What is Originality?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Whenever my wife and I travel to the Bay Area, we try to pop over to Berkeley and nosh at the noted bistro Chez Panisse. Overseen by its co-founder, executive chef Alice Waters, it is credited with popularizing the style of cooking known as California cuisine.

I’m no specialist in things culinary, but I know what I like. And I like California cuisine. It takes familiar foods and spices and combines them in a way that is not overpowering to the palate. It’s sort of like being in a park on a sunny California day, the temperature not overpowering, and lots of happy things going on around you.

Which brings me to the subject of originality. I connect it to Alice Waters by way of this passage from Theme & Strategy (Writer’s Digest Books) by Ronald Tobias:

We say we prize originality above all else in art. Originality is the artist’s brilliance, that indefinable something that is distinctly the artist’s and no one else’s. What gets lost in all that praise of individuality is that originality is nothing more than seasoning added to stock. Seasoning gives distinct flavor, its character or charm, if you will, and seasoning gives the distinct taste that immediately identifies the dish as unique. But we forget that the foundation remains the same, and that the chef and the diner both rely on that fact.

A chef’s genius is not to create a dish from original ingredients, but to combine standard ingredients in original ways. The diner recognizes the pattern established in the foundation of a baked stuffed turkey, and we look for the variation, the twist that will surprise and delight us. Perhaps it’s in the glaze or in the stuffing, something that makes that turkey different from all the other turkeys that came before it.

As you develop an idea for a story, start with the foundation, the pattern of action and reaction that is plot.

In my workshops I’m sometimes asked how to keep plot and structure from devolving into formulaic writing. My answer is similar to what Tobias says above. And what Alice Waters would say. You don’t cook an omelet with a watermelon. If I want an omelet, I want it made with eggs in a pan with some ingredients and spices. What those add-ons are and how they are proportioned make up the distinctiveness–the originality if you will–of the dish.

In the same way, structure is the eggs. It’s what readers expect from a story. They don’t want to be confused or frustrated. Of course, an author is free to write experimental fiction, which is also known by its unofficial name, Fiction That Doesn’t Sell.

But if you’re in this to make some dough, you’ll use familiar ingredients but you’ll spice them up with your unique brand of characterization, dialogue, and voice.

The late, great writing teacher Jack Bickham wrote the following in Scene & Structure (Writer’s Digest Books):

Mention words such as structure, form, or plot to some fiction writers, and they blanch. Such folks tend to believe that this kind of terminology means writing by some type of … predetermined format as rigid as a paint-by-numbers portrait.

Nothing could be further from the truth

In reality, a thorough understanding and use of fiction’s classic structural patterns frees the writer from having to worry about the wrong things, and allows her to concentrate her Imagination on characters and events rather than on such stuff as transitions and moving characters around, when to begin or open a chapter, whether there ought to be a flashback, and so on. Once you understand structure, many such architectural questions become virtually irrelevant — and structure has nothing to do with “filling in the blocks.”

Structure is nothing more than a way of looking at your story material so that it’s organized in a way that’s both logical and dramatic.

Don’t get ensnared by the ruinous idea that structure is the enemy of originality and this thing we call “story.” In fact, the opposite is true.

So become a great chef. Know your ingredients. Cook up a delicious tale by mixing the familiar with your unique blend of spices.

Your readers will eat it up.

What is your view of originality? What are some examples from writers you admire?

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Baloney Advice Writers Should Ignore

