I’ve had this discussion a million ways over the years, but it became relevant again thanks to this video about “being original” on Terrible Writing Advice: a youtube channel with tongue-in-cheek sarcasm about common writing mistakes you want to avoid.
But this one hit a nerve. I saw one author fret recently, “If we’re not supposed to be original, what’s the point!” It can be demoralizing, and confusing, because the majority of writing advice for authors (and all creative people) is something like, just do what you love, follow your passion, don’t worry about your audience or selling books.
I spent a decade as a starving artist, chasing originality, and it was a brutal and traumatic wake-up call to realize nobody wanted what I was selling (to be fair I wasn’t even selling it; I was showing it and hoping for support and praise, with no clear path to making art a business).
My first few book attempts were similar: I tried to be different and novel and exciting. I was using gimmick marketing, as in the new fun idea will catch attention and be celebrated because it’s so unusual!
But then I learned a few uncomfortable truths about reality.
First, that that majority of purchasing public pay for things they enjoy, not things that challenge or upset them, and novelty gimmicks only work to hook attention and stand out, not enough to satisfy with quality content.
Second, that books especially, aren’t like fine art with an unlimited price tag. There is a miniscule market for creative, literary upscale books, but they’re very hard to get published and even harder to make successful. Most traditionally published authors – even big award winners – aren’t making money, because they aren’t entertaining enough people.
The secret to writing is this:
#1 most readers, and consumers of everything, want “same but different.” They want a comfortable reading experience with well-developed characters and plot and intrigue. A conceptual story with no rules or consistency is not going to satisfy them. Being “original” isn’t enough by a mile, and not only isn’t it all that important, it’s an active disadvantage.
#2 all stories, but especially commercial fiction, has very clear rules. There’s a right way and a wrong way to develop an engaging story that is readable. I edit a lot of books and the majority of them are potentially interesting ideas that are not well-constructed, even with very basic things like POV or tense switching, time-jumps, info-dumps, etc. There’s a bunch of things that authors do that do not work and are a clear mark of amateur writing, that will tell readers or agents you can’t be trusted.
Yes, it’s true that most commercial bestsellers are formulaic or predictable; that they don’t use fancy words or creative writing or all the stuff that “real writers” love, like nauseating navel-gazing or purple prose. Some authors get off on “shock value” with gratuitous sex or violence. Few authors are telling one, consistent narrative where a main protagonist is challenged to a point of crisis.
You might say “but the hero’s journey is overdone and boring, I don’t want to tell that kind of story!” and that’s fine. Because, remember, there are two kinds of authors.
The first kind writes for themselves. They want to be daring and original, surprising and creative. But they don’t really care if other people enjoy their work (secretly, they are of course desperate to be recognized; but not enough to deliberately write books that readers will want to read). They are “amateurs” who do it for the love, not for the paycheck.
The second kind writes for their audience. They are professionals who learn what it takes and build successful books on purpose. The definition of creativity is a combination of old things in a new way; but in a useful way that provides value (to other people).
The reasons it’s so confusing is that everybody mixes up which type of author is better; the literary purist who refuses to compromise their art even to the point of abject failure and anonymity, or the “hack” who just writes what sells, and then writes a dozen more.
I can’t tell you which one is right – and you wouldn’t believe me anyway – but I’ll tell you this: most authors are purists at the beginning. They work for years or a decade on one book to make it perfect but never publish, and if they do publish it is unsuccessful (and usually bad). It’s counter-intuitive, but the authors who want to be original are usually inexperienced and end up writing bad books.
The hacks (or “professionals”) who know what they’re doing and actually sell good books readers love, are sometimes looked down upon because they aren’t doing it the right way, or something. It’s a weird, messy world, but it is what it is. New authors who persevere enough to learn how to write good books usually steer in the direction of aggressive conformation: not avoiding genre tropes or cliches but using ALL of them; just using them in new, fresh, surprising way.
Shock value isn’t worth very much, and you can surprise and delight readers on purpose if you know who to build a thrilling narrative and divulge information at the right times, which is very tricky to do and something few writing courses have successfully taught (it took me years to crack it).
If the following video makes you uncomfortable, which it might, first of all recognize that you’re not alone and there’s nothing wrong with you. ALL authors begin by thinking writing is about originality.
But then, read this post:
The Cardinal Sin of Self-publishing
And then this one:
Nobody wants to read your Sh*t
Once you’re depressed or desperate enough to admit that maybe your deference and adoration of originality will not get you to where you hope to be (a famous, bestselling author) I have a ton of free resources and materials that will help you write better books. But this mindset thing is a roadblock, and you’re going to have to face it alone.
Can you be replace? (AI writing concerns)
One interesting side-topic to discuss is the rise of AI writing tools. I just published a long article about 2023 publishing predictions, but didn’t really dig into the objections. The one I hear the most is that AI writing doesn’t have a soul. I’ve even heard stuff like “It’s too bad young people don’t know what *good* writing is!” or “too bad people aren’t more spiritually aware or they would *feel* that the writing is empty.
