There are two main things that got me to actually finish a draft. One was episodic structure (more on that… sometime).
And the second was embracing unoriginality.
There’s something very intrinsic-feeling about our reactions to unoriginality. Praise for a new novel will call it “original”; criticism will call it a “rip-off.” But why are these things necessarily good or bad?
Originality is good for storytelling because it keeps a work unpredictable—but not necessarily. Fresh and unusual ideas are interesting purely for their novelty—but again, not necessarily. I do agree that both of these factors are positive things to look for in a story, but I think the real reason we react so strongly to issues of originality is that it violates the idea that stories and ideas are property.
The idea that a story can be owned is relatively new in society. The earliest copyright laws (that a cursory Wikipedia search provides) are in 1710, and they only apply to reprinting books—so the exact words. And I agree with that 1000%; creators should absolutely own the words/images/product.
But the idea…
Well, here’s the thing. It’s not always so clear-cut. Should I be allowed to write a story about Harry Potter, using the names and places and even the storyline, just my own words? No, I don’t really think so, outside of fanfiction. But if I write a completely different story just in the same world? Or what about writing about an orphan who discovers his magical abilities and is taken to a magic school where he will fight the Dark Lord that killed his parents? Pretty close, but with different details and plot points, it could be a completely different story. In fact, I’m sure there are similar stories out there that predate Harry Potter.
But it still feels wrong. And maybe it should, I don’t know. It’s a complex legal and moral issue that is constantly evolving even now—the existence (and success) of Fifty Shades of Grey which openly acknowledges its beginnings (and basically its current existence) as Twilight fanfiction suggests that certain elements of stories cannot be owned. I would be interested to see if a story that more closely followed Twilight’s plot—vampires, high school, etc.—but with different names… But that does exist, as we have seen in the blossoming of dozens and dozens of vampire stories in the wake of Twilight. The closest is probably Vampire Diaries (which actually predates Twilight).
Either way, my point is that the question is not settled yet, and may never be. What one person thinks is okay another thinks is shady, and yet another thinks is shady but doesn’t care as long as it’s legal, and so on.
I tend to believe in freedom of creative expression, because for too long I have felt held back and I hate it. My ideas are all derivative… I can’t help it. I hope to grow out of it one day, but I don’t want to just wait until then.
So what happened with this current draft is that I had the sudden random impulse to make it YA… and I resisted. I thought that YA is done, overcrowded, and no way to make it even the least bit original.
And then I decided I didn’t care.
Making it YA opened up new options for the story that I hadn’t considered before, and for some reason, everything fell into place. I’m incredibly grateful for that, and if I am so lucky as to be published, I will be honored to join the YA genre.
But I had to push past my fears of unoriginality. And since, I’ve decided to embrace it. If people think I’m shady or a rip-off, who cares? I don’t want to violate the artistic integrity of my fellow creators, and I want to bring my own voice to my creations, but I’m not going to agonize over whether this or that plot point or character or set-up or anything is original…
I mean, I’ll think about it. What do I really want? What am I actually responding to (how much I like something, or how much other people like it)? Am I just falling into unoriginal clichés out of habit, and is there a way to do something I would like better?
But if it comes down to wanting to write something so blatantly unoriginal it makes me cringe… Well, I’m going to write it anyway.
Because sometimes you start finding yourself by following someone else. At least for a little while. 🙂