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On Dealing with Not Being a Special Snowflake: How the desire for originality can get us down.

I’m on my third novel at the moment, and it’s the first one I’ve ever written under a contract, with a deadline, and expectations and all that jazz. Usually, I write because I fall in love with these crazy people I’ve been having conversations with in my head, but this time round, it’s a bit like walking into a room of people and thinking ‘I have to fall in love with one of you tonight, or I’m screwed.’ A bit like starting a relationship before getting to know the other person. Suddenly we’re curled up watching TV on Sunday nights, and I don’t even know what their favourite colour is.

I’m into character driven stories, incase you couldn’t tell. I want to know about people, how they tick, why they act crazy in certain situations. And usually, the situations arise out of the crazy character. Now, I find myself desperately searching for places to put these characters, searching for drama, making issues where there are none.

 Issues always come from your character. The way they act, or how they think, inevitably causes problems for them. That’s what’s satisfying. Taking your average joe and sticking them on a runaway train, well, that’s not appealing to me. Not unless Joe used to be a train driver, and hasn’t ventured onto public transport in thirty years, because his wife died after being hit by a bus. I don’t care if Joe’s a big damn hero, I want his actions to have effects.

 

And here’s where we get stuck: There are an unlimited combination of people, problems and situations. However, after a while, they all seem to become the same. And I find myself accidentally using names other people have used, or having parts of a similar backstory. Is it that I’m reading more of the genre, and accidentally picking stuff up? Or is it that we’ve adapted to finding formulaic texts comforting, because we secretly know how it’s all going to turn out?

A writer friend of mine always used to have this issue. He’d get halfway through a truly brilliant project, and then find out someone had already done something really similar. My response was always ‘but YOU haven’t done it, your voice has value, it might bring something different to the table’, but now I get how he was feeling. When you’re passionate about what you do, and it starts to look fake, it’s hard to be enthusiastic. So what do I do? Throw away this book and start again? Remove any traces of anything that’s been mentioned in previous books? No. Impossible. Our influences define us, even if they’re unconscious.

 

All I can do is continue to explore my characters, hope that within them, in their histories and quirks, lies the answer to the originality of my story. Yes, boy meets girl, some stuff happens, everything’s fine, there’s drama, they’re together. There’s a reason it’s a cliche. But hopefully, at times like these, we trust that our voice really does have something new to say, even if we’re not sure how to do it.

 
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1 thought on “On Dealing with Not Being a Special Snowflake: How the desire for originality can get us down.”

  1. This is a great blog; I had a real issue with the book I had published last year, and the fact that, as I was writing it I was hearing about Julian Fellowes creating a TV series with a very similar set-up. That, of course, turned out to be Downton Abbey, and it began airing just as I was ready to pitch my own novel. I was, by turns, thrilled and depressed; would it work in my favour, or would my work be seen as derivative? My own book went in a very different direction than DA has taken, but it still gets compared to it in reviews etc because it begins in an upstairs/downstairs big family home setting.

    I decided to take the positive approach and use Downton-lovers as a large part of my target audience. I think that’s all you can do when someone well-established takes your highly ‘original’ work and pips you to the post with their own version! People seem to enjoy the writing style I was offering, so, as you say, voice and character is everything.

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