices in reading and writing, but I would like to recommend Robin Hobb’s Farseer series… and I promise, should you venture to try Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series you will find the dragons fully realised, incredibly realistic and not at all like a story of a dwarf in a high rise. : )

    (In fact, I was a little sceptical myself, but I was hooked when I read the sequence of midwingmen and realised she’d established crews of dragons much like crews of ships. Fascinating concept.

    Vic K

    Reply
  192. Lilly Jones

    Hello Nathan,
    This was pleasantly informative and has given me a different perspective on originality & concepts wrt (with respect to) writing. Thanks for sharing. Have a lovely week!

    Reply
  193. wendy

    Well, no one is going to believe this – who said life is stranger than fiction? – but for what it's worth, I swear that it's true.
    Ten years ago, inspired by a friend from Israel who I've never met but only corresponded with, I started writing a vampire romance. I got to the end of it in 2004 and sent the MS out to a few agents and publishers. It was not liked or appreciated. I did some rewrites over the next year or two, but lost confidence in it after that. I felt it was too over-top-top and unbelievable. Plus, I had combined the genre of paranormal romance with inspirational and mystic Christianity, which thrilled no one and upset everyone.
    Then this year, I heard of a movie called Twilight and that it was a paranormal romance. Couldn't wait to watch it but was a bit aghast to notice similiarites with the plot of Winter Roses.

    Over here in Australia, Twilight is not big. And where I live out in a tiny bush town, none of my neighbours had even heard of the movie when I questioned them. (Me: 'You know that novel, Winter Roses, I asked you to read four years, ago, well it's very much like that movie Twilight!' Neighbour: 'What's Twilight?') Aussies are a very down-to-earth bunch not much into the paranormal or flights of fancy; well, where I live, anyway.

    But even though the idea of a good vampire as romantic paramour has now been officially snagged, funnily enough, I feel encouraged. Stephenie Meyer expanded on the idea beautifully in Twilight, which I've still only read part of, that I've been inspired and encouraged to dust off my ms and reword it over the last four months. And now I'm sending it out to unspecting agents all over the country/world

    Hello, Nathan.

    Funny how life works. 🙂

    Reply
  194. LCS249

    This raises a significant (and an endlessly recurring) conundrum: is one writing primarily to write well or primarily to be different. Before you leap out of your chair to shout "Both!" let me say that it's hard, and it's rare to produce both. As you yourself saw in searching for examples, you have to dig deep. Mary Shelley, the story goes, only wrote Frankenstein after being challenged to outdo other writers, whom she derided. I've heard this "stand out" advice many times in writing workshops, along with, "no conflict, no story." So it seems we're doomed to be formulaic (conflict scenarios) while attempting to be different. Do you know that much of H. G. Wells and Victor Hugo started out as serialized magazine pieces? In other words, the soap operas of their day? If one is trying harder to be different than to merely be a stunningly brilliant writer, one can easily produce bizarre work — there are many examples. To be both brilliant and different is so hard that we all have trouble counting ten authors who achieved it. I think Nabokov was trying to be different. I think Hemingway was trying to be different. I think Golding was trying to be different. I hope I can, too.

    Reply

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ABOUT NATHAN

Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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