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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Alternate Realities and MapQuest

I had an epiphany this week as I was struggling with one of my novels.

I often stop writing for a while—for an hour, a day, anything up to a week or more—when I’ve reached some sort of impasse. In the past I’ve told myself it’s because I don’t know what to write next, that I don’t have a clear idea of the plot, so I don’t know what should happen. But now I think it’s something different: I stop because I don’t know how to move my characters away from the scene they currently inhabit, even when it’s clearly necessary.

I’ve already admitted that I polish my prose too much in the early stages of the game. It can feel productive, when I don’t have anything original to write, to smooth over the rough spots in the bits I’ve already written. This has another downside in addition to postponing the moment when I get on with the new writing: By the time I’ve read and re-read, and polished and refined a scene it becomes more and more imbedded in the “reality” of the novel and thus much harder to change.

If, until the 20th reading, Miss So-and-So and Mr. Whatzit have arrived at the baker’s, chatted with the baker and picked out some pink-topped cupcakes, it is really, really hard to have them by-pass the baker and walk into the hardware store instead. For one thing, all the conversation they had with the baker about sprinkles and chocolate ganache doesn’t translate well to the hardware store clerk, and instead of cupcakes they would need to buy wrenches or something instead. And that feels “wrong,” because I’m so emotionally invested in them having that conversation with the baker and buying those dam’ cupcakes.

In a way, by trying to change the scene I’m changing a reality that’s become as real to me as the real world. (Do I get points added or taken away for using change, changing, real and reality so often in the same sentence?) I’ve come to believe in the world the characters inhabit just a little too much.

All right, that’s one manifestation of the problem, and I should be able to take it in hand by not re-reading and revising my early drafts so much. I’m working on that although, truth to tell, I’m not getting very far. Sometimes my re-reading is almost a compulsion. It starts as a way to remind myself of what led me to where I’m about to pick up the story, but then it becomes an end in itself (Hey, this is pretty good; I’m liking what I did there, what if I change the order of these two sentences . . .) and a substitute for writing, and that can’t be good.

Note to self: Don’t begin your writing day by reading.

The other manifestation is a tradecraft issue: the inability to envision how the characters get from here—the corner of Ninth and Main, to there—a penthouse apartment on Parkside. Do they walk? Take a cab? Fly through the air on gossamer wings? And whichever way they travel, does the reader need to take the trip with them or can the next scene open with them sitting comfortably on a sofa in the penthouse, sipping martinis?

Experienced novelists solve this problem all the time and for us readers, its seamless. But the ragged seams showed plenty while it was being written, believe me.

Most often I manage to open the next scene with my characters already relaxing in the penthouse. But every now and again I get tangled up in what I call the MapQuest version: They strolled down Ninth Avenue, turned right and crossed the street at Pelican, stopping for the light at Parkside before . . . etc.

Note to self: Forget MapQuest; go straight for the martinis.

Kindling

THIS WEEK I WAS without my Kindle for three days because I left it in a friend’s car. The fact that I had it with me in her car may give you some idea of how attached I am to it. Maybe its enough to know that being without it was like being without, say, my crack pipe.

There was a time–about 18 months ago–when I didn’t have a Kindle. Whenever I finished a book, in common with nearly everyone else except the truly geeky, I went to a bookstore to buy another. There were limitations, because bookstores weren’t open 24/7, and no bookstore contained every book I wanted, so sometimes I had to order it and wait. And those limitations provided their own limitations on the amount of reading I could do.

Now of course those limits are gone. Setting aside the disdain with which Amazon is viewed by a lot of my thinking friends, I’m a good customer. When I finish a book at 1:30 in the morning, I press a couple of buttons and–lo and behold and voila–I have a new supply of crack… er…reading material. This has played merry hell with my credit card balance, and also with my ability just to put the dam’ Kindle down. I have no reason any more to ration my reading. I can read 24/7 if I want to. I’ll never run out of things to read.  Unless I lose my Kindle.

How does this affect me as a writer? Well, apparently our appetite for reading is more voracious than ever. We are all reading more, not less, than we were before the e-books revolution. This seems to bode well for me finding a receptive audience for my work when I’m a published novelist.  Also, e-readers can pick up material that is self-published on the web, so that if I don’t have a traditional publisher for my work I may find a virtual one.  That seems to bode well for me, too.

All of which should encourage me to write my novels and, in fact, being without my Kindle this week has meant that I have additional hours to devote to writing.

But here we run across the dichotomy: Owning and using a Kindle has meant that I’m contributing to the possibility that my own writing will find an eager market. But, owning and using a Kindle has meant that I’m devoting more hours to reading and fewer hours to my own writing, opening up the possibility that I won’t have work ready to publish any time soon.

Having lost it–even temporarily–has made me very uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that I doubted the wisdom of getting it back.  Fortunately my friend returned it today and so the decision was out of my hands.  It’s sitting on my nightstand as I write.

So far, I haven’t turned it on.

But the night is young.