I used to have a severe allergy to book descriptions that were nothing more than combinations of other popular works:
“It’s Hunger Games meets The Martian!”
“It’s Maze Runner meets Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants!”
“It’s Lord of the Flies meets Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret!”
But after years of refining my stories down to ticklish, pithy, elevator pitches, something changed. I was describing my most recent book, Throw Your Arm Across Your Eyes and Scream, to a friend and getting nothing but furrowed eyebrows in response. So I decided to try the phrase my agent used to sell it to Simon & Schuster.
“It’s, um—” I said self-consciously—“it’s Pleasantville meets Cloverfield.”
“Oh!” the person said. “That sounds great!”
“Huh,” I said. “Yeah, it does, doesn’t it?”
This moment caused me to do some inner analysis. I realized that I, like many writers, had fallen victim to believing that I could actually create something new—that my work was so unique when compared to other books that I had no choice but to eek out the cleverest ways to describe them. When my agent handily proved just how wrong I was—that sometimes the best way to stoke a potential reader’s imagination is to compare it to things they already know and love—I started to think about what it means to be truly original, about how to combine familiar works effectively so that they resonate in a reader’s mind, and how a writer can fall victim to cliché or ride it like a wave to new heights that quote-unquote pure originality can never take her.
Considering that this talk is about my gradual submission into embracing cliché, I am going to do the most clichéd thing I can think of and start each section with a famous quote before I proceed to discuss its meaning. As David Foster Wallace said, “many clichés, so lame & banal on the surface, actually [express] a great & terrible truth.”
Forgive me now; thank me later.
“There is nothing new under the sun.”
When I first heard this quote, I took it as a challenge. I was like, nothing new under the sun, huh? Watch this:
- Kid in video game rehab!
- A girl trapped inside a 1950s monster movie marathon!
- Scary Stories for Young Foxes!
I swore to myself that I would take all of the tropes and clichés woven into the fabric of the young readers’ market and unravel them, spinning the loose threads into something exciting and strange. While working on my first book, Cure for the Common Universe, I read tons of YA, including the most popular books involving video games and rehab, just to get a sense of the giants I was trying to defeat.
I felt encouraged when I couldn’t find anything similar to what I was trying to write. I wanted to create a comedy filled with action that still demonstrated how difficult it is to become a good person, especially when you’re a teenager. This didn’t seem to exist. Ready Player One told me that if I ever needed to solve an international political crisis, all I would need is a firm understanding of 1980s pop culture. It’s Kind of a Funny Story (RIP Ned Vizzini) told me that a girl with severe depression and scars on her face just needs love from a boy, and she’ll be fine.
I felt a smug sort of satisfaction believing that I was going to defeat these books by writing their polar opposite. Little did I realize I was playing straight into cliché by attempting this. By breaking a familiar, popular structure, I was actually validating it. It was only because these tropes were so familiar to audiences that their opposites could stand by themselves, like a shadow or a pair of assless chaps.
But in my mind, I had my brand-new sparkling theme that had never been tackled anywhere ever. And then a friend insisted I read Gone with the Wind. After I finished it, I was like, yes! Adventure! Comedy! Insufferably selfish characters. This is exactly what I was trying to do. Only, y’know, a lot shorter and instead of the Civil War, video games. (Fortunately for me, few kids are reading Gone with the Wind these days so my story still felt semi-original.)
Over time, I came to realize I would have been better off copying something I admired than trying to break something I did not. By being contrary I engaged some readers and alienated a hell of a lot of others. I also learned that if you try to abandon all of the elements that make other books a smashing success, you won’t sell nearly as many. Surprise.
The ironic thing is that when Cure for the Common Universe came out, a reviewer actually described it as Ready Player One meets It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Whoever picked it up because of that review must have been very disappointed.
“Talent in writing is the ability to perceive, internalize, and submit to models.”
–Matthew Kirby paraphrasing Samuel R. Delaney
Matt Kirby is a brilliant writer and a dear friend. He came up with this quote after reading Delaney’s About Writing. The quote is a bit of a doozy, so I’ll give it to you again:
“Talent in writing is the ability to perceive, internalize, and submit to models.”
Let’s break it into three parts.
First, we are going to perceive models. Have you ever been in the middle of watching a movie and thought, Oh, this is the part where the hero has to blah. Oh, this is the dark night of the something. Right, this is the section in every fantasy movie where they have to visit the old weirdie and obtain the magical thingy. That is you recognizing models. (If you aren’t great at this and you haven’t read Joseph Campbell, now is probably the time.)
Second, we are going to internalize those models. Once you can recognize specific story structures, they will start to seep into your bone marrow. This is considerably easier than the previous step because it simply involves seeing a model so many times that you start to forget about it. You instinctively understand what composes a fantasy story. So whether it’s Lord of the Rings or Name of the Wind, your heart knows the beats and your spidey sense knows the ingredients, but your brain is able to just kick back and enjoy it.
