“Writing about writing is an excellent way to learn, refine and gain perspective on one’s own writing. Undertaking what we might be unqualified for, leverages us into realms of perception hitherto unknown.”
— From: Writing Tips to Myself, Syl Sabastian
In a writing group went the lament:
“At a point where my writing just seems like variations of other people’s stories. Feeling unoriginal. Anybody else?”
There is nothing wrong with this feeling.
It’s a stage all good writers go through. The first truth of writing is: There is nothing truly original anymore. Everything is a remix. Thus, everything you write has been written somewhere by someone who is probably better than you. Rough to hear, I know.
There is some solace to be taken in this though. The pressure is off. You are SO UNLIKELY to tell a new story, leaving you free to tell a story capable of only being told by YOU. This frees you from the early writer’s notion that you are going to tell a great story no one has ever heard.
You aren’t. You are going to tell a story that only YOU tried to tell. A creation as unique as you are. A road which is often called your “Writer’s Voice.” This technique of storytelling which becomes your signature, a means of telling a tale the reader who knows you, recognizes is yours.
That place, is far, far away right now. At least a million words or more. And those million, two million, three million words, just having them hit the page, is only the beginning; there is a whole lot of nuance we haven’t even addressed. Yet.
Why does your work feel derivative? Because, it is.
In the beginning, you were likely a reader of your genre of choice. You enjoyed it. You began to understand the conventions of your genre and began to know what to expect from it.
You eventually found writers whose work became synonymous with good to you. Their skills and craft made you feel a certain way whenever you read their work and you knew they were the best game in town, to you. Sometimes you might find a second or third writer who also intrigued you, but there was always your top five writers whose work you would read before anyone else’s.
As you read more, you began to realize it was something you thought you could write yourself. There is no greater gift than attempting to replicate your favorite writer’s work.
But here is where the trouble begins…
As you began your quest to become a writer, you came upon an inescapable conclusion. Your writing sucked.
There wasn’t anything you could put your finger on, but it just wasn’t as good as what you have been reading. You write and you write but your work feels derivative, like something you’ve seen before, no matter how hard you try.
There’s a reason for this sudden challenge. You have, until this moment, been a reader, enjoying the work, purely from the aesthetic perspective of a person consuming the work.
Now, you are a writer. You have responsibilities.
There are deeper layers to the work you have not had to concern yourself with until you began to write. As a reader, you read for enjoyment.
As a writer, you read to understand the motivations of the characters. You read to see how and why the writer chose the vehicles, the vectors, the pace of the story.
Did they start the story fast, like a James Bond movie opening, where you don’t know anyone, you don’t know what’s happening, you are just thrown into the mix and you embrace the madness until you figure out who the protagonist is and just how insane their life is.
Or did they start slowly, showing a day in the life of the main character to set up the challenge of watching their life be destroyed to drive them to action in the fashion which happens to Luke Skywalker where he is forced into action almost against his will?
As a reader you enjoy the protagonist’s slow climb into the story, watching as they learn what’s what. Whom to trust, where to go, and if they are going alone or in a group.
As a writer, you have to create all of those people. You have to define their motivations, why they want to help or hurt the protagonist. Anyone remember Boromir, the Human who tried to take the One Ring because he thought he or his masters would be able to use it? Why did he die? Because he betrayed the faith. His death, however, was necessary to show no one, not even someone who was pledged to protect the main character could be sure he would not turn in a moment of weakness. (Those Orc arrows are HUGE!)
Harsh ending to the story, too. Left you feeling vulnerable and alone. Like the protagonists.
This is now your job.
You are responsible for the motivations of all the characters in your story, not just your protagonist. Your life as a writer is a hundred times more challenging than it was as a reader.
Remember the beautiful environments your favorite writer creates, worlds of wonder, whether they be zero-g torus worlds where trees can fly and people live among them or magical realms where dragons soar majestically overhead, magic rules the land and the living and the dead vie for supremacy of the world. All of that is also your problem now.
Everything you see and hear, every peasant’s cheese encrusted breath, every tree’s glistening sap, every razor sharp blade of synthetic nu-grass, every tall building, every cybernetwork, every spaceship; you are also responsible for breathing life, nuance, color, theme, culture, voices, the very substance of reality itself into every piece.
Holy shit. That’s a thousand times more responsibility than being a reader. A reader’s only job is to consume. Occasionally, to critique.
As a writer, you have entered the heady world of creation. You have chosen to take on the power of a god. To give life and to take it away. To build and destroy with equal abandon. To define the very stuff of existence itself.
Of course your early work sucks. Being a god has a learning curve.
You have no idea of any of this when you started writing. You just wanted more of the stuff you loved and figured you could do it because you have read so much of it.
