Original Sin

It’s difficult  to come up with a completely original idea. I have some faint recollection of Aristotle and Jasper Fforde saying much the same thing, in their different ways and in different millennia, which may prove the point.

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of reading and, time and again, I’ll be reading some other writer’s book and come across a twist or bit of business that I’ve recently put into one of my stories. It’s been happening so often that I’m starting to worry about mind melds and ESP.

Sometimes it’s something small, like someone crying by a fountain when I’ve written my heroine crying by a fountain.  No big deal; I can just move her, although I’ve done some nice work describing the way her dress was getting wet which I’ll have to cut if I move her across the street. Oh, the heck with it, there are a lot of fountains in the world, I’ll just assume my girl is standing next to a different fountain and leave it at that. After all, she has to be standing next to something, and it might as well be a fountain as not. And in any case I need the sound of the water to cover the sound of her sobs and I like the metaphor of the falling water as her tears. Okay, the fountain stays.

At other times it’s a more significant duplication, like a book’s heroine who does the same work as my girl at the same kind of work place when I was hoping to give my reader an unusual experience.  Once it was a character who is not only similar in appearance to one of mine but shares the idiosyncrasies of his speech patterns, too.

Do I have to give serious thought to changing these things or will a reader forgive the occasional commonplace if  the rest of my story, its characters and the action is engaging?

The truth is, whether I change them or not, some of my pleasure in being their creator has dimmed because someone else thought of them first.

In a way it’s akin to wearing hand-me-down clothes or buying a chair at Goodwill. Shopping at Goodwill because I can’t afford Macy’s is different than shopping at Goodwill (and wearing hand-me-down clothes) because I love vintage things.

There are two ways to go here: I can think of the parallels as commonplace ideas that a reader will find boring because they have come across them before. Or I can choose to think of these serendipitous parallels as ideas so good they bear repeating.

Case by case?

Works for me.

“About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgement.” — Josh Billings

 

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Me and Edgar Livin’ the Dream

I’ve known all my life about authors who were inspired by alcohol or a drug-induced stupor or a dream:  Samuel Coleridge (Kubla Kahn), Edgar Allen Poe (just about everything), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Hunter S. Thompson (just about everything), to name just a famous few.

And of course, we members of the rock ‘n roll generation are all-too-familiar with the concept of drugs and alcohol as fuel for creativity, since too many of our heroes have died as a result of overindulging in one while trying to capture the other.

I think the idea is that a second layer of creative consciousness is released during times when the brain is active, but not really alert and bothering itself about its immediate, high-level daily tasks, like keeping us from stepping into traffic or remembering to eat our spinach.

I don’t think I really believed it until I had the experience myself last week.

Before you decide that an intervention may be needed, let me assure you that neither drugs nor alcohol were involved. But I did wake up in the middle of the night with the idea for a character, a McGuffin and the opening paragraph of a new novel. I don’t remember actually dreaming about it, but it was very much on my mind as I opened my eyes. In the first few minutes of wakefulness, before I was completely awake, I fiddled a little with the details and by the time I was truly awake I had something rather interesting.

Now I’m an Olympic-level heavy sleeper, so it’s unusual for me even to wake in the night, let alone feel inspired to leave my bed. But I’ve learned never to spurn inspiration whenever, and in whatever form, it may strike, so I tottered out of bed to write it down. And damn if it wasn’t pretty good. It was so good that I decided to concentrate on the resulting story for a while to see where it took me.

I’ve been trying to write a humorous novel for some time; it’s actually difficult to write humorously without working really hard and the hard work seems to stifle the humor—just one of the many apparent contradictions we writers face. But over the next few days, while I was writing my dream-inspired book, I found myself chuckling as I wrote, and in a few places actually laughing aloud. I’m not certain the book is actually funny, or if I’m just so delighted at how easily the book is flowing that I’m chortling with glee at how clever I am.

Either way, I’m pleased with it, I’m happy to know that the dreaming thing works, and I’ll keep you posted.

Do You Like It? I Made it Myself.

THE UNEXPECTED is one of the joys of writing fiction and one of the most mysterious.  Where the heck does all that stuff come from, anyway?

I’m a voracious reader, so I guess some of it comes from the minds of other writers. It floats around in my unconscious mind like a little life raft, unneeded and unheeded until one day I’m in desperate need of a new simile or a phrase to describe someone or something and it pops up, bright and yellow in the murk, ready for me to leap aboard.

But other stuff really does seem to come out of the ether: surprising, delightful, mysterious.

For example: I was a nail biter for years and then, with no small amount of concentrated effort, I stopped. So I coddle my nails with clear nail polish twice a week to help them stay strong and long.

I file them into gentle ovals (stick with me here) because the shape takes advantage of every micro-millimeter of length, and I do this even though it’s more fashionable to file them straight across, leaving the nails squared off and blunt.

So there you have it. Twice a week I pay particular attention to my fingernails for five minutes, shaping them and polishing them.  For some reason a couple of weeks ago I was having a bit of trouble getting the oval shape just right and I thought: The heck with it; I’ll just file them straight across.

And in my head I suddenly saw a woman getting her nails done in a new salon.  She normally has them filed into ovals followed up by a discreet French manicure. But her new manicurist files them straight across, and paints them iridescent green with purple daisies. My heroine hates them. (As who wouldn’t?)

Now why would she hate them and yet make no objection to the manicurist’s flight of fancy? Because, of course, she is in a witness protection program. She’s been moved far from home, told to dye her hair, quit her job and dress differently, and because she’s a thorough sort of girl, she’s decided her camouflage must extend to her manicures.

The manicurist, for no explainable reason, is a Native American. Aha! She’s Shoshone or Arapaho from the Wind River Reservation near a  small town in Wyoming. I’ve vacationed there in a river-side log cabin belonging to friends. So suddenly I have two characters, a home for my heroine (she’ll live in the log cabin), a small-town setting and the beginning of a plot.

These details, including the colors of her nail polish, all came to me as I was writing, with no forethought at all. I was describing the manicure, then I was explaining why she hated it, then she was talking to the manicurist about life on the reservation, then I showed her reaction to the small town, and finally went along on her difficult drive to the log cabin as she revealed the bare bones of her troubles with evil men who want her dead.

Before I knew it I had 3,000 words and I swear to God it all began with me sitting in my study, thinking of nothing except brushing clear polish on my fingernails.

I’m not saying all of these things individually were conjured out of thin air. I’ve seen manicures like that; I don’t hate them, but I’m not a particular fan. I’ve visited the Wind River Reservation, I’ve vacationed in that small town, and–this is the capper–I know the town has a branch office of the FBI.

So these things were floating around in my unconscious when I sat down to write about a manicure, but the way I put them together was new and wholly my own. I wrote an outline for the novel starting with that scene which led to where I am now, at 15,000 words.

But here’s the punchline, which will come as no surprise if you’ve read Outline or Mishigas:

The scene isn’t in the book.  I decided that the manicure was a bridge too far, even for someone in the witness protection program. My heroine is smart and she’s scared and she’s careful, but she’s not an obsessive nut. If I wanted her to be an obsessive nut I might have left the manicure in place as written.

The manicure in any case had served its purpose–I’d climbed aboard a life raft from my own unconscious and paddled like hell for shore.