Before I get to the post topic, I have a request. Right now my only website is on the larger HarperCollins website. There’s a link to it on this page, below on the right, called “Official Website,” which it is, and many thanks to Harper for creating it. However, my husband and I are planning a separate, new site. (I’ll continue the blog, although it may move and I’ll announce the change and you won’t get lost.) So, I have some questions and I may have more as we progress: Do you visit author websites? If you do and when you do, what’s the reason? What do you want in a site? What would you want on my site? (We don’t yet know what’s technically possible.) What do you like in sites you’ve visited? What do you dislike? Have any sites left you feeling frustrated or disappointed or annoyed? Why? And if there’s anything else you’d like to tell me about author websites, please do.
On April 8, 2010, Jen wrote, How can you tell when your story is sounding too familiar, like from something you’ve already written, or something you’ve read. I don’t want to be stealing any ideas from anyone, but sometimes when I write, the story starts to sound much of a muchness to what I’m reading, or at least parts of what I’m writing. I don’t do this on purpose, but still it happens. Or I’ll use a similar plot twist that I thought was entertaining. I also enjoy suspense, and like to use that extremely in my writing. But I want my story to be fresh, and don’t want to bore the reader in the first chapter, because it’s a previously used idea. (Or because I’m taking too long to jump into the plot. Or I jump into the plot too fast!) I like the concept of parallel universes, or doors between different realms, but it’s been taken many times. How do we make an old idea still new and exciting? I don’t have a problem with coming up with ideas. I have many, many story ideas, but it’s just a few that sound unoriginal.
Last December 9th, I wrote a post about predictability, and I don’t want to repeat what I said then, so I suggest you take a look.
When I wrote Ella Enchanted, I kept worrying about a sequence of four words that I thought I might have lifted from a song. Turned out I hadn’t. My four words were different, but even if they had been the same it wouldn’t have mattered. They were just four ordinary words. None of them was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which might really have caused me trouble. Sometimes we (I) worry too much.
Writing is imitating. We imitate life and books and movies. Being a good imitator is valuable for a writer, maybe essential. Also when I was writing Ella Enchanted, I reread Jane Austen, and started sounding like her on the page, and my critique buddies asked me what was going on, and I had to deliberately quit.
Here’s a prompt: Read ten pages of Jane Austen (or more if you can’t put her down). Pay attention to how she structures her sentences. Write or rewrite a page in your current story imitating her voice.
Or pick a different writer with a distinctive voice, maybe Mark Twain or Charlotte Bronte or James M. Barrie, and imitate him or her. Try more than one if you’re up to it. This is excellent practice, because it makes you a more flexible writer and more aware of word choice, sentence and paragraph shape and length, approaches to dialogue, and every other aspect of bringing a scene to life.
Before I started to write the first book in the Disney Fairies series, Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg, I reread Barrie’s Peter Pan. My intention was to approximate his style in my book, but I couldn’t do it; he’s such a supple writer; however, I noticed that he used the expression “of course” a lot, so I threw in many repeats of “of course” and hoped they would convey the flavor. I just looked at his book again a minute ago and noticed that he used semicolons frequently; hence this sentence and the one before it.
Imitation is not plagiarism. You shouldn’t copy another writer’s exact words into your stories, at least not more than four of them! Plagiarism is unethical.
Having said that, actual copying isn’t a bad exercise, as long as that’s all it is, an exercise. When I wrote The Fairy’s Mistake, I had never written a chapter book before, and my editor sent me samples of other chapter books. Before I started writing my own I typed out one of Paula Danziger’s Amber Brown books – every word! – to see how she did it.
Here’s another prompt:: Copy a page of a book you love. Have you learned anything?
Ideas can’t be copyrighted, only the expression of an idea in words. Still, we want to be original. I recently read a book that, in one aspect only, reminded me of Holes by Louis Sachar. I love Holes, and I liked this other book, but I wished the author had thought of something else in this single area, or had at least referred to Holes. If the main character had said something like, My life was just like Stanley Yelnats’s, I would have been happy, because the similarity wouldn’t have seemed sneaky.
A book that does a masterful and open job of connecting to another book is this year’s Newbery winner, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, which builds on an earlier Newbery, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. Art builds on the art that went before. We take the old and rework it into something new, and Rebecca Stead did this ingeniously.
(By the way, When You Reach Me is historical fiction that takes place in New York City in the 1970s when the city was much less safe than it is now. I hope you’ll read the book if you haven’t already, but I don’t want you to get the wrong picture of present-day New York.)
If you’d like to take your main character into an alternate universe, you can. But you want to create your own alternate universe and your own way into it and not remake Oz and a tornado. How to do this? One way is to start from scratch with questions: Am I writing a funny story or a sad one or a total tragedy? Am I writing a mystery? A funny story, for example, will call for a different, goofier universe than a serious story.
What kind of characters inhabit this world? Fairies? Dragons? Philosopher eagles? A combo of different sorts of creatures? People?
Who is your main character who enters as a visitor or an escapee? Maybe she isn’t human. She may be an animal or a plant that has somehow become ambulatory and able to think and communicate. Or it’s a rock or a paper clip. Anything can succeed if you make it succeed.
Is this a happy universe or a troubled one? How does it connect to the world your traveler starts out from? It may or may not connect, or you may find out as you write.
You all know that I rely on lists, so for this project I would write a bunch of lists. I might list some of the aspects of the real world that I love and aspects I definitely do not love. You can use this list to develop your world. Long ago, I read a short story about an alien who adored earth because we have food and we eat. In his home galaxy there was no such thing. Your main character could enter a world without birds and any concept of flight, for example.
List basics: size, time, light, colors, sound, smell. Write down how your world might express these basics. In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, light moves slowly. Remember, for your own creation, some – probably many – aspects of the new world should be what we’re used to or the reader will feel lost.
What problem or accident causes your character to leave? If what she left behind was pretty good, she may just want to get back. Before you decide, explore the possibilities.
What are the problems in the new place? Make a list!
Write down possible means of entry into your invented world, other than a door or a wardrobe or a rabbit hole. Maybe the way in could be connected to your main character’s character. Suppose she’s great at math, and one day she walks into math class and none of the problems add up. The teacher looks exactly like Mr. Mikan, except this Mr. Mikan has bushy eyebrows. She’s in. That simple. I’d guess there are lots of ways to do this.
What might befall the main character once she enters? Make a list. There are many more possibilities than getting back home or saving the new world. What else can you come up with?
I keep blathering on about lists because I think they’re a key to originality. Lists free your mind to wander where you’ve never been before. You write down seven ideas that seem boring, old, over-used, and then the eighth is a surprise, and the thirteenth is too. Or you may have to write twenty options before you get to the fresh one. Keep going. And every so often glance back at the ideas you scorned to see if you might be able to breathe life into one or two of them.
There are prompts throughout this post. I hope you try them and save them and have fun!
And, if you want to, please share your thoughts on author websites. Thanks!