How do you know when your setting of high school kids solve supernatural mysteries becomes cliché? Brandon, Howard and Dan discuss how you create unique concepts by blending familiar topics with something new and original and how to avoid possible pitfalls.
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35 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 2: Blending the Familiar and the Original”
“You’re setting?” Best. Writers. Ever.
In all seriousness, though, I love what you’re doing, and I hope you don’t stop any time soon.
Why do you think editors exist?
See, now I look like a jerk, but it’s fixed. :) Keep it up, guys!
Listening to this again, I think our point gets a little fogged behind the ambiguity of the word “original.” Each time we say the word, do we mean “the basic thing that we’re modifying,” or do we mean “the creative way in which we’re modifying it?” We leave it to you, dear listener, to puzzle it out.
That’s why I don’t like the word “original” when discussing the blending of the mundane and the [insert neat word here.] I prefer the word “fantastic,” implying fantasy, flights of fancy, or some such.
Still, you need more than just “fantastic” concepts. You also need something original. For me, the originality grows out of the choice of juxtapositions, rather than out of some truly orginal fantastical element. But then I’m a hack.
Just thought I’d let you know that I love your podcasts & also that your webpage formatting isn’t working right as the tagline “15 minutes because you’re in a hurry and wer’re not that smart” and what looks like the date (Whatever is under “Writing Excuses”) isn’t showing up but is covered by the black line. Its a great tagline. But it doesn’t work if you can’t see it.
Came to writingexcuses through the Mercs of Schlock. Love what you are doing and going to point my wife towards it because she is an aspiring writer. I am what I term a despiring writer because I don’t write nearly as much as a should, but that’s okay, because I am still learning something from the podcasts.
I think it is interesting to note that both of the casts that you have done so far have large applications to the field of writing stories for roleplay as well. That is the main area I write in, and mainly just as a hobby for small personal games. I certainly need to do more brainstorming and outlining for my games, because then I wouldn’t be forced to wing it as much. Also I think this concept of Orignal/Familiar when used correctly makes for a compelling game that is fun to play in just as much as it makes for a compelling story that is fun to read.
…and that’s my 2 shinies…
V: If you’re using Firefox, try highlighting it to discover what that says — I’m seeing the same thing. Podcasters: On a similar vein however, if that is fixed, it might be worthwhile to correct “www.WebsiteName.com” to something more specific.
Loving the podcast either way,
Also, something is odd in the formatting of the xml file for the casts. In iTunes, there are 4 or 5 escape characters (“\”s) preceding every apostrophe. Not sure what’s happening there, but it’s a little odd, nonetheless.
Ya it’s a bug with podpress, every time we edit our main podcast info it adds escapes even if there’s already one.
Who says sequels suck? You guys did a fantastic job with the second podcast, although you are making me look forward to Mondays entirely too much. I hope you three are keeping track of all your ‘can of worms’ topics because you’re opening quite alot of those and each one would make a fantastic podcast to listen to.
You know, I’m not sure which version of WordPress you’re using, but the latest versions don’t require plugins for you to use them to create a podcast feed. They create the xml correctly all on their own as long as there’s a link to an appropriate file in the post. You may want to look at whether you really need the podpress addon. You might have other functionality you want from it, but I know that I’m running a podcast, though very infrequently updated, using just WordPress itself with no addons.
I love how you guys quote articles and Sir Isaac Newton as you philosophize about writing. I can just picture you doing the podcast sitting in leather chairs in a book filled room or something.
Excellent once again. Looking forward to next week.
Do you think you guys could do a podcast on writing dialogue some week? Dialogue always sounds good in my head, but ends up coming off as trite or boring on paper.
I want Podpress, there are a lot of useful features it offers.
Your mental image sounds so much better than the truth, which is that we do this hunched over a kitchen table covered with mic cords. The table’s covered with cords, not us. That would be silly.
Fantastic way of putting ideas out there, Bravo.
Concerning the podcast.
While I was listening I felt at a disadvantage. Beside’s the fact that I’m still a novice to writting, the idea of original thinking was hard to grasp. I agree with all that was said and feel that it is true, however putting two ideas together isn’t as simple as you make it out to be. It must be much more.
The greatest ideas in the history of man kind were understood by the masses. If it doesn’t make sense than it isn’t worth salt. You take anything done in the world, the only things that are ever successful are the ones that people can understand.
The same is with writting. You may have an original idea but if it doesn’t make sense then it must remain an idea, and nothing more. Unless you can explain it, it will never be original to the world. Everyone has good ideas, and original ideas, but only those you can “sell” their idea, so to speak, can make it an original idea.
The best example I have is oil and water. Let’s say you’ve found a way to bind together to make a single compond. If you can’t back up your statement it isn’t original. But if you can explain how the two combine then it truly is original.
I don’t disagree with what was said, in fact I feel that it couldn’t be more right, I just want to dig deeper into the subject. I know that this could become a much more in deapth discussion so I leave with what little I have said.
Any ideas or suggestions should be e-mailed to our listnermail account that way we have a centralized location for all suggestions (we’d forget about many if we had to rely on our memories).
I disagree with your statement, the greatest ideas are those that take something obvious (like bread) and something not (pre-slicing it) to solve a specific need or problem. Another, less generic one, is the PC. How many people actually understand (and I mean truly understand) all the hardware and software components of a computer? Probably a handful of all the actual PC users in the world and yet it’s one of the greatest inventions of our time.
People don’t need to know or even understand how something works, they just need to know it does and that’s easy to explain in writing. Once you’re done there you can add all the additional details you feel are necessary for your story.
