12/21/2015

Be Forewarned

Simultaneous original creation is one of the surest signs that there's nothing new under the sun. For example, the first novel I ever wrote was a sprawling, experimental mish-mash about several people from different points in human history being magically transported to a supernatural realm, taking part in a handful of strange trials, and ultimately providing the impetus for the apocalypse. I quiver with embarrassment at how juvenile my writing was back then. I, like many first time authors, was so intoxicated by the act of creation that I never paused to consider my story's inherent flaws, or how my writing might be improved.

Then one day, I bought a copy of Into The Electric Castle by the Dutch band Ayreon. It was an extended prog-rock opera that told the story of several people from different points in human history being magically transported to a supernatural realm, taking part in a handful of strange trials, and ultimately providing the impetus for the apocalypse.

And it was absolute garbage. (Listen to Ayreon's prodigious excess on Youtube)

Don't get me wrong, Ayreon brings together a diverse and talented group of musicians, all of whom are virtuosos in their own right. In terms of technical ability and musical composition, the album is a triumph. But there isn't a single truly memorable moment in its 100-minute run time, and the story is ham-fisted, trite, and full of mind-numbing exposition. And this made me realize that my first novel suffered from exactly the same problems. (The whole album might be tongue-in-cheek, and in that case it's probably a masterpiece, but to me it's impossible to tell)

If you've been writing for a while, you may have been through something similar. I'm convinced it's a necessary learning experience. The simple fact is, there are only so many stories the human mind is capable of telling. Depending on how you break things down, there are as few as seven.

That doesn't mean there's no hope, though. People create original, engaging stories all the time. I'm even arrogant enough to think that I've managed it once or twice.

Unfortunately, I can't really tell you exactly how to avoid cliche, and I doubt there's anyone out there who claims to have the recipe for originality (having the recipe kind of precludes the idea of originality, doesn't it?). However, there are plenty of resources when it comes to avoiding cliches. Some stories have been told and retold--usually with the best of intentions--so many times that people started recognizing the pattern, and speaking out about it.

Strange Horizons, an online speculative fiction magazine, keeps an archived list of "Stories We've Seen Too Often", and it's a great warning for spec fic authors like my illustrious self. I am guilty of writing or planning to write two or three of the things that appear on this list.

Writers find inspiration everywhere. I often find it in movies, books, and the struggles of daily life. But it's important to remember that many, many people have access to the same sources of inspiration as you. It's not unusual for two people separated by time and distance to arrive at more or less the exact same idea. So it pays to be aware of what's already been done to death, and save your poor tired fingers from banging out a story that was already done to perfection thirty years ago. While you might still want to write your own telling, awareness will help you temper your expectations for the story's performance on the open market. Writing is never a waste of time--I mean that, never--but trying to sell a story mired in cliche is an emotional flogging you could do without.

If you're a spec fic author, and you're thinking about submitting your latest work, take a look at Strange Horizons' list, and save yourself some pain and anguish. But don't feel guilty if your story is on that list! It's a natural part of the process; like falling off a bike. If you keep getting back on, and keep learning from your mistakes, there's no reason you can't get to the Tour de France.