Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Original ideas are overrated

It is physically impossible for me to sit at my writing computer for more than 14 seconds without music. I begin to twitch, and then I fall to the floor pulling out clumps of my own hair and humming "Hotel California."

Fortunately, Pandora internet radio ensures I don't have to suffer. It also exposes me to a steady stream of new music (which I race out and purchase on iTunes when I hear something I like).

A few weeks ago, Pandora played a song that sounded familiar. I recognized the words. The melody seemed like something I'd heard before. Still, I couldn't quite place it.

It wasn't until I clicked on the title that I realized what it was:

That's Mat Weddle of the folk/pop band Obadiah Parker doing an acoustic version of Outkast's insanely popular 2003 hit "Hey Ya." Even if you aren't a hip-hop fan, you've surely heard the original. Maybe you've even been known to shake it like a Polaroid picture when no one's looking.

I'm not here to judge.

Here's a refresher on the Outkast version, just for the sake of comparison:

I bought both versions for my iPod, and I dig each of them for totally different reasons.

One reason is the fabulous reminder that something doesn't have to be 100% original to be amazing.

I've heard tons of authors fretting about the uniqueness of a story they want to write. They worry their idea has been done before, and most of the time, they're right. How often have we seen modern twists on age-old stories? Romeo and Juliet spawned West Side Story. Jane Austen's Emma inspired Clueless.

I don't kid myself that I'm the first author to write a pirate-themed romance novel with MAKING WAVES, but I might be first to include a frisky game of Strip Battleship or a discussion of the difference between a hand-job and a foot-job. Even without those scenes, I feel confident my own unique voice puts a different spin on things.

I guess that's why I don't spend too much time worrying about coming up with a story that's never been done before. My focus is on finding ways to make my version original, and to set it apart from what's been done before.

Do you struggle to come up with unique ideas? In what way do you put your own stamp on something that's been done before? Please share.

And please lend me some sugar. I am your neighbor.


Sarah W said...

When I was much, much younger, I was a member of a writing group. One of our members gave a short description of his newest story--- someone gets swept to another world and has to lead a quest to find a magic object to save a small country.

Before he started reading his pages, another member sniffed (there's always at least one in every crowd and this one was more than enough) and said, "That's been done."

The writer looked at the other guy and said, "Not by me."

I've never forgotten that.

Unknown said...

I try not to think about it...well, no too much anyway. I mean, I don't want to completely reinvent a quest trilogy where a band of brave souls from all walks of life need to destroy a ring of power before it destroys their entire world but--that's not what I would end up writing anyway.

I like what Sarah W said above, themes and basic plot structures are done time and time again...but not with your voice and not with your characters.

Teri Anne Stanley said...

Thank you so much for this! I have been trying not to beat myself for writing an opening scene where the hero wakes up, hungover, with no memory of the night before. Okay, it's been done. It's a cliche. But it's a romance, which is a cliche by definition, isn't it? And what happened while he was blacked out, and who did it, and how the hell a codependent heroine and alcoholic hero are going to get together is the whole plot. Okay, I'm boring myself now.
I think I'd better go shake it. But I'm not going to do it where noone can see, I'm going to do it where my kids and their friends can see, because I am just that mean of a mom.

Andrea Coulter said...

All an old idea needs is a fresh twist to make it new again, so I try to make sure my ideas at least have that!

And really, it's all about the execution. You can have a totally original idea and execute it poorly, and no one will like it, or you can have a classic idea and just tell it so entertainingly that no one can put it down.

Danica Avet said...

I think what I love about taking an old idea and making it new is how it changes the tone. Like this song (which I like!), instead of it being a song you want to dance to and not listen to the lyrics, it sounds tender and sweet.

I enjoy taking old ideas and making them my own, or changing the idea of something and putting my own spin on it. It's what makes writing so fun; letting my brain work out new ways to look at old things.

Unknown said...

LOVE Sarah's comment and that's what it boils down to: It may have been done but not by ME. Everyone has their unique voice and, as long as it's a unique enough voice to make the story truly different, go for it. Plus, I'm a sucker for a good twist-y story.


