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Submitted on
November 30, 2011


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EDIT: If you like this journal entry, check out The Sarcastic Guide to Writing ebook… for exclusive content on world-building, character, and dialogue!

1. Do your damn research. I can't stress this enough.  We live in the freaking Information Age, and the concept of Googling is an alien one to too many people.  While I could easily go on a rant about anti-intellectualism, I'll rein it in and say that cliché' is largely anachronistic.  People use them because they're familiar, not necessarily what's true. When I started world-building for my Western steampunk/cattlepunk trilogy, one of the characters was the equivalent of a Chinese immigrant worker.  So I read everything I could get my hands on about what it was like to be a Chinese immigrant worker.  Wikipedia articles, fiction, and non-fiction.  I also read authors like Lawrence Yep, whose actual, real ancestors were Chinese immigrants, and that directly fed into his historical fiction.  Cliché' fills in what the author fails to describe.  Template races like elves and dwarves and dragons are this, big time.  If you don't tell us a dragon is a picky eater, capable of teleporting, and spits acid, then we are going to assume your dragon sits on mounds of gold, eats virgins, and breathes fire.  However, if you DO tell us all that, you've more or less avoided cliché.  Of course, when authors take the time to explain their dwarves live underground, are stoic, and like battle axes, we tend to weep tears of blood.  Going back to what mythological creatures really were back in the old days when people seriously thought they were real can reveal surprising depths.  Tolkien's elves are anachronistic; their cliché' exists because Tolkien set the precedent.  Elves before that were not tall, forest-dwelling immortals who were better than everyone (look up the antics of the Sidhe sometime.)  It's just been absorbed to the point of cliché.

2. Combine it with something else. One of the biggest problems with cliché for new writers is that new writers emulate and regurgitate.  This is a perfectly natural and acceptable stage in learning to be a writer (or really, any artist.)  It's just that people get weirdly protective about their ripoffs sometimes. Aside from that, there's plenty of people willing to jump on a bandwagon. The effluvia Twilight created is still dripping out of the professional publication scene. We've all seen vampires, werewolves, and zombies. If you're using the cliché', we're yawning already. If you're just dying to do it, do a Mad Libs list of things that interest you and combine it with werewolves.  Werewolf steampunk.  Werewolf spies.  Werewolf punk rock stars.  All of those sound pretty interesting and non-cliché. The biggest problem I see when it comes to originality is a highly limited resource pool.  This person has seen one werewolf movie, the werewolf movie everyone in the world has seen, falls in love with it, imitates it, and gets angry when people accuse them of being unoriginal when they write those exact werewolves. Get me someone who reads Napoleanic wars historical fiction, plays Japanese RPGS where the players overthrow God, and watches spy thriller movies, and I bet that person's werewolves are going to be something worth reading about. But show me someone whose only exposure to werewolves is Twilight, and I will show you someone writing an angry letter to Universal Pictures about how they ripped off Twilight.…

3. Explore what's been done. This kind of ties with Rule#2, but only because it's another facet of limited resource pools. I honestly don't know who would get into their head to write a paranormal romance where a girl falls in love with a shallow hot guy, but I can guarantee you that somewhere out there, right this very minute, someone's writing one, someone's publishing one, and someone's reading one. And odds are, they're not aware of the plethora of that story that's been done to undeath and death again. Meyer famously stated once that she didn't read about vampires, thereby, I'm certain, unleashing a cavalcade of young female writers upon the world that will think that not bothering to research is the only way to free the muse. The other argument I've heard is that people don't want to read the kind of stuff they're writing because they're afraid of absorbing the idea.  I call bullshit on that immediately, because ideas are a dime a dozen (see Rule #4.)  Again, the big problem I see constantly is that people don't have enough ideas, and stay too far within the realm of what's already been done before.  It's kind of a garbage in, garbage out sort of thing; if you're limiting yourself to where you're somehow "allowed" to get ideas from during your creation stage, you're crippling your possibilities. If you've ever read a book where the characters and setting and plot all behaved exactly as you thought it would, with no surprises or reversals along the way, that's an author who didn't bother looking at every other book within his genre and comparing it with his own.  Be unique, people.  It's the mold-breakers who become timeless.  Meyer might have gotten popular, but Jane Austen did it better, and her stuff is still in print. Old women can still tell their kids about Pride and Prejudice.  I got a feeling Twilight will go the way of lower-back tattoos and bellbotoom jeans, quietly filed away with all the other teen fads in the closet of regret. While I'm on that subject, remember Goosebumps?

