Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Finding Your Uniqueness

When you first start writing, before you realize that commercial fiction is something entirely different from expressing yourself in an artistic way, you might fool yourself into thinking that you have the most interesting and unique plot in the world and that no other author has ever possibly done this before.  I am here to squash that dream with my hammer of cynicism.

Writing fantasy?  Here's your plot: Young youth and/or adult (gender interchangeable) goes off on quest to save home and has awesome adventures with a spunky elf, a grumpy goblin, and a dour dwarf.  There will be swords, rings, magicians, dragons, and a powerful enemy that will need to be defeated with the power of good.  Youth will have moments insecurity and the entire story will be a bildungsroman. 

Writing a crime drama?  Here: Cranky criminal defense lawyer gets involved in crazy crime ring and will look to hardened street cop for advice and help.  People will die.  Cars might explode.  Mafia ties will be exposed.  A cover-up will be foiled.  Corporate powerhouses will be taken down.  There might be sex.

Speaking of sex, here's a romance novel: Heroine hates hero.  Hero hates heroine.  They have sex to spite each other.  From their union blossoms love.  A disgruntled mistress will enter the picture and try to spoil everything.  A huge fight happens between the heroine and hero and they will temporarily depart.  Things work out and then end up happily ever after.

Mystery?  Boom!  A body is discovered by adventurous teens/adults/senior citizens.  Or something is found/stolen under mysterious circumstances.  The adventurous (insert title here) work to solve the mystery while skittering bumbling city cops and merciless killers and/or thieves mess things up and make things difficult.  Watch out for a twist ending!

Horror?  Bam!  Anything by Stephen King.

So on and so forth.

I'm just a horrible human being, aren't I?  But if you look past the snark, there is a spark a truth.  Most plots have been done before, and they've been done and well and badly depending on who's done the writing.  It's not something you can really escape.

Now, before you go throw your computer out the window because of annoyance at me or because a sudden cloud of despair has blanketed your heart and made writing an impossibility, there is a ray of hope.  You can still be unique in your writing.  So go get your computers back out from the lawn and put the pitchforks away.

Uniqueness in writing, in my opinion, doesn't come from your plot so much as it comes from what you do with your plot.  With literary fiction or non-genre fiction, things are a bit easier because you don't really have a formula that you're expected to follow.  For example, with my new manuscript, it's not really a genre piece.  There are elements of mystery and of romance, but it's not part of either of those genres.  If you were going to call it anything, I suppose you could call it a slice of life, but even then, it's not that entirely.  It's more an experiment of what I can do with words, and that leaves me free to do some things that I might not be able to do if it's for a genre.  But with genre pieces, like a romance, there are certain points you need to hit and if you don't hit them, you get knocked for it.

How you hit the marks is what really makes you stand out with your writing.  And how you write also makes you stand out.  Your voice, your tone, the atmospheric pressure of your writing, it all works together to suck a reader in.

Interesting characters are a must too.  You can have a really interesting plot (crime boss turned soccer mom discovers the coach is a hit-man sent out to assassinate a local politician for reasons unknown and now must rally her abandoned mafia ties in order to stop the hit from happening) ((I am so writing that novel)) but if your characters are wooden or feel like they're following a script, then your readers are going to ignore your writing in favor of something else.  Having a unique character can go a long way in keeping your reader happy.  Crime boss turned soccer mom can fall flat if she's stilted, or questions herself too much, or is just plain boring.  She should have some kind of quirk, some kind of idiosyncrasy that sets her apart from all the other crime bosses.  Why did she abandon the mob?  Was it for her children?  Was she tired?  What's up with her?  What are her motivations?  And no, backstory doesn't count.

In closing, a book is like room.  Your infrastructure is your genre of choice.  It's the bare bones of your writing, what you have to include.  The characters, the twists, the dialogue, the everything else, are the details, the decorations.  How you mix and match is up to you.  It you want crystal door knobs, that's your choice.  Persian rugs?  Sure!  As long as everything works together, you're all set.


  1. I have always dreamed of being a writer, and still hope to become one one day, but one major factor that always puts me off is knowing that I can't come up with anything that hasn't been done before :( I want to be unique and different, and to write something that no-one else has done before... So it's good to hear that actually there are ways that I can still be unique, but within a traditional framework. Maybe now I won't be so scared anymore, and thanks to what you've said, maybe I'll even pluck up the courage to put pen to paper in some sort of meaningful way!

  2. Hi, Marlena,

    Good post. I'm lucky in that both my publishers are not sticklers for staying inside the lines. Otherwise, my romance novel wouldn't see the light of day.

    Proper characterization is very important to me. I think my books are what they are because of the characters uniqueness.

