A WAY WITH
SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW, SOMETHING BORROWED
By Steven Savage
Archives available at The Way With Worlds Home Page
Yes, we've all heard it in our most depressed moments - "I can't seem to do anything original." Those moments where it seems everything has been done before.
Or perhaps, we get a really neat idea to use something we've seen before. It's not exactly stealing, is it? However part of you feels bad for using it. Maybe you aren't looking for originality at this time, but still . .
Well, these two crises of conscience (or a bad day at the keyboard) actually relate to each other - namely, when is does something fit into your world? Whether you find someone else did the same thing or want to adapt something into your writing, it's the same question: is it really part of my world?
THE QUEST FOR
Let's be frank here - originality is a fuzzy concept, you can't grasp it totally, and you never will. Stop beating yourself up, you're wasting time.
Is something original if you thought of it with no other inspiration? Is it original if someone else thought of it separately? Does having a source of inspiration make an idea unoriginal? Can you do anything without inspiration, in other words, another source?
This, to put it tactfully, is a bunch of pointless arguing. Nothing in life is unconnected. That inspiration came from somewhere, and its results will go somewhere else. A car is not something that sprang totally into a creator's mind, it was built on all sorts of previous developments, and a fic is the same. You don't see people decrying the unoriginality of a steering wheel.
When evaluating a concept in a story the question to ask is "do your ideas (no matter how "original" they are) work in your setting?" That's it. You can debate the fine points forever, and you're not going to get anywhere and you certainly won't get any writing done. The coherence of your work comes first - and even if an idea has been done to death, your take in a good setting will be new.
In short, stop worrying and write already.
I'm reminded of an episode of the show Remember WENN called "Between a Rock and a Soft Place," where the crew of a small radio station did a show called "Same Dane, Private eye." It was a great show about a detective who's father was murdered - only it actually happened to be Hamlet retold. Original or not? A take or a template?
Who cares, it was fun to watch.
The flipside of the "originality panic" is when you have an idea you just want to use - and then aren't sure how to work it into your continuity.
The approach to this is simple - if the idea integrates into your setting and makes sense, go ahead. If it doesn't, then drop it.
Do not, under any circumstances, just slap something into your continuity because "it's cool," or because it'll impress someone or any other reason but that you can make it work. If it won't work, drop it. You'll save yourself trouble and a loss of dignity.
Just like the worry about inspiration, the concern here is does the idea work in your setting, pure and simple. Don't avoid having fun by working in that reference, that neat martial arts move, or whatever you want to work in. Just don't bend your continuity around your new obsession.
This can be a bit less of a concern if you're writing in another person's continuity and you're integrating an idea from that continuity or exploring it. This is a serious concern if you're writing in someone else's continuity and the idea is alien to it - be very careful, since you're working with someone else's ideas and may not have the grasp you think you do.
"Does it work in continuity" is the first question to ask about any idea, "original," "inspired," or "borrowed." Don't get bogged down in either self-doubt or obsessing over having to use an idea - make sure the continuity works.
Our reseources this week are two nice reference pages:
http://laura.chinet.com/html/titles01.html - My friend Mike Surbrook dug this link up. It's a guide to titles and references of British royalty, and a great resource if you're writing a fantasy or period piece.
http://www.dean.usma.edu/history/dhistorymaps/Atlas%20Page.htm - Found by my wife, Michele Savage. A great resource of maps covering some two hundred years of wars. Fantastic historical and visual reference.