Here’s a question from aspiring writers that’s been coming up recently on my blog and in email: Do you ever look at what you’ve written, and all you can see is how similar it is to other people’s stories? As if all you’re doing is copying? How can I make my writing more original?
Now, on the one hand, I have no advice whatsoever on how to make your writing more original. Some writers would give you a series of writing exercises focused on originality, but I’m not a big fan of writing exercises. They’re just not my style. If a masked man ran over, held a gun to my head, and said, “Do a writing exercise, lady, or it’s sunset over Cancun,” I would probably say, “Go away. I’m trying to write a novel here and you’re bothering me. Anyway, the sun rises over Cancun. I think you mean Acapulco.”
However, on the other hand, before you decide that the only thing I’m good for is Mexican geography (which wouldn’t even be true, because I had to refer to a map for that Cancun / Acapulco stuff), I happen to have the best advice ever on how to deal with the originality problem. It is, in my humble opinion, the only advice, and it’s come from years of my own wrangling. The advice is twofold: (1) try not to worry about it too much, and (2) write, write, write.
Here’s the thing. Yes, absolutely, I have looked at my writing and seen the ways in which it is derivative. I’ve also read certain books after writing my books and cringed the whole way through on account of the screaming similarities. But, after all, why do we write? Because we love to read. We want to improve upon the stories we love; we want to create versions of our own. It’s inevitable that this involve both conscious and unconscious imitation. So, you have a madwoman in your attic, just like Mr. Rochester? Or, your character is a girl pretending to be a boy, just like Alanna (and also, let’s see, half the women Shakespeare ever wrote)? Who cares. My book Graceling has a character named Po with distinctive gold and silver eyes. Sometime after writing it, I reread a book I hadn’t picked up for over twenty years: A Walk Out of the World, by Ruth Nichols. And wouldn’t you know it, I’d forgotten that one of the characters has silver eyes. And as I sat there in my armchair, rereading this fabulous, magical book, it came rushing back to me that that was the thing I’d loved most about this book when I was ten: those ethereal silver eyes.
I had a moment of panic. “Oh, lordy, how did I let that happen? I’m such a copier and I didn’t even realize it!” And then I let it go, because you know what? Po’s eyes weren’t copying. They were an unconscious homage. They were a thank you to Ruth Nichols for inspiring me.
Everything we write builds on everything that’s ever been written. Painters imitate the painters they love; actors imitate the actors they love. (Ever seen Leonardo DiCaprio do Jack Nicholson?) Children imitate their parents and their older siblings. We learn how to be by imitating others; and the more we practice, the closer we get to answering the big question: what does it mean for me to be myself?
That brings me to the second part of my advice: practice. WRITE, WRITE, WRITE. You might feel like every idea you have is wooden, heartless, unoriginal. I feel that way a lot of the time. It’s okay. Respect the idea anyway. Think of it as a child who can’t do much now, but who only needs your love, patience, faith, and support to grow into something extraordinary. Write that idea, then write the next one, and the next one. The best way to find your own voice, your own ideas, your own writing heart is to tell the demons of self-doubt, “Yes, I hear you, and now you need to go away. I’m writing, and you’re bothering me.” Write, write, write—and eventually, you will find your original self.
A practical tip: I have found it helpful at times to stop reading fantasy while I’m writing fantasy. Fantasy has many, many familiar tropes, and sometimes it’s better to just stop reading things that remind you of your own work. So I’ll read a mystery or some realism or some nonfiction until I feel like I’m ready to read fantasy again. While I was writing Fire (out next fall), I took over a year off from reading fantasy.
One more practical tip. My twofold advice for dealing with the originality demon—(1) try not to worry about it too much and (2) write, write, write—pretty much applies to every other writing demon, too, every other voice that tries to tell you why you’re no good. Demons love writers. One of our biggest and hardest jobs as writers is to accept that we live with an army of clever and manipulative demons; to try not to worry too much about what they say; and to keep writing.
Good luck to you. 🙂