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Is there such a thing as original fiction? Hmm… you may think that’s an odd question for me to ask and the answer to that must be “yes”.
Yes and No to Originality
Christopher Booker feels stories fall into certain categories. He is the author of the excellent The Seven Basic Plots, which is a fascinating study in story types. It is not a lightweight book, literally do not drop it on your foot, but it is an in-depth study of comedy, tragedy, and the quest amongst some of the basic story types we all know and love. I can’t recommend this book highly enough if you want to study how and why stories work. Give yourself plenty of time to read it though.
So in a way the answer to this question is a firm “no”. Every author builds on what has gone before. Therefore, nothing is original.
Hang on a moment though! Firstly, someone had to be first. There is no point in reinventing the wheel (and for once I can justify the use of a cliche here). Secondly, certain writers such as Shakespeare and Dickens added significantly and originally to the world of literature. Shakespeare especially added so many words to the language which we still use so he has to be original, yes? Last but not least, every writer has a unique author voice so must produce original work.
It is the last point that is important. Where the problem can come in is working out what your author voice is – and it took me ages to discover mine.
Finding Your Author Voice
How did I find my author voice? By writing. A lot. And then writing some more. Then repeating that.
The more you write, the more experience you get in putting stories together. As you do that, you will, with time, get a feel for yes, this is how I do things. This is what works for me. But you need to put in the time and effort to discover that. It does not come automatically.
You’re never going to find your writing style by just writing the odd story every now and again. Regular consistent writing is how you find out what your voice is – and it is the author’s unique voice that publishers and agents look for. In knowing what your voice is you can play to its strengths.
My way into writing a story is usually by getting to know the character first. I can then work out what I’m going to do with those characters. Other writers need to know the setting or the situation. They then work out which kind of characters would fit their situation/setting best. Finding your voice is about working out what your way in is for coming up with a story and it is also about finding your style. I like crisp writing so flash fiction and short stories are a natural home for me. It took me a while to find that out. It isn’t obvious when you start out.
For non-fiction pieces like this, I like a simple down-to-earth style. I think of it as almost as if I was chatting to you. That works for me. I’m not going to use jargon as a rule. That doesn’t work for me. I am also suspicious of jargon. Clarity is vital in writing and jargon can muddy the waters so I don’t bother!
When you start out, you should experiment with different types of writing to find out what it is you like to do and where your writing strengths lie. I admire well written plays, for example, but also know I’m not writing one and that’s fine. Not everyone can write to tight word counts. Those who like the epics are going to need more than a thousand words to get their stories out!
Making the Most of Your Author Voice
This is where originality in writing does come in for authors. I can only write as Allison Symes. Yes, I could copy another writer’s style but for me that would come across as a bad spoof and I don’t want to go there. Besides, where is the fun in that? The joy of creative writing is in coming up with something which is unique to you.
If you know your style and natural word count home is 20,000 words plus then you know what you should be looking towards is writing novellas and novels. If you like to write short, then you’re aiming for the short story and flash fiction markets. It does not mean you can’t ever do anything else.
But if you know you have a particular strength in writing to 1500 words, which is the main word count for most magazines and a lot of the short story competitions, it makes sense to play to that strength and see if you can build up publication credits and/or competitions wins and listings.
On the assumption you can, later on if you want to do something different, such as write a novel, when you’re ready to submit to a publisher or agent, you have a track record you can share when you send in your query letters etc. You should find that the experience in writing all those short stories will help you when you’re ready to have a go at the novel. Those take a lot of stamina. Building yourself up via the short form first is not a bad thing to do.
Putting Your Own Take on an Idea
So if there are only a few basic plots, doesn’t that limit the number of ideas? Haven’t these already been done? Not at all!
There will always be a market for crime stories, for example, but within that genre there are a whole range of sub-categories ranging from cosy mysteries to the more gory type of novel. So firstly you will find a category that will suit you. Secondly it will be how you make your characters solve the mystery or try to get away with their criminal acts that will make your story unique to you.
I am living proof of this point. I am privileged to be one of the fifteen winners three years in a row for the Waterloo Arts Festival writing competition when it ran a few years ago. Every writer taking part had to write to the same word count and on the same theme set by the competition. In each of the three books that came out as a result of this competition, all of the writers came up with wildly different stories and styles. All of us were writing to our unique author voices.
So the way to be original in fiction then is to be yourself and to write to your strengths. There are no shortcuts. You do have to put the writing work in but once you find your voice, it will help you be more productive. I know now how I’ll approach a writing challenge and so I get straight on with it. I use what works for me. I know my voice will come through properly in using what works for me.
I also believe the more fun the writer has in producing their work, that some of this will come through to the reader, again confirming originality. I know I get a sense of a writer having fun when I read pieces and I, as a reader, enjoy the piece even more.
What we all want, whether we read or write stories or do both, is originality after all. We want to read what this writer has to say. We want to read about this writer’s characters and what they get up to. And it should be fun too, regardless of the genre you read and/or write in.
Producing stories is hard work but there should be fun behind it. For me, it is fun creating something new and then seeing if I can find a home for it. When I’m reading, I want to find my fun in following the writer’s character developments and really getting behind their people and having to find out how the story ends. If I can do that then the writer has been original as I am following their voice and theirs alone and that is how it should be.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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