4. Learn the definition of derivative. Whenever I hear people defending crap like Paolini's Inheritance series with the line about "Every story's been told before!" I wanna sock 'em in the mouth. There seems to be a hugely skewed misconception about what is the difference between derivative and borrowing. Derivative is boring and cliché'.  End  of story. Derivative is not carte' blanche to be unoriginal, and I have no idea who would want to try so hard NOT to be original.  Derivative is not an excuse for having hackneyed characters and a predictable plot just because "it worked for Star Wars and Indiana Jones!"  First of all, Star Wars and Indiana Jones pulled off whatever they were trying to pull off, broke the mold, and set a precedent, three things that being derivative inherently fails to do. Second, you're trying to steal thunder and it's failing miserably because people know how that story ends.  I cannot stress this enough: you are not clever or cool or a fanboy among fanboys just because you're being derivative. You're being an idiot, and this kind of crap puts you firmly within the realm of imitation. Derivative, again, largely happens because people haven't exposed themselves to a large enough resource pool.  If Paolini had read anything other than Lord of the Rings and played anything other than Dungeons and Dragons at the age of 15, I will eat my freaking hat. "Borrowing" is not derivative, though it's often mistaken for it.  Borrowing usually occurs when writing gives nods or thematic waves to stories or premises similar to it; Fire-Bringer and Watership Down are both animal stories ; they are in no way similar to each other despite both being stories told through animal characters.  They touch on similar themes, share elements like prophecy, militarism, and cooperation, and both make use of things like folk hero stories and giving the animals their own culture. If Fire-Bringer's plot had been about a deer who foretells doom and leaves his home with a band of loyal followers to eke out a new existence and fight for females from a band of militaristic deer, Fire-Bringer would have been derivative of Watership Down. It probably would have been popular if it was, because Watership Down was successful.

5. Don't fall into the "speshul" trap. Oh, man, I really need to address this, especially in the face of DA's artists comments.  I see so much crap posted about "speshul" stuff, mostly within the realm of characters.  "Don't steal my Pokemon trainer!  Don't steal my angsty hot teen with superpowers!  Don't steal my sparkledog!  Don't steal my horse, my Warriors character, my wolf character, my tiger character!  THEY'RE SPESHUL!"  Honestly, I wonder how many people have bothered to use DA's own search function using a two-word descriptor for their own character just to see what pops up. This rule is double-edged, because it espouses that you both are and are not as original as you think you are.  The only danger comes from when you think you are a hundred percent totally unique and sitting on a goldmine character that, if discovered, will rob you of the next Harry Potter phenomenon. (Allow me to break it to you gently that you are not and probably never will be.)  You are not "speshul", your story is not "speshul", and if you think you are, you're a dingbat.  My case in point would be searching for any animated wolf cartoon on Youtube and trying to summarize five of their plots distinctly. If you give two people, say, a tiger character, and both said people have a large enough resource pool, you will end up with two different, unique tiger characters.  One of them might be a ronin samurai with the ability to shapeshift into a tiger.  The other might be a tiger who can cover his body in flames and fights hunters to keep his forest safe.  But, if those same two people are both in a Warriors funk and that's about the limit of their resource pools, I can guarantee you both are going to end up with similar characters and might accuse each other of stealing. No one person can execute a character or plot quite like another person, and therein lies true uniqueness. But, it's very easy for people to delude themselves with a hall-of-mirrors thing and tell themselves their characters are unique despite being replicas of (take your pick) Buffy/Sephiroth/Cloud/Sonic/Firestar.  Characters and stories only become truly unique when one's own personal and unique experience is breathed into them.  Someone might steal your character, but they will never be able to write the story you have. (Also, I wonder if these screechy people are at all aware that any amount of notable success with their ideas and stories will unleash unchecked and exploitative imitation anyway.) I also have to point out that resource pools are affected by age.  I doubt the average Warriors fan has even heard of or would be capable of enjoying the fantastic Tailchaser's Song, because it's an adult tier book.  You absorb different things at age 7 then you do at age 14 or age 20. It's important to give yourself time to hone an idea, because you may not yet have encountered the right idea to make your own reach its fullest potential.
  • Mood: Nervous
  • Listening to: Nana Mizuki - Eternal Blaze
  • Reading: The Ranger's Apprentice series
  • Watching: 80s My Little Pony
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WiRE4k Featured By Owner Jul 14, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
This is a very good piece of advice to give to any new or experienced artist. I appreciate it being there, so thank you for writing this.