Oh, I don’t know — I think I agree with Mike. The reader has to be able to understand the juxtaposition in order for the novelty of the marriage of the mundane and the fantastic to work.
What we provided in the podcast was the theory with few examples. Our listeners (those who wish to write, anyway) must now experiment with other juxtapositions, and find out what works.
By the way, if you want to mix oil and water and have them stay mixed, here’s how: boil the two together, add flour, salt, and some flavorings. Now you have gravy.
I’ll agree with some of Mike’s statement, with the caveat that an original idea is original whether people understand it or not. It might not be a useful or marketable idea, but that doesn’t change it’s originality.
Sun Tzu said in The Art of War, that each army is divided into two forces, the extraordinary force and the ordinary force, and that the key to keeping the enemy confused is to make them believe that the extraordinary is the ordinary and the ordinary is the extraordinary. This holds true for more than just war, I believe your podcast shows this. :)
I don’t know if the quest for an ‘original’ idea is the best quest for aspiring writers to be on. Too much time and effort can be wasted slaving to find that ‘original’ idea. I think the juxtaposition of the familiar and the strange is perhaps a better thing to quest for. For instance, if you hinge your whole story on one ‘original’ idea, and find that your idea has been done before (as most ‘original’ ideas have been) then you often will lose inspiration to continue your story. Juxtaposition solves this. As you’ve said in the podcast, find one common element (be that a normal setting or a cliched idea which has become common) and develop a twist on that element. This should give you a workable ‘original’ idea.
But that isn’t enough.
Many good books out there use the same old hero’s quest juxtaposed with a unique twist, but as Brandon points out it’s the characters that make a story stand out and become a ‘beloved’ series to the readers. Wheel of Time is one such series. There are not a lot of original ideas there, just new twists on the same old themes, but it’s the characters that give the books their life.
I suppose finding the ‘original’ juxtaposed idea is a good start, but I would suggest writers not become trapped into wasting too much time in finding that. Better to develop the characters and conflicts while you let the ‘original’ ideas simmer on the back burner. Eventually you’ll have gravy on that back burner, but it’s no good without a main dish of characters in conflict to pour it over!
I was just thinking during my drive to work this morning how my current reading is a great example of this idea you guys are talking about. If you’ve never read The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley, you should–it’s a fun romp of a series. He takes the idea of a modern fairy tale retelling (or retelling fairy tales at all)–both of which have become a more mundane idea now–and throws in the idea that the two sisters are descendants of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (also a fairly mundane idea, though more original)–and that the fairy tale creatures from stories are real and living trapped in a community in upstate New York. Combine all those things together–all of which have touches of originality but have been done at least in part before–and you have a very original concept for a story.
But I agree that what brings it to *life* is characterization and plot and worldbuilding. The idea is just your starting point, one that grows as you write. So I don’t think, Mike, that a writer should spend years looking for that original idea–nor do I think the guys here are advocating that. What I think they’re saying is that as you’re writing your current project, allow other ideas to seep in. They may not apply to this project. If not, write them down and save them for later. Or they might just be that one thing you were looking for that will make the current project that much more exciting.
FWIW – I summarized (okay, wrote down key points and some stuff that caught my ear) from this episode over at http://mbarker.livejournal.com/59057.html
Hey, I am a huge fan of Brandon’s books and I found this podcast through his website. I’m just wondering, after listening to this podcast, how important is it to come up with something completely original? It seems every time I tell someone about something I’m writing they immediately come back with “Oh, you mean like (X)?” And it gets really frustrating, as I do want to come up with something nobody has done. I guess I’m feeling like there will always being something out there that is similar to what I’m doing, or trying to do, if it’s in the characters or the setting or the plot itself. Should I worry about it or should I just write?
Don’t know how much you guys pay attention to comments left on your ‘casts years later, but since I started going through your archives, now that I’m caught up with the very latest ones…
Some of what you said, especially about Tolkienesque fantasy, reminded me quite a bit of Megan Whalen Turner’s setting for her Queen’s Thief series. I heard her speak on a panel once, and she said she didn’t want to just do Tolkien again (especially because of a fear that young readers would read all the Tolkienesque before actually reading Tolkien, and by the time they reached Tolkien would say, pssh, I’ve read this before), but she also didn’t want to do something super exotic — she wanted it to be familiar. Just not cliche. Trouble was, she grew up in New England, and was most familiar with Tolkien sorts of woods, etc.
Then she visited Greece, and found her setting. Evoking Greece is relatively easy, one doesn’t have to explain the heck out of it to get people to feel a strong sense of place. But it isn’t Tolkien, isn’t way overdone.
Of course, her novels contain more original ideas than just setting, but I think it’s interesting how even in the setting alone it’s sort of a combination of the original and the familiar, in that Greece is familiar, but original when placed in the current fantasy market. As one of you pointed out, sometimes there’s genius even in combining two mundane ideas in a way that hasn’t been done before.
I have to thank you guys for this episode. I just started listening to your podcast from the very beginning, since I decided to finally put the story that’s been sitting in my head down on paper, and this episode made me think of my story in a way I hadn’t considered before. It’s encouraged me to take the story down a darker and bloodier path than I’d originally intended, which I think will go a long way toward making my characters really come alive.
I’m looking forward to listening to the rest of your episodes. I hope they’ll give me as much focus and insight into my own writing method as the first two episodes have!
A lot of the reason I chose military sf and cyberpunk, is because a lot of people are familiar with Starship Troopers, and others are familiar with Neuromancer. But I’m attempting to combine them as if they are two sides of the same totalitarian state coin. And yet, it still falls under slice of life fiction for various characters.
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