Blog

How Can We Avoid Cookie-Cutter Writing?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I like Oreos, especially dipped in milk. Whether I eat one Oreo or a dozen, each and every one is exactly the same shape, size, color, and taste. I like the reliability of knowing what I'm getting with each bite.

And that's fine and good for cookies.

But what about with books? Should writers use cookie cutters as they shape their books? Or should they strive to create a unique delicacy?

Of course, most of us will answer with a resounding "Writers need to be unique." Then we must follow up our emphatic declaration with another question: Once a certain type of book becomes popular, why do we flood the market with a plethora copy-cat books (think Vampire, Amish, and recently 50 Shades)?

Shelly Daum asked me several really great questions about the whole cookie-cutter quandary. I broke her questions into two parts:

1. Regarding writing techniques: If writers are all reading the same how-to books, implementing the same "rules," and following the same advice for how to improve our writing skills, won't we end up with writing that "sounds" alike?

2. Regarding story-telling: If writers are encouraged to steer clear of certain story-lines, subject matters, and settings, and instead are all following the same trends, then don't we risk having cookie-cutter books?

Let me give my thoughts on both issues:

1. Does following the same advice on writing techniques lead to books that sound the same?

Yes, there's definitely the possibility. I've read books, contest entries, and even critiques where the writing techniques are nearly flawless, but leave the book feeling like an Oreo. The writer has the "rules" down to a "t"— to technical perfection—but in the process lost something special.

On the other hand, I don't believe the techniques themselves are the culprit to sterile, copy-cat writing. Every novelist should study the craft of fiction. Like any other profession, we must learn the basics before we can operate with skill and confidence. We can't dismiss the methods, guidelines, and techniques that serve as the frameworks for our books. We need to study principles like staying in POV, adding tension, and maximizing the setting.

However, once we learn the foundational elements that go into crafting a story, then we're ready to use those techniques to our unique advantage. We're able to intelligently and deliberately take creative license, and in doing so put our own spin and voice into the techniques.

This is the step so many writers miss. We learn everything we need to know and then stop there. We so often fail to infuse those techniques with the life and breath that is uniquely ours, twisting and shaping them, and adding color and vibrancy that brings out our writer voice.

Sidenote: There's a difference between breaking the "rules" because we know them and want to use them to enhance our voice, versus being sloppy with our writing techniques because we haven't taken the time to learn them. Most editors and skilled writers can spot the difference.

2. Does sticking to the same story-lines, settings, and subjects make our books sound like everything else out there?

Yes, we can fall into the trap of chasing after trends. In today's highly competitive market, publishers (and writers) want to produce what consumers are buying and what's selling the best.

That means writers are often encouraged to stick with the ideas that have the most commercial appeal. For historicals, we're usually encouraged to stay within the "sweet spot" the mid to late 1800's as well as settings like America or England.

And while writers understand the need to produce what sells, many of us would like to be able to create truly unique, special, one-of-a-kind work. We don't want to have to figure out what's popular or worry about what sells best. We want to focus on producing art.

But because no one wants to have dismal sales statistics, we look for ways to combine our art with the current demand. We find ways to mesh our passions and the stories in our hearts with what is commercially viable. This isn't an impossible task. I've had to do it, to adjust to not just thinking about what I personally want to write, but also looking at what is appealing to readers.

And yet as we move toward making readers happy and giving them what they like, how do we keep from becoming just another Oreo? How do we set ourselves apart from all that's already been done?

I'm still struggling through the issue for myself. But I think part of it is being willing to take some risks, perhaps testing the limits a little. Maybe our ideas won't be radically different, but they hover on the border of unique, so that we can offer something different but still appealing.

After all, we're writers with creative minds. Do you think that if we brainstorm hard enough, that it's possible for us to take the same lump of clay that everyone else has and still shape it into something beautiful and unique?

