Monday, July 6, 2009


July 4th reminded me of independence, or originality, as a writer. Most, and probably all, of my favorite writers are not only masterful aesthetically and intellectually, but they are also unique. William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner--a reader can probably identify any of these writers' work just by reading a single paragraph.

In science, some form of originality is absolutely crucial. I can't publish on a project unless I can convince an editor and the peer reviewers that I've either done something completely new, or that I've done some better than past researchers have done it. But, the writing world is, perhaps, a little more forgiving. Book publishers often chasetrends that allow writers to profit from copying the ideas of previous writers.

Honestly, I don't see anything wrong with that. For me, as long as I enjoy what I produce, I don't particularly care if it's original. At the same time, the thought of presenting the world in a way that no one else has ever seen it before is truly exciting. I'd love to hear that I'm doing something that no one else has done before.

What about you? Do you strive to be original? Do you think originality has to come from a conscious attempt to be so, or can writers stumble upon it? (Feel free to talk about yourselves and let us know how your work is different from what has come before it!)


  1. Davin, I write without giving any thought to the originality of a certain story. I did stumble upon originality in the one I just completed. It is original because it combines a strong girl protag with a survival story.

    You're right! The most important question to ask is, "Do I love what I'm writing?" Nice post, my friend. :)

  2. Great questions, Davin. I strive to be original, yes. But it's more like being original to what I expect, not what others might expect. I'm really bad at knowing what else is out there. And I think it's nearly impossible to write a storyline that hasn't been done before. It's how we tell it, as you very well know. That's where I try to be the most original. Whether or not I succeed I don't know...

  3. I strive to be entertaining and thought provoking. Originality usually comes along for the ride.

    I'm generally unconventional in my lines of thought. For example, some say the glass is half full. Others say it is half empty. I notice it is made out of plastic and call it a cup.

    You can tell a familiar tale an original way. It all boils down to evitcepsrep.

  4. I think originality develops naturally out of being true to one's own voice and sense of truth. When I TRY to be "original," I usually end up trying to break a writing convention that's there for a good reason, and the result is terrible. But when I let go and just say what I really think, it comes out in a more genuinely unique way.

    I sure don't think a story HAS to be original to be good or marketable or pleasurable to read. The success of genre novels pretty much proves that. But like Lady Glamis said, I feel best about my own writing when I write something that feels original to ME. It might be something that someone else has already done, but if I'm not just copying another writer, I can still tell the story in a way that is true to my own unique voice.

  5. In the past, I sort of threw my hands in the air (and caught them) about "originality." "Who cares?," I'd say. "Who can possibly be original this long after the creation of humanity?"

    Well, time told and the winds of transformation blew. Ooh! Story:

    Recently I happened upon a woman working on a poster. Because I knew her, I felt justified in pretending to step on said poster. She said something like, "I'll break your leg."

    A man, whom I also knew, said to her, "You know what they say when people go on stage, don't you?"

    She responded with "What?".

    "Break a leg," said the man. Then he smiled as if he'd told quite the joke.

    Later I killed said man.

    I kid!

    But I thought, "Really? Really?" and couldn't force myself to elaborate.

    Moral of the story: We naturally repeated hackneyed sayings and tell lame jokes; thus, and I mean thus, we're screwed if we don't push ourselves beyond trite, commonplace, cliché, platitudes.

  6. I blew it. Change "naturally repeated" to "naturally repeat." There goes my Oscar.

  7. Justus correctly points out that we have cliches and stock phrases and stock stories and characters. Why? Because we have shared cultural histories. I'm going to segue into discussing myths in a very clever way. Ready?

    Segue over. I think the power of myths is in their commonality, and not just because they are familiar: they tell stories that have meaning to us as individuals, and not just as members of cultures. All cultures have creation myths, end-of-the-world myths, creation of speech myths, good versus evil myths, death of parent myths, death of children myths, quest myths, underworld myths, paradise myths, separation from parents myths, marriage myths, betrayal myths, et cetera ad infinitum (I exaggerate there, but still. Lots.). So we tell stories that have meaning to us as members of the human species and as members of societies. I don't think there is a great deal of possible originality most of the time within our basic well of stories.

    What I do think we have is our unique point of view, our unique voice, and--as has been said already--our unique way of retelling the tale and the way we will focus on detail/aspects/characters that are different from the way the tale has been related before. So it's the teller not the tale wherein the originality lies.

    Also: Tolstoy! Did he invent any of the situations in "War and Peace," or did he just tell us about them in a brilliant manner? Or am I just mentioning him to say hey to Davin on a fine Monday morning?

  8. I think a lot of writers try to be original because they want to appear clever. Scott, I like your comment about myths. I took a class on mythology, and it taught me a lot about storytelling and why we tell stories. Sometimes originality has nothing to do with what we're saying. Sometimes it just gets in the way.

  9. Robyn, I think stumbling upon originality happens all the time, and that's great. Critic Harold Bloom also hypothesized that originality can come from the misinterpretation of someone trying to copy someone else.

    Michelle, Yes, I agree that the telling of the story is where a lot of originality lies. That's what I love about Virginia Woolf and Tolstoy. They tell pretty typical stories, but they present them to us in such a bizarre way.

    Rick, I also think that as we revise, as we try to fix our manuscripts, we end up being original simply because no one else goofs up in the exact same way. So, in fixing unique problems, we have to come up with unique solutions.

    Recessionista Genie, I completely agree with you. That's how I think I end up being original, if I am so. Trying to be true to your own voice is an excellent approach, one that's also very difficult, given how much outside information we pick up.