Third, and this is the most interesting part of this quote, we are going to submit to models. When I started writing Throw Your Arm Across Your Eyes and Scream, I prepared by watching dozens of 1950s horror movies. Many of them bordered on unwatchable. I, I thought, was going to fix that. Still sporting those bad habits I had when writing Cure, I approached this new project with a mental sledgehammer, destroying tropes and believing most of what I was inventing was completely new because hey, I had never thought of it before.
But then I read a graphic novel on film theory called Filmish. It had a section that discussed the motif of the eye in horror films and how it fixates on women. It discussed all of the pieces vital to a good scary movie and the order in which they have always been presented. It turned out I had unconsciously recreated these elements in my book.
This unsettled me at first. I figured I would be exposed as an unoriginal hack. But I reminded myself of those clichéd/wise quotes and was soothed. There’s nothing new under the sun, after all. Submitting to models means giving yourself over to them thus improving your talent. I had innocently taken a structure I recognized, had completely forgotten about because I’d seen it so many times, and then applied it to give the story a strong spine. This is a good thing.
The truth is that once you’ve read enough books and smarty pants quotes, you’re humbled in knowing you’re going to copy no matter how revolutionary you try to be. So you may as well copy smart and you may as well copy well.
Of course, this turns out to be a lot trickier than it seems at first blush.
“Amateurs borrow. Masters steal.”
--Picasso . . . or T.S. Eliot or John Lennon or actually, you know what, let’s just say Christian McKay Heidicker, I came up with this quote, I did
When I first heard that masters steal, I was certain it didn’t mean what I thought it meant. Stealing sounds like straight-up plagiarism, the sort of thing that will get a college student expelled or the first lady of the United States a daylong news cycle. And what did it mean to borrow something as an amateur? Would they stick an old idea in their book only to have the words vanish before the reader’s very eyes? Confusing.
It took a great deal of experimentation, screwing things up, getting things right on occasion, and reading a massive amount of books to truly understand what this quote meant. I’m hoping to save you some time and some eyestrain today by explaining it.
We are all amateurs in the beginning, timidly nibbling from great works. And we do this, I think, out of ignorance. The author mind can be lazy, and when we first start writing, we’re very much in danger of steering the story straight into a well-worn rut that audiences and editors have seen so many times they’ll throw up all over your pages out of sheer boredom. This, I believe, is what this quote, my quote, means when it says that amateurs borrow. We put things on the page because they feel familiar and we get a little squirt of dopamine that says, yes, you have come up with something original. Good job.
So, how do you steal like a master? And how do you not feel like a fraud while doing it? (I don’t need to tell anyone in this room that I am not a master, I am still figuring this stuff out, but here’s my thought process so far.)
Neil Gaiman got his fame as the prince of storytelling by writing the Sandman comics because nobody had ever seen anything like it before. When I was in high school, I dove into the series in awe at the sheer scope of the work. I remember being impressed with the massive cast of characters, especially the amount of detail given to the minor throwaways. In the realm of dream, outside of Morpheus’s castle, there is a shack tenanted by Cain and Abel. The brothers leant comic relief to the dreary scene every time wolfish Cain murdered bumbling Abel, only to have Abel spring right back to life again. As a high-schooler, I was blown away by this idea. Everybody was. How did this man manage to spin these incredible characters out of nothing?
The answer is, of course, he didn’t. He stole them. Now, before you rightly point out that of course Cain and Abel aren’t original characters, that the genius comes from turning the Biblical figures into comic relief, you should probably know something. I went on to read Swamp Thing by Alan Moore, which was written before Neil Gaiman had published his first comic. In Swamp Thing, Moore shows the gate to dreamland, guarded by, you guessed it, comically murderous Cain and poor, hapless Abel. It wasn’t until I read even further that I discovered these same comedic iterations had been the host of a collection of scary stories in the 1960s.
It turns out, nearly every one of Gaiman’s characters, including those from his children’s books and books for adults, are a direct parallel, from their name right on down to their narrative drive, of a figure in religion or myth or golden age comics. He just combined them in interesting ways, the way I accidentally injected a little Gone with the Wind into a contemporary book about a video game addict. The difference was, nobody had seen this sort of thing in a comic book before. Well, most hadn’t anyway. This is part of why I write for kids. I can break down new walls, and their little jaws will drop and their eyes bulge out. The pages in their books are still blank. And I seem like a genius.
If you steal, you’ll be in great company. Shakespeare stole, of course. Every play he ever wrote. So did Tolkien. And if you don’t know this, go read some history or Wagner’s Ring Cycle. You’ll be delighted and maybe a little appalled. Either way, we have to admit that even though we can locate the wellspring of these writers’ genius, it doesn’t diminish their accomplishments in the public consciousness. Gaiman and Moore and Tolkien and Shakespeare wrote fan fiction. (So did E.L. James for Fifty Shades of Gray, but let’s ignore that for the time being.) If this doesn’t encourage you to steal, I don’t know what will.
Once I recognized just how often my favorite writers lifted characters and locations and story arcs from other places, I went on a bit of a stealing spree. For Throw Your Arm Across Your Eyes and Scream, I stole King Kong and Anne Darrow, the damsel he kidnaps and carries to the top of the Empire State Building. I stole the Blob and the creature from the Black Lagoon and a chilling young pyromaniac with blond pigtails from a brilliant movie called The Bad Seed (which was based on a play, which was based on a book).