  3. An excellent and thought-provoking post, Marlena! I'd rather read an excellent book that doesn't fit well into a specific genre than a book that doesn't move me but was easy to slip into a marketing segment. :)

  4. It's not easy to spin a premise into something new. I've noticed that with the queries that go up on Query Shark. She'll often say it's a rehashed story.

  5. I hope you do, Between The Lines! Don't let fear stop you; just go with what feels right to you.

    Hi, Joy! I agree. I think characterization is really important to a book's success. Great characters are the reason I keep reading.

    Thank you, Michelle! I like books that can't really be labeled, even though I love Barbara Michaels' books.

    And I noticed that too, Theresea. It's hard to be unique in this market when pretty much everything has been done. That's why I think characters are important.

  6. Hey Marlena!

    I just want to say I picked up the first book in your series the other day just to see what all of the fuss is about.

    I have to say I really enjoyed it. It was a nice relaxing read, and although I am usually not into that type of literature. I found your voice very refreshing and intriguing.

    I genuinely wanted to find out what happened next. Your characters were believable and interesting.

    Surprisingly I even found myself relating to Kitty Malone in a way that you may not expect.

    Early on in the book when she is describing her feelings toward her coworker and talks about how in her pursuit of her Law Degree she felt like she missed out on all the fun stuff.

    I feel the same way - I have a BS in Psychology and I got it while working full time (Active Duty Military) in just over four years. Although I have the degree - I feel like I missed out on a lot of the "college" things that my friends were doing. Sometimes I wonder if it is a good thing or a bad thing.

    Anyway - I am looking forward to reading the next one.

    Just wanted to share my thoughts with you and let you know that you have a huge fan! Keep up the great work.

    All the best,


  7. Lev, if I could hug you right now, I would. So hard. You have no idea.

    Thank you so much! You don't have to buy them though you know. If you want a copy, let me know and I can gift you one from Amazon. (This of course goes to anyone who's curious. Just let me know and I'll gift them out. (: )

    I'm sorry that you feel like you missed out on the college things that your friends were able to experience. I feel the same way sometimes. I was never in Active Duty but I was so focused on academics that I didn't really do much else with my time. I wonder the same thing too.

    You have no idea how awesome you just made my night right now. Giddy doesn't even begin to describe it. Thank you so much again! (:

  8. Haha you are welcome, and I will gladly buy them all - they are worth every penny. :)

  9. You are entirely too nice, Lev. Thank you. (:

  10. First, I want to say I love that you comment on everything I write it makes my day.

    Second, did you happen to catch a glimpse of the screenshot from the Kindle article?

    It is a screen shot of my actual library and take a look at the first book in the list. (:

  11. You always have such interesting posts, Lev. I love reading them! And I saaaaaaw. Aaaaaaaawwwesome! (:

  12. Marlena, thank you so much for the incredibly detailed comment you left for my entry in Blackbird in my Window's summer writing contest. I left a reply to your comment at http://blackbirdinmywindow.blogspot.com/2011/08/underground-gift.html.

    Did you get a chance to enter? If so, please let me know the title you submitted, so I can be sure leave some love for it.

    BTW, have I mentioned the Books by Blogging Friends page on my blog, http://michellefayard.blogspot.com/p/published-books-of-blogging-friends.html? Your Kitty books should be on there, IMO. Just let me know if you'd like to do so. :) And the door is always open for a review/author interview. You're so hands down the best.

  13. Hi Michelle! I saw your comment, and it didn't read like journalism to me. At least I couldn't tell. (:

    I didn't enter alas. But Saturday Night Special is coming up soon, so there'll be things to read. (:

    And I would be honored if you out Kitty Malone on your Books by Blogging Friends! I couldn't think of anything more awesome than that. And maybe we can arrange for you to be a guest blogger here some time. I'd love to host you. (:

  14. Great post, Marlena. I love the phrase "an experiment of what I can do with words." For me, that's the joy. I also love just letting my characters speak, taking dictation, and not always knowing what will happen next. I'm such a nonconformist that the idea of a formula really turns me off. I guess I'll stick with literary fiction!

  15. Thank you, Katie. I think the best book is one that's always a surprise. Formula writing can be a bit tedious after a while if you've overstayed your welcome.

  16. I love your analogy to a room. :) It is the style and how you make it different that matters--making sure there's something that says it's not just the same story again.

    Great post!

  17. Thank you! (: The room analogy came to me suddenly, and it was just perfect. Any room can be improved with the right style and detail.

  18. you've said it, it isn't about teh plot-- sometimes it is but that's another post-- and sometimes it is about what you do with teh chracter, which is in my mind teh most important thing-- how about a hero who loves the heroine, but heroine has someone else? There's a twist, but not out of the ordinary, still same plot.

    An excellent way to think this morning.

  19. I love the plot you came up with, Rebecca. It's always fun to play with expectations like that instead of sticking to the same thing all the time.


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