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Writing Excuses 7.27: The Problem of Originality

Writing Excuses 7.27: The Problem of Originality


Key points: originality is important, but sometimes it is possible to be too original. Don't let originality trump entertainment. You need to know what other people are doing, and avoid too much influence -- which is a difficult problem. If you think an idea is not original, try pushing it farther. Write what you're passionate about that feels fresh to you, without worrying about whether someone else might have done it. Don't go overboard, if a horse is enough, use a horse. Be original to enhance your story, not just for the sake of being original.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode 27, The Problem of Originality.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Howard] And that's what we always say.
[Brandon] Because we're completely unoriginal.

[Brandon] Okay. Let's talk about this. This is actually a Dan-suggested podcast, wasn't it? That you've been thinking about a lot lately because... We talk a lot about originality, how important it is to be original, and yet, at the same time, it is possible to be too original.
[Dan] Yes, it is. The reason that I started thinking about this particular topic was the movie Avatar. I talk about Avatar all the time on Writing Excuses for some reason. I don't in the rest of my life...
[Mary] He's lying.
[Dan] But anyway, this movie came out and it made like a gazillion dollars and everybody loved it, except the sci-fi fantasy community all whined and whined about how derivative it was. Yes, it was. But on the other hand, it was really good.
[Brandon] It was technically really good.
[Dan] It was the best version of that story, even though it was a story we'd already seen before. So I really started to wonder if maybe we as a community are overvaluing originality. If we're trying to... Originality trumps entertainment in a lot of cases. I don't know if that's the right way of thinking about it.
[Brandon] Well, Eragon is the same example. Very similar. In that if you had not read all of the books that were similar to it, it was mind blowing. It makes me wonder if the ones... Things that we've latched onto as our great examples of originality were simply the first ones we read, or even the first ones that were mass distributed rather than the ones that were actually the truly original ones.

[Howard] As far as I'm concerned, I've said this before, "If I pee far, it's because I stand on the shoulders of giants."
[Brandon] [chuckle] Thanks, Howard.
[Howard] I'm spraying satire in all directions from science fiction that I've read.
[Mary] I've never heard it called satire before.
[Howard] Oh. I'm sorry. I should just call urine urine, I suppose. I...
[Dan] Or getting down on Friday.
[Mary] Clean rating, clean rating!
[Brandon] Clean rating!
[Howard] Okay. So I'm opening the pod bay doors.
[Brandon] Someone... I'm stealing the microphone from Howard.
[Mary] Listen... Did we lose control?
[Brandon] There's a good story with this though for me. Did you actually?
[Howard] Yes. I have a point. That is that there are dozens and dozens of ideas out there that when I put them in the comic strip, I realize, "This is kind of derivative." David Brin's Uplift series, the whole idea of uplifting animals so that they are sentient so that we have intelligent company prior to aliens showing up. Well, it occurred to me that if you've got the technology to do this, why wouldn't you do this? So it's going to have happened in the Schlock Mercenary universe. What are they going to call it? Well, I'm going to call it uplift, and then I'm going to apologize to David Brin. But I'm going to tell jokes about it in ways that point out aspects of it that perhaps Brin didn't. He and I have had this conversation. He's happy to have contributed something to culture. I'm happy to have been able to take it in a new and fun direction.
[Mary] Point of information. He did not invent the term uplift. That was invented by missionaries talking about visiting Africa.
[Brandon] Wow.
[Mary] Isn't that lovely?
[Brandon] Steering away from that...
[Mary] No. But... As uncomfortable as that topic is, this is a point of... Exactly on point which is that every concept...
[Brandon] Has been done. This is... I wonder if this podcast is going to be of any use to you listening, because this is the sort of thing that writers really worry about, and yet, we have no answers. Usually we have answers, even if they're the wrong ones, or even if we've just made them up. A good example. I just wrote, last summer I wrote a novella called Legion about a guy who uses his various schizophrenic delusions as his own super team to pull off heists. Well, I now I am releasing that novella and someone says, "Hey, did you know there's a Marvel superhero called Legion who is multiple personality and uses his multiple personalities to each have a different superpower?" My immediate thought was, "Well, crap." Of course, Marvel has done it, because Marvel has done everything. And if they haven't, DC has done it. Yet at the same time, it's one of those really kind of bothering things to you to realize this thing that I thought I came up with is not original. Yet you know, in the back of your head, yes, none of it is, but please just don't tell me about it so I can pretend for a little while.
[Dan] Yes. When I sold the first Serial Killer book, I had a talk with my editor, we talked for about an hour about all of these great things and how we were going to sell the book. Then he said, "Oh, by the way, have you ever heard of Dexter?" I said, "No, I haven't. What is it?" He said, "I don't know what it is either, but my girlfriend said it was kind of like this. Let's go out and watch it, and then I'll call you tomorrow night." Our conversation the following night was, "Well, crap. Someone's already kind of hit the heroic serial killer really, really hard." We were really concerned. Then it actually hasn't been an issue at all.
[Mary] I had a similar thing when I wrote Shades of Milk and Honey. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell had not come out. Part of the reason that I thought "Oo, this is great" is because I didn't see anyone playing in the Regency at that point. Then not only like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell came out and I had the oh, crap moment. Then read the book and was like "Oh, this is not actually anything like mine." Then the whole Jane Austen With Zombies... Yeah...
[Dan] Well, now...
[Mary] Go ahead.
[Dan] Go ahead and finish if you have a... If you're going somewhere else.
[Mary] Jump in.
[Dan] Okay. I was going to say that this is kind of the point that I wanted to make, which is that originality in some cases is not the end-all be-all. I also wrote... Night of Blacker Darkness, which is the e-book I released last year, was written years and years before all of these Doctor Strange and things like that... Or Mister Strange. Whatever. At the time, it was too weird. It was, I guess, too original, you could say, because there was nothing else like it. I would send it to editors, and they would say, "Yes, this is good, but how on earth am I going to sell this to anyone?" Now, 10 years later, it's very easy for me to put it up as an e-book, and people will say, "Oh, I love this because I already loved these other things." So in that case, originality was kind of hindering it.

