Starting Out · Writing

On Originality and Cultivating Authenticity

Let’s talk about originality.

Before we begin, I need to say a few things: First, I’ve seen the word “originality” so many times while researching and drafting this post that it looks weird and has lost all meaning. That’s not important, but I felt like sharing. Second, this is another one of those elusive, vague subjects (like “inspiration”) that is quite difficult to talk about. I’m going to do my best, but I can’t promise anything coherent.

Okay. Back to originality. We all strive for it relentlessly, and yet we, as creators, understand that it is no longer truly within our grasp. “There is nothing new under the sun,” they say. “There are no original ideas anymore.” And that’s true. It’s been true for a long time. But does it matter? No. Hell, Shakespeare borrowed pretty heavily from other people, and nobody faults him for it. Why should we be any different? (Not that I’m comparing myself to Shakespeare. I’m more like the violently-drunk love-child between Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard without all the misogyny and racism)

Yet the obsession continues. We want to be unique. We want our work to stand out. You may not know you’re doing it, but you are. Every time someone says “this reminds me of X” after reading your work, and your heart sinks? Yeah, you’re obsessing over originality.

I’m here to tell you that your work is going to remind SOMEONE of SOMETHING every single freaking time, and that’s okay! Originality doesn’t exist. Get over it.

Here is an awesome quote to start out with:

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”

–Jim Jarmusch [MovieMaker Magazine #53 – Winter, January 22, 2004 ]”

(That’s actually 2 quotes for the price of 1, since he quoted someone within the quote. QUOTE-CEPTION!) (Oh, and I got that quote here)

Anyway, I love this quote, because I steal from everywhere. It may not be a plot devise or characterization or a scene. Maybe it’s just a feeling. But I steal from a thousand different sources and then weave all of those things together into something that is authentic to me. And someone might say, “Oh, this bit here reminds me of Game of Thrones.” And I’ll be like, “Yeah.” Because I totally ripped that bit there from Game of Thrones. But it’s smashed together with a snippet from a comic book and the feeling I got from a movie I watched and the descriptions are of this really cool tree I saw down the street, and…you get the idea.

You, my writers, are an abundance of influences. You’re like a stack of influences all balancing on top of each other, dressed in a trench coat and hat and trying to buy one ticket to the movies. And your influences are different from mine. They make you unique. They make you authentic, genuine. And they make your WORK unique and authentic and genuine. Only YOU, with YOUR influences, can write YOUR version of the story-that-has-been-told-a-thousand-times.

This article says it best:

“What is crucial to remember, is the importance of our own experience, and the uniqueness of our personal worldview. While many familiar thoughts circulate through generations, what remains original, and ultimately distinctive is the filter through which our ideas are processed and shared. Our exclusivity is born, not from our thoughts, but through our sharing of these ideas, through our own voice. These concepts become new as they pass through our frame of reference and interpretation.
We harness and exude originality, simply by being our best self. Despite the thoughts and concepts that repeat throughout time, our filter of feelings, past experiences, and viewpoints make them different. The best part is, the world needs our voice and our diversity of thought to add to the orchestra of ideas that prevail.
C.S. Lewis writes, “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.””

(Another quote-ception right there. You’re welcome)

So, what can we do to make our voices unique?

It’s good to think about your influences. Think about your loves, your obsessions and passions, your hobbies other than writing (“What?! You have HOBBIES other than WRITING?” says everyone I’ve ever known who is sick of me talking about writing). Can you work those interests into your story? My second book is a fairy-tale retelling of Sleeping Beauty. Yeah, roll your eyes. There are a thousand, right? Except that I am obsessed with the jungle. Like…super obsessed. I will watch any documentary about the jungle 100 times. I own books that are just photographs of the jungle. If I weren’t so afraid of spiders, I would go to the jungle and probably never come out, and die happily after petting a poison frog, with maggots crawling out of my skin. Someone would find my skeleton giving a permanent thumbs-up. I freaking love the jungle. So that’s where I chose to set my Sleeping Beauty. It made the story unique, even if the plot wasn’t original.