Of course, I didn’t check the availability of any of these characters, and Simon & Schuster’s legal team is looking into whether or not I can actually use them as I write this. This might sound unnerving, the idea that I could lose my characters with a single click of a lawyer’s pen, but it isn’t, actually. Worst-case scenario, I have to rename all of my monsters. King Kong will become Titan Ape, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon will become Fish Lips Cunningham. (If it’s actually an issue, I’ll spend a lot more time on those names, I promise.) Renaming familiar characters has been done before, after all. Watchmen, which I’m sure you’ve all heard of, was based on pre-existing superheroes. When DC comics ran into legal issues, Moore just changed their names and costumes. This works because people recognize models of superheroes. They recognize models of monsters and models of tragic historical figures and, when it comes to E.L. James stealing from Stephanie Meyer, they recognize models of abusive relationships.
Now if you’re anything like me, you’re growing skeptical at this point. By looking at the toweringly brave works of today—Grasshopper Jungle and The Hate U Give and El Deafo—you’ll recognize that they look and feel nothing like the stories meant for kids a century ago or even a decade ago. And you’re right. They’re very different. So if we are in fact recreating the same stories over and over again, stealing characters from works already stirring in the public consciousness, then how is literature evolving?
It’s time for another quote.
“People can only handle stories that are 5% different.”
--my friend Korey
Now I’m going to try and burn down everything I just told you.
Copying old stories sucks. It’s lazy. It smells like your millennial neighbor’s compost can. It saturates the market with drivel, making young readers addicted to sugary simple models, and it makes intelligent readers’ eyes glaze over with something resembling death. If you’d like a pungent example, go see the newest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and keep in mind that every movie is structured thusly: win a battle, lose a battle, win a battle, lose a battle, lose an important battle, win the final battle. Seriously, Marvel throws out every draft that doesn’t adhere to this.
Kurt Vonnegut recognized this phenomenon by drawing diagrams on a blackboard that outlined every story ever told, comedies, tragedies, fairy tales, in very simple curves. He is, of course, simultaneously praising and mocking our predictability as storytellers.
So how do we keep work fresh and not oversaturate the world with the same old stuff? How do we fight conformity? We do it slowly, and we do it by changing the story 5%. This is an arbitrary number, of course, but it demonstrates, nicely I think, that audiences don’t have patience for things that are much different than what they’re used to. 5% might feel small, but I promise it can contain multitudes. You can write a traditional murder mystery but make the cast pets at a pet store. You can write a fantasy story but make the magic system revolve around spray tans that slowly wear off. You can write a superhero movie and, hold onto your hats for this one, make the main character a woman.
Literature evolves through tiny bursts of creativity that over decades and centuries inch us into the stratosphere. The human condition remains the same. Our worries remain the same. But the ingredients and the stakes are always in flux. A boy being chased by a murderer in 2017 might be able to use his cellphone to call for help, but he’s also in danger of giving away his hiding place if the murderer is tech-savvy. By paying attention to elements, old and new, we can combine them in ways that although seem familiar, trick an audience into expanding their understanding.
Sometimes, rarely, a story that is 7-10% different than the acceptable standard happens to hook the public imagination, revolutionizing the art, and vaulting our understanding of the human condition to new heights. (If you haven’t seen the movie The Lobster, now would probably be the time.)
These are the kinds of stories I like to write. The ones that are 7-10% different. I risk professional obscurity by attempting this, of course, but the other options bore me. And I also know that the works that are just different enough to toss a pack of Mentos into the Diet Coke of the public consciousness are the ones that stick around.
My most recent work, Scary Stories for Young Foxes, is a retelling of classic horror stories using scientifically accurate accounts of fox lives. A rabies outbreak is a zombie story. A woman who cages a fox so she can draw it and capture its essence for her children’s books is a witch story. The white haired creature who steals kits from their dens in the winter nights and is camouflaged by the snows is a ghost story.
The different thing about this project is that I submitted to models from the outset. Before starting, I read a whole bunch of Berenstain Bears and examined all of the classic horror tales, trying to discover what made them tick. I took these threads and wove them into my book. And the story became creepier than anything I could have come up with by my lonesome. This might sound like bragging or possibly like some shameful admission, but it isn’t either really. I’m telling you I figured out what worked and I added it in, and most readers will be none-the-wiser, like getting a recipe from a blog and then deleting your browser history.
I hope you try these things. I hope you try to understand the underlying skeleton of all the works you read and watch. I hope you copy them in interesting ways by smashing your favorite worlds together. Then I hope you try to break what you’ve created by attempting unfamiliar. We are in the business of breathing life into other people’s minds so they can have models that make life easier to navigate. At the end of the day, there’s no harm in using the images and the fears, the desires and the hopes that already live in there. Just so long as you push past that staleness into the dangerous unknowns of literature and all of its haunting promises.