This is a guest post from Hannah, one of the students who attends my creative writing lectures at Christendom College, and who now heads the club that hosts that workshop. — Matthew Bowman
I can honestly say that I would be shocked if no one reading this has at least thought about the concept of being an author. In my admittedly limited experiences with people (I am only a college sophomore, after all), just about everyone I have met who is a lover of books has also dreamed about writing something of their own, and I have at least heard about some sort of writing project from most of my close friends. The more time I spend in school, the more I read and write and talk about reading and writing, the harder I find it to try to be a writer.
I have been writing since I was ten years old when I had to write a short story for my fourth grade reading class. I have started and abandoned novels, finished drafts, and submitted short stories and poems for publication. In ten years, I have only managed to get one poem published, and that was one my seventh grade teacher forced me to write and eventually submit (for “extra credit”) as a school assignment. To this day I detest that poem as a mediocre piece of work just as much as when I wrote it.
Something I’ve come to notice over the past decade is that the more I read, the less original my ideas seem. Several years ago, I created a magic system only to read a series that used “my” system. Not long after that, a short story using a world and ideas that I had never seen in books before was rejected for being unoriginal. And I recently found out that part of a creature mythology I developed for my current project had been done before in a series my mother enjoyed. Unfortunately, I am not the only one I know who has had these struggles. We seem to live in a world where just about every conceivable idea has been done before and the only thing “new” comes in finding different ways to present things.
Looking through history, there were times when writers would unabashedly borrow from one another, and now we have copyright laws. However, at the same time we live in an age where pornographic fan fiction can be published as popular literature purely by changing the names of the main characters and removing vampires. The more time I spend reading, the more ideas I get, and the more hesitant I become to put them on paper
If nothing is “truly original” anymore, then why do authors keep churning out stories? There are only a limited number of genres and plot devices at the disposal of authors, and they can only be mixed and matched in so many different ways. As much as a surprise as it was in 1980 when (*spoilers*) Darth Vader declared, “Luke, I am your father,” I’m pretty sure that that particular plot device had been used before at some point in history, and now it’s just an overdone cliché. Even if an individual writer thinks up something that they haven’t seen before, chances are it’s out there somewhere.
But if this is the case, then what is the point of reading, and why in the world do people still write? I think that reading, truly taking the time to read, is a very personal thing. When someone writes just about anything, that work is very personal to them. It takes courage for an author to put themselves out there and bare that part of themselves, however small, to whoever reads their work. Whether or not it’s intended, a lot can be learned about an author from the works of fiction they publish. They put a little of their own lives into their settings and characters in a very similar way to how artists express themselves through their paintings or photographs.
In a world where emphasis seems to be placed on originality and technical skill (which are very important), a lot of meaning is lost. I’m reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for school right now, and although I’m not a fan of the book, I’ve been given an interesting insight to what she held dear in life. That same depth was nowhere to be found when I read the Twilight Saga as a teenager. When I read, I look to learn something new about the world that I live in through the eyes of someone else, and when I write I try to leave a piece of myself in my work for someone else to find.
That is why I read, and that is why I find it so incredibly hard to write. I believe that in a world where so much has been “done before,” the originality that is so very sought after is not to be found in plot devices or fantastic worlds, but it is found in what the author leaves in their work. It is found in the undertones of the words, the philosophies that motivate the characters, and especially in the desires of the author to show the world who they truly are and what they have to say.
Hannah, as a fellow aspiring author I completely empathize with the difficulty in finding something new and original to write. Like you mentioned before, authors used to blatantly steal from each other. For example, I did a study on different mythologies for my senior thesis, one of which was Norse Mythology. I was surprised to see just how much J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” was taken directly from Norse Mythology. But something I learned in my writing classes at Franciscan University is that authors are supposed to steal from each other a bit. As the saying goes, “There is nothing new under the sun.” No one knows this better than writers. The masters, it seems, just own up to this and still can turn out amazing stories that we love.
