Thursday, January 24, 2013

How unique is your stuff?

When I started to jot down the storyline ideas for Betrovia way back in Dec 2004, I wasn't thinking about anything but getting the plot/characters/settings/conflicts onto paper AFAP (as fast as possible). When I had written nearly 90K words the summer of 2011, I was only thinking about turning Betrovia into a trilogy (to keep the novel from being a VERY long book!). It wasn't until about this time last year, winter 2012, when I asked a MFA 280 customer who bought and read Betrovia what he thought about the novel. He looked at me, smiled and said something like: "I read your book and saw so many things that I had read in too many other books." I laughed, but it wasn't sincere. Then it hit me: Betrovia is not 'unique'?

So what do some Writers Cafe novelists think about when posed with the question: What makes your fiction "unique"?

"It's a question I wrestled with before I started writing. Have you ever read John Barth's short story 'Lost in the Funhouse'? It discusses these questions: If it has to be universal to be grasped by all readers, then why write? And if it has to be specific to be original, then it won't be grapsed, so why write? I decided to make my work original by writing only things based on direct knowledge. That way, I know no one else could've written it. This made a recent review of one of my books especially interesting. In addition to despising my style, the reader couldn't accept the weirdness. Ninety-five percent of the book is documentary. (BTW - Not a complaint. I loved the review. Loved it.)"

So a combination of universiality and orgininality ... with a dash of weirdness? Uhm ...

"That's an important question. If I offer nothing new, there's no reason to purchase my work. One of my books is like the TV series LOST on steroids. What I mean is that it is going to take a very determined reader a lot of effort just to figure out where the story takes place--not to mention when it takes place.  Example: By all appearances, the characters are on Earth somewhere, but there's no Moon. Impossible? No: It's a real place. Many characters appear to be one thing but later turn out to be something else entirely. Most readers will root for one of the characters but then watch in horror as that character makes some really horrible choices--but keeps on winning, anyway.  Lots of mysteries piled on top of mysteries. Two completely new cultures to deal with. Dozens of major characters.  It's been a complicated chess game in the writing, but I hope something readers will enjoy wrapping their minds around. What's unique? The extent to which I immerse the reader. The novel marries the language, Tasblish, to the Tasfit culture.  You need both to understand the Tasfit Nation, and also the Verdos Nation. So I created a 7800-word conlang, possibly the most complete fabricated language ever created for a fictional work, with quite complicated grammar and consistent spellings and etymologies--all the stuff that makes a language real. I hired an illustrator to create 20 figure sketches for the major characters and character types.  There are dozens of maps. You might think of something on the scale of Dungeons and Dragons or A Song of Ice and Fire--that level of immersion--but for a sci-fi world, not fantasy."

This guy obviously has waaaay too much time on his hands ... I wonder how many copies he's sold?

"Most of my work so far is about various forms of slavery. The alternate universe I created in two of them deals with institutional slavery in very concrete ways that emphasize its effects on the individuals involved. They're solidly character-based, not written for thrills or for anyone who's looking for typical master/slave relationships. Of course, that means they're not terribly popular. I'm moving more toward near-future SF now, but exploring some of the same themes."

Ah, there's an idea: take an ages-old problem, like slavery, and explore the various facets and nuances of it. Nah, I couldn't stomach doing that!

"Some of the shallowest characters to ever be given leading roles in a plot-light, typo-heavy book. Also, bad 'jokes' that nobody but me gets."

Funny stuff! This response makes me think of comic books I read as a teenager that spoofed the very foundations of humanity. :)

"Interesting question!  In one of my short story collections, I have five stand alone romantic shorts (novelettes, really) that connect with one another. Story #1 will end at a charity event, for instance, and story #2 will begin at the charity event with different characters.  Sometimes, characters show up for cameos in other stories. They usually all take place in the same city or setting. Most of the main characters appear together at the end of the last story. When readers email me about my books, they always say they love these links. It's fun as a writer to plot out the stories and figure out how to weave a common thread through them."

Yeah, I like this strategy ... put everyday (non-unique characters) and plop them in and take them out of other stories as mono-dimensional beings. Yeah ... maybe ...

"I don't know how unique it is, but I'm trying (emphasis on 'trying') to write complex, nuanced epic fantasy in contemporary settings. There's a lot of alternate history, warped variations of Judeo-Christian mythology, and overly detailed world building. I try to keep everything mythology-lite in my YA/NA books so it's more accessible, but it gets pretty ugly and complicated in the UF. (All of my books are in the same universe.) So ... if an unholy (and less talented) union of Ilona Andrews, Philip Pullman, and Suzanne Collins is unique, then there you go."

An amalgam of mythology, religion and world-building. With a dash of young-adult angst? Could work! (Actually, it is working ... this author is selling lots of books!)

"On one hand, my crooked, distorted view of reality. On another hand, my truthful depiction of what I see around me. Go figure."

I don't know how I would be able to accomplish this kind of fiction. I like to keep 'distorted reality' and 'truthful depiction' far apart from one another!

"Intriguing question! I write suspense novels about the dark side of love. I don't do procedurals, or quirky detectives or serial killers. Instead, I like to look at how things like obsession, lust, greed and jealousy are mistaken for love -- and how it leads to murder. I think of my books as being Lifetime movies as produced by Investigation Discovery and starring Halle Berry and Will Smith."

Nah, I see nothing unique here :)_

"Great question. I guess a couple of things:
1. There isn't much, if any, historical fiction written around the bohemain artists of nineteenth/early twentieth century Paris; yet it was one of the wildest, most decadent eras in history.  A truly fun era to write about.
2. My main characters don't apologize for who they are. They are fair, but they definiately life life in ways that most of society frowned upon and some of the charcters choices would still be frowned upon or judged today. They don't care. They know what they have to do to make themselves happy in life and say so up front. No one goes into their life not knowing who they are. Some see it as selfish, others see it as being true to yourself. It depends on the reader and confident they are about themself, I think. Some could buck society and its mores, others frown on it.
3. I'm not afraid of subjects that some readers may find objectionable or unforgivable. My 'evil' characters show their good sides eventually and vice versa. No one is an ultra hero."

Good stuff here! Alternative history based on an obscure time and even obscure place. But what's so original about evil being 'good' and good being 'evil'?

"How about 'replayability'?  When I sat down to outline my trilogy, that is now complete (thank you!), one of the founding ideas I had for it was to create something that when the reader got to the end of the third book they were so blown away, that they would want go back and re-read them. So I took a page from the video game world and made sure I had re-readability. I can count on one hand how many non-movie books I have read more than once. Re-reading a Harry Potter book before the movie came out doesn't count. So creating something that would make people want to read it again was important to me. Writing a book or even a series of books that once everything has been revealed will re-read as a different story was not an easy task. Unfortunately book three hasn't been out very long so feed-back has been very light. However no one has mentioned to me that they figured it out by reading book one and two. So I'm taking that as a good sign that my plan is working."

Interesting ...

"You mean OTHER than killing off all my characters?"

I bet this writer sells lotsa books!

"Crazy world building (parasites, anyone?) Likable, sorta crazy characters. Crazy-good dialogue. Summing it up: craziness!"

Oh yeah, that's it! It's all about getting 'crrrraaaaaazy'!

"When reviewers leave comments like this: 'He's in a genre all his own'."

Of course, this can be taken multiple ways :)

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