oEPISTLES FROM A GOBLIN PRINCESSo
It's All in the Execution (So Beware) Part 2
Posted 30th September 2011 at 09:20 AM by Teresa Edgerton
Updated 3rd October 2011 at 11:49 AM by Teresa Edgerton
Updated 3rd October 2011 at 11:49 AM by Teresa Edgerton
Part IIWe all know that most fantasy and science fiction stories owe their origins to the question “What if ____?” Yet we shouldn’t be content to leave it at that, because it’s a very good question to ask at every single stage of the writing process. “What if, instead of what I had originally planned, my character decided to do this?” “What if, instead of following the obvious course, I choose to examine one of the other possible consequences of this particular set of circumstances?”
I’ll give an example of how this might work:
Say that your main character is born blind, deaf, or otherwise disabled and has the additional misfortune of a face so ugly that others shudder at the sight of it. Now most writers would take this premise and write a predictable story: He would go through life being viciously persecuted by the ignorant and the wicked, while all the truly good people would instinctively recognize his inner beauty and treat him accordingly. Ultimately it would be revealed that he has some special gift or talent, is of high birth, or has been born to some high destiny. In any case, he would discover that he is not only different but special, and end up living happily ever after, among people who love and respect him for who he truly is.
But is this the only possible scenario? What if instead of being the source of his every misfortune, his face and his disability lead to great good fortune? What if, in combination with whatever prodigious gifts or talents he happens to possess, they bring him at a very early age to the attention of a powerful and generous patron, who originally treats him as a novelty but comes to respect him for his talents. He grows up rich, admired, wealthy, and conceited, until some entirely unrelated circumstance comes along and wipes out his comfortable existence. Everything that happens to him afterward gradually wears away at his inflated self-opinion, and he learns that he is not, after all, immune to the trials and heartaches that are our common lot. Unlike the other story, this one is not a journey toward self-acceptance, but toward humility.
You can see that both of these tales have their origins in the same basic premise — an individual is born disabled, ugly, and gifted — but because the writer chooses an equally plausible but less obvious series of consequences, the story takes the reader (and probably the writer, too) into unexpected territory.
And this is why I think it’s less important to start out with a unique premise (if such a thing is even possible) than it is to start with something that excites us so much, that moves us on so many different levels, that we’re willing to live with it, work with it, dream it, for the time it will take us to develop it into something extraordinary. I believe that originality is less a matter of an unusual premise than of deep thought, leading step-by-step to a series of revelations, whose impact will be far greater than any single inspiration could ever be, And if, throughout the writing process, we are continually surprising ourselves, how can we fail to surprise the reader?
There are two other things that I think are important. The idea that we can avoid or reject all outside influences is unrealistic. I don’t believe it would be a good thing if we could. “The proper study of man is mankind,” said Alexander Pope. As science fiction and fantasy writers we are also writing about alien-kind, and supernatural-kind, and who-knows-what-else-kind — but in the end it really comes down to a study of human nature, of our hopes, aspirations, and fears, seen from the sort of fresh perspectives that only speculative fiction can offer. Since we are each one of us only privileged to see and experience a small part of everything there is to be seen and experienced, it only makes sense that we would wish to broaden our understanding by collecting some other viewpoints. And because we are, inevitably, going to be influenced, we should make every effort to gather those influences from as many different places as possible. We need to read widely, inside and outside our chosen genre. We need to get our ideas (ah, the ancient question!) not only from fiction but from nonfiction as well. Ideas meet, mate, and give birth to other ideas; aside from personal experience, this is the only way that new ideas are generated. If we get all of our ideas from a narrow and limited range of stories, there are only so many different combinations that we can make from them — and all of those are going to be inbred and predictable. On the other hand, ideas that come from a wide variety of sources and a wide variety of perspectives will produce offspring with singular and unexpected qualities.
The other thing I want to say is that even while we are keeping our readers in mind — that is, trying to choose the words that will draw other people into our created worlds, trying to write clearly enough that they will see what we want them to see, feel what we want them to feel, to share the experience — we also need to add something of our own personality to what we are writing. This, of course, can be an uneasy balance. As we polish our writing mechanics and our storytelling skills, we should still allow our own voices and styles to develop.
For this reason, I think it is important when you first begin a project, and especially when you are first learning to write, that you not show your story to other writers or aspiring writers too early. If you show your work to others while it is still malleable, they will leave their fingerprints all over it. If you ask for advice while your work is too rough, the temptation to start rewriting your sentences for you is one that very few of the people you ask for advice will be able to resist. Wait until you know where the story is going and the style in which you want to tell it. Then, don’t let other people correct your mistakes for you. They may point them out; you should be open to criticism and willing to listen to suggestions, but correct all your mistakes yourself. If somebody else does it, it won’t match what you have already done. If you let a number of other people (perhaps a whole writers group) do it for you, you will end up with a patchwork of styles instead of developing a distinctive and personal style of your own.
Which bring us to this (and it is hardly an original conclusion): Originality in writing comes from being yourself. Not, I hasten to add, your ordinary, everyday, come-as-you-are self. I mean your most thoughtful, intellectually and artistically adventurous, skilled and knowledgeable self. Originality does not come from rushing to embrace the newest trends (unless they genuinely inspire you), nor by rejecting them without sufficient thought, nor from casting off too hastily all that has come before. It comes from writing with passion, writing the story that you must tell because you will never be satisfied until you do. In this way, and no other, can you write the story that nobody else but you can tell.
And if you do this with sincerity and conviction, then someday when you are looking back at the story you are writing now — looking back with the perspective that only time can give you — behind all the disguises, beyond all the wonders and marvels, you will see your own face gazing back at you.
Total Comments 0