However, I can't help but notice the fact that you're rather harsh towards young authors who think of their ideas as original even though they're not (as seen in #4 and #5). It seems that you're thinking about it as if people choose to think this way and not just grow into it.

Either way, it's not how this comes to work. People are egocentric in nature (which means that they feel like the world exists around them; "if I saw it, I saw it first, and everybody else who says they saw it are lying, because they can't be right"), and it's a part of normal growing up to learn that world does not, in fact, revolve around you, that you're just a part of it. The process of growing up, if it goes the right way (i.e., a person learns they're not the center of the world), it will go through the growing artist's works, whatever those are.

Either way, I don't believe it's right to verbally punish such people for being what they only see as being at the moment. I know you're angry about this "speshul" thing going on through young artists' minds, but this is how the world works. The article is educational, and I believe using derogatives like "dingbat" towards a person who's just grown very fond of their own creation is unnecessary and, moreover, unfriendly. You're trying to change people's minds for the better on the subject, and you're doing a great deed, but you should let people figure out on their own how to work on what they've just read rather than call them names they might have not deserved. Young minds are sensitive, some of them more than others, so you've got to let them learn on their own when they have the base, the material, which is this article.

Again, the advices are simple and easy to understand, and it's good. But you can't be rude to people just because they're learning what you already know and take for granted. You had to learn from somewhere, too, even if you didn't spend time researching when you were as young an artist as those who read the advices.
Droemar Featured By Owner Jul 15, 2014
Seriously? You're getting on me for being "rude", when if these young artists posted anywhere outside of DA (like, I don't know, self-publishing on Amazon), that people with the total anonymity of the Internet are not going to be rude? Have you seen 1-star book reviews lately? Have you seen the Best Sarcastic Reviews on Amazon?
I don't have time to be polite. I don't have time to nurse the fragile egos of people who can't hack being told "this kind of sucks, you need more experience." And also, I am not responsible for the feelings of other people responding to my work or what I have to say. You're telling me that I should accept responsibility for how people choose to respond emotionally, and uh, fuck that.
Young artists need to learn to develop a thick skin, because everyone who is not Mommykins is not going to tell them they're wonderful in the real world. The sooner they find that out, the better they'll be able to handle it. You act like adversity is something to be avoided or some shit, and that's ridiculous.
Maurice Sendak, the author of Where The Wild Things Are, was asked about what parents should do if the movie of his book scared their children. And he said "Those parents can go to hell." Life is not about kid gloves.
And also: "rude" is usually code for "I don't like what you said, so I'm going to go after how you said it." Stupid young egocentric artists don't need to be applauded for cliche's. And it's not my responsibility to applaud them. I'll leave that to people with low standards like you.
DarkAcey Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
First off, I have to say I love your writing advice, and I enjoy that you write in easy-to-swallow five-part articles.

