The Under Ground Writing Project

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Originallity: If Possible, Should You Even Care?

Posted by Oliver on January 27, 2015 at 2:55 PM

A friend of mine reads avidly; good on to her. She reads only nonfiction; in itself, that isn’t bad. She explains why she only reads nonfiction with this question: aren’t you afraid that what you write will end up looking like what you read? She explains that reading all nonfiction avoids this difficulty.

 

I see her point. If I read too much of one author or too much in one style I notice myself making choices veering in favor of the intellectual drag caused by such things. I go ellipsis crazy if I read too much Harry Potter…. If I read too many comic books, I get glib, impractical, and overdramatic! When I read Cormac McCarthy I killed everyone—just for the violence (I’m not sure I understood what McCarthy was going for). It’s a legitimate thought, in a way. I haven’t yet solidified what I’d call my “voice” in writing, but I’m getting there, and I would hate to see the confounding of the limited progress I’ve made by the invasion of other whisperings.

 

My friend, though, didn’t mean by her comment only that she worried about copying styles. She worried about advertently or inadvertently copying story structures and plots and premises. I mean, yeah, I can see the problem with that. You don’t want to spend all your time reading Jane Austen then set out to write a gritty crime noir novel only to realize that quirky young do not make for very good hard-boiled private investigators, and that you should have been writing about murders instead of ladies falling in and out of love with stoical rich gentleman. It is a reasonable point.

 

That said, I’ve never experienced that it was much of a danger. I said above that I very nearly have an idea about my “voice.” I developed it by self-examination, study, and by mimicry. I always get this story wrong, so I won’t tell it, but look up the method Benjamin Franklin used to teach himself to write. He did it by copying other essays, and he copied a lot of essays. If you read his stuff—and I have—then you discover that he’s a damn good writer, and he’s extremely unique. He sounds like himself and not like anyone else. Sure, he didn’t write fiction. It ought to be very close to the same kind of discipline. If what we’re examining here is the idea that reading things like what you write might have the issue of overwhelming your way of writing, then Benjamin Franklin’s a great example. I intentionally muck about with the writing styles of authors I like. I’ll copy things they say word for word, because some things they say strike me so deeply that I want to understand what happened. It’s an incredible learning tool to get into the head of people who know better how to do what you’re doing than you do. You figure stuff out.

 

As far as structure goes, I don’t see that it’s possible to avoid accidentally copying the types of stories that other people tell. I study story structure a lot. I have been for most of my life. After my study, I get closer and closer to realizing that…well, formula is good. There are two kinds of “stories” people tell. The first kind is the kind that does, in fact, fit somewhat neatly into one of those basic categories we sometimes hear about—i.e. man vs. man, man vs. society, man vs. self, etc.. The second kind is the kind that doesn’t fit into any of those categories. The second kind is what we call experimental fiction. Maybe someone will discover a new plot type. (Man vs. computer? No, that’s man vs. nature if you think about it. Man vs. progress? That’s man vs. society. Man vs. psychotic alternate self? Maybe—maybe—a mix between man vs. self and man vs. man.) Usually what happens with the second type is that it veers into obtuse blah and either people don’t like it very much, or people don’t remember it very well. No, see, “cliché” structure is inevitable. It is not, however, in any way bad. We don’t read stories because of their original structure. We read them because of their original perspective. I mean to say, it could be argued that Dr. Doolittle and Jurassic Park are the same story—man vs. nature—but we remember them totally differently. It’s not inevitable to have an original perspective, but most people do.

 

Plus, like, back when I was doing a lot of baking, I’d copy the voice of cookbooks. So, yeah, like you run the risk of copying any voice and structure you read, fiction or no.

 

Last point: It’s infinitely educational to have an idea what’s out there in the genre you’re writing. If you haven’t got an idea about that, you run an equal risk of inadvertently copying someone else. I often experience an excellent idea then watch someone else make a movie about it.

 

I don’t feel like it’s a good idea to tell people write and wrong things to read. I am curious, though, if I’m unique in my interest to copy other writers in order to learn. How ‘bout it, then?

Categories: Advice, Revision/Rewriting, Writing Process

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1 Comment

Reply Dana L. Recinos
5:28 PM on December 16, 2015 
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