The Challenge of Originality
The Good News: A few months back, I earned a semi-finalist finish in the Writers of the Future Contest, which I feel is kind of a big deal. It came with a nice certificate and, more importantly, a personalized critique from scifi writer KD Wentworth. In the overwhelming complexity and drama of my personal life during this same period, however, I feared that, due to my recent move, my ‘prize’ was going to be lost in the mail. It wasn’t; I got the critique yesterday.
Turns out they really liked my story–it was among the very last to be cut. Considering that they receive thousands of entries each quarter, this is good news. Furthermore, those aspects of the story I was most concerned with perfecting (the struggle of the main character, the resolution to that struggle, and the emotional gravity of the situation) was, according to her words, very engaging. Great!
The Bad News: What got my story cut was that an aspect of the story was drawing upon a trope that is as old as the hills–a demon in a box that can turn upon its owner at any time. She and the rest of the judges apparently felt that other stories were more original (and I have no doubt that they were in this regard) and she gave me some substantive advice on how to make the story better by fixing this element. Appropriately, this was the element that I had obsessed over the least and that I hadn’t really considered a problem. Good–I’m learning. That’s supremely important to me.
How Original is Original?
As I have mulled this problem over the last few hours, here’s the thing I keep circling back to: just how different do we have to make things to make them new, but without making them so new that we lose the thematic and cultural resonance we’re seeking. To suggest that fantasy fiction doesn’t draw upon myth, legend, and folklore is ridiculous. My story about a demon in a box obviously isn’t the first, but it also isn’t the last nor will demons in boxes be relegated to some kind of literary no-fly zone so that nobody who writes about them will be successful. Nonsense.
So, then, if I’m to change the demon somehow (and I will; I think Wentworth’s critique is spot-on and really helpful), what kind of change are we talking here? Physical (not in a box but a sheep’s bladder?), operational (it doesn’t want your soul, but rather your eyes or your hair or your sense of humor), metaphorical (it doesn’t represent evil, but simply fear or despair or even, just for the hell of it, hope), or what? Is this enough? Of note, it isn’t called a demon, but rather a ghul, and the setting is sufficiently unique from your average fantasy tale to keep it interesting–I assumed I had done enough to make it fresh. Perhaps it was fresh, but maybe not fresh enough.
But where do you stop?
I’ve written about this problem before. I need to change the rules somehow, shake things up. How is, of course, my trouble (I’m not fishing for suggestions), and perhaps I’m overthinking this. Nevertheless, I think it’s a useful bit of critique for all of us to hear, even if we haven’t heard it said about our own work. We can’t rest on the shoulders of those who have come before us. We do not have that luxury, not when the competition is so fierce.
I need to push myself–go somewhere new, explore. You should too.