I mentioned earlier that I’m planning to talk a little about writing this year. Today I carry that threat through.
To those of you who couldn’t care less about this topic: my God, can you put aside your own selfish interests for five seconds? No, wait, I mean: sorry. But there are people out there interested in this. I know because whenever I post about it, I get emails of weeping gratitude. That’s hard to resist.
So to originality. I raise this because I think it’s reasonably common for unpublished (and underpublished) writers to think: “Man, the only way to make it as an author is to churn out predictable, formulaic crap. Nobody’s interested in publishing really original books.” Well, when I say this is a common attitude, I mean I used to hold it, and I assume everybody is like me. There I was in 1998, collecting rejection letters for Syrup, and the underlying message seemed to be that it wasn’t mainstream enough. And I couldn’t describe my own book; I couldn’t find the pithy couple of sentences that people seemed to want, that would make them say, “That sounds interesting,” instead of their eyes glazing over with confusion. I needed something like: “Terrorists hijack a submarine and ex-Special Forces agent Jack Fyre is the only man who can stop it.”
It’s tempting to believe that formulaic crap sells because there seems to be so much of it. But I now think you can look at a shelf full of Grisham novels or whatever and assume they’re all the same until you read them. Then you find some common elements, for sure, but much less than you thought. There is formula out there, but not much of it.
I reacted to my Syrup rejections by writing a standard, genre thriller. It was terrible. And I learned that you never improve anything by making it less original. It’s the opposite: the worst thing writing can be is not new.
I’m convinced this isn’t just me. I think everybody wants newness. Editors, agents, readers: we all want new plots, new ideas, new ways of looking at the world. Nobody wants to get twenty pages into a book and know where it’s going, or even feel too much like they’ve seen all this before. Even within a genre’s iron-clad conventions, we want twists, surprises, and reinventions.
Young writers in particular can sometimes try to crawl inside a pre-conceived box labeled “novel” or “screenplay,” and end up with something far less interesting than if they’d forged their own path. I’m not saying you want to hit the other extreme, and pursue a lone, bizarre vision with no regard for how it reads. But you must nurture the things that make your story and your writing unique—that make you unique, since writing is letting people crawl around inside your head. Billions of people can write a sentence. Why should I bother reading yours, unless they’re different?