There are small things you can do to make your story more unique. I’ve seen some fairy-tale re-tellings (since we’re on that subject) that are pretty standard to the original, but all of the characters are gender-bent. The evil stepmother is actually a misunderstood uncle (okay, I haven’t seen that before, exactly, but you could do it and it would be weird and interesting). A unique setting might spice things up a bit. When I was reading every Sleeping Beauty story I could get my hands on, I came across “A Long, Long Sleep” by Anna Sheehan. The plot is basically that a girl is put into suspended animation and is woken from stasis after 62 years (by a kiss, of course), and the world is totally different from the one she knew. Classic story, cool twist.

Some works, like fairy-tale re-tellings, are intentionally derivative. They stem from an easily-recognizable source but are told in a fresh and unique way. I’d argue that those are a little easier to handle, because you can get pretty creative with ways to spin old stories. “Little Red Riding Hood….but the wolf is a CYBORG!” But what about your ideas that are unintentionally derivative? You’ve spent years crafting what you thought was an original plot, and then some beta-reader somewhere goes “Oh yeah, this is JUST like that one movie…”


How do you fix that? (aside from throwing the thing in the fireplace and sobbing yourself to sleep)

Start by listing everything about your work that seems too familiar or over-done. Do you have a “chosen one”? Is there a scene from every sci-fi movie ever in there? Does your mystery conclude a little bit too much like 1,000 different episodes of “Scooby Doo?” How can you turn those scenes/plots/sub-plots/characters on their heads? How can you use your influences to shake things up a bit, make them a little less familiar? Recognize the tropes in your story. Can you un…trope…ify (??) them? I find that by listing things, writing them out by hand, it’s easier to see where I’ve leaned too heavily on what-has-come-before. I can then start listing other options. “What about this? Or this?” Try it, see if it helps you.

Remember, too, that with books that aren’t always heavily-plotted–romance novels and literary fiction, for example–the characters themselves are what make the story unique and (dare I say it?) original(ish). There are so many gad-dang books about being a waiter/waitress/chef/busboy/bartender/whatever. I’ve always wondered WHY…why do people keep writing them? Why do publishers keep publishing them? Why do readers keep reading them? It must be the characters, right? After all, a book about a 50-year old newly-divorced waitress in Oklahoma is going to be very different from a book about a 19-year-old gay waiter in New Orleans. Or…a book…about a waiter working…IN SPACE (please gods of writing let someone please please please write a foodie novel set in space PLEASE). Remember last week’s post about Finding Your Genre, and how I mentioned two very different haunted house stories? Yeah. Unoriginal concept, two totally different books.

Being “original” has everything to do with your voice, your writing style, the lens through which you see the world. What are you trying to say? How does that make your story unique? You don’t have to have grandiose themes, but you ARE trying to say SOMETHING. Mostly I’m trying to say: women can be heroes, heroes can be flawed, villains aren’t ever wholly evil (well, some of them are, but not mine), people in peril don’t always deserve to be saved. Those themes shape my writing. How do your themes shape your writing?

Finally, I want to leave you with a personal story about originality:

My very first book was a zombie book. It took me years to write it, I’d gotten great feedback from my beta-readers, but I couldn’t even get an agent to read the first 10 pages. I scoured agent-blog after agent-blog, trying to see what I was doing wrong, and on each and every one of them I saw “no more zombie books.” (cue the ugly-cry) Yet other zombie books were getting published. They were weird and had unusual elements. To put it simply, they were original. Mine was not. I didn’t want it to be. My whole intention with that book, from the beginning, was to write an homage, a love-letter, to the classic zombie movies that had spoken to and moved me. Eventually I just had to accept that my book wouldn’t get published. It’s not that it was bad, but it didn’t have anything original to add to the genre. It was hard, but I put it in a drawer and moved on. I didn’t want to change it–those weird unusual zombie books were not want I wanted to write. I was happy with my book and proud of myself for doing it. I did promise myself, though, that I would try harder to stand out and be different from then on.

Fast forward to my third book (the one I’ll be finishing up within the next few months). It has familiar elements: an epic quest to save the world, the looming threat of ultimate evil, war brewing between two very different nations over an ancient land-dispute, even a chosen one. But I did my best to take those tropes, rip them apart, and sew them back together into a Frankenstein’s-monster-of-a-book. It is my most “original” novel so far. We’ll see how it goes. If it gets published, try to spot the bits I ripped from Game of Thrones.


(p.s. I’ll be at San Diego International Comic Con next week! I’m going to try to figure out how to “schedule” a post for next Sunday, but if I can’t, then I’ll be posting on Tuesday when I get home, along with a bonus post with photos of my nerd-haul!)




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