Monday, August 2, 2010

Something New

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!)


Unknown said...

I agree, Lisabet. There are too many plots that have been done to death. I reviewed for HQ's medical romance line for a time, and I wasn't impressed after a while. The books were all "cookie cutter" versions, but with different names and places factored in. Talk about predictable. I could almost write the same review of each, fill in the title and feel like I'd done my job. The books were good, but all too common.

I try hard to had a twist or turn to surprise the reader, as I like to be surprised. Don't know if I pull it off every time, but I'm hoping my latest finished manuscript will hold everyone's interest...when I find a publisher of course. :)

Brenna Lyons said...

I don't think it's fair to say that romance writers don't care about originality. There is something different at play here, IMO.

What would that be? Ginger talks about the cookie cutter Harlequins, which seems to be thankfully dumped for Carina line. They are going for the the indie vision with that line.

INDIE. That's the difference. When you look at the NY conglomerate lines, you are looking at lines that want a flavor. I won't say they want "formula" per se, but they have a bowling lane of room for the author to work in and still sign. If the author wants to sign to one of these publishers, they toe that line and toe it well.

In indie, they take that bowling lane and turn it into a football field. The gutters are now 160 feet apart instead of 41.5 inches and the length 360 feet instead of 60. That's a heck of a lot more room to play around in. Better, indie press expects you to get off the three and a half foot wide corridor and range a bit. If you don't, they don't want the story.

What do I like personally? Notice I read and write the football field. Grinning... That says it all. I loathe cookie cutter books.


Jade said...

Yet another lightbulb moment for me, Lisabet. Yes, I love my shape-shifts and my vampires and I adore series such as the ones Carol Lynne has produced. But even within these selections it's the stories that give me something unique, some twist or plot that I've never tasted before that makes me look back fondly and want to read them again and again.

Thanks for another insightful BLOG, Lisabet :)

Donna said...

I enjoy originality to a point. I remember the books and movies of the 70s when you could count on any person you had been led to care about being killed in some surprisingly inappropriate way in the final scene. And I remember Clockwork Orange...ugh.

The originality I enjoy I have found in books like Koontz', The Darkest Evening of the Year, where the characters and plot twist and turn but I felt I could trust that the author had a reasonable plan in mind for the ending.

I enjoy originality when characters reach down and find something within themselves, good or bad, and explore it. I enjoy a surprise like a setting that becomes a character. But it has to make sense to me. Is that what you were asking?


Unknown said...

Hi, Jade;

I review, too, and I often find my reviews repeating what you've said here. Competantly written, believable, likeable characters, the plot hangs together, but nothing new. Quite often, the memorable stories, even if I don't like them, are the ones with some twist I did not expect, something I haven't seen before.


Miriam Newman said...

I agree with Brenna. Both as a reader and a writer, originality is the key to my liking a book and indie press seems to be where that's happening. Love the big NY books at times, but often a "little" indie book makes my day.

Isabella said...

HI Lisabet,

I agree with your assessment. Often times I read a line and think, "Wow, I wish I wrote something like that". Then other times when I see an author try to write outside their "norm" it seems forced. A well written book should take the reader somewhere without them even knowing they've gone, even if it has the usual cast of characters.

How can Nora Roberts write 150 novels without regurgitating a story line? Maybe she does and we don't know it since she has such a deep history. Perhaps that is the reason for the J.D. Robb persona. This is just my opinion. I am not a professional, I only hope to be one some day.

desitheblonde said...


Word Actress said...

Lisabet - u and me - we're twisted sistas almost always on the same page. I, too, believe that creativity cannot be taught. I know lots of people make money selling the premise that it can, but I don't agree. My mom had perfect pitch and she passed it on to me. When I belt out a tune, I belt out a tune. And people usually gasp. Writing...painting...singing and making's a gift I think we're born with. But it's like love - there are so many aspects of it that delight and confuse, noone can ever really know...Mary Kennedy Eastham

Janice Seagraves said...

It depends really on what original twist you've added. A lot of people have problem with sparkly vampires, other don't. Some people write about living vamps over than the dead verity that we're use to.

It really boils down to good world building. And if you've done your job right, the reader will want more.

Good luck.


Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello, all!

Sorry not to have checked in earlier. My Tuesdays are always impossible.

I appreciate all your comments. And I will admit that I've exaggerated a bit, as is often the case in my blog posts, for the sake of stirring up some controversy.

Of course romance readers care about originality. But probably not as much as I do. I read romance but I'm new to the genre (relatively speaking). I think that perhaps my expectations are different.

Alas--as I said, creativity is a goal but I don't know any sure road to get there. I just learned yesterday about another Jamaican vampire book...!

Thanks for your comments!


*yadkny* said...

This is why I appreciate authors so much. There is so much more work that goes into creating a book than people realize. It wasn't until I really started getting into reading myself that I realized that.

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