What do you think? How do you think writers can avoid cookie cutter books? Is it possible to be the one setting the trends rather than chasing them?

18 comments:

  1. I too have seen books that have edited out all the voice in and effort to match all the writing advice. It makes the story sterile and blah.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Jody, Thank you so much for addressing this topic. I'll give one example of what prompted me into thinking about this...in the latest writing craft book I read, it talked about hero/heroine occupation and said that certain occupations should be avoided and gave the example of a funeral director. Honestly, my first thought was why not? Why not have your hero/heroine a funeral director. Sure it isn't as glamorous of a field as a doctor or lawyer but it could bring a unique spin. Maybe it's a bit more challenging but don't we as writers want a challenge? It just made me realize how much I want my writing to be unique, to stand out, to grab attention. Of course we need to have the writing skills to go a long with it. That is why I read craft books and will continue to absorb as much knowledge about the craft as possible. But I've found I don't agree with every single piece of advice. And that's okay.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I loved your questions, Shelly! Thank you so much for bringing up this topic!

      Now that I've been working with my publisher for several years, I can honestly say that YES there are definitely subjects/stories/plot lines/etc. that are avoided.

      In other words, a publisher always looks at the story from the reader's perspective and has to decide how well topics will be received by the reader. If there are doubts about the majority of those genre readers liking a certain topic (plot line, etc), then the publisher will likely steer clear of the story, especially from a debut author. They may be willing to take a few more risks from an author with an established readership. And while the writing might be unique, above-average, and even knock-your-socks off, if the publisher doesn't feel they can sell the story, then they'll likely pass.

      Delete
    2. Love it, Shelly! One of my WIPs actually does have a sexy funeral director as a prominent character...he is the hero of the romance thread (the story is women's fiction). But I've always been one to march to my own beat. I dislike writing family stories because they all seem the same to me...either all boys, all girls, or if mixed the girl is always the youngest, with her brothers watching out for her as they would if she were 6 years old...the matchmaking, domineering mother anxious to see all her children settled down...the obligatory scenes where the entire family gets together...if I have nothing new to add, why bother?

      Did I mention I'm now an indie writer? Best set o circumstances in the world for an independent thinker like me.

      Delete
  3. I prefer homemade cookies shaped by hands rather than cutters! I think that also applies to my taste in literature: even if authors start with the same recipe and ingredients, the best learn to adapt these to create something better. Just as few cooks start out by randomly bunging stuff in a bowl, aspiring writers usually need to learn the basics and master these techniques before advancing. Learning the nuts and bolts helps (or should help) writers learn not only what works, but why. That way, when they experiment with their writing, they have the skills to analyse what works. I think this is essential, because many novice writers I've met (myself included!) tend to be either over-conident or extremely self-critical. This often means that the self-critical don't recognise the best parts of their work and lack the confidence to take risks, whereas the over-confident think their third-rate rip off of Kerouac/Woolf/Burroughs is brilliant and tend to ignore constructive criticism. In short, you've got to learn cookie cutter writing and then take it to the next level(s)!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Jodi: Saw the link on twitter and got captured by the idea cookie cutter writing.

    I've been in hundreds of these conversations over the years, and I've been on all sides of the issue (as writer, reviewer, and editor).

    Your marvelous title, though, illuminated a new side to this topic. The reason it is insoluble is the way the PROBLEM is stated, not the difficulty of the problem.

    It's like Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover saying that this person doesn't know which end of a sword to take hold of.

    We, as writers, actually don't know where our frustration is coming FROM - we don't have the perspective or training to understand THE PROBLEM and define it in a way that makes it soluble.

    Let me just suggest here (and I'll have to discuss this in depth on aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com in my Tuesday writing craft posts) that we, as writers, can't solve this problem because it's not a writing problem.

    It's not "cookie cutter" writing that is causing this issue.

    It's not even "cookie cutter" editing/publishing that's causing it.

    It is COOKIE CUTTER READING that is causing it.

