Oh, you silly, naive little thing. You want to be a writer.
Didn’t you get the memo? The pay is lousy. If you’re with the Big Six-Now-Five, your publisher will barely promote your stuff (and you’ll never earn out your advance). If you self-publish, your wordbaby will be lost in a sea of other self-pubbed stuff, doomed to drown in the surrounding crappily-Photoshopped ebook covers.
But most important of all, naive thing: All the stories have been told.
That idea you’ve got? For that novel? Been done. It’s derivative tripe, a thousand-times told. Sure, your friends say it’s packed with book-selling genre tropes — but that’s just a polite way of saying it’s cliched to Hell and back.
Your spurs, naive thing. Take ‘em off. Hang ‘em up.
*cautiously looks around*
Pst. Hey. So, are they gone? You know, the pretenders? The people who incessantly talk about writing stories but never actually do? Did I scare ‘em off? Is it just us now, the people who’re actually crazy enough to keep typing, despite the market uncertainty and the endless waves of self-doubt? Is it just us wordherders?
So all that bugaboo stuff I said up top? It’s still pretty much all true. You gotta be pretty wrongheaded to want to make a living at this racket. Competition for attention is piranha-tank fierce. The money is often insultingly bad. And yes, it’s true — there aren’t any new stories.
It’s all been done before. It really, sincerely has. And on its surface, that’s a dreadful and disheartening thing to know. Take 1977’s wildly original Star Wars: It’s widely regarded as a remixed frappe of Akira Kurosawa’s films The Hidden Fortress, Sanjuro and Yojimbo. And Yojimbo was inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s novel, Red Harvest! It’s turtles all the way down, my friends.
So where does that leave you, and your manuscript?
We’ll get to that in a sec. First, let’s take a look-see at this weird story-in-progress called Life.
You know the tale: We’re born, we grow up, grow old, die. In that three-act adventure, there are dozens of rites of passages: first kisses, first loves, first jobs, first cars, first homes. Children. Illness. Recovery. Ecstasy, doldrums, despair. Parents grow old and wither. Our childhood heroes die. Our friends die. Our best friends die.
There are a hundred-hundred milestones on this road. And as we experience these things, they feel fresh and raw. That’s because they’re new, to us.
But it’s all been lived before. The path is soggy and well-trodden. Strip away the fashion and technology — the parachute pants, the push-up bras, horseless carriages and iPads — and the arc of our lives, examining it globally, isn’t especially different from others’. It’s been like this for centuries. Bummer, dude.
But of course it’s different. It’s absolutely different. Grains of sand look the same on a beach, but go granular, baby, and your brain’ll implode from the colorful and wild variations.
(You’re not a beautiful snowflake, see. You’re a beautiful grain of sand. Sand is better. Tougher. More versatile. All-weather.)
You’re a clever wordherder, so you know where I’m going with this. It’s not your life; it’s how you live it. It’s not your book; it’s how you write it.
I recently launched a fun ebook project called The 33. It’s an episodic adventure series, presented a bit like a TV show, about 33 misfits who been tasked to save the world from a never-ending stream of ruthless criminals, malicious technologies and hostile supernatural beings.
At first glance, it’s familiar turf: a team of misfits … all with dodgy pasts … saving the world on a regular basis. The nods to some of my favorite childhood stories — from Godzilla to Knight Rider — might appear pretty familiar, too. But those are just ingredients, see? It’s all in the baking. It’s all in the telling. It’s all in the characters.
Those ingredients can be as unique as you are. This is what the salty vets mean when they say “Write what you know.” They’re not telling you to Mary Sue your way through a manuscript. It’s the lessons you’ve learned, the perspectives you have, the voice you possess — a voice that’s different from anyone else’s. Perhaps “Write what you know” should actually be “Write what you are.”
Be conscious of your creative influences, and the inevitable well-tread paths that lie ahead in your manuscript. Pay witting homage to them, if you wish. But above all, thoughtfully process your narrative through you, mindful of the unique perspective you have — that granularly, wonderfully unique life you’ve led.
Suddenly, your story will change. It’ll improve. It won’t be as familiar as you fear. It’ll be fresh. And fellow wordherders, that’s what editors and readers are actually jonesing for. Familiar turf ain’t a bad thing. A fresh perspective on it — a gentle remix, much like George Lucas created all those years ago — is what makes it noteworthy. And purchase-worthy.
J.C. Hutchins crafts award-winning transmedia narratives, screenplays and novels for companies such as 20th Century Fox, A&E, Cinemax, Discovery, FOX Broadcasting, Infiniti, Macmillan Publishers and Harebrained Schemes. He has been profiled by The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR’s Weekend Edition, ABC Radio and the BBC. Learn more about him, and The 33, at JCHutchins.net.