I've been writing creative projects since I was six years old. I was already an avid and above-grade-level reader by then, so my mom and I decided that for an end-of-year class project, I'd explore various types of writing: poetry, picture books, personal narratives.
I loved it. I've always had a vibrant imagination, full of magic and romance, and this gave me a way to preserve that, to explore it, and to share it. At the end of the project, I read a picture book I'd written to my brother's preschool and then presented them a copy to keep. In that moment, with all those little faces looking up at me, I knew this was something I wanted.
By the time I was nine years old, I'd started trying to write a full-length novel. There were many, many failed attempts. But already I knew that I wanted to become a published author. I wanted to have my book bound with a publisher name and a copyright symbol. I wanted to see it on the library shelves. I wanted it to be read by an audience, so I could touch the world, make a difference in it. At the time, I was still fluidly considering a number of careers, but writing seemed like a really good way to reach out. (And I'll admit it: I was precocious, I liked being complimented by adults, and I wanted to be the amazing genius kid who got published at a young age.)
When I was eleven years old, I finished my first "novel." I still think of it as my first today, but in reality, I had no idea how long a novel was supposed to be. The goal I'd set for myself as being a "novel" was 100 pages. I wouldn't learn until later that year about the ins and outs of publishing, including the fact that novels are measured by word count, with 40,000 words being the acceptable minimum for a middle grade novel. So was it really a novel? Probably technically not. But to me it was, and I finished my second in short order. When I was twelve, I sent out my first batch of query letters.
Writing is an art. It's creative exploration of the self and the world, and it has to be developed as a storytelling craft. But as soon as you decide you want to submit your writing for publication, it becomes something else besides art: business. Publication requires you to market your book to agents and editors so that they'll take the project on. After all, preparing and printing a book takes money. And then, once your book is published, you have to market to an audience of readers. The querying author has to gain a sense not just of good craft but of the market, and one thing is key for all marketing: you have to have something special to sell. You have to have a product that has enough uniqueness to grab attention and make consumers interested. When that product is a piece of art, you need creativity and originality.
People often think that anyone who engages in a creative hobby or job is, by nature, creative. And there's a definition to the word that upholds that, looking at creativity as simply being the trait of someone who creates. But a deeper definition of creativity requires someone who thinks differently from others. No art is truly original, you can say, but the novels that sell well always have unique bits and pieces to tout. New twists on old tropes. New perspectives. New story forms.
I am not creative. I am not original. I have never been an out-of-the-box thinker. I've always been the boring, innocent goody-goody who follows all the rules. A lot of that does relate to my OCD, but pure and simple, I've never been someone who likes to push boundaries. I like to work with the system, not against it. I care a lot about morality. I am, as they say in DnD, Lawful Good.
So while some people might see me as creative, people who know art know better. My greatest nemeses were the English teachers who wrote poetry and other creative works of their own, because while they recognized my intelligence and appreciated me for not making things difficult in class, I could always see, in their eyes, that they didn't believe I would ever achieve any kind of greatness, artistic or otherwise. I'm simply too boring
One trait that I do have in my favor as a writer seeking publication, though, is stubbornness, in all its forms. I'm tenacious. I'm loyal. I'm perseverant. I'm resilient. I make decisions, and I stick to them. I do not give up. And from the moment I started querying, I knew that I would face a lot of criticism and a lot of rejection. That's just par for the course. I also knew that I could withstand all of that. I knew that eventually, if I kept trying, I would get published. So I swore to myself I'd never give in. (Of course, at the time, I had a very naive belief in my own greatness, but the sentiment still stands.)
I'm nearing twenty-five now, and I've spent all these years writing new book after new book, and querying a few of those. I've delighted in challenging myself with different aspects of the craft. I've worked through a massive number of personal issues through my writing. I've enjoyed the enthusiasm of the little "fan base" of beta readers I've built up. But, as is inevitable when you have someone who's not very creative making a real effort to market their work, I've also hit the point, a few times in my life, where I've had to confront the fact that nothing I've written so far is original enough. This is always wrenching for me, because it feels like I'm giving up on all the time and energy and passion that I put into those novels.
