Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Authors, Remember, You Don't Have To Re-Invent The Wheel

If you're an author, then chances are you want your stories to stand out. You want to be thought of as new, unique, fresh, and different both from those who came before you, as well as from your contemporaries. Speaking as someone who enjoys experimenting with genre mash-ups, I get this feeling. However, I have a piece of advice I'd like to share for all the folks out there getting brain cramps from their mental gymnastics.

Don't try so hard to be different that you lose sight of what you're here to do.

Seriously, it's okay to use an old mold. You don't have to start from scratch.

Store Bought Is Just Fine

Have you ever tried to cook something from scratch? Whether you were baking a cake, or making your grandmother's old meatloaf, it was probably a great deal more difficult than using store bought ingredients, and just whipping them together. And sometimes that effort is really worth it. Sometimes, though, there's no way to tell the difference between homemade and store bought. Even if you put ten times as much sweat, effort, and swearing into doing it the hard way.

Writing is kind of like that.

Let's say, for example, you want to tell a high fantasy story. However, you want to stand apart from other entrants into the genre, so you do your best to scrape off all the serial numbers you can find. Traditional elves, dwarves, and orcs? Nope, they're gone. Then you go through the traditional bestiary, and you toss out all the dragons, ogres, trolls, unicorns, and other stuff. You flip the assumption of a human-centric world, and put a different creature at the top of the food chain. You make your own magic system, you add in non-medieval technological elements, and you put together a massive timeline of events for how your world got to be the way it is.

There's nothing wrong with any of these changes... provided they are in the service of your story, themes, and narrative. As soon as you start making changes just to be different, that's when you can end up cutting off your nose to spite your face.

And that won't get you anywhere.
As an example, say you choose to keep the basic archetypes of fantasy races (the long-lived ones, the not-quite-as-long-lived crafters and enchanters, the humans, the bigger, tougher humans who are a different color, and at least one race that's like humans, but tiny), but you rename them something specific for your world. Nothing says you can't, but you need to ask why you're putting in all that effort (and asking your readers to learn a bunch of new names and titles)? Is it because your creatures are already different enough from their store-bought variety that your readers would have trouble thinking of your red-skinned Marat as orcs, or your insectoid immortals as elves? Or is it just because you want to avoid as many familiar touch-stones as possible?

Changing something because it adds to your story, or because it supports the themes you're working with is good. Avoiding tropes that have become problematic, or even regressive, is great. However, refusing to use something because it might be considered a trope, or because someone else did something similar in their world so yours has to be different, is just punishing yourself for no reason. And worse, it's possible that if you don't use any trope, or have anything that feels familiar, your readers might feel lost instead of intrigued. So change responsibly, and make sure the changes you do make are always in the service of the story, world, and theme rather than out of a need to try treading fresh ground.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing advice. For folks who'd like more of my work, check out my Vocal archive. To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support me, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or dropping me a tip over on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page.

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