So a trick I’ve figured out in my writings is to steal from as many different places as possible. I’ll find the stories that really come to life, that are really good, true, and or beautiful. Then I’ll steal a personality quirk from here, or a plot point from there, from different genres and even different cultures of story telling. For example, in the story I’m currently working on, one of my main antagonists is based of a character from an anime/manga series, but the main protagonist was inspired by Orson Scott Card novel, which are two very different methods of story telling. So the originality will come from the way all these elements are combined, more so than individual story elements.
So don’t let the pressure to be “original” keep you from writing. The goal isn’t to be original, but to share something that’s good, true, and beautiful, but also fun. If you can accomplish that, most people wont care if your magic system is similar to one in a different story. So keep writing.
Also, I’d like to point out that you know have another piece of writing that’s been published, even if not professionally. 🙂
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C’mon now Hannah, you’ve been bitten by the story bug and I’m afraid there is no cure for you m’dear. You’ve been changed, you took the red pill, said yes to the wizard who was looking to share an adventure, and fell sideways through the wardrobe. There is no going back. And I’m not even sorry that I’m telling you that. Does it mean that you’ll ever be published? Nope. Does it mean that you will ever finish writing a book? Nuh-uh. But it does mean that you are going to be finding and making stories, forever. Telling stories, writing down stories, drawn to stories, finding spiritual depth in stories that others don’t see. It doesn’t mean you aren’t going to do the other things either. You CAN get published, you MAY write a book and finish it to the end but the story bug is no guarantee of those things. It is however a different way of looking at life, and it is a gift. 😀 So, enjoy it.
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Interesting stuff. I often wonder if copyright laws have done more harm than good. All of Shakespeare’s great tragedies were stolen and altered from other sources, and this was considered completely routine and not at all immoral. It’s just what people did back then.
Shakespeare could never write “Hamlet” today; somebody else would have the copyright. I always wonder if we’ve really gained more than we lost on that front…
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There are times when I think we’ve lost more. Credit is owed where it is due, of course, but I’ve found that a large part of writing (as other commenters have said and history has shown) is borrowing from other sources. I don’t think I’d be where I am as a writer without inspiration from Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, and the Dresden Files has recently renewed my love of magic in story telling.
There’s a difference here. Copyright laws are not designed to be held in perpetuity, but rather to ensure that the artist is able to profit from his or her work throughout their lifetime. Even under the same copyright laws, the vast majority of Shakespeare’s adaptations would be fair game. In fact, I only qualify that because we don’t know for certain that he didn’t borrow from anything that would have been considered under copyright with our laws.
Fast-forward to today. Shakespeare wrote in a time of 20% adult literacy; we look at illiteracy like not having a phone or being unable to swim. Shakespeare wrote for performance, not publication; his plays usually took five years to be considered appropriate for publication, and today we have people writing things up and posting them on Amazon in bare days. Shakespeare didn’t have a lot of competition; today, we have millions of published authors and even more aspiring writers.
Originality isn’t a factor unless you have a wide range and need to stand out from the rest. In fact, originality isn’t even the right term for it, if one keeps in mind a couple of lines from Chesterton. In fact, I’ve been thinking of doing a blog post about the topic over on Novel Ninja.
(I guess I’ll just add it to the ever-growing list. Sigh.)
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Even under the same copyright laws, the vast majority of Shakespeare’s adaptations would be fair game.
Not sure I agree. “Othello”, I believe, was published in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and it’s a accepted fact that there was an Ur-Hamlet that Shakespeare basically copied (with VAST improvements). “Romeo and Juliet” was copied from a not-so-long-ago published English tale (based on a French tale based on an Italian tale, which the teller swore was based on fact – so “Romeo and Juliet” was at least inspired by a true story! Maybe).
I’m not knocking Shakespeare. This wasn’t considered problematic, and by all accounts his versions were way, way better than any that had come before. But I’m not so sure a play like “Hamlet” could have been written today. It would be like somebody re-writing “The Da Vinci Code” as a masterpiece: Cool, but almost certainly unsellable.
I guess that’s why it’s easy to write reviews. The story’s already been told; I just have to analyze it.