Mark Terry

Friday, May 04, 2007

Blazingly Original

May 4, 2007

I've been thinking about originality. How much do you need to be a successful novelist? Do you have to be, as the cliche goes, blazingly original?
No, I don't think so. In fact, too much originality is probably detrimental to your commercial success. Even assuming a publisher will go out on a limb on some story that's so fresh, so new it doesn't have a shelf for it at the bookstore, chances are the reading public won't come near it.
Granted, I write and predominantly read genre fiction. Genre fiction has tended to get a bad rap by the literati. After all, "Romeo and Juliet" is a romance; "Hamlet" is a political thriller; "Crime and Punishment" is a mystery; "The Metamorphosis" is SF/Fantasy, as is "The Tempest," etc, etc.
In his book, "How To Write A Mystery" Larry Beinhart writes, "Certain things have been done in the past. If they work, they're imitated. It's easy to say they're tired old cliches. But it's not that simple. A good chess opening lives on and on. So does a good mystery opening. The practices, techniques, formations, and tactics of soccer, football, baseball, tennis, have multigenerational life spans--if they work. They usually evolve slowly. When they die a sudden death, someone usually brings them back in a new form a few years later.
"A writer can stick with the good old moves, the tried and true. Let's call this formula."
Larry goes on to say: "In books, too, formula, and virtually nothing but the formula, may indeed be where it's at. Several of the top-selling crime writers do exactly that: formula--with nothing else.
"This is not to say that writing formula so well that you can get rich from it is easy. It's not. It's hard. And the people who can do it reliably, over and over again, are rare indeed. There are one or two of them whose books I want to go off and read it with a sensual anticipation similar to settling down alone with a whole container of Haagen-Dazs.
"Far more often, formula books don't reach this standard. Then, as an audience member, I find them to be, at best, unsatisfying, frequently irritating, and, at worst, unreadable. As a writer, I don't want to write that way."
Me neither, but I can't wander too far off the reservation. There's only one guy writing books about dinosaur private eyes for adults and there's a good reason for it. So keep that in mind before you start penning your novel about a werewolf crime scene investigator written in iambic pentameter.
Well, when in doubt, quote from somebody else, I guess. This time from Gary Provost's "Make Your Words Work," which to my mind is a must-read for every writer.
"As a writer you are a technician, but you are also a creative artist, and if you forget that word 'creative' you will be wasting paper every time you sit down to write. In your writing, all of the parts should be good and many of them should be original. Your reader doesn't expect everything you write to be a news flash, but he does expect to find in your writing something he has never heard before.
"For everything you write you should be able to answer the question, 'How is this different from similar pieces of writing?'....
"Being original means you find new slants, creative leads, fresh information, unique formats, different ways of looking at old information, surprising conclusions, and imaginative solutions. Being original is an attitude that you bring to your work."
I like that. Of course, I also like Samuel Johnson's criticism of another writer's work:
"Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good."
Mark Terry


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I haven't read the dinosaur detective books but I'll bet that although the protag is original there is still the unoriginal plot of a mystery needing to be solved.

Originality is really in the details. All people follow the same tired plot. Born, grow up, age, die. Which doesn't mean some lives aren't more interesting than others.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I'm pretty sure they're standard PI novels with the exception that the main character is a velociraptor. (It does seem like a big exception, doesn't it? Within its own self-contained universe, it seems to work. The same can be said of Robert B. Parker and Spenser, which I sometimes think of SpenserWorld. It ain't reality, but within its world, it works.)

One of the things you touch on here, and I was tempted to go off on a tangent on, given that it's a particularly favorite hobby horse of mine, is structure. Three-part structure, after all, is nothing more than beginning, middle, and end, although you can break each section down into what you presume it's supposed to do.

I was thinking about that a lot today, too, so I may need to write about it soon.

9:20 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

You can write the same story, to a certain degree, over and over again, as long as you have different characters that you dig deep with, emotionally. No two people react or feel exactly the same way, and no two people combine with quite the same sparks. (I just love people!)

The originality comes into play more when an author needs to get a reader's attention. Nora doesn't need to be original, because I'm already gonna give her the time to make me fall in love with her characters until I can't put the book down. Joe Schmoe needs to hook me.

Great quote, Mark: "Being original means you find new slants, creative leads, fresh information, unique formats, different ways of looking at old information ..."

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