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.

About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on February 3, 2012, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Awesome that you made it this far – and it looks like the feedback was useful.

    It may just be an issue of presentation. The idea of a demon in a box that can turn on its owner tugs at any number of useful narrative and thematic strings: it adds tension, it evokes questions about responsible vs. dangerous uses of power, there’s the element of the alien exotic, etc. Without knowing the story you submitted (it may be obvious), the question to ask is: which of those elements are you exploring? Because those ideas never get old, even if an actual demon in an actual box might seem worn.

    • The demon is a physical representation of the main character’s cowardice and servility. He is bound to it, lives in terror of it, needs it to survive. What he eventually learns is that such chains tug both ways.

      I’ve got the genesis of an idea of what to do with it forming in my mind, but I feel as though I’ve been down this same road already and am still looking for the turn off I hadn’t noticed before. I’ll get there, probably. I won’t know what it is, though, until I see it.

      (Incidentally, if you’re willing, I’d appreciate your feedback on the story as well. Perhaps you can notice a turn-off I’m missing.)

  2. What about turning it around so the main character realizes he’s the ‘demon in the box’ in the end? Or have it told from the demon’s perspective outright? The first is more of a ‘gotcha’ kind of twist, admittedly.


    Sorry.. got a little excited.

  4. It’s one of those tough things to balance…you want to avoid red lights going off in the reader’s mind with too-familiar tropes or motifs (Faust! It’s Pandora’s box! It’s Stevenson’s “The Bottle Imp”! It’s “1001 Arabian Nights!”), but at the same time the resonance with archetypes and themes can add a lot to the piece…

    The codependent nature of the relationship seems interesting. The only other thing that comes to mind is that the genie in a box stories usually seem to start at the beginning of the symbiosis: guy finds the lamp, or buys the bottle, or enters into the contract with the devil. Maybe show the relationship many years in? We see how dependent the protagonist has become on the ghul, maybe with hints of the man he once was? For some reason, this image of a cranky old married couple comes to mind: a pair that’s inseparable, but twisted.

    I think it offers a great chance to explore the nature of human relationships and the psychology of dependence. Also, the climax seems like it could be extremely powerful. Best of luck with it, man.

    Oh, and demon in a sheep bladder +1 FTW.

    • Already doing a lot of that. It *is* the relationship many years on, it *is* an issue of co-dependence, etc, etc.. Still not enough, evidently (and, indeed, part of the reason I’m minorly puzzled as to what else to add…though I’m leaning towards changing the ‘rules’ and the definition of what the ghul is a bit, though).

      Thanks for the suggestions, though.

  5. Is there an actual bottle or vessel involved? If so, it could probably be cut. Maybe jot down the rules and expectations a reader’s going to have going into the piece, sort of like what you did in the vampire post? It might help to zero in on what needs to be eliminated, changed, or broken, as well as what’s really important to the story.

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