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?