Some time ago I cheekily posted the three rules for writing a novel. It produced a spirited discussion on what is a “rule” and what is a “principle,” but by and large there was agreement that these three factors are essential to novels that sell.
Today I’d like to discuss some writing advice writers would do well to ignore.
Where does such advice come from? I have a theory that there is a mad scientist in Schenectady, New York, who cooks up writing advice memes and converts them to an invisible and odorless gas. He then secretly arranges for this gas to seep into critique groups across the land, infecting the members, who then begin to dispense the pernicious doctrine as if it were holy writ.
I now offer the antidote to the gas.
1. Don’t start with the weather
Verdict: Baloney
This meme may have started with Elmore Leonard, who once dashed off a list of “rules” that have become like sacred script for writers. If his advice were, “Don’t open a book with static, flat descriptions” I would absolutely agree.
But here is why the rule, as stated, is baloney: weather can add dimension and tone to the opening disturbance. If you use it in that fashion, weaving it into action, it’s a fine way to begin.
Look at the opening of Bleak House by Dickens, or the short story “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away” by Stephen King. Or the quieter beginning of Ann Lamott’s Blue Shoe. All of them use weather to great effect. Here’s a Western, Hangman’s Territory, from a great writing teacher, Jack Bickham:
   The late spring storm was breaking. To the east, boiling blue-gray clouds moved on, raging toward Fort Gibson. To the west, the sun peered cautiously through a last veil of rain, slanting under the shelf of clouds and making the air a strange, silent bright yellow. The intense, muggy heat of the day had been broken, and now the early evening was cool and damp, and frogs had magically appeared everywhere in the red gumbo of the Indian Nations.
   Eck Jackson threw back the heavy canvas under which he had been waiting. His boots sank into the red mud as he clambered out of his shelter between two rocks and peered at the sky.
If you think of weather as interacting with the character’s mood and emotions, you’re just fine to start with it.
2. Don’t start with dialogue
Verdict: Baloney
Starting with dialogue creates instant conflict, which is what most unpublished manuscripts lack on the first pages. Sometimes this rule is stated as “Don’t start with unattributed dialogue.” Double baloney on rye with mustard. Here’s why: readers have imaginations which are patient and malleable. If they are hooked by dialogue, they will wait several lines before they find who’s talking and lose absolutely nothing in the process.
Examples:
“TOM!”
No answer.
“TOM!”
No answer.
“What’s gone with that boy,  I wonder? You TOM!”
No answer.
The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room . . . 
        – (Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer)
 “Any thoughts that you’d like to start with?”
“Thoughts on what?”
“Well, on anything. On the incident.”
“On the incident? Yes, I have some thoughts.”
She waited but he did not continue. He had decided before he even got to Chinatown that this would be the way he would be.
       –  (Michael Connelly, The Last Coyote)
“Name?”
“Robert Travis.”
“Occupation?”
“Mining engineer.”
“Place of residence?”
“Seventh Base, Jovian Development Unit, Ganymede.”
“Reason for visiting Luna?”
“I’m checking on performance of the new Dahlmeyer units in the Mare Nublum fields. We’re thinking of adapting them for use in our Trendart field on Ganymede.”
“I see . . .” The port inspector fumbled through my papers. “Where’s your celemental analysis sheet?”
– (Dwight V. Swain, The Transposed Man)
3. No backstory in the first fifty pages
Verdict: Spam (a step up from baloney)
If backstory is defined as a flashback segment, then this advice has merit. Readers will wait a long time for backstory information if something compelling is happening in front of them. But if you stop the forward momentum of your opening with a longish flashback, you’ve dropped the narrative ball.
However, when backstory refers to bits of a character’s history, then this advice is unsound. Backstory Bits (I call them BBs) are actually essential for bonding us with a character. If we don’t know anything about the characters in conflict, we are less involved in their trouble. (Read Koontz and King, who weave backstory masterfully into their opening pages).
I’ve given writing students a simple guideline: three sentences of backstory in the first ten pages. You may use them together, or space them apart. Then three paragraphsof backstory in the next ten pages, together or apart.
I’ve seen this work wonders for beginning manuscripts.
4. Write what you know
Verdict: Baloney
Sounder advice is this:
Write who you are.
Write what you love.
Write what you NEED to know.
5. Don’t ever follow any writing advice
Verdict: Stinky baloney
There may be a few literary savants out there who can do this thing naturally, without thinking about technique or craft. And those three people can form their own group and meet for Martinis.
Every other writer can benefit from putting in some time studying their craft. I’ve heard some writers say they don’t want to do that for fear of “stifling” the purity of their work. Some of them get a contract and their books comes out in a nice edition that sell 500 copies. And then they get bitter and start appearing at writer’s conferences raging how there is no such thing as structure and you’ve all wasted your money coming here, and you should just go home and write. (This has actually happened on several occasions that I know of).
So here is my final bit of advice for today: don’t be that kind of writer. 