Something that has been bugging me, however, is how you dislike Paolini's work. The Inheritance series is dear to me because it is one of the books that got me into writing. Honestly I'm perfectly fine accepting that everyone has differing opinions. I would just like to know your reasons more specifically. So far I've read only a few of your numerous articles, and while I must admit you point out very valid cliches, the things you've stated about Paolini's work has lead my to believe you dislike it solely because it is 'unoriginal'. Is this true, or are there other things you'd add to that list? If that is the only reason, I feel that you're ignoring many other facets of his work.

Really, I'm just curious. If you'd prefer not to respond, that's fine. I will still appreciate these articles all the same.
Droemar Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2013
Unoriginal, lacking in focus, poorly written technically, uninspired, full of lackluster characters utterly lacking in conflict, illogical in terms of consistency, and constantly making Author's Saving Throws to correct mistakes that a more seasoned author would have avoided altogether.
Eragon was passable/decent for a 16 year old. It was not a good novel by the standards of good novels. It was the only one of the four that had to work to be what it was.
Having just learned focus myself, skimming the last book was just amazingly bad. It was like everything got equal screentime and attention paid to it, regardless of its importance to the story or the characters.
And Eragon's a sociopath.
If it got you into reading and writing, great. But I strongly encourage you to broaden your horizons.
DarkAcey Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
I see. Thank you for replying.
Dannielleroset Featured By Owner Dec 13, 2012  Student General Artist
Thanks for the message. The slight ranting tone made it more interesting to read n.n

Love the advice and will consider what you said about resource pool. I've been trying to think of ways to prevent cliche use in my characters an plot and have come to the conclusion (which you also came to) that it takes personal experience and philosophy to breath life into them. Thanks ♥
morqwal Featured By Owner May 14, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
i do not know if it is good literature, but i will praise "goosebumps" to the heavens for being my first stepping stone.
after that it was "strange matter"
and then finally the first novel i read (that i can remember picking of my own choice and not through school) was "the hobbit"

and from there i have accumulated crap and gold and golden crap and crappy gold. stephen king, tad williams, jane austin, piers anthony, anne rice, vance moore (god help us all), j robert king, jk rowling, eric frank russell, ray bradburray, and peter s. beagle (the only writer whose book i threw across the room in emotional rage after finishing it); just to name a few of the names written across my yellowing softback mountain range i sleep in.

and it all started with "you cant scare me" by RL Stine. PRAISE PRAISE!!!
DasTenna Featured By Owner Mar 7, 2012
As you mentioned in #5, an idea (or character) can be fed from a growing ressource pool within the aging process of the creator. Itīs like a good wine (so the self-proclaimed wine connoisseurs say): it has to age to gain its taste. A character or idea can be unoriginal at the beginning, when youīre an imitating teen, but the way you grow older and learn new things and perspectives, read or watch different books/comics/movies, collect your ideas from life and history, your character/idea changes and becomes more plausible and original.

Itīs not what they start with when you create them as a reaction of fandom, itīs what they are at the end of the process.

Some of my characters may originate from X-Men OCīs but they evolved into something different, genre-wise and character-wise.
Droemar Featured By Owner Mar 7, 2012
I can definitely attest to that. I've had quite a few stupid story ideas that have stuck with me and evolved in order to survive my rather ruthless natural selection. Those that didn't went extinct, and sometimes that means entire worlds and plots.
DasTenna Featured By Owner Mar 7, 2012
Though itīs sometimes hard to let them go or extinct them yourself; itīs -- well, letting your childhood/stupid teenager-phase behind you.
If I think about some of the old stuff or read over it (I havenīt thrown it away . . . nostalgia, maybe), I canīt help myself but shake my head because of my naivety or smile a bit about the movies that screened inside that childīs head those days =D
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