Not sure that genre fiction spends enough time wrestling with the anxiety of influence

Justine Larbalastier posts (on her, as always, excellent blog) about how most books are inspired by other books:

If I get an amazing idea and then realise that it’s similar to a book by someone else I start to think about how I would do it differently.

Which is absolutely true. No writer is working in isolation. Every writer is in conversation with other work. For instance, my own book, Enter Title Here, is very much a response to the ‘nerd transforms her life and becomes a popular kid’ genre of novel. And part of the reason why I try to read all kinds of stuff is in order to be inspired. 

Buuuuuuuuuuuuut, there is also such a thing as being derivative.

I think that one of the major reasons for the number of mediocre novels in the world is the way that too many people are satisfied with facile reinventions of the books that inspired them. There are too many authors out there who said, “Oh, it’s like Pride and Prejudice…but with vampires” and then proceeded to do their best to create a work that mimicked the feel and texture of Austen (plus a little vampire action to titillate the fans) without in any way commenting upon or transforming the source material.

And the problem isn’t that authors are imitating their inspirations; it’s that they don’t know that they’re doing it. People think that if you have a farmboy discover his mystical powers and use them to save the universe, but make the farmboy an ancient Egyptian, then they’re doing something fresh and inventive. But when the work’s only ambition is to make people feel the way that Star Wars makes people feel, then it’s going to come off as derivative even if all the external trappings are different.

Justine’s post began as a response to a Twitter follower who asked her: “Do you ever get amazing ideas for your books and then realize it was just something you read in someone else’s?”

And my answer to that would be yes, I all the time realize that my wonderful idea is just something I’m copying from someone else. And, moreover, I worry all the time that I’m writing things that contribute nothing new to the world and, because of that, don’t particularly need to be written. And I think that worry is a necessary part of the writing process, because it’s that worry which encourages me to really try to push myself to do something new with the material.

Sort of about my writing process but mostly about three online journals that I really enjoy

Tag_You're_It.MEMEI love being tagged in memes, but I rarely go out and do them, because I hate to tag other people: it feels too much like you’re imposing an obligation on them. However, Amy Sundberg has shown me the way–she just uses her “I tag you” space to talk about other blogs that she likes. And since I have recently encountered a number of great author-blogs, I am 100% down with that strategy.

Anyway, the meme is the My Writing Process meme. And the questions are:

 

What are you working on?

Well the answer, my friend, is that right now I am working on nothing. However, in the near future, I hope to get to work on revising at least 3-5 of my MFA stories, so I can throw them out into the world. And I also plan on writing a middle-grade novel whose plot and voice I’ve sort of worked out (by doing, no joke, 23 versions of the first chapter). The novel also has the most concise description which I’ve ever managed for a book: It’s about the trials and tribulations of the only Voldemortish kid in an entire town full of Harry Potter-type chosen ones.

 

How does your work differ from other works in its genre?

I think my work is much higher-concept than most writing for kids. On the concept level, alot of children’s books are variations on the same old thing (“in my evil dystopia, there’s no music allowed” or “In my romance, the girl falls in love with her main rival when she competes on a Gordon Ramsay-style cooking show!”). Basically, all they’re doing is shifting the set-dressing, but underneath they’re using the same plots, character types, conflicts, and value systems as all the other stuff. In my case, I feel like the concepts are fresher, and they integrate with concept and character in a more natural way.

 

How does your writing process work?

It’s always evolving. Lately, I’ve been more careful to listen to what my unconscious is trying to tell me and to interrogate my work as I go. If I feel like something isn’t working quite right, I don’t forge ahead, I back off and circle around and try to figure what I can do. This leads to alot of rewriting, particularly in the beginning (remember those 23 drafts), but I think that it results in a much more cohesive and well-thought-out result. Once I’m under way, though, I tend to produce my first drafts relatively quickly (often in under 30 days). As for revision, I don’t have a very concrete system down, since I’ve only taken two books through to the final stages of revision, and, in both cases, much of the revision happened as a result of my agent’s (always very astute) critiques. Other than him, I don’t really use any first readers (though maybe I should).

 

Other blogs

Alright, so I am not tagging these people or asking them to respond in any way whatsover. Instead, I’m just going to point out three great author blogs that I’ve only very recently discovered:

  • Justine Larbalastier is a young adult writer who posts in an incredibly clear and concise way about the publishing industry and the path of the new writer (I guess she’s not new, since she’s been publishing for a decade, but still, she’s at least in tune with newness). I don’t think she posts that often, but when she does, it’s usually something thought-provoking. For instance, right now she’s beginning a series where she reads and writes about classic works of best-selling women’s fiction (Valley of the Dolls, Peyton Place, Flowers in the Attic, etc). That’s so brilliant: I was a bit annoyed that I hadn’t thought of it myself.
  • Malinda Lo is another young adult writer who posts a lot about issues of diversity (particularly queerness and race) in the YA world. Without her blog, I’d pretty much know zero about any of the LGBT YA that’s not written by David Levithan. Her most recent post is a very thoughtful analysis of her feelings, as a Chinese American, about white Americans writing Chinese protagonists. No easy answers there, but there’s only worthwhile way to blog about cultural appropriation issues, and that’s by looking deep into yourself and writing about what you find there (which is a surprisingly hard thing to do).