1+

My Aha! Moment





The other day I got a lovely email that began:
I want to send you a big, sincere ‘thank you’ for writing your book on plot and structure.
After trawling through many books on plotting and feeling more and more confused and anxious it was a relief to come across your book. Finally I began having ‘aha!’ moments – and I’ve only read three chapters!
You are so encouraging and the exercises are really useful – although now I find myself watching television and asking ‘what if?’ a great deal of the time…
If an ex-lawyer can still have working cockles in his heart, mine were warmed. I love hearing when a writer starts to get it. An “aha moment” is exactly what I strive to provide in my teaching. Because it was just such a moment that put me on the path to selling my work.
I know exactly when it was, too, because I was keeping a journal of my writing quest. On September 15, 1990, I wrote these words:
EPIPHANY!
Light! A bulb! A flash! A revelation! My muse on fire!
I feel like I’ve suddenly “clicked into” how to write . . .  I mean, everything I’ve been reading and brooding about has finally locked. There is this tremendous rush of exhilaration. It just happened, and now I feel like everything I write will be at least GOOD, but can also be EXCELLENT.
I was writing screenplays at the time, and I’d written five or six over two years without success. But the next one I wrote was optioned and got me into a top agency. I optioned other properties, too, and did some assignment work (including a treatment for the late, great Whitney Houston). But when the projects didn’t get pushed up the ladder (an old Hollywood story) I got frustrated and wrote a novel using the same revealed wisdom. The novel sold. Then I wrote a legal thriller and got a five book contract. My career as a novelist was launched.
And all of it I trace back to that epiphany. Here’s the story.
I was a member of the Writer’s Digest Book Club at the time. One of their offerings was Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell. I’d been reading screenwriting books, like Syd Field’s Screenplay and Linda Seger’s Making a Good Script Great. I thought, well, there may be some cross-over here from the novel world, and I bought the book.
Bickham advised this was a book for people wanting to get serious about becoming professional writers. Not fluff, only what had worked for him and his writing students at the University of Oklahoma. He said it should be studied sequentially, as each chapter built upon the last.
So that’s what I did, starting at page one and working my way through. And when I got to Chapter 8, covering “scene and sequel,” that’s when the bulbs started popping in my brain.
Up to that time I did not have a strategic approach to writing the next scene. I just sort of let it bubble up in my imagination (or had committed to it on an index card) and went for it. But my scripts weren’t working. People told me so, but couldn’t tell me why, which was frustrating beyond measure.
Now, suddenly, I knew why they weren’t working. A superb writing instructor had nailed it and explained it to me.
In brief, a scene is a unit of action made up of a goal, conflict and disaster. There are of course nuances and variations, but all of them emanate from this basic understanding. The disaster doesn’t always mean something huge, though it sometimes is. It is a setback of some sort, making the hero’s situation worse.
I have the key paragraph highlighted in yellow, and underlined in red, in Bickham’s book:
We make our story go forward by pushing our hero backward, farther and farther from his ultimate goal, through scene disasters. The reader reads excitedly, roots for the hero––then is crushed with him. The novel flies along, lifelike, dramatic, suspenseful, hard to put down, filled with twists, surprises and setbacks––and more and more tension as well as admiration for the battered hero who simply won’t quit.
Bam. Boom. Bingo. This was my breakthrough, my foundation. And it’s never let me down since.
So I wonder, have you ever had an “aha moment” in your writing? Maybe it came when you first realized something was (or wasn’t) working for you on the page. Maybe it was while you were reading a novel and thought, “Oh, now I see!”
Or maybe you’ve had a series of these moments, perhaps not as dramatic as my own, but meaningful just the same.
Let’s hear about them.
***
NOTE: I will be on the road teaching my two-day intensive “Next Level” seminar this year. The cities and dates have just been announced:
Austin, TX, June 16 & 17

Nashville, TN, August 11 & 12

Cincinnati, OH, September 15 & 16
For further information, testimonials and sign-up forms, go here

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