Neurotic Workaholic said...

I do think it's cool when authors retell classics, especially if it's from the point of view of a different character. For example, I really liked Wicked by Gregory Maguire. One thing I'm not too fond of, though, are the Jane Austen imitators. It's one thing for them to remake Emma as Clueless; I loved both stories. But I've read a couple of the novels by authors who wrote stories from the point of view of Mr. Darcy or his daughters with Elizabeth, and I didn't like them. The problem seemed to be that the authors were trying to sound too much like Jane Austen rather than developing their own voices.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I don't struggle too much with ideas...just kinda let them come as they may. Hopefully I can put a unique twist on things. But if a story doesn't work out, I never consider it a waste to write it. I move on to the next story learning more and more each time.

Have a great day!

Anonymous said...

On the contrary, I love it when I'm reading a novel and I notice something familiar written with the author's own ideas. The more interpretations there are out there the better! :O)

Nate Wilson said...

How do I put my own stamp on unoriginal ideas? Well, I'm pretty certain no one else's brain works quite the same way mine does (for which most people I know say they're grateful). So while I can't be sure any of my concepts are truly unique, I'm confident my interpretation of them is.

And here, have some sugar.


Steph Schmidt said...

Kudos to the acoustic version! I actually enjoyed it better than the original. Someone once said there are only ten plot lines that are reworked or blended for each and every story. At first I thought no way but reading each of the ten broken down, turns out the person was right. Uniqueness came down to the author's craft.

Natascha said...

I have plenty of unique ideas. It's trying to catagorize them that gives me problems!

inkgrrl said...

Excellent point and so well said! Thank you for the reminder that we have to have confidence in our own interpretation of timeless stories.

And thank you again for the intro to Obadiah Parker - I love his voice!

The Novel Road said...

Original ideas are always going to be there. We write new pages of history every day and these are rich in new stories to be spun.

Times change, so do people. It's how we address characters, through flaws or changed social morays.

That said, many amazing stories can be re-told with how we are now as the unique difference.

A character walking down a street paved in cobblestone of old England or dust covered in ancient Rome are the tools, not the story.

Its who you choose to walk that road and what they do and say that will always be unique. It's why more and more literary agents are paying as much attention to character voice as they are the actual story.

I think many who read and then mimic their favorite authors may feel the possible story horizon as close or limited. Expanding what you read and where you travel gains you a greater scope.

Interestingly, one question I ask my guests is about life experience and its importance for an author. I've found people wrapped tightly within a genre find less import in expanded life experience. While those that feel expanded life experience is crucial, through broader reading or travel, have widely varied story bases. An example is Greg Iles, he writes bestsellers in 3 different genres.

The long of it is, the stories are there, you may just have to seek out new inspiration to find them.

All the Best,


Matthew MacNish said...

I love that song. I actually own several different remixes, on vinyl no less, though admittedly, not that one.

I don't worry about this problem too much. Every story has already been told at least in part anyway, whether through archetypes or tropes, I just hope, like you, that my story hasn't been told my way before.

Tatum Flynn said...

It's true there are only a handful of basic plots (murder mystery, quest, coming-of-age etc).

But writing is a bit like life: It's not the cards we're dealt, but how we play them that counts.

Ricky Bush said...

I just finished BOB DYLAN IN AMERICA and it is amazing just how many phrases and bits of melody he borrowed over the years and stuck in his songs (without crediting anyone else). He wasn't particular if the borrowed pieces came from plays, novels, or other's songs. In the end, though, he made it all work well enough to be considered somewhat of an American icon.

Linda G. said...

Whoa. I swear I didn't read this before I sent you that last email. But at least it answers my question. ;)

Vicki S said...

There have been a few novels released recently that made me pale when I realized, "But...that was what I wanted to write!" And I've also had the thoughts of, "But what if people think this is too close to ____?" You make an excellent point - I shouldn't be discouraged to take my own spin on a story, and I need to stop using that as an excuse.

Thanks for the insight!

Anonymous said...