Whoa. The level of responsibility has increased. The difficulty is exponentially harder. And it’s all up to you. Like learning a new video game, or climbing the face of a cliff with your bare hands, there is a learning curve and there is no avoiding it.
You have to now master the craft of writing:
You must start with the fundamentals of how to write. Grammar, sentence structure, and punctuation. How to build a sentence, how to structure a paragraph, how to organize information. Got that?
Then you have to learn the art of storytelling:
How to craft a story.
How to tell stories.
How to tell good stories.
How to tell good stories with great protagonists.
How to create relatable antagonists.
How to build worlds.
How to build good worlds with believable environments.
How to build good worlds with governments that make sense.
How to build good worlds with and without magic systems which work.
How to build good worlds with technologies which are consistent.
How to build a Universe you believe in and want others to as well.
You must create finally, the nuts and bolts, the outline, the plot, the theme, the heart, the climax which doesn’t suck, which puts the hero in exactly the position they need to be in to show their mettle or to fail miserably for the next book, and then the downward slope toward the end and redemption or condemnation.
You must impart upon your work, a soul.
A living nature which, for good or evil, defines your work as a distinct living thing, as real as a beloved pet or even your child. A thing you will love and hate sometimes in equal measures until you die.
If you do this well, you will give birth to other stories and other books and other realms and other Universes. Again and again. Each a work embodying all the efforts we have mentioned before that you will perform again.
Even if you visit the same worlds, you have the task of making the world fresh again, either by improving the protagonists and their relationship to the world, or by sharing more of the world, the nuance of it, the secrets of it, the beating heart of it, until the reader can hear it in their heads while they read. Revisiting a world is as hard as creating it the first time.
Of course your first stories can’t meet your standards. You are looking at an iceberg for the first time. From beneath the water line. Where the iceberg actually lives. A leviathan out of sight. Beautiful, magnificent and completely beneath the water where no reader can go.
But know this: As you learn how to do these things, how to expand upon your capacity as a writer so your craft improves, as you expand your abilities to tell stories, to create characters, to expand their inner worlds until they come alive to you, you will get better.
You will grow wiser in the story ideas, the tropes, the shorthand which allows you to tell a tale in a genre and benefit from those tropes. You will learn how to use them so they can control expectations and you will subvert them to mix it up and keep your reader guessing.
Your role as a writer is to entertain the reader. To make them want to follow you. To intrigue them, to tease them, to make them believe they only have to read one more page and then they will go cook dinner. Your role is to create the story so good, they will forgo dinner to turn just one more page.
To create something so amazing, they will realize they don’t need to eat, they just need to follow this story to the very end, dinner be damned.
And that my friend, is incredibly difficult work. Requiring thousands of hours and millions of words to pass from your mind to the page, refining your capacity, your awareness, your understanding of the storytelling art and mastery of the storytelling craft.
It is within your reach. Commit to the magic. Commit to the effort. Deconstruct your favorite novels now with the information I have given you; peer beneath the waves and see the leviathan beneath. Marvel at the beauty of your favorite stories once more, this time, with an eye on the magician, not just the magic.
Each day you write, you grow wiser if you are pushing yourself to be better, to take more risks, to create as a reckless young god might. With abandon and zeal for the creation’s sake.
Go this way and write your dreams into reality. And your nightmares, too. Both are grist for the mill as a storyteller.
Write as if your life depended on it. As if tomorrow, if you didn’t produce a page, you might die. One day, it will be true. You will wake and want to write so bad, you think you might die if you can’t get those words on a page.
Everything you write is just practice. So loosen up. If you write a crappy story today let it go. Don’t sweat it.
DECONSTRUCT IT. Tear out its guts, rip it apart at the seams, pore through the stuffing to determine if there was anything really good there.
Treat it like you have done for your favorite writers. Figure out what didn’t work. See if you can improve it. Sometimes you might have to let it sit for a while; a month or two and then go back to it, scalpel ready. Be able to kill your darlings for the sake of your creation. When you can remove words with the same ease as you placed them…
That’s when you’re ready to tell the story of your lifetime. Again and again.
An installment of the Writing Craft Series by Thaddeus Howze
Thaddeus Howze is an award-winning essayist, author and journalist for websites having discriminating tastes in speculative fiction, non-fiction journalism and critical thinking. He created this series to help young writers, throw off the chains of other peoples expectations and find their authentic voice.
He has taken his Writing Craft on the cross-country as a guest speaker, teaching the art of writing, especially related to the challenges of speculative fiction. He has also worked as a coach and mentor to youth hoping to discover their talents.
If you like his work, donate to his Patreon. Skip one or two cups of coffee Starbuck’s overpriced coffee a month and send that to him via this Patreon link. You will be supporting a great artist, a community activist and someone who believes humanity has a future and is willing to work to make it happen.