[Howard] Well, this to me, or for me, anyway, this comes back to, or rather orbits around the central problem of anxiety of influence. Where you've consumed something, and you are now worried that what you are creating is like it. Or you are creating something, and somebody comes to you and says, "Hey, have you seen this?" Or "Have you read this?" You look at it and go like, "Oh, gosh." For me, it was Firefly. I'd been doing Schlock Mercenary for a year and a half. Somebody said, "Oh, there's this new series on, Firefly. It reminds me so much of Schlock Mercenary, you should totally watch this." I admit, and I admit this fearfully because I know I'll get hate mail. I admit that I prayed that Firefly would have an early death.
[Dan] Oh, man.
[Howard] So that I couldn't be influenced by it anymore. I didn't watch it. Then it died.
[Dan] Oh, well. This is now our last episode of Writing Excuses, because the Internet's going to kill us all.
[Mary] Thanks for that, Howard.
[Brandon] No, no. Just kill Howard. The rest of us are okay. We love it.
[Howard] I then went out and watched it. Years later. I got the DVDs, watched it, and realized, "Oh, this is different from what I was doing." But I'm glad I wasn't watching it because I would have taken some of the things that I love most about Firefly and I would've put them in my strip, because I wasn't yet a strong enough writer to overcome that anxiety of influence.
[Mary] That's actually something that I do with the things I'm writing, is that when I'm actually writing them, I actually try not to read contemporary Regency things. But in between, I do, so that I know what other people are doing. Like Madeleine Robins has an alternate Regency which I adore, and I'm really glad that I read them because I almost went exactly the same plot route that she did completely by accident. Just being aware allow me to do some different things.
[Howard] But when you're writing, as I recall you saying, you read stuff...
[Mary] In between, actually.
[Howard] Well, but you read period stuff from the Regency in order to find that voice?
[Mary] Right.

[Brandon] Let's stop for our book of the week. [Garbled]
[Dan] Okay. Our book of the week this week is Sharpe's Rifles by Bernard Cornwell. Cornwell is an author that I've talked about a lot before. Specifically his king... Now I can't even remember. Alexander the Great, that series. Alfred the Great. Sorry. But Sharpe's Rifles is about a rifle man in the Napoleonic wars, who is raised up to become an officer, kind of jumped ranks to what was usually the... Only the nobles were allowed to be officers. There's like 30 or 40 Sharpe's books, easily. Frankly, most of them are the same story. This is to the point of our podcast here. You read two or three of them in a row, and they start to really feel derivative and old. Whereas if I read one of these every couple of months, I love them. They're some of my very favorite books. Cornwell is one of my favorite authors. So if you haven't read the Sharpe's series, please go pick it up. Sharpe's Rifles is the first one he wrote, but it is not the first chronologically.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Howard] All right. Shoot on out... I'm so sorry, everybody... To and you can kick off a 14 day free trial membership and have a download of Sharpe's Rifles by Bernard Cornwell.
[Dan] Correct.

