Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Theme & variations

Paula blogged recently about fanfic and taking inspiration from other stories: “I'm rethinking characters, situations, conflicts and resolutions and figuring out how to tell them in new ways, with new outcomes and new themes.” Some writers might be put off by this idea, thinking they’re “stealing” from other writers. There has been quite a bit of discussion about this on the web lately. Diana Peterfreund set out to disprove the claim that one author can steal an idea from another, because any two authors given the same idea will come up with completely different stories. She gave 12 writers (including yours truly) one sentence—A young woman confronts her parents after discovering she has inherited telekinetic powers—and asked each of us to come up with a short scene, without any of us looking at the others’ work or even knowing who the other authors were. The topic sentence sent some writers of adult romance into YA, though Diana says this was not her intent. It definitely forced me into paranormal for the first time! But all the entries are quite different from each other.
I thought about the experiment this morning when I e-mailed my critique partner Vicki some eye-hurtingly brilliant ideas for the new novel she’s plotting. She might end up writing the opposite of my ideas. Thinking about how wrong my ideas are might take her in an entirely new direction. Nothing would surprise me more than if she used my ideas. (Update: Vicki's response to my eye-hurting brilliance was, "Nooooooooooooooo!")

Vicki and I work great together because we “get” each other’s writing. That’s where the similarities stop. Her first drafts are heavy on internal conflict, mine are all external, and we compensate in opposite directions. She writes historicals and paranormals, whereas I write adult and YA contemporary comedy. We’ve said we have the same sense of humor, but I’m not sure even this is true. We laugh at the same jokes, but the jokes we make are very different. No wonder the plotline that seems obvious to me is foreign to her, and vice-versa. I’m sure that if the two of us agreed each to write a novel from the same topic sentence or even the same synopsis, by the time we were done, no one would be able to tell we started at the same place.


Victoria Dahl said...

What is it about us? Why do we get each other so well? You're right that we couldn't work more differently if we tried. Your talk of helpful writing books makes me dizzy and squeamish. I have never, ever managed to help you figure out your plot. (It's like asking a blind man to help you cross a busy street.) And I could never, ever, EVER write the conflicts and storylines you write even though reading them makes me feel all squishy and happy and excited. Hmm. So bizarre.

But somehow all of our unhelpful bumbling turns out to be helpful after all. Maybe it's as simple as you helping me with external conflict and me helping you with internal. Maybe it's each of us recognizing the strengths in each other that we each wish we had. Does anyone else have a mysteriously delicious critique relationship?


Carla Swafford said...

Every once and a while, I will hear a newbie (as those doing it longer know better) will say they don’t enter contests or critique groups because someone might steal their story. Unless the author takes the other author’s work and copies it word-for-word, there’s no way.

About three years ago, I was reading a paranormal and kept thinking, “Oh, my goodness, her story is so much like mine.” But I knew there was no way she knew or had read my unpublished book. That same book had not been to a contest or seen by a critique group. At that point in my “writing career” I hadn’t even talked about it to anyone. Plus I had never read this author before/during writing my book. If I have the chance to talk with this author, I bet we would have a lot in common. Probably we’re close to the same age, read the same type of books, love the same movies and TV shows. All the things that influence our writing.

During a speech from a NY Times best seller author, she remarked on the same subject. One year, she was talking over the phone with an author friend of hers that lives on the opposite coast. It appears they both were writing about the same subject and the heroes had the same first name, but the stories were totally different in content. All coincidental. In no way had one taken from the other.

When it comes to critique partners, I have to say I enjoy mine, and I have four. Each one have their own strengths and weaknesses. Strange as it may be, we all compliment each other. Debbie, our published author, is wonderful at grammar. Betty, our professional editor, helps us to tighten our writing – show not tell. Susan and Larry, our dynamic duo, brings in a little of it all.

And me? I’ve found I can catch inconsistencies in the storyline. Not much, but thank goodness they put up with me.

Paula said...

Think of all the variations on Shakespeare's TAMING OF THE SHREW, from KISS ME, KATE to TEN THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU. CLUESLESS was Jane Austen's EMMA set in high school. BRIDGET JONES' DIARY (the book and partially the movie) was a variation on PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Gayle Wilson had a book that was a variation on the myth of Cupid and Psyche. I once wrote an X-FILES spec script that was a variation on the myth of Eurydice.

If you think you're writing a completely original plot, you're almost certainly wrong. Someone somewhere has done it before. And probably recently.

Oh, not with the same characters or the same setting or even the same sequence of events, but there will be a core similarity that has everything to do with thousands of years of human history.

And that's okay. Because the difference in characters and setting and sequence of events is what keeps it fresh, makes it unique to you and original enough to satisfy a reader. But that core similarity to previous stories, previous myths, previous human experiences is what makes the stories we write resonate with our readers.

Kathy said...

Reading this blog makes me think of grade school. Everyone remembers this little test, don't they? One person whispers in somone's ear, that person turns to another and then another and so on until the message comes back to the first person scrambled into something that doesn't resemble anything that was first said.

We take our own experiences and expectations with us whatever we do, wherever we go. It doesn't surprise me that Dan Brown took a few ideas from Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and created his phenomenal book, The Divinci Code or that author's use plot points from other books to come up with their stories.

In Art school we were given the same topics to be created from the same medium. None came out the same. That's the beauty of humanity. That's what makes us interesting. That's what fuels creative fire!

Go forth and multiply, my friends!

Victoria Dahl said...

Good example, Kathy! Was that called "Telephone"?

Btw. . . Vicki's response to my eye-hurting brilliance was, "Nooooooooooooooo!"

This was only because the magnificent brilliance of Jenn's ideas were burning my eyes. My eyes! My beautiful eyes!

Also. . . her ideas scare me.

Carla Swafford said...

Vicki, is it true what I have heard? That if you feed Jennifer chocolate icing she'll behave. You know, immersed in that container face first, you might sneak by her. ::grin::

jennifer echols said...

I'll tell you. It's true. Bring me chocolate icing and I expand like Jabba the Hut. Can't. Move.

BTW, agent Kristin Nelson blogs on this topic today:


No, she blogs on ORIGINAL IDEAS, not chocolate icing. *eye roll*

Victoria Dahl said...

Carla, I'm trying to get her hooked on Hostess Cherry Pies. So far she's coming along nicely.