    It is a marketing problem, but marketers follow the market. Marketers serve their market. Market makers don't actually make the market, they just gather it together in the Market Square on Market Day -- putting all those who want a certain thing in the same place at the same time. A "Market" is a "Place" and Market Makers Make the place, not the people.

    So who makes the people WANT a particular type, format, subject, setting, genre of story?

    It is not writers who make the WANT -- writers work through marketers (Editors, Publishers, Publicists). Publicists only tell those who WANT that "here is what you want." They can't make people want. They can lie and say this is what you want when they know it isn't and rack up huge sales figures, but they can't make a want.

    Who makes a want?

    As you can see, this is a wide, deep, far-reaching and fascinating topic for fictioneers to kick around. Lots of plot and story material lurks beneath the depths of this analysis.

    Thank you for this post.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg
    http://jacquelinelichtenberg.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I can see your point. Supply and demand drive what sells and what doesn't. Writers are encouraged to write to the demand. And that's only natural since publishers must make money to stay in business (and writers who are self-publishing). Even so, I think writers can still strive to add their own spin and uniqueness to stories and avoid the production line feel.

      As far as marketing setting trends? Not sure if I agree on that. Marketing and publicity can pump up a book and start the buzz, but ultimately readers' word-of-mouth is what will make that book successful or not. Readers are too smart to be "told" what they must like to read. The story either captivates or it doesn't.

      Great topic to kick around! Thanks for adding to the discussion!

      Delete
  5. I've never written any stories about vampires or S&M because I know nothing about those things; I figure that if I tried, the stories really would end up being one of those cookie cutter types. Not to mention I haven't even read 50 Shades of Grey, and I was only able to sit through the first Twilight movie. I'd rather just write about the stuff that I'm familiar with and that interests me.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Just a comment on something Shelly Daum said regarding the avoidance of certain occupations in a story. When she mentioned funeral directors I immediately thought of the wonderful little Fairlawn series by Angela Hunt. I so enjoyed those stories. It gave me a new appreciation of the dignity and ministry in the profession of funeral directors. So, all you wonderful authors out there, go out on a limb and sell all of your creative ideas to your publishers! If you've already established a following of your books, I think your readers would love some fresh information. These are just a few thoughts from a devoted reader.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Jodie,

    This is the perfect follow up post to "Are We Turning Into a Culture of Picky Readers". Excellent topic!

    And now... a little analogy.

    Imagine you're a race horse. Just born, trying out your legs. Learning to walk, then to run. You spend your days romping with Mom, racing around with the other little race horses in your pasture. Seeing who's the fastest and can go the farthest. Having a good time and reveling in what you can do.

    Then you grow up. You go to a stable where you learn to wear a bridle and a saddle and carry a rider. Seems awfully boring and restrictive. A lot to learn and not much running.

    Until the first time you hit the track then - wow! - this is what you were born for. Running! Oh boy! Let's go!

    But there are still things to learn. Rules to learn and obey (if you're a good race horse and you are). Things like that dreaded starting gate (why do I have to stand still for so long?) and running in close quarters with other horses. Oh, and listening to your jockey, who has a better view than you do, and is also smarter.

    Writers are like race horses. The difference is that the race horse learns how to run fast first, in the freedom of its paddock and with only one teacher, it's mother, and the encouragement of a handful of friends (fellow little race horses).

    It's not until after the little race horse grows up and goes into training that it learns the rules of proper racing and winning. Those rules build on the natural talent and personality of the race horse to make it a better race horse. The best race horse it can be. Maybe the next Secretariat.

    Writers, on the other hand, go directly from being born (deciding to become a writer) to immersing themselves in the rules. If they manage to avoid utter discouragement, they then read what other writers are doing and try to do the same. They read popular books and try to mimic them. They read popular authors and try to sound just like whichever author they've read.