[Brandon] Now, I want to just make mention of... I often say that I worry that epic fantasy is not original enough. This is... It seems... Flies directly in the face... I guess it's the other side of this, because I do think we are writing in a genre or genres where originality is prized and valued. I don't think that all of that is wrong. Now what you're saying is maybe we should not prize it quite so much. If we've seen something done once or twice, and someone kind of comes along and does it, that's not a reason to dismiss it anymore then maybe... Harry Potter was not original, and yet, Harry Potter was awesome. But I still think that we should be pushing our writers to be more original. So how do we reconcile this?
[Mary] Well, we often talk about the fact that the idea is not the hard part, [garbled -- the hard part is?] actually writing it. So one thing that you can do is even if you're afraid that your idea is not original, that you look at it and in the process of writing it, try to push that idea farther. So if you have the idea of giant crustaceans, and you're like, "Well, Brandon Sanderson has already done giant crustaceans... But I can do giant battle crustaceans in an arena!"
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary] But you take the idea and you run with it farther.
[Brandon] Man, I was going to do that now.
[Mary] Sorry. It's to make up for my [garbled -- barbarians?]
[Howard] At the risk of just playing with metaphor instead of specific examples, I think as you push the envelope of the familiar... You look at these things that are familiar that you also want to write because you think that they're cool. Which is often how a lot of us start writing. Well, push that envelope and write it. Push that envelope and write it. At some point, you're going to push it and push it and push it, and push it right over a cliff and find something that for you feels just completely fresh and wonderful. Go ahead and write that because you're passionate about writing it. Don't worry that someone else may have done it because you writing passionately about something that feels fresh has a better chance of sounding original and resonating freshly for the audience than anything else you could hope to write that may or may not be completely unique.

[Brandon] Yeah. I'm not terribly worried about the person that comes to me and says, "Boy, I had this great idea I was working on things, and then I saw that you did it in one of your books. So now I have to go to the drawing board." My response to them is always, "No, no. Go ahead and do it." The ones I'm worried... I worry about are the ones who just take for granted what their fantasy setting will be or should be. That's what worries me. Though I do want to say, there is also the issue of your orc, your take on orcs is not going to be as original as you think it is. Which is a conversation we used to have a lot with our friends, who would say, "Yeah, but my orcs are this." They're still orcs. So there's a balance here. There's a... Push yourself, be aware that you want to try and do original things, but you can't be hampered by your own fear that you're not going to be original.
[Dan] Well, on the other side, is the problem of people who are just desperately original and trying way too hard. You have to consider the story first. If you are putting, for example, giant crustaceans into your book because horses are too normal, then maybe you haven't really thought about it. If, on the other hand, you have a very good reason and have a very good story to tell about those giant crustaceans, then it's going to work.
[Brandon] Actually I've had people mention this to me before that it bothers them... I have a friend that it bothers them every time there's something that's not a horse in a fantasy novel that is fulfilling the same role that a horse does and acting just like a horse. Why not have horses? I think there are good arguments for not having horses, but it is something to think about, that if you're just being original to be original, there is a step beyond that, to be original to enhance your story.
[Dan] Yeah. I would say, for a lot of aspiring writers out there, if a horse is what your story needs, then just use a horse. There's no need to come up with something amazing and new.
[Mary] But I think the thing about pushing things to the next step is that... Look at whether or not there is something that... It's like, well, so I can have a horse and it'll do all of these things, but are there other possibilities? If I use something else, what does that do for my story?
[Howard] Well, bringing it back around to Avatar, and then exploring the concept a little further... The horses that they had in there were things that you controlled telepathically with your hair nerve thing...
[Mary] Thing, yeah.
[Dan] You make it sound silly.

[Howard] I know. I do make it sound silly. Well, no, here... But consider this for a moment. You've got a horse that you control telepathically through a physical link, and as a result of this, there is a huge metabolic price that you, the rider, pay. To the point that it's almost not worth it to ride the horse. It's not just Dragonriders of Pern level, but to the point there's almost no reason to ride the horse. Now come up with a plot reason why you would actually engage in that, get on that animal and put yourself through that.
[Mary] That sounds like our writing prompt.

[Brandon] That sounds like a great writing prompt, and we are at the end of our episode. So let's go ahead...
[Howard] Oh, my goodness. I accidentally gave you a writing prompt that forces you to put a character in pain.
[Brandon] Wow. Imagine that. Nice work, Howard.
[Mary] How original!
[Brandon] And you all are out of excuses. Now go write.
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