Guest blogger: Kristin Cashore

On Originality

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. 🙂

About Michelle Diener

Michelle Diener writes historical fiction and fantasy. To find out more about her and her novels, you can visit her website.
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13 Responses to Guest blogger: Kristin Cashore

  1. Edie Ramer says:

    This was fabulous! I already read Graceling, but this makes me want to read it again. Right now. Just to read more of your words.

    I just saw a bit on TV about a 70-year old woman who was being robbed by 4 teens. She reenacted on TV how she got rid of them, holding her frying pan pan like a baseball bat (it looked like cast iron) and whacking one on his head. From her swing, she didn’t hold back. When the kid looked at her, like “lady, what are you doing?” she whacked him again. All four ran from the house, taking only a wallet with $10 in it.

    The next time I those demons come around, I’ll get out my mental frying pan and whack them.

  2. Lovely topic, Kristin. I hope to find a chance to read Graceling when I’m through with English course lists.

    I think you’ve really caught the heart of it here: “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?”

    Bits and pieces of the works we love and people we admire are going to find their way into our own creations inevitably. What makes them ours is the unique voice, the unique combination of ideas. In my English courses I’ve studied a lot of works that are just riddled with intertextuality (T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” is a great example), and it’s not copying, it’s literature. No other piece of poetry or fiction offers that same combination of sources and original ideas, and those authors consciously work with awareness of intertextuality.

    I think if there’s a fear of copying, it would only apply to the broad strokes echoing another work. The whole pacing of a story matching The Empire Strikes Back, complete with father-revelation, for example.

  3. Excellent blog post. Personally I don’t think it’s possible to be “original” in the sense of creating something entirely new. But what each of us as writers can do is bring our unique perspective to whatever we write.

    I used to worry about not being original but I don’t anymore. Well, that’s not entirely true. 🙂 Here’s why.

    Recently, I had submitted a story to an anthology and, although the editor loved the story, she rejected it because she had received another story similar to it in subject matter but that included some elements she wanted specifically for the anthology.

    Well, in a situation like there’s not much you can do about it. Except keep writing.

    So, sure, I’ll admit, that each time I sit down to begin a new story I worry about it being derivative or similar to what someone else has already written or is currently writing.

    And I know that, more than likely, someone probably has or is writing something similar. But there’s not much I can do about that.

    That’s why I think your advice just to write is right on the money. There are so many elements working against us as writers, no sense adding more to the mix 🙂

  4. Cynthia Eden says:

    Great advice! And, wow, I really love that cover. The eye reflection in the sword grabbed me right away.

  5. LaDonna says:

    Kristin, we love having you at Magical! Your cover is stunning. And I agree, focusing on the writing is the only way to discover voice. I, too, try and avoid reading in the same genre when writing. The only exception is when my Magical book review is due, and the one I want to review is well…in my genre. 😆 The thing I really love is that no matter how many similiar books there are out there, a genuine voice will shine. So for me, that’s the gold. Nothing more important than finding and working from the core. Voice is like a fingerprint, no doubt about it.

  6. Liz Kreger says:

    I don’t think I ever worry about originality. Probably because every writer has their own view of any given tale. Doesn’t matter if it sorta sounds like that book you read five years ago … it isn’t. This is your vision of that tale and its going to be completely different.

    In “Forget About Tomorrow” my heroine’s eyes change color to reflect her moods. I’d personally never read a book with that same trait, but I’d have no problem with someone else using the same idea … as long as they make it unique to their own story.

    Great blog, Kristin. I was just reading the sci fi bookclub offerings and saw “Graceling” prominently listed. Congrats. Gotta make it a point of ordering it.

  7. Hi everyone! Thanks so much for hosting me today!

    It’s great hearing that I’m not the only one with demons. We’re all in this together. And Edie, that frying pan story *cracked me up.* I”ll have to remember that one. Liz, the changing eye colors sounds really cool to me!

    Happy writing, everyone. We just have to keep at it… nothing else to do… (I had a bit of a frustrating day today, actually… but I’ll try again tomorrow!)

  8. Michelle says:

    Kristin, thank you so much for your terrific blog! I don’t often worry about originality, but I wrote a book based on a fairy tale a while back, and as I was writing it, I kept encountering the ‘fairy tale’ constructs, and thinking, should I go there? In the end, I went there. This quote from Marie-Louise von Franz helped me find peace with it:

    “After working for many years in this field, I have come to the conclusion that all fairy tales endeavor to describe one and the same psychic fact, but a fact so complex and far-reaching and so difficult for us to realize in all its different aspects that hundreds of tales and thousands of repetitions with a musician’s variations are needed until this unknown fact is delivered into consciousness; and even then the theme is not exhausted.” The Interpretation of Fairy Tales by Marie-Louise von Franz.

    I think this speaks to all stories, not just fairy tales.

  9. Kris Kennedy says:

    Kristin,
    Oh, I really liked this thought:

    “You might feel like every idea you have is wooden, heartless, unoriginal. [SNIP] Respect the idea anyway. Think of it as a child who can’t do much now, but who only needs your love … to grow into something extraordinary…”

    Thanks for that new thought! 🙂
    ~Kris

  10. Michelle, that’s a wonderful quote, beautiful. I agree that that’s what story is all about, and that’s what makes it so rich and marvelous. And Kris, thanks — so glad you liked it! :o)

    Also, how great is it that my security word for this comment is “kitten?”

    :o)

  11. talshannon says:

    My writing mentor once gave me the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard:

    Ideas are nothing; execution is everything.

    I agree with you that worrying about how original your work is is a waste of precious “I could be writing” time. 😉 There aren’t any original ideas left. What truly matters is that a writer bring their own, original voice to that idea.

    I like the visual of wicked little demons whispering at our ear. Have every writer in the world turn that into their own, unique short story and the demons will all be out of work. ~~

  12. Seolfor says:

    Excellent analysis – but beyond advice to writers, you’ve just revealed the nature of tradition in myth. We remember the bits that are powerful to us and adapt them when we fashion stories that suit our own lives – and we’ve been doing it since we had stories to begin with. It’s only recently become an issue of copying – prior to the record of our stories, how could it be?

    Further, I’d disagree with Haley’s “broad strokes” critique – in the case of the example in particular: “The Empire Strikes Back” was so riddled with archetypal bits and pieces that anyone who wrote their own characters into that story pattern wouldn’t be copying it so much as the works it itself was based on. And the implication is that this would be a bad thing, something I’d also argue with. Was it copying when Lucas set out to make ESB, and does that make the story less fascinating? Or did he just compile those earlier stories into mythological terms that were relevant to the day?

    What I’d personally argue is that it’s ‘copying’ in the pejorative sense when the writer isn’t discovering the elements of story and details of the world as they write them. I may be presuming a great deal in saying this, but I believe most of us are as eager to see how the plot, the characters, and the world of a book turn out as the readers will be, and we’re exploring and discovering as much as inventing. I’d say if that feeling’s there, you’re probably in the clear.

  13. Amanda Nowicki says:

    I have not read Graceling yet, but I’m geting to it.

    When I read the inside flap of the book I thout ah man I had this exacte same idie. Only my charater kills at her own free well. It’s not an extreme skill. Then i read your blog and relized that your right i love to wright storys and should not worry wether or not i’m coppy wrighting any thing.

    I also have a qweston. How did you find an ending for Graceling? Cause I cant find an ending for my story

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