Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Same but Different: Part I

[Author's Note: This post ended up about 70 pages long. So instead of boring you all at once this week, I've chopped it in half: Part I this week, which is really just the intro, and Part II next week, which tells all & sundry how to achieve that ever elusive "same but different" quality in your work.]

Epiphany One: There are two worlds out there: the bright and shiny fantasy world of the reader and the mysterious, hard-boiled detective world of the writer. Both rely on the skills of a gold-panner. As a reader, you sift through bits of sand and quartz, looking for books that take your breath away. As a writer, you sift through bits of quartz and sand, looking for creative ways to steal that breath.

And if you're desiring to be a successful, published writer, you puzzle out the mysteries of the publishing world -- or you get lucky. (And even then, I don't think luck has much to do with it.)

Epiphany Two: For me, the two worlds have rarely met. As early as I can remember I wanted to write books. Not because I was gifted or driven or plump full of plots -- but because I dearly loved reading -- and I was disappointed in many of the books I read. I wanted to be a writer so that I could write the kind of books I wanted to read.

Epiphany Three: The publishing world, I fear, does not want to publish the kind of books I wanted to read as a child and young adult. They want books that accomplish that whole "same but different" concept. It's true. The following example is based on an actual event.

Alex as a Child: I love fantasy. I want to read about fairies, or unicorns, or elves, or magic. But every author I pick up has the arrogance to tweak or change or evolve my understanding of how this magical creature should behave. I just want a plain elf. A reliable one. Leave the freaking elf alone -- concentrate on plot.

Alex as an Adult: I love fantasy. But if I want to be published, I can't write the kind of books I wanted to read as a child. Instead, I must be "different" and build new worlds and craft plausible reasons why elves have elongated ears and weave alliances between elven-kind and dust bunnies.
So, I'm stuck. As a young adult, I simply stopped reading fantasy and science fiction. If I couldn't read what I wanted, I would defect. And I did.

As a writer, what do I do? Do I write the kind of books I always wanted to read? Or do I figure that I was simply an odd child with bizarre reading habits and forsake that goal? Do I choose to write, instead, the books publisherseditorsagents are requesting? And finally, is this a puzzle that only fantasy and science fiction writers must unravel?

What about you? Do you crave a completely different world, blue-hued elven-folk, and tails that talk? Or do you wish for the comfort of a known creature and a spanking good story? Am I alone in all of this puzzlement?


  1. Hmmmmm. Well, who developed the elf folk you wanted as a child? Since elves, dragons, unicorns, and other magical creatures were imagined by someone or assorted someones they vary from country to country, century to century. Is there an agreed-upon set of rules? As far as I can tell, all authors tweak them to some extent.
    I say write the stories you wanted to read. Get them out into the world.

  2. I agree with Tricia... you write the stories you want to read. I think then your authentic voice comes out stronger.

  3. @Tricia: you have an excellent point, of course. i read a great deal of mythology as a child, so i think much of my thought was shaped by that. I asked my hubby the other day about this whole thing, and he too said it annoyed him. That poll of one made me wonder if anyone else had a problem with it...evidently we're the only two :) (Good thing we found each other!!)

    @inlandempiregirl: well, there's certainly more enthusiasm and passion when you're writing what you want to read... As opposed to Memoir... :P

  4. Alex, I am curious to know if you received specific feedback/critique on the writing you would like to read yourself, rather than the world-building you are talking about here?

  5. I don't know exactly what to say. I feel for you. You ought to write what you want to write. Everything else is BS.

    I like the comment about authentic voice.

    You will hear every rule under the sun, but in the end it comes down to getting the job done. I don't mind the same, but different rule. Sounds like Blake Synder. Is it so impossible to write something that is the same, but different and have it be the kind of story that you want to write. I think that if you wrote the story that you want to write, even if at the outset it feels like you are writing the same kind of story it would come out differently or uniquely because you are a unique person.

    Now, I have read the early chapters of one of your stories and I can say that you have a tone there that works. I remember a post you did (on your blog) where people offered feedback on the early lines. Okay, you get the feedback, but to me what matters the most (with this kind of big picture thing) is the tone.

    There are so many dark and twisted stories out there right now. Is that really what you want to spend your time doing??? Seems like your story had some character to it. It's a hard quality to pin down, but I was struck by the fact that your main character was the kind of person I would hang around with for a good long journey. If you can pull that trick off I think that you can write the kind of story that you want. Seems like if you are sacrificing something as a writer to please someone else your character would lose something authentic about themself, and thus put me off as a reader.

    Whatever you do, do it well, and make it something you would be proud of. I suppose I could add the following: write something that makes you vulnerable as a human being. If you are writing the kind of story that you want to that is hard because it could be rejected and that feels personal when it means something to you, but that's where the inspiration is at.

    I've thought of writing something totally commercial to see if I could pull it off, but even if I did that I would return to what I want to really write, and I would imagine that even if my intent was to go totally commercial the reality is that my own style would come through anyway.

    I suppose that as long as you listen to your body and go with what feels right to you then you will be on track. Anything less just feels wrong. There's other ways to make a buck, right? So, the point of writing is to create the worlds and the characters that you are inspired to write not to please someone in the publishing world or to succeed. How do you define success? I would hope that you would rather have a few ideal readers love your story than aim for pleasing.

    Get your stories out to people. Then you are a storyteller, and not just an aspiring writer. Seems like things will click for you.

    Well, hope I didn't lose you with all the words.

  6. @anthony: i have read your question several times and am still confused. help me :) To answer the question I think you're asking, no. I did not receive feedback indicating I need "fresh" material. But I've been reading a great deal of agent-bloggers who are looking for "fresh" or "new" archtypes etc as opposed to epic fantasy etc. The ones I've heard in person say the same thing. So I'm thinking there might be a connection between the books I didn't want to read and the books that get published ;)

  7. @dave: thank you. and no, you didn't lose me. lots of thoughts there -- and I like your take on tone. Simply the presentation of an age-old mythos makes it different and unique and appealing. It also seems to me that tone is the hardest thing to convey in a query letter :)

    Regardless, I'm taking your advice and writing what feels right to me. Although publishing is a dear dream, the most important thing is the story. And staying true to that seems like a worthy ideal.

  8. Alex, okay, you answered my question.

    So don't take this the wrong way: you're trying to cheat. :-)

    You need to write the book you want to write which is the book you want to read. Then, while you are trying to sell this book, you have a foundation and skill set from which to build.

    And it is all about building. World-building is a fine art but it is also based on experience. Even a fantasy novel in which you are writing the arch-type gives you considerable world-building experience.

    It seems to me if there's a book in you that's trying to get out, you need to get it out even if it isn't going to sell. Write it, grab some beta readers, and party!


Join the conversation, add insight, or disagree with us! We welcome your thoughts.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.