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Originality

Last week, a scene from the Project Runway finale had me thinking.

The judges compared designer Kenley’s gown (left) to a recent creation by Alexander McQueen (right). Kenley complained that the judges called her a copycat. Annoying as Kenley is, I don’t think she ripped off the design. I didn’t hear the judges say so either. What I did hear is their advice to her to become more aware of what other designers are doing.

I wondered whether this advice–no doubt excellent for the fashion industry–makes sense for romance writing. Many publishers do in fact advise aspiring writers to read their line before submitting. However, I think the intent is to get more submissions that suit the current line, not avoid similar stories, which is more often my concern. I sometimes worry that I’ve accidentally hit upon a similar idea to something that is already out there, even (horrors!) something so popular and successful that my own attempt would inevitably raise suspicions.

But I stress about this less than I used to. When I heard that Victoria Alexander wrote a book with a balloonist hero, I steeled myself to read it, ready to ditch or alter my own balloonist story if it seemed too similar. As it turns out, HER HIGHNESS, MY WIFE is a fun read but the plot and characters are completely unlike mine. Even the ballooning element is different, as her aeronaut uses hot air and mine uses hydrogen. You may think this does not matter but consider the fact that in a hydrogen balloon an aeronaut can, um, stay up much longer. ๐Ÿ™‚ But I digress.

I know some authors who don’t read in their own genre because they want to avoid unconsciously absorbing others’ ideas. I won’t go so far; I enjoy historical romance too much to give up the pleasure. But I’m also not about to embark on a major survey of what sort of historical romances are currently out there, either to try to fit in or to deliberately make sure I’ve written something that is completely unlike any other story. I don’t have the time!

Although there are a lot of elements in a single garment, a novel is still a more complex creation. Two writers working in isolation could very well come up with some similar ideas, especially if they’re fascinated by the same bit of history and using the same sources. But if they are drawing from within themselves, the resulting novels are still going to as different as the two writers.

I found a cool quote by James Stephens:

Originality does not consist in saying what no one has ever said before, but in saying exactly what you think yourself.

I like that! How about you? Do you think authors should read in their own genre or not? Which do you think results in greater originality?

Elena
www.elenagreene.com

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Lois
14 years ago

It probably depends on the individual person. . . me, I think I would wait until I wasn’t writing or something because I’d be too afraid of subconsciously copying something. But I’m sure plenty of people can handle reading and writing at the same time. ๐Ÿ˜‰ But in the end, as they say, there are practically no new ideas out there, it’s just a matter of how people use them. The same devices or the like is vastly different from plagiarism.

Lois

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
14 years ago

I’ve had that happen to me, where I thought I came up with a unique plot only to see that someone has already had the same idea. However, when I’ve read the book, I’ve found the same thing you’ve found Elena, that the characters and the execution are what made the difference. I do however, avoid reading books that are set in the era that I’m writing in. For instance, I’ll read regencies since I’m writing late 19th century America.

Lana
14 years ago

I personally would be worried about unconscious absorption if I was reading too much in the genre I was writing. I think the idea of choosing a different time period, a different subgenre, or a different setting is probably a good idea.

But I think what you found will often hold true. The devices may be similar in various books, but the execution, and most importantly the voice, will usually be very different. And it’s the different voices I read for anyway – not necessarily original plot devices, but original treatment.

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

The perfect example of how different authors’ take on similar ideas can be very different, four authors (Stephanie Laurens, Mary Balogh, Candice Hern, and Jacquie d’Allessandro) took the exact same premise and came up with four vastly differing short stories. Their anthology, out now, is It Happened One Night.

The problem with Kenley is that she thinks she’s so original that she cannot even conceive of other designers having similar ideas. If she’d told the judges that yes, she loves the McQueen dress, but here’s how hers differs completely from that one, they would’ve respected her more.

Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

I don’t usually read historical romance (or anything but research books!) while in the middle of writing, but I’m like you, Elena–too hooked to give up the habit! I also agree that really there are no (or not very many) completely original premises in plots–it’s what you do with the story that makes it your own.

It does seem important to keep up with the market and trends, to try and get a sense of what readers want. The only way to do that is to read!

Cara King
14 years ago

Complicated subject, Elena! At least for me.

On a practical level, I think having a similar idea to a recently published book matters much more if these are basically high-concept books — that is, if it’s the hook that will make people buy the book.

A lot of traditional Regencies had very similar plots, but people bought them for the witty dialogue or romantic scenes or fantasy world, not for the plot, so no one cared. And everyone I know bought Karen Harbaugh’s VAMPIRE VISCOUNT because no one had ever seen (or dreamed of) a vampire in a Regency (in any capacity, but especially as a hero!) But once there are twenty vampire Regencies out there, then people get more choosy, and buy by style or voice or such.

(And once there are a hundred vampire Regencies out there, if there ever are, many folks will get bored and just move on to reading something entirely different.)

Some of the YA novels I’m working on are fairly high-concept — and at one point I actually switched from one work in progress to a different one when I saw someone had sold a book with a similar premise…

As to reading in the genre…when I was newer, I worried not about unintentionally borrowing plot ideas, but about accidentally aping someone’s voice. Now that my voice(s) are more set, I don’t worry about that anymore, luckily!

Cara

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Wow. Way to relate Project Runway to Romance Writing, Elena!

Funny you should mention originality. I just found a scathing review of Scandalizing the Ton, saying that the book “offered nothing original.” These are the sorts of reviews that dishearten. Sigh. Luckily all other reviews I’ve seen have been positive.

