The Risks of Originality


Every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great or original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished.
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A risky proposition. To dare to create something new, not just follow the trend of what’s popular, is to court potential disaster. Or at least obscurity.

But writers are constantly admonished to find their own ‘voice.’ When we create something new, hopefully fresh and not simply derivative or reminiscent of another writer’s style, we never know if it will appeal to anyone, if anyone will ‘get’ what we’re trying to say or do. And more to the point, is it any good? If we succeed in creating something new, and somehow manage to get it into the hands of the public, what kind of response can we expect? Can we create that taste that will leave readers longing for more? If we don’t, if it falls flat, do we carry on anyway, or adjust ourselves?

It’s scary to put yourself out there, not knowing if anyone will understand what you’re trying to say, in the particular way you are trying to say it. I have a tendency to be succinct to the point of brusqueness, not on purpose, but usually because I haven’t taken the time to read back over what I’ve written to see if I really clarified what I meant. I’ve been horrified on more than one occasion after firing off a post, comment or e-mail to re-read what I wrote and see that I actually have only half a thought there. The tone of the item seldom comes across the way I intended it. I have to learn to get outside my own head and see what I write as someone else would see it. And if I’m doing this in my everyday, informal writing it’s surely a sign unto me that I’m doing it in my fiction as well. The fingers don’t always keep up with the brain.

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54 thoughts on “The Risks of Originality

  1. There is no originality without risk. No adventure, either; no true beauty, really, in the creative sense.

    Trouble is, great work and spectacular failure both start with the willingness to take a risk. And take it again. And what the hell, let’s give another shot or six. Maybe it’ll pop this time.

    Still, that’s the only good thing I can think of to say about not getting paid for what we write: at this point, we don’t get fired for it either, so why not shoot the proverbial works? When my students ask me what they have to do to get an “A”, I tell them they have to be willing to work up on the high wire, without a net: so sure of their abilities that they don’t need to look down at their feet. Only a small percentage even understand what the hell I’m talking about, but those are the ones who succeed.

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  2. I like that, I’ll be giving that a lot of thought. You’re right, at this point there’s nothing to lose by going way out on that limb. I haven’t got far to fall 😉

    I would just like to feel like I have something original to say. I don’t know that I do. I no longer have that cocksure attitude of youth.

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    1. You have something better – a mature person’s understanding that the world won’t end if you don’t get exactly what you want. You have so many more stories to tell than you did as a kidlet, and you have something original to say just about every day – why do you think we all stop by this blog so faithfully?

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      1. It’s true! Your clogged plumbing post had me laughing out loud, and sort of wishing for a chapter in the vampire novel in which that poor sensible mortal woman who narrates the short stories winds up in similar straights, and Andrej shows up, directs a long hard melancholy stare at the drain, and clears the clog for eternity. (See what a good writer you are – you’ve got me crushin’ on a fictional character already)

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      2. LOL If I decide to take it in a humorous direction that might be a fun scene to write, and cathartic for me! 😉 I’m positively traumatized by plumbing problems anymore.

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  3. I sometimes pull my hair out when trying to be original. I think it never is any good and I think my influences always seem to manifest somehow in my writing.

    I’m not sure if others can see it but I definatly see it and thing I have no originality

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  4. But Chazz, having respect for your influences is different than being derivative or unoriginal. I mean, think of all the poets who have written sonnets – there are bad ones, and good ones, & some that could stop your heart, but none of those poets are lacking originality ONLY because they are showing respect for the discipline and convention of the form. In my experience, good writers are always good readers, so if what I’m noticing when I read, for example, The Color Purple is, “wow, Walker clearly read Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist and internalized that remarkable technique of letting the language mature to reflect the maturation of the character,” well that doesn’t make Celie’s story any less original; it just means she knew a good thing when she saw it, and was smart enough (brilliant enough, actually) to put that influence to her own original use.

    (sorry, I’ve been geeking on Joyce all week 😉 )

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    1. That is totally true, but in my mind i see the influences in my work so much that I feel like I am not being original.

