Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Thoughts on Originiality

Many and most of you have probably already seen the exciting announcement for Five Enchanted Roses, Rooglewood Press's second fairy tale writing contest. But here's the cover for you again anyway (just because it's so pretty!) and a link to the rules.

I cannot tell you how excited I am to see the stories for this contest and to begin putting together this wonderful new volume. I love being part of the enthusiasm and brainstorming and masses of creativity taking place! I hope this contest will end up being a memorable and blessed experience for all of the participants, both the winners and the runners-up.

I had a little note from Beka yesterday with an interesting question regarding the contest and brainstorming for her story. She suggested that I might like to make my answer into a blog post . . . and I thought that was quite a good idea! So this is for you, Beka, and for all of you who may be wondering much the same thing.

First, here was her question: "Hannah and I were brainstorming the other night and I came away with lots of wonderful ideas for my Beauty and the Beast retelling, as you already know. Now, I had a climax scene sketched out in my head. But have you ever run across it where you have your story all planned out, and then you read a novel that has a similar climax scene to the one you're writing? For me, it makes me worry that my story will be too similar to the other one. What do you do in that situation--or what would you do?"

Here is the short answer to this question:


And you know what? That's a good thing . . .

Okay, let me now embellish what I mean by this: You, as a novelist, are highly unlikely to come up with an original plot. That means you are unlikely to come up with an original climax either. Your climax may be very much like another story out there. So might your beginning . . . your middle . . . your core character motivation . . . It's all been done before.

What you bring to your novel is not an original plot. What you bring to your novel is an original you.

You have never been done before. Your perspective, your experiences, your way with words. You may be somewhat similar to those around you, but there will always be key differences that make you completely unique. And that's where your story has the chance to stand out.

In order for your climax--which, plot-wise, might be an exact replica of that climax you just read, not to mention fifty other books which also share the same basic climax--to be unique, you yourself must be authentic.

You must write characters who are real and true. Don't write the caricatures. Don't fall into the trap of tropes. Don't write the Hero Who Is Super Awesome . . . write the Hero Who Is Real. Don't write the Villain Who Is Super Evil . . . write the Villain Who Is Just As Real As The Hero.

This involves quite a lot of self-study and even self-abasement. Writing with authenticity is frightening and often embarrassing. (Don't believe me? Go look up my one-star reviews on Heartless and see what people have to say about Princess Una, possibly the most authentic heroine I have ever written.)To write authentic characters, you must be authentic. You cannot categorize yourself or your characters according to literary molds. Simple answers are unlikely to be true answers.

It's in authentic characterizations that your story will become unique. The same basic events and catalysts can take place, but it will feel fresh and new because YOU are writing it TRUTHFULLY.

This is such a hard concept to understand. It's also very hard to communicate. I suspect I'll spend the rest of my writing career trying to help other authors understand what I mean.

It's popular to write Supermen and Superwomen. It's popular to give a character a major case of Nobody Likes Me Syndrom, and then have that character discover a super power or innate brilliance at something and suddenly be Lauded and Praised by All. This is popular. This is not authentic.

Put yourself in that character's shoes when the crisis comes. Do you have a super power? No. So how would you react in those circumstances? You don't have the luxury of Being Awesome, so you have to be real. And that means real consequences. And possibly failure. And then dealing with the failure and trying again. And possibly failing again. In fact, possibly never succeeding (i.e. Una and Lionheart). So how do you deal with that?

The plot can be the same. But if the character is authentic, it will be fresh, invigorating, and always new.

So, my answer to you, Beka, is simply this: Write the climax you have in mind. But write it the way you would write it. Write it with your own voice and words.Write it with authenticity.

And here is another, somewhat-related thought concerning brainstorming for Five Enchanted Roses . . .

Writers, don't get TOO hung up on "being original" as you brainstorm your ideas. Be original, for sure, but don't cripple yourselves either. Some of you will come up with fantastically original spins. Some of you might see the story only a little altered from the original.

But here's the secret: I am looking for both kinds of stories. I want the completely, fantastically unique tales, but I also want to see stories that are close to the original fairy tale, with the classic Beast and the classic bargain with the father, etc.

So if you think your idea may not be "original enough," don't worry! Write it anyway and send it in. What I am looking for is a charming writing voice, compelling characters, and that certain je ne sais quoi that sticks in my heart.