I don’t know anyone writing who isn’t trying to write an original book, to write something that is their own vision. Often, though, we have similar visions. Didn’t I blog about that?
http://riskyregencies.blogspot.com/2008/07/is-there-something-in-water.html

I do understand that not everyone will like my book, because I don’t like some books other people love, but I was surprised at the comment about originality.

Linda Banche
14 years ago

From what I read, publishers want original stories, just not too original. They want books that follow the popular trends but are slightly different. If you came up with something vastly different from what’s currently popular, chances are it would be a hard sell even if it got good reviews.

Elena Greene
14 years ago

If she’d told the judges that yes, she loves the McQueen dress, but here’s how hers differs completely from that one, they would’ve respected her more.

Hard to say if she was aware of the McQueen dress. If so, she could’ve just said so and gracefully accepted the judges’ advice rather than continue to whine.

Cara, good point that this sort of concern applies more to “high concept”. I still feel sad at the thought of you or any other writer abandoning a story because of such concerns. But I’ve put one story on a backburner for market considerations (my Peninsular War romance) so I understand the reasoning.

Hugs on that review, Diane. At worst it could be spite, at best it’s just one person’s opinion. It means nothing compared to all the fans who do love your books!

Linda, yes that whole “different but not too different” thing is tough. But as Cara said, sometimes when the “too different” becomes successful it becomes the new trend, which can open up the market to other good stories but also eventually flood it with some that are not so good. I wish it weren’t so but it is.

Louisa Cornell
14 years ago

I think you have to read in your genre to a certain degree to keep you in that zone. When I am actively writing I tend to put off reading until I finish a large section of my book (100 pages or so) and then I read as a reward to myself.

Someone once wrote that there are only ten stories in the world and that everything else is just the author’s take on those ten stories. Different settings, characters, motivations and emotions are what makes a story unique. If the story is compelling I don’t care if I might have read something similar before.

Unfortunately when a certain type of book sells there are many writers who will rush out to write more of the same in order to catch that gravy train.

I read that review, O Divine One, and can I just say it was RIDICULOUS! I LOVED Scandalizing the Ton and I thought it was completely original. I don’t remember anyone else every writing a romance novel about the newshounds ruining someone’s life. Sheesh! Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but do a little research before you make sweeping statements about someone’s work.

Joanna Waugh
14 years ago

As the late Audre Lorde once said, “There are no new ideas, just new ways of making them felt.” The bones of a plot may be identical, but the flesh an author gives to those bones is what makes the story unique.

Janet Mullany
14 years ago

I think attempting to write to the market is a mistake, if not impossible. Remember that books on the shelves today were contracted up to two years ago. As is so obvious from the “themed” novella collections, it’s all in the execution and the writers’ voices.

Cara King
14 years ago

Oh, but Elena, I didn’t give up the book forever! I’m just writing something else first, so it’s not as bad as it sounded.

Cara

Kalen Hughes
14 years ago

I was going to point out the same thing Kiera did. It Happened One Night pretty much proves that the same idea/plot doesn’t mean you get the same (or even similar) stories.

Kalen Hughes
14 years ago

Funny you should mention originality. I just found a scathing review of Scandalizing the Ton, saying that the book “offered nothing original.” These are the sorts of reviews that dishearten. Sigh. Luckily all other reviews I’ve seen have been positive.

I saw the review I think we’re talking about, and it made me wince. I have to chalk these kinds of reviews up the the reviewer just not connecting with your voice. How else to explain it? The plot is CLEARLY off the beaten path (very The Winslow Boy, but still original), so their response (or lack there of) has to equate to a lack of connection with the work on their part.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Thanks for your support, Louisa and Kalen.

Kalen, I can accept that a reviewer doesn’t connect with my voice. Certainly I don’t like everything I read.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Do you want to know what a class act Kalen is?
She actually commented on the “bad review” site, pointing out that my research was accurate to the time period.
Bless her big heart!

Kalen Hughes
14 years ago

That comment irked me. It’s fine not to like the books my friends and I write, but when you start dishing on our research I HAVE to comment. And while it never looks good for the author to do it herself, itโ€™s totally fine, IMO, for another author to point out that something is, in fact, correct.

Todd
14 years ago

I was going to say that it depends on the person, but Lois said it first. I hate when that happens!

Todd-who-has-a-great-idea-for-a-novel-called-“War-and-Peace”

La Belle Americaine
14 years ago

I struggle with the opposite: how to fit myself into what’s popular in the romance genre. I won’t claim I never find myself stumped by discovering a similar idea (already published), but it’s rare since I approach the romance genre in my own unique way. Because of that uniqueness, I can back away and into “clicheland” because I am terrified that I won’t fit it!

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

That’s the flip side of the same dilemma, isn’t it, La Belle? If we are too original, it scares off editors and agents. I find it very human of you to respond as you do, swinging in the other direction.

Sometimes I think it is not a good idea to overthink these things (am I too original? am I too cliched?). Just write the book you would love to read.

Elena Greene
14 years ago

La Belle Americaine,
I was going to give you some original and sage words of wisdom but Diane stole my idea! ๐Ÿ™‚
Elena

La Belle Americaine
14 years ago

Thank you for your encouraging words Diane and Elena. I do overthink when I sit down to write. It’s a bad habit of mine that I’m struggling to kick. :/

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