      And aren’t you geeking on about Joyce every week 😛

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      1. I think the writer is always the biggest critic of their work. I find it hard to like anything I write and I expect it to be perfect first time round 😛

        Nothing wrong with Geeks 😀 they will rule the world

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      2. Isn’t that in the Bible – “the geeks shall inherit the Earth” ?? Amen, brother.

        Seriously, though, that’s the difference between you adult writers, and the youngsters I teach. It’s not uncommon for very bright students to get caught up in the perfectionsim loop, and wind up paralyzed – they literally won’t hand anything in b/c they want it to be perfect, OR they can’t bring themselves to revise b/c they can’t bear to look at their flaws. You guys grouse about it little, but I notice you keep writing.

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      3. As I always quote (when people talk about writing and why we must keep it, dispite the flaws)

        “If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad. As to that regular, uninterrupted love of writing. I do not understand it. I feel it as a torture, which I must get rid of, but never as a pleasure. On the contrary, I think composition a great pain.” — Lord Byron

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      4. Bummer. I’d give my eye-teeth to be able to see so many bands, so many that I like (AFI, HIM, My Chemical Romance). Well, I hope my boys are enjoying the weather down there 🙂 Oh well, maybe someday.

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      5. My Chemical Romance pulled out and was replaced by Jimmy Eat World which would of been awesome too. I was hoping to see AFI, HIM, Sunny Day Real Estate, Reel Big Fish, The Aquabats & Enter Shikari but oh well. I’m sure i’ll be back at soundwave next year. Always has a great line up

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  5. If you go in that direction, I’d love to see the sexy vampire compared to some of the bad mortal dates we’ve discussed over the years. Hell, you’ve even written your title and your epigraph: see “Top 10 Reasons Why Women Prefer Vampires” 😉

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  6. Loved the post and reading all the comments.

    Regarding originality, here’s a great quote from C.S. Lewis: “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.”

    I agree. Just write the story you are driven to tell.

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  7. Thanks, Tasha. Great quote from Lewis. And really, what else can we do except as you said, write what we are driven to? People roll their eyes and groan when I tell them I’m working on a vampire novel (well, the one or two I’ve actually told) but I’m having so much fun with it, and really enjoying my characters so I intend to keep at it. 🙂 Is it original? I don’t think I can even tell, I’m too close to it.

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  8. I’m not groaning! The joy you take in your work is infectious, even if my own ridiculous brain keeps imagining the vamps in goofy situations. I’ll bet a few people rolled their eyes & groaned when Joanne Rowling told ’em she was working on a story about an orphaned boy wizard who plays hockey while flying around on a broom, too, and that turned out pretty OK.

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  9. Hehe 🙂 Good point. I like the humorous spin you put on the whole thing, which reminds me I need to pick up those Christopher Moore books.

    I don’t normally even mention to other people that I’m working on a novel, it just sounds so pretentious no matter how I try to say it. But I’m still meeting with the NaNo folks (the few who are still coming) and the guys asked what I was working on… yeah, you can imagine. Speaking of which, if I get the disposer finished today (turns out you need 4 hands to manage it) I have a meet-up this afternoon.

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  10. Heh heh. Love Mary’s point about Harry Potter.

    Anyhow, if I’d listened to the naysayers about *anything* in my life- I would never have gotten anywhere. So I ignore them and go on my merry way.

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  11. True. And these guys in the writing group are not exactly my target demographic anyway. Actually, I don’t know who my target demographic is, I don’t know that I have one. The marketing people won’t like that, but oh well. I’m just writing what I want to write, and we’ll see if anyone thinks they want to read it.

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  12. Just from the wee bit I’ve read and that we’ve discussed, I could see a clever marketing department selling it as “Chick Lit with a Brain AND a Heart.” There’s a need for more of that, IMO.