Well put! I do love when there's a new version of something I liked the first time. It's called "voice" in the world of story and what's being redone is either theme or plot or both.

But I like to think it is bigger than the voice of the author, it is the point of view. The POV is a tool writers use when crafting a story and the characters who populate it. The POV of a character includes that characters backstory and worldview, and the unique emotional desires, talents, judgments and dreams. It is the dramatic flair of a story as seen through the POV character.

That's why authors can tell done-before stories in fresh and powerful ways. The author has a specific POV themselves that shapes every detail of character arc, theme, plot, and voice.

New stories come from an author POV and the author's skill with words and craftsmanship for story. This is why old themes and plots can be redone and become stellar new stories in the authors POV for the reader, who has their own POV. :)

Liana Brooks said...

Good question.

Honest answer? I really don't know.

Writing over on the sci-fi/SFR side of the shelf there's a lot of unexplored territory.

My current WIP involves time travel. I think that's a well explored topic. But time travel isn't my main theme, the main theme is choices (another well explored topic).

Has it been done? Yes.

Have I ever read a book that reminds me of the plot I am currently writing? No.

Uniqueness is hard to pin down. Every romance will turn out like one of Shakespeare's plays, because Shakespeare explored the themes of Forbidden Love, Wrong Lover, and Unrequited Love quite thoroughly.

Does that mean every novel is a modernized version of R&J, Midsummer, or 12th Night? No. It just means you share a theme.

BTW - I love the music!


Sarah, love that! What a great thing to remember.

Becky, indeed, putting your own spin on things is crucial.

Teri Anne, I do sometimes find myself thinking "this has been done before," but that's usually followed by, "how can I do it differently?"

Lynn, I've been meaning to tattoo "it's all in the execution" on my left forearm.

Danica, no kidding...same song, but one you want to dance to, and one you want to snuggle to :)

Mary, if you like twisty, see Wednesday's post :)

Neurotic Workaholic, I'm not a huge fan of all the Austen spinoffs (though I know they're wildly popular with my publisher, Sourcebooks). However, one I really enjoyed was called "Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife." THAT was a fun (and deliciously naughty) spinoff.

lynnrush, great point...writing is NEVER wasted!

Suz, agreed! It IS fun to hear different people's takes on the same idea.

Nate, LOL, cracking up over your inclusion of nastameetcha. Bonus points for that!

SM Schmidt, most of the time when I have two wildly different versions of the same song, I end up favoring one over the other. This is one of the few where I really adore both equally, but for different reasons.

The Las Vegas Writer, try wine. That helps with everything.

Inkgrrl, isn't that song great? That's what I love about Pandora. I've literally bought hundreds of songs from artists I'd never heard of before Pandora introduced me.

Douglas, wait, so what does it say that I get inspiration while walking my dog? :)

Matthew, there's another fun remix of a metal song (I forget which one, but it was popular a few years ago) which was redone by a bluegrass artist. Love that! The contrast is fascinating to me.

Girl Friday, excellent point!!!

Ricky, I think I remember reading an interview where he talked about borrowing from all kinds of old melodies and songs and putting his own imprint on them. Very wise!

Linda G, your email partly inspired the post :) It was something I had already been mulling, but you helped me clarify what I wanted to say.

Vicki, admittedly you can run into problems when publishers have already bought something that's too similar to what you're writing, but there's no way to know what each publisher is buying at any given moment. Best to just write the best book you can!

Terripatrick, well said!

Liana, glad you enjoyed the music! I had that song stuck in my head all day yesterday!

Thanks for reading, guys!

The Novel Road said...

It says your the Romantic Comedy version of Garth Stein. ;-)

Claire Dawn said...

The OutKast version is one of my fave vids!

And I forgot about that sugar line. Using that on my neighbour tomorrow. :)

I don't think any basic plot hasn't been used a gazillion times by now. But hte devil is in the details. Look at Avatar. People compare it to Pocahontas and Fern Gully. But considering the records it shattered, millions of people loved the new twists.

Anonymous said...

Oh! Love that comment Sarah W shared . . . "not by me". Perfect response!