    Consequently, they miss the part of the process in which they find their own legs, their own voice, and their own special talents.

    It's going to sound odd, but it seems the best course of action for a new writer is to finish a couple of manuscripts first. Maybe more. Just tell stories. Be like that little race horse and don't worry about the rules of the game, just write.

    I finished six manuscripts (one of them multiple times) before I ever heard of writing rules. I'd already discovered my writing voice, I knew the types of stories I liked to tell, and how I liked to tell them.

    The more I learned about the rules of writing, the more things I found that needed to be corrected, but like the little race horse that went into training knowing it had the basic skills - it knew how to run - I knew I had the basic skill. I could tell a story. The rules were the fine-tuning that was necessary to make me a better writer.

    I haven't arrived yet. I hope to never arrive in the sense that I think I know everything.

    But I learned valuable lessons about finding solutions to a number of common writing problems before I ever consciously tried to learn how to write.

    It has made a world of difference in the long run.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Gawd, what a perfect analogy! *claps slowly*

      Delete
    2. Beautiful analogy! Thanks for sharing it!

      I completely agree with beginners writing a couple novels without worrying about "rules." I really think the first step for all writers is fostering the creative side of the brain. I teach a young writers class and I focus on creativity. I don't correct the kids' techniques or style or anything. In other words, at that stage, "anything goes." They're just learning to tell a story. The techniques will come later. And then after they learn the techniques, they can hone them and use them to their advantage.

      Delete
  8. "Oonce we learn the foundational elements that go into crafting a story, then we're ready to use those techniques to our unique advantage.*

    Well said, Jody. Great post, as usual!

    (I love coming here)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Veronica! I always love when you visit! :-)

      Delete
  9. Like Picasso, learn the rules first, then tweak them to make them uniquely yours.

    ReplyDelete
  10. This is a really interesting discussion on a topic that I find frustrates and fascinates with equal measure.

    I've been writing for some years, no doubt for the same core reasons other writers write. For my part I view it much like arts and crafts knowing that as soon as the notion of engaging readers turns to a wish, it becomes a product and subject to the laws of supply and demand. And like so many others it seems, it's the laws of supply and demand I find frustrating.

    As a craft, writing is quite rightly governed by rules of language and structure. But as a product it seems to be governed by people who spend their lives avoiding risk. I agree that the cause lies with marketing bods who see themselves as shepherds of a vast flock of unimaginative readers wearing a hole in their comfy chairs. But it also lies with publishers who have their feet firmly planted in finance and corporate image.

    I have no doubt that the market prefers the familiar and demographics have preferences, but why should risk be considered such a four letter word. A market is an entity that has a life of its own, doesn't always respond to paternalistic influences and has been known to buck a trend.

    Sometimes it's hard to fathom the powers that be's view of fiction and fiction writers as something so scary they have to be harnessed and fiction readers so dim and timid they have to be led.

    Fiction is fact reformatted and retold and as there is nothing new under the sun, a writer can't, in theory, produce content so novel it's scary, just scarily bad writing.

    For a time I gave up writing, the vision of a Faschist dictatorship manacling literary creatives to strict formula writing for fear of unhinging the proletariat far too depressing.

    Maybe, due to the influence of less restricted choice, the market is changing and the irritation of cookie cutting will be overtaken by the unrestricted expression of unique writers and individual readers.

    Then again maybe restrictions are there to make you work harder and smarter to overcome them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Suzi. All of the "restrictions" can push us to work harder with what we've got in front of us on the table. But at the same time for those who wish to break outside the bounds and do art their own way, fortunately the publishing world is opening up with self-publishing and small presses. There really are no limits. Writers can write what they want (outside the accepted methods), and they can still publish. Now whether they'll find readers who are interested in reading what they write, that's yet to be seen! :-)

      Delete

© All the articles in this blog are copyrighted and may not be used without prior written consent from the author. You may quote without permission if you give proper credit and links. Thank you!