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  13. I just want to clarify that I mean no offense by letting them sell it as “chick lit;” it’s just sort of an established fact that women will read a book that’s written from a man’s POV, whereas men are a little less likely to read a book, the narrator of which is female (hence Harry Potter, not Harriet, although how she manages to inhabit the mind of a teenaged boy is completely beyond me…)

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    1. Oh I don’t know, teenage boys aren’t really that mysterious 😉

      I know what you’re saying though, and in fact that’s why she used the name “J.K. Rowling” instead of her full name of Joanne. It was thought boys wouldn’t read a book if they knew the author was female, so disguising her gender by using only initials seemed prudent.

      Actually my MC in the novel is a male vampire, so most of the story is told through his eyes. It’s only the little short I posted that has a female narrator.

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  14. Here’s my start:

    Can’t eat it (different from a peanut);

    Can’t keep it in a jar ( ” ” );

    can’t grind it up and spread it on a sandwich, (you know,)
    yet I crave it over and over, crave that salty burn when I’ve had too much and still wish for more, snap at those who compare it to something small

    Does love really differ from a peanut?

    next stanza: take it away, friends!

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  15. OOps! It seems I posted the above stanza here, instead of over at the DD Syrdal site, where it developed out a thread she’d started about common prose errors. I will leave it up to DD to decide whether she’d rather cut & paste it over there, or leave it here and blame the odd little non-sequiter on me.

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    1. I think all writers have that fear. I think if you learn to write for yourself and have a passion for what you’re writing people will see that and begin to enjoy reading you work more.

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      1. I sure hope so. As I continue on, I have pretty much figured out that’s all I can write, what I like. Maybe better writers can adapt themselves to what’s in demand (as evidenced by those who start out by writing genres other than those they hope to be published in, which seems like a long list) but for now at least that’s all I can do, write what I love.

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      2. LOL Ok 😉 Ack, I better go re-read it then, I barely remember what I wrote! It’s probably still not going to be your cup of tea, the killings don’t start until the novel. But do feel free to give some feedback, from where you are you won’t have to see me cry 😉

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  16. I know you’ve read ’em, because she’s included in your blogroll, but I noticed that many of the writers who weighed in with their “10 rules for writing” at Meg Gardiner’s “Lying for a Living” blog have responded to exactly the issues you guys have on your minds. All the lists are awfully good, and of course I’m not surprised that Elmore Leonard’s was the first featured (I like when he sez “if it sounds like writing, I go back and re-write it”) but today I’m thinking about Anne Enright saying “Only bad writers think that their work is really good.”

    C’mon Chazz – you wouldn’t read our work if one of the protagonists was a fan of a glam-punk band called the Sparkling Douchebags? I’ve never written a murder mystery, but now you’ve got me wanting to write one that starts with the murder of the S.D.’s arrogant lead singer, whose stage name was Baby of Shame.

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  17. I know you are working on some “priority projects,” but I am perfectly willing to donate the title “Murder and the Moshpit,” and fool around with it whenever you blogsters can make time. BTW, the late Baby of Shame’s legal name was Jennifer Klein; she grew up in Westchester County, NY and attended Vassar for a year before dropping out and going on the road with the band that became the Sparkling Douchebags.

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  18. Hi. I’m a little late to this particular party, but I got here via your comment on orchids from Freshly Pressed today. I got a bit lost in so many replies to your post here so I hope I’m not duplicating content. The last paragraph of your post above minus the first sentence? omg, that SO describes me as well. Partly how I write (many many notes to self–read it like a stranger would!), but mostly? This is how I TALK. Ack!!
    It’s good, and somewhat reassuring (I think?) to know that someone else has the same issue and also has the self-awareness to try and kick the thing in the rear. Bless your heart! I think all we can do is keep on tryin’, and appreciate those around us who hang in there even as they’re saying “What?”

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  19. Hi Monika,

    Welcome, nice to meet you 🙂 As you can see we’re a chatty bunch here, feel free to dive in wherever and whenever the mood strikes! There is comfort in knowing we’re not the only ones, that’s for sure. I guess for myself the key is to re-read things, yet again, before hitting that ‘send’ button. Of course, filtering our speech and explaining ourselves verbally rather than in writing is always going to be dicey 😀

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    1. Thanks very much! I’m logged in this time (spaced doing that the first time). Verbal explanations? You’re not kidding it’s dicey LOL!

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