Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Some thoughts on originality

I've been thinking about originality a lot lately. In my #WIPMarathon update, I talked about how it's what a writer does with a concept that makes it original - there ARE no original ideas! This might seem like a paradox, as agents, publishers and readers all want good, original books which do something different...but the key is in the DETAILS. Like most writers, I've wasted a ridiculous amount of time fretting about the originality of my own ideas - and I was actually forced to shelve my first two manuscripts due to their being too similar to books already out. So I thought I might share what my particular experience (as a writer, intern and editor) has taught me.

Certain stories have stood the test of time for a reason. Christopher Booker argues in his 700-page doorstopper of a book, The Seven Basic Plots, that there is only one underlying plot, and you can see the same thing if you use something like the Save the Cat beat sheet to plan a novel. This isn’t restrictive – it’s a guideline to tell a story in a way that will keep the reader turning the pages until the end.

The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell StoriesWith that being said, it’s hard to think of an original concept. I’ve heard it said that publishers are looking for “the same but different” which, some might argue, is frustratingly vague. Certain trends – i.e. vampires, dystopias, et al, might be over, but that isn’t to say that a totally new spin on one of those concepts might not catch an agent’s attention.

Certain tropes resonate with readers. This is why certain ideas are continually cycled - star-crossed lovers, love triangles, etc. Are they original? Absolutely not. But they’re retold almost constantly in different guises.

The real question is, how do you tell if an idea is TOO similar to what’s already on the shelves? Like I did with my first novel, it might be time to ask yourself some honest questions. But the reason I shelved it was because I sent the book to a literary consultancy which told me the plot wasn’t sufficiently original, and that the voice wasn’t fully developed. I think the two are connected. I was eighteen at the time and it was my first novel, so I had a lot to learn. The bare bones of the novel were weak, and it showed. I hadn’t worked hard enough on creating an original and compelling fantasy world, and had stayed too close to the storylines of the books I loved reading.

What made my third novel (The Puppet Spell) work better was that I consciously pulled on a lot of influences, but deliberately gave them my own twist and paid attention to the VOICE. I think writing in first person helped, because using Lexa’s voice automatically gave the book more personality. And readers certainly seem to agree! It’s a whimsical adventure-fairytale-fantasy mashup with humour and magic, and although none of the agents I queried wanted to take on yet another portal fantasy (UK agents get a LOT of this kind of story), it found a home in the end.

For each of my books, I ask myself those honest questions before I even start writing, partly because I’m currently querying. What makes my book “the same but different”? (For example, the hook for the Darkworld series is that it’s a campus-set supernatural fantasy with a different take on demons; for the novel I’m currently querying, Beneath the Waves, it’s that it draws on some popular ideas, i.e. merpeople and zombies, but transplants them to a fully-realised alternative fantasy world with a unique magical system).

Which books can it be compared to? Agents like comparative titles, apparently – and marketing departments certainly do. So I recommend my Darkworld series to older fans of Cassandra Clare and Richelle Mead; I describe Beneath the Waves as like Sabriel  but with merpeople; and my current WIP is a post-apocalyptic fantasy thriller which will hopefully appeal to fans of Angelfall and The Immortal Rules. (If anything, this proves that I’m completely incapable of sticking to one sub-genre…)

Things I think are important? Voice and character. They give a book personality, and are often the tipping point between an acceptance and a rejection. I think that’s a matter for another blog post, though…


  1. If you want originality, take two or more unoriginal (but unspecific) ideas and mix them together. Voice is more important in children's than adult, but it's on the rise everywhere. I think mixing subgenres can give you a lot of originality as well. My main WIP is an about 70/30 epic/heroic fantasy.with a protagonist who is a knight in his upper 30s.

    On a side-note, I appreciate that you know what Sabriel is. I can't believe it never really became popular in the US.

    1. That's a really good way to come up with an original concept! Mixing subgenres in an interesting way can help, too. And I know! Sabriel's one of my all-time favourite fantasy books.

  2. My favorite quote about originality is from C. S. Lewis and he says something about how if you focus on trying to be original, you never will be, whereas if you simply try to tell the truth as best you can you'll end up being original without having even realized it.

    Sarah Allen
    (From Sarah, With Joy)

  3. I'm with you. Voice and character are super important. Take a thousand kids and put them through high school—they'll get a similar structure, but a thousand different experiences.

  4. Awesome. It's totally about selling it through known works--at least that's what I learned through Pitch Wars. When my coach threw "Jane Eyre meets Supernatural" at me, I was like, "Duh! She totally gets it." And suddenly every one we pitched got it too. You're totally right, the same, but different.