The deepest, coldest part of winter may finally be over here in central Canada. We still have a least two months of winter before all of the snow is gone and spring finally takes hold.
It’s an interesting time of year. The days start to get longer, even if only minutely so, and the days start to get just a little bit warmer. There’s hope for the rejuvenation of spring, for the new life that the new season brings.
Yes, this happens every year, but every year is a little bit different. Every year is a new spin on the same old story, and I always find myself in December, when the snows capture us in their relentless hold, anticipating something new amidst something familiar.
This winter, barely half over, saw my city receive 150% of our annual snowfall in just five weeks. Our arctic temperatures caused my back door to freeze shut — which I had to thaw with a hair dryer every time I wanted to leave the house. On Boxing Day, my husband and I had to divide and conquer the shoveling it took for us to get out to the family breakfast we had planned for that morning, and that still took us 40 minutes. And yet, for all the adversity in the weather, as each day of late December and early January has passed by, I’m reminded how this winter, and this year ahead, is unique and something I’m living now that I will never live again.
As ever, I’m reminded of stories and the process of storytelling.
When you choose your next project, how do you know which is the right one to be telling? How do you know, even, that the story you’re writing now is the right story to be telling? You get up, go through your day and get your writing time in — or perhaps your week, if you batch your writing time to the weekends like I do; you push forward into the unique season that is your current story and those moments translate into prose.
Winter is winter. There’s snow. There’s cold. There’s space heaters and cozy indoor offices with a narrow window to look out onto the whiteness and stillness. It’s all the same, and yet, it’s not. It’s always different.
And so it is with stories. No matter what you’re writing, what I’m writing, there’s a good chance it’s been done before. But what’s not been done before is this: it’s never been done before by you.
You, the author, with your unique vision and your unique voice, are the only person on the planet capable of writing the story that is your story. Perhaps you’re feeling discouraged because you’re writing a YA fantasy romance and you feel like you’re an imitator. Or maybe you’re writing in a genre you’re so passionate about but you feel hopelessly inferior to your contemporaries — there’s just no topping that, so why bother writing the story you’re writing at all? Does any of this sound familiar?
If so, step back for a moment and ask yourself, archetype and genre and tropes aside, what is it that you bring that will make your story unique?
Allow me to share how I relate to this problem and that question. As many of you may know, I’m presently writing a dark epic fantasy novel called A Thousand Roads, a reworking of my third novel which I devoted most of my writing time to in 2013 and the majority of 2014. While I am disciplined to show up, weekend after weekend, to write 20 more pages of the second draft, and I’m more than halfway and am on track to finish by March, I’m met, more often than I like, with self-doubt.
These are just some of the Gollums that echo in my mind:
“This isn’t unique.”
“This is too generic.”
“The pitch falls flat, who wants another epic fantasy book anyway?”
“Story of an orphan who wants to find a home? What kind of book is that? Plain. Bland. Blah!”
“Just give up. Write something marketable. Epic fantasy isn’t for you!”
Seriously — these are very real thoughts I struggle with on the way through the writing season for me that is “A Thousand Roads draft 2”. But what I find, when I put aside those thoughts, particularly when I’m at my keyboard early on a Saturday or Sunday morning for my usual startup 3-4 hour writing session, is that regardless of those thoughts, I’m telling a story that I’m very passionate about. In fact, when I write and the storytelling muscles kick in and the story has a way of just coming to life I flip to the other, almost delusional “wow, this is great!” side of the spectrum. I’m here, right now, in this, and what’s coming out of me isn’t a “generic epic fantasy” or a work that’s going to fall flat because it’s been done before. It’s my unique vision, my passion, the fruit of painstaking hours spent learning more about what this story is and translating that for others to enjoy it.
The season will change. The next story will come (already I see glimmers of that spring that is the next novel waiting for me), but right now, like our cold Winnipeg winter, I’m here in A Thousand Roads and fully in it. Like when a snowfall comes and the choice is there to curse it and wish I had a blowtorch instead of a snow shovel, so do I have the choice to fret over my work and let all those doubts poison the results — or to go in eagerly with a positive outlook, and discover that extra layer that I would have missed otherwise.
Shoveling snow can be fun! It’s good for the muscles, a good way to remind you that you are alive, a chance to feel like you’re strong against whatever the environment will throw at you, a time to think about hot chocolate waiting for you after you go inside and put your wet mitts on the heater to dry. Likewise, really going in and giving your time to your story, to pour out your unique vision and understanding of the world into your prose, is a chance to showcase all your skills, techniques, and insights into the world as you’ve come to know it, to grow as a writer and a human being and a storyteller.
So, while there might be plenty of bestsellers on the shelf which you feel are telling your story better than you can, those books are not your story. Your story has your spin on it and is unique. The framing might be the same, but the dressing is different. And no one turns a book down because it reminds them of another (in fact, many people pick up a book because it reminds them of one they read where they wish they could get “more of that”). Often, when someone turns down a book, it’s because there is nothing fresh and unique that comes from it. It “falls flat” as the expression in the industry goes.
What is it that you bring to your fiction? What is your unique vision and unique touch? Even if you can’t put it in exact words, just thinking about this and being aware of it as a key part of what makes the difference between living fiction and stilted fiction is a sure way to navigate to books that will always matter.
No matter how much has been done before, stories will never get old. Ever.
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You can also listen to a more in-depth discussion on this topic in our week’s episode of the Write Right Podcast, here.