Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Nothing Special?

Recently a short story of mine was rejected from an anthology for having “too cliché” of a hero. The story centers around a monster hunter who blows into town wearing a black trenchcoat and fedora. Sure, not too terribly “original”. It’s a classic image:

Which is precisely why I wanted to write it.

I don’t fault the anthology for turning me down. We had a great talk about it and parted in perfect agreement that this wasn’t meant to be. But, as I look at more and more anthology submissions, I see a lot of “We want something that no one has ever, ever seen before” or “We want so out-of-the-box, that the out-of-the-box people are blown away!” I’m not going to sit and quote the whole “Nothing new under the sun” argument, because that’s been done (irony? :p). I understand uniqueness. I understand the aim to write something original and not just derivative of every book you’ve ever read. You don’t want to be a copycat. That’s bad writing.

But, at the same time, we’re a sum total of our experiences. I grew up reading stories and watching movies about small backwater towns taken over by monsters. Those tales really resonated with me because I lived in a small backwater town. It was personal. Growing up, I looked forward to the day that I could write my own “backwater town versus evil” story. Is it an original concept? No. A billion writers have used it—a lot of them better than I could. In fact, Stephen King uses it for nearly every single novel he’s ever written. But I’ve been chomping at the bit to do a story like that all my life—to put my own spin on it—and I don’t feel like I should not write it, just because it’s been done.

I suppose I could spend my career chasing after that one idea that no one has ever, ever thought of. Ever. In the history of humankind. Ever. But, if I did that, I'd probably never get started writing because it's all been done, to some degree. I'm not saying I'm not looking to chart the uncharted--but I imagine, should I ever find that corner of the imagination that no human mind has ever tapped, it'll be by dumb accident. In the meantime, I want to write the stories that I wanted to read growing up. I like the classic “guy in a fedora hunts monsters” from time to time. I like alien invasion stories. Those stories meant something to me and that’s what I want to write. There’s a reason those stories have been told and re-told. There’s a potency to those concepts that speak to something deep inside us. And, while those stories have been around forever, they’ve never been told by me. Never with my own experiences thrown in; my own unique way of looking at things. In concept, they may sound tired, but I encourage you to look beneath the surface and find what’s unique about it.

What’s unique is me.

So, where do you find the balance between originality and treading the well-traveled paths of previous stories?


Bruce Hennigan said...

I co-directed a writing conference way back in 1991 and our keynote speaker was Robert Don Hughes. Bob Hughes, as he was known, had written several fantasies under the Del Rey imprint. They were written for a secular audience but Bob had written them from a Christian worldview. (An interesting story was the outrage shown to Bob by Harlan Ellison at a science fiction convention when Harlan discovered Bob was a Christian -- "How dare you write science fiction when you are a Christian!").

At that time Bob was working on an idea of distilling all stories throughout all of history to 26 basic ideas. He said he was being very generous as there were really only about a half dozen stories when you break them down to their basics.

I ran into this on a review of my upcoming book back when it was self-published. I was accused of creating several "cliche" characters. No, I created characters that had built in automatic audience identification. I played off of the audience's comfort with those type of characters then I took them in a new direction from the typical stereotypical role.

I don't know how we can avoid using story elements that have been used before. It is impossible. To require something totally new and different is unrealistic. In this age of instant communication and ready access to stories, blogs, essays, blog comments, etc. there is so much out there I guess these publishers think they can find something new. I don't think that is going to happen. All we can hope for is to create interesting characters that might be different from what has been done in the past.

I like the fedora in a coat concept. I instantly get it. Then, I am looking for the unique twist on a stereotypical character. As a reader, this does not bother me. Unless you create vampires that can exist in sunlight, see themselves in mirrors, don't react to crosses, and have sparkly skin. That permutation goes too far away from the vampire myth. It may be something new and different, but it is no longer a true vampire based on what we expect. So, does using a "true" vampire then fall into "cliche"? Good question.

I'm not sure of the answer, Greg, but I know that as a reader and a writer, I cannot avoid at least the appearance of a cliche. I can only hope the characters and the plot take me someplace different enough from what I have read in the past that I can enjoy it. And, there is something to be said for familiarity. Super 8 was classic Spielberg rebooted with a monster that ate people instead of phoning home. It was filled with cliches, but it WAS the cliche that made it enjoyable. It was the FAMILIARITY that appealed to me.

Good post. Keep writing those stories. I like to read about a fedora and a long black coated guy going after monsters.

Greg Mitchell said...

Interesting story about Harlan Ellison. Does he think Christians are incapable of writing "real" science fiction or that we're just being preachy? Hm.. I wonder what set him off. Then again, Harlan Ellison wouldn't be Harlan Ellison if he wasn't mad at SOMEBODY :)

I hear you about Super 8. Loved that movie--and it was because it was so familiar! Because of the cliche.

Good thoughts.

Bruce Hennigan said...

The story, as I recall about Harlan, took place at a convention. Several Del Rey authors were present. Bob was good friends with Lester Del Rey and according to Bob, the man really respected Bob because of his Christianity and his desire to write good stories that were not "preachy". During the question and answer period at the convention, someone asked Bob about his background. Bob was, at that time, a professor at Southern Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. The question had to do with "how can a Christian author write about witches and goblins and wizards? Isn't that promoting witchcraft?" This same question was asked of Bob during our writer's conference and prompted him to tell the story of Harlan Ellison.

Before he could get well into his answer, Harlan interrupted and went ballistic. He was outraged that a Christian author was on the stage. He maintained that a Christian could NOT write science fiction or fantasy. Bob just killed him with kindness. I'd love to reconnect with Bob on this story. I'll try and track him down.

Greg Mitchell said...

Robert Don Hughes was some of the first--and only--"Christian sci-fi" I ever read in school. I recall at the time that he really seemed to be doing it right in that he didn't skimp on the sci-fi or Christian elements.