    Justus, I think it's true that we have to push ourselves to reinvent. For me, that comes out of the realization that no one before me has written the perfect book. So, since the "right" answer hasn't been found yet, we all have to keep searching for new possibilities.

  10. Nutty or quirky I've taken a stab at--comical fantasy best describes it, I guess. Original? Eh, who knows. Shopping those stories around has been difficult--ouch, three rejections a piece--but I'm proud of them anyway.

  11. Scott, thanks for your comment. This topic actually came up as I was rereading part of your book again last night. I thought about the idea of dialog among writers, how we can comment on past works by incorporating them into our own. Some of the greatest literary works are so full of references of past writers, and yet they manage to be original. It's very intriguing.
    And, thanks for the T nod!

    Rebecca, unfortunately, the price of originality is often rejection! But, I do think there are still a lot of people out there that appreciate groundbreaking work!

  12. Originality is overrated.

    A lot of classical music is copied in one form or another, or 'based' on folk tunes.

    Most books are copies of one form or another, but are told well or have a different slant. Is that originality, or a subtler form of copying?

  13. Davin, are you calling my book original? I try very hard not to ask that question about it, but certainly my favorite bits are those not written by a guy named William, and the fewer of those bits that get left in with each revision, the more I like the story. I have no idea what that means, or if it means anything.

    I think Nabokov worried a lot about originality, so much so that he filled his novels with literary references as a way--I have come to believe--to sort of spit in the face of the idea of originality. Though Nabokov was a notoriously untrustworthy narrator and writer, and you never really know where he stood relative to either the reader or his own works. "The True Story of Sebastian Knight," for example, is not a true story and is, in large part, a long essay about the book itself, a commentary on the very story the reader is reading. So possibly Nabokov was worried about originality and covered that worry with layers of contempt that he didn't really mean. But I digress.

  14. I try to make sure that I'm not copying others when I write. I want to get my idea out there, not another version of theirs. That doesn't mean that any idea I have is the most original thing, but I think that's okay. The originality should come naturally. If one spends too much time chasing originality, one will likely find oneself somewhere very strange and possibly (probably) not at the intended destination.

  15. It's impossible to post an original comment on this! Wow, you all really tore into this subject. Great discussion.
    Even though every story has been told, the storyteller can give it a new voice, new twist, new perspective.
    Here's a quote from Melville:
    "But it is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation."

  16. Are my ideas original and never before done? Not really. But, I do strive to tell the story in a unique way, a way that gives the reader some reflection on who I am and what I might be like.

    I have often written a scene into a book and then later taken it out because it didn't reflect 'me' enough. does that make any sense?

  17. I've talked on this topic extensively with writing buddies. I don't believe there is such a thing as being totally original in fiction. I just read a post by Jessica Faust on the Bookends blog this morning that talks about this topic. No one wants Beef Steak ice cream; and we have to write books that agents and publishers can sell.

    So I agree with some of the other commenters, there needs to be an aspect of originality in the work. Be it a character, a voice, a style, whatever, but is there ever a unique, completely original idea/ work that hasn't been done? I don't think so.

  18. Martin, Sometimes I feel the same way as you. Sometimes I don't care at all about originality.

    Scott, I don't like to make direct compliments, so you'll have to glean them from my disorganized rambling. :) Yes, plenty of originality in your writing.

    Dominique, I think several people have mentioned this idea of natural originality. It makes a lot of sense!

    Tricia, Thanks for that cool quote!

    Tess, really good point. Yes, as I get more experience, I realize that I'm more sensitive to when I'm writing with my own voice or if I'm just trying to sound like someone else.

    Elana, thanks for chiming in. We don't have to write books that people can sell, but I think that is a goal for many of us, and it can hurt originality sometimes.

  19. I must admit, I really never thought about whether my stories ideas were original when I started to write them. Thinking back now, I believe they are original in some way, whether voice, style, etc.

    Definitely a thought provoking question.

  20. I used to worry about being original a lot, because I felt like I copied a lot of my ideas from various sources. Then I figured out that if your sources are obscure and numerous enough, people will mistake your copying for originality, and I'm safe. ;)

    However, I noticed a new problem: I had a tendency to retell the same story over and over -- my own story -- with the same kind of characters and themes. I don't know how to escape copying myself.

  21. Tara: Now that's an interesting observation, that we can't escape ourselves. I sometimes worry about that in my own writing, but lately I've been thinking that it's only natural. There are certain themes that run through all of my writing: work, home, one's place in the world and love; I write about these things because they are the themes that interest me. I also think that all of my stories are in a way true stories because, in an abstract way, they've all happened to me in real life. At least the big thematic questions have arisen from my own life. So that means that at some level, I am always writing about my own life, I guess. Even if I'm writing about talking badgers or serial killers or Hamlet or the devil outside of Baltimore in 1900.

  22. I strive for's actually the source of my story. I try to think of something typical--love story, hero's quest--and how I can twist it into something more original.

  23. Dear Davin, I'm with you, "...I don't particularly care if it's original..." In fact, I have been actively plagarising from Hemmingway for many years. It is my hope that most agents have stopped reading him, and that someday when I submit to an agent FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, she will think I wrote it, and the great wacking advance check will follow. The whole personal voice thing, originality--totally phoney constructs. Writers steal and admit it; or they steal and try to cover it up. Those are the only options we have.

  24. Davin, Scott, and Michelle, "Originality" really is the word... I am passing on an Award to the three of you over at my blog page.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.