Articles on the craft of writing often focus on the core elements of character and plot. I agree with this emphasis, as far as it goes. A story's success depends on creating multi-dimensional, sympathetic characters that capture and hold the reader's interest. A narrative arc that presents a significant conflict and which drives the characters toward resolution of this problem is equally important.
Character and plot definitely affect my personal reactions to a story. However, for me, there's another essential component that might have even more influence on my opinion: the story's originality. In my roles as editor and reviewer, I read dozens of stories every month. Most of them are competently written. Many, however, are eminently forgettable, because they don't really offer anything new.
A really original story gives me a special thrill. For example, yesterday I read "The Hand & I." by EllaRegina. Her creativity made me laugh with delight. Her notion of a love story between a woman and a disembodied hand was wildly unexpected and beautifully executed.
More than a year ago I read the highly original novel Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. It still comes to mind about once a week. The hero of Motherless Brooklyn is a young man with Tourette's Syndrome, a brain malfunction that causes the sufferer to spout obscenities and generally exhibit an inability to control his irrational impulses. Despite his disability, Lethem's hero is intelligent, acutely observant, and generally sympathetic. Now, you might argue that it was the character who made the book memorable, but I maintain that it was the author's inspired notion to give his hero Tourette's that is really responsible.
This example, of course, demonstrates the difficulty of separating the notion of "originality" from other aspects of writing. Originality can be expressed in the characters, the plot, the setting or the premise of a tale. It's one of those mysterious, slippery concepts--I know it when I see it. And to me, at least, it matters a lot.
I sometimes feel that romance writers and readers don't care all that much whether something is new. Readers seem to love series, revisiting the same worlds and characters in multiple books. The more shape shifters hit the real or virtual shelves, the more shape shifters the readers seem to want. The same is true for M/M and vampire-themed romance.
When I sit down to write a story, I strive--almost desperately--to do something original. Unfortunately, creativity is not an aspect of craft like character development or effective plotting. I don't think you can really "learn" to be creative, though maybe some of you might disagree. You can try doing exercises to stimulate your native creativity, but if the ideas don't come, there's not much you can do. Truly original ideas seem to arrive in those rare, precious "aha" moments, those mysterious flashes of brilliance that are totally out of our control.
Fire in the Blood is yet another vampire story. When I wrote it, I really wanted to do something new, something original. I don't know if I've succeeded or not. And if I did succeed, would that even be a good thing? If my vampire doesn't behave the way readers expect, will that make them like the story less, rather than more?
What do you think? Does it matter much to you whether a story offers something really new? Is originality important to you, or is it trumped by character and plot? I'd really like to know.
(Remember, every comment you make between now and August 15th is one more entry for my give-away!)