Look at Five Glass Slippers for your example. That collection includes the completely WAY out there stories of A Cinder's Tale and Broken Glass . . . but it also includes What Eyes Can See, which is a simple little tale. It's not a wildly different retelling from the original. Elisabeth Brown worked in one small twist (Cinderella is really shy), and went from there. She wrote in her own, natural voice about natural, flawed, sweet, and authentic characters. She didn't cast a desperately wicked villain or a desperately awesome hero. She didn't worry about crazy plot twists or fantastical settings. She just wrote her story.

And we at Rooglewood Press loved it. There was no doubt in my mind after I read it that it would end up in the final collection. When the other contest readers read it, they all confirmed my feeling.

So that's not to say we don't want to see your crazy, out-there, fantastical retellings. We definitely do! But if that's not how your storytelling brain works . . . if you can really only come up with one very small twist on the original . . . no worries! Write it authentically and send it in. Because we're looking for those too.

That's the great beauty of a collection like this.

Let me know if you have any questions about this post! Some of these concepts are difficult to communicate, and I'm happy to try to clarify my thoughts.

Be watching for an awesome cover reveal coming up on Friday! And I hope to do a new "Doings at Rooglewood" post soon to update you on all the exciting news and projects.


Tracey Dyck said...

THANK YOU, Anne Elisabeth! I needed to read this, both for my Beauty and the Beast retelling and the full-length novel I'm working on. It's so easy to compare your writing with that of others and come away feeling discouraged because you're "not different enough."
And the thing about real characters... I was actually just marveling the other day over the authenticity of your protagonists! Their flaws are often my flaws. Una's foolishness, Lionheart's cowardice, Rose Red's stubbornness and shame, Eanrin's pride... All of us can identify. And the way you so brilliantly illustrate that on our own we can do nothing, but in Christ's strength we can do all things -- it is beautiful!! Not to mention refreshing. Thank you!

Unknown said...

I had a cool concept come to me while brainstorming. The problem is, I can generate the beginnings of plots left and right if I sit and think about it long enough. It's the character that I need. Now, when a character comes to me before the plot, it is a LOT easier... because I love that person and I already know them. I don't have to decide who they are, But that didn't happen. Anyway, I fleshed out the concept a little bit, but when it came to the main protagonist, I sat there thinking, "I don't really know or care about her at all. What does she do? How does she drive the plot?" As it was, I knew the plot was just happening to her, and I needed to make her become involved. I needed a moment. I needed to know the basic way she responded. And here I was still deciding what color her hair was. (Silly, I know. But I needed to visualize her so that I could play out a scene in my head, hear hear her talking, see her walking, etc.) So I've been working on building my little protagonist.

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for this, Anne Elisabeth! It has helped me a lot--and I will probably be referring back to it quite often to remind myself while I write. :)

Anonymous said...

Wow! Such good insight! Thanks for sharing! :) :) :)

Meredith said...

Oh, this post was excellent and really helpful to me! I've been brainstorming quite a bit and had an idea I thought was too closely linked to the original tale. Now you've got me thinking that perhaps I can try writing it after all. Thanks for the encouragement and wonderful insights. So excited about Five Glass Slippers!

ghost ryter said...

AWESOME post! Thank you, Anne Elisabeth, for sharing your insight.

@Rebeka B.: I HAD THE EXACT SAME THING. I was coming up with the climax for my story, and when I was telling my sister about she gave me this Look. And she said, "Um ... you know, about three other books did that, and one of the was a Beauty and the Beast retelling."

Hannah said...

Thank you so much for the encouragement, Anne Elisabeth!

My fear for one of stories is getting TOO original. When I start panicking that its nothing like Beauty and the Beast, I take a deep breath, remind myself that some of the stories the Five Glass Slippers were different too, then go forward and bring forth the familiar themes!

Rissi said...

Thank you SO much for writing this excellent, encouraging post, Anne Elisabeth! There is so much truth to this. Now, I just need to quiet my "this-is-not-good-enough" mindset. ;)

Anonymous said...

Hmm that is something to think about. I can't wait to see the 5 stories.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this post, Anne Elisabeth. : ) I think we all needed this!

Jenelle Leanne said...

This is fantastic. :) Thank you!

Shantelle Mary said...
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Shantelle Mary said...

Thanks for this, Anne Elisabeth!! :) It really encouraged me, because I was worrying my story ideas were just too much following the original Beauty and the Beast tale. So thanks! I feel inspired to start writing now! :)
Also, I'm really excited to read Five Glass Slippers!! The stories sound very interesting!

Lacee said...

This is very encouraging. I remember when I first started writing and angst about being original consumed most of my time...leaving little time for actual writing! Slowly over the years I have learned what you have written, and I have very much enjoyed reading this post! Going to save it for future days when I am in a forgetful mood. :)