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Dear Story Nurse,
I have written tens (maybe hundreds?) of thousands of words of fan fiction. Some of it exceptional, some of it terrible. Some of it in forty-thousand-word multi-chapter works about main characters having big adventures, some of it in a couple of hundred word-long drabbles about a micro emotion on a background character’s face.
It’s National Novel Writing Month next month, and I would like to write something that’s all my own. Or at least try to.
I have no idea how to start from scratch. Any advice?
—NaNoWriMo Novice (she/her)
Dear NaNoWriMo Novice,
I have wonderful news for you: every work of art is derivative! That doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as original work. But just like fanwork, original work exists in the context of other works, and of the world. This means you can write original work exactly the same way you write fanfic: begin with an existing thing, and then decide how you’d like to change it, build on it, imitate it, and/or argue with it. No need to start from scratch, because there actually is no such thing as starting from scratch.
What makes an original work original isn’t that it exists in a vacuum, because no work exists in a vacuum. It’s that you layer originality in with the elements that respond to the canon, the genre, and the world. You can write an original story about superheroes that’s in conversation with other superhero stories and yet entirely its own thing; see Carrie Vaughn’s After the Golden Age or Alan Moore’s Watchmen or Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. You can write an original story about vampires, even though vampire stories have been around for hundreds of years; Laurell K. Hamilton did that with Guilty Pleasures and ended up inventing an entire new genre. You can write an original story about historical events, the way Hilary Mantel did with Wolf Hall or Ken Liu did with the Dandelion Dynasty series or Nisi Shawl did with Everfair. You can even write an original story about source material as thoroughly picked over as Arthurian legend (Maurice Broaddus turned it into a tale of Indianapolis gang warfare in the Knights of Breton Court series; Patricia Kennealy-Morrison brought it to her Keltia setting of magic-using, spacefaring escapees from medieval Ireland) or the Bible (too many examples to list, but my favorite is Rachel Pollack’s “Burning Beard,” a modern-day midrash). The originality lies in what you bring to the table.
Let’s say you’re a big fan of Holmes and Watson and you want to write something that’s sort of like Holmes and Watson stories, but different. One way to do that is to put a Holmes and Watson story through an evolutionary process where you change one element at a time until the serial numbers are filed off sufficiently for your satisfaction. You already probably do this with fanfic; if you’ve ever written an AU, for example, you’re more than halfway to crossing the nebulous, porous border into the land of original fiction. The evolutionary process might look something like this:
- In Victorian London, Holmes and Watson solve the mystery of the hound of the Baskervilles
- In Victorian London, Holmes and Watson solve the mystery of the haunted dagger
- In near-future Los Angeles, Holmes and Watson solve the mystery of the haunted dagger
- In near-future Los Angeles, investigative journalist Sadie Hammerstein and psychiatric nurse Juanita Valenzuela solve the mystery of the haunted dagger
- In near-future Los Angeles, investigative journalist Sadie Hammerstein and psychiatric nurse Juanita Valenzuela are cursed to fall in love by the haunted dagger
I’d say the fanfic/original fiction line was probably crossed around step four, when Conan Doyle’s characters were replaced with original characters, and by step five we’re well past it. It’s still possible that someone might read that near-future paranormal romance and spot the traces of a Holmes and Watson gaslamp mystery in it. But leaving those traces in can be part of the fun—a little wink and nod to your fellow fans.
You can also start from a place of wanting to argue with another work. Let’s say you liked everything about the movie The Brothers Bloom except the (spoiler alert) tragic ending, so you decide to write your own fix-it fic about orphan con-artist brothers who con themselves as much as everyone else, and have them wind up happy. To give those serial numbers a bit of extra filing, you’ll make it a Regency romance. Oh wait—Rose Lerner did that for True Pretenses. Well then, maybe you’ll just write a Regency romance homage to one of your favorite movies, keeping the plot and characters mostly intact while meeting all the requirements of the new genre, the way Shana Galen turned Mr. and Mrs. Smith into Lord and Lady Spy. And yes, both of those novels (and many others like them) were published as original fiction by actual publishers.
Or you can use your own life as source material. I was named after my great-grandmother, and it’s no coincidence that the protagonist of one of my novels in progress has a name very similar to my great-grandfather’s. Like me, the character is transgender and a member of a religious minority and has a wonderful, loving, wacky, somewhat unpredictable mother. Another character in the book, like me, has an injured limb that’s sometimes fine and sometimes painful and non-functional. Yet another, like me, is a queer writer (every writer writes about a writer sooner or later, I think) who dreams of being published and reaching queer audiences. And another, like me, is wondering how best to carry on the family name and business while also going very much her own way (a connection I genuinely didn’t make to my own life until just now!). If originality means putting yourself into your writing, sometimes you can take that quite literally. Some novels are so autobiographical that the protagonist has the author’s name.
I struggled with this myself for a long time, worrying that all my writing was unoriginal. Finally I realized that originality doesn’t mean rubbing two brain cells together until they spark an idea that bears no resemblance to any idea that anyone’s ever had. Originality lies in the choices you make. Every step in the evolutionary process I outlined above is a choice, a discernment, that is wholly your own. You choose what to pay homage to or argue with, which parts of your own life and your own self to write about and which to delicately omit, which ideas to develop and which to set aside for later or reject outright. You choose the genre, the setting, the names of the characters and all that’s implied by those names, the plot arc, the joyous or tragic or ambiguous ending, the rising-tension thriller plot or the gentle meander through someone’s life or the totally surreal drug trip. To quote Zadie Smith quoting Martha Graham (in a wonderful post worth reading in its entirety), “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.” All your choices are original, and the way you choose to combine them is original. No one else can do that the way you do.
I have wonderful news for you: every work of art is original.
Happy writing, and good luck to everyone who’s embarking on NaNoWriMo!