The idea is that human writing will always be better because it has a soul behind it. But as other articles have pointed out, the majority of bestselling, commercial fiction is not crazy unique or original… and readers don’t care. Good writing is a formula, a system, and GPT3 is a language model. It’s not capable of holding an entire plot altogether, yet, but it probably will be.
It’ll beat real writers, not only because it’s smart and actually writes better (in terms of just standard pacing, spelling, grammar), but also because good commercial fiction can be made strategically. It can be replicated. It can be learned. It’s hard (for humans) to learn how to write well, but that’s not the main thing.
The main thing is that most authors are not interested in writing well: because they assume writing well means filling your soul and bleeding on the page and feeling inspired. They think originality=good writing and then write messes that people can’t enjoy, that have obvious, big problems that even an excellent editor can’t fix.
AI an do better than humans because most humans (who believe that it can’t replace them) are not writing good books. And they’re right: AI can’t replace them. But can it replace normal, successful, commercial books? Probably, yes, and in the near future.
But that’s not the point either: because AI won’t do anything by itself. It needs to be prompted. It needs human agency to tell it what to do, and at least for the moment, it needs someone who can suggest and keep prompting and then compile or revise and edit everything into a book.
Writers who are already on board with writing to market (pleasing actual readers and writing popular fiction) will probably find these tools useful, because it’ll let them do what they’re trying to do already, but make it easier. Writers who want to be original, have no need for AI and can’t be replaced (but why would they want to be?)
These are not the same:
– writers who want to write more good books to make a living, probably have a lot of experience and are also acutely aware of their limitations. They’ll probably be open to anything that speeds up their process. Writing can still be fun and enjoyable, but it’s also a job and a business, it takes a lot of time, effort and work. A lot of it is not fun. AI allows them to skip the not fun parts.
– writers who want to be original, write because it makes them happy. They enjoy the struggle and challenge. They aren’t interested in a way to do it better or faster because finishing books or selling books isn’t their aim; they don’t want help doing it differently, because they enjoy it they way it is.
Can it be both? Sure! And for most authors, it probably is already. Most authors probably use Grammarly or something like it to help them proofread. Most authors probably use some kind of tool to help them plot or organize ideas, like Scrivener. Almost all authors are using a computer and word processor and keyboard.
The first few novels, when it was a completely new artform, are eccentric and weird and crazy. For a hundred years, novels didn’t have to be good. They just had to exist. The style didn’t matter. There weren’t a lot of alternatives. In the last 20 years, we’ve seen an absolute explosion of media content, and a crystallization of form. The type of books that get published, all do the same things. The type of self-published books that sell a million copies, all do the same things. There’s a predictable way to develop the kind of content that gets you the results you want.
Writing can be a human’s soul on the page; an expression of pain and beauty and feeling. It can be a therapeutic hobby, a dream, a quest. Something very difficult and also very rewarding for the same reason (there’s nothing harder to accomplish successfully, at least brain-power wise).
Or it can be a write-by-numbers, hire a hundred ghostwriters, crank out content gambit.
The delusion is thinking that the intrinsic value of a book depends on the author’s personal beliefs about creativity, and that readers will be able to “feel” how much the author labored to achieve the work produced. This is a tired, romantic ideology which is desperately loved and cherished because it acts as a protective, emotional shield against callous criticism, so we can say “I’m always successful because I wrote what I wanted” rather than recognize that if readers don’t like the book, it’s not a good book, which forces you to work harder to learn your craft.
It’s also true that sometimes you need to believe in yourself, and protect yourself, so you can keep putting in the time and effort (and rejection) it takes to get better. It’s a nicer, happier (if self-delusional) way of becoming a (failed) writer. Personally, I’d rather skip the decade of denial and jaded cynicism and make the switch earlier to “if readers don’t like this, I’m going to learn to write something they like.”
But it’s not an easy process, and it’s probably a core-identity. Not something you can flip like a switch or turn off without a complete re-evaluation of everything you treasure and hold dear; everything you consider about the world and your place in it.
It is, however, a very important (the *most* important) topic for writers to consider, and it will be a stumbling block until you can reconcile your art with your business.
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.
A reality most people miss, all the ‘great authors’ taught in literature classes were usually commercial failures during their own lifetime.
The question is whether you want to struggle for everyday survival and be a ‘great author’ or manage to pay your bills and enjoy life a little along the way.
To be the prior type, you somehow need to get your commercially unviable work in print to even become the sorts of books that are used in lit classes. Not as easily done today as it once was.
JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, wrote what they liked, it was deep and heavy stuff and they have enjoyed great ‘success’. The reality is that while their books were never out of print, neither left their day job their entire lives, and their present wild commercial success came long after they passed.
I think the route to go these days, if you want to write the ‘high’ stuff and neither go hungry, nor burn the candle at both ends, then you need to work on the commercial stuff first.
And the most commercially viable stuff possible, so that income-wise your later ‘high’ pieces are subsidized, either literally by your ‘commercial’ piece earnings, and/or figuratively by your name-recognition. Assuming of course, you find the recipe for initial ‘commercial’ success to start with.