But my trunked works aren't a waste, and I always have to remind myself of that. Every sentence I write is practice that helps me improve my craft. Every book I've written has helped me to cope with and better understand the problems I face in real life. I'm constantly resurrecting the good pieces of previous works in my later books. And I have enjoyed, not every step, but a lot of the steps on my long, long, long path as a writer. So those books aren't a waste. But they are, in a lot of ways, a disappointment.
Over the past couple of months, I've been having a slow crisis as I've hit one of those points again. It came to a head during WriteOnCon, when I realized once more that, yes, almost all of the books I've written are still not original enough. I'm twenty-four-years-old, I've written nineteen novels, and I have now trunked all but two of them. And one of those is probably going to end up being trunked too, but I really want to do some more rewriting on it for practice first.
At this point, I'm kinda ashamed. Very few writers have to write nineteen novels before they get to be good enough for publication. Most writers have a few practice runs first, but nineteen is... a lot. (And that's not even including the novels that I abandoned before I finished writing them.) It really goes to show how crappy I am at this originality piece. Now, to be fair, not all of my novels were trunked because of originality. Some were trunked for other reasons that made them unviable. For example:
My first "novel" I deleted in a fit of self-hatred when I got my first piece of criticism. Doing that, by the way, is VERY MUCH NOT RECOMMENDED. My third novel relied on a "monster of the week" format that didn't really support an overarching plot. My fourth novel didn't have a real plot, either. My fifth was a sci-fi novel that did not make any scientific sense. My sixth was a very bad attempt at realistic fiction that was far too close to life. My seventh I lost interest in almost immediately after finishing, though I do plan on rewriting it into a new book someday. My eighth was written during my worst episode of OCD, and it reeked of desperation. My ninth book, though it got me the best query response rate I've ever had, included a very bad attempt at writing war, as well as a few other implausibilities. My fifteenth is a bit of an odd case, because there's nothing technically wrong with it, but it just doesn't fit the brand and the career trajectory I want. My seventeenth and eighteenth books were part of a series that relied on a problematic representation of disability, which is not what I want to be promoting.
So that leaves me with eight books, six of which were trunked due to issues with originality. My second book had a ton of potential, but in the end, it relied on a handful of tropes (Chosen One, lost princess, dead parents) and a plot style (portal fantasy) that are too worn down to use without a solid twist. My tenth, eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth books were based too strongly on Maximum Ride and related tropes. My sixteenth book was a sequel to my ninth, and though decently written, it relied on many fanfic-style tropes with nothing original to support them. (I've also written a novel-length fanfic, which you could theoretically kind of count as my twentieth book, and it was quite nice to ignore originality altogether there.)
That leaves my fourteenth and my nineteenth books: THE PROPHECY KEEPER and CUCUY. I have a huge plan for this massive rewrite of THE PROPHECY KEEPER that I've only halfway finished, and I want to see it through. I think it'll be key to my development as a fantasy writer. But PK does rely on a handful of tired tropes, and I'm unsure whether it has enough unique bits to hold it up. Not to mention, I have no idea how I'd condense it into a compelling pitch! CUCUY, I feel solid on, at least compared to most my work, and I intend to query it eventually.
Some people would say that, if my books are good but not original enough to query, I should just self-publish them. There's no need to deal with the gatekeepers of the industry in the modern world of e-books, after all! My response to that has always been a solid no, and it continues to be a no for three reasons. One, self-publishing is a business choice that, if you're looking to be successful, requires a lot of money upfront and a willingness to do most of the work yourself. I'd much rather collaborate with others who are experts in their areas of publishing so that I can focus on writing. (Also, I don't have money.) Two, self-publishing just doesn't have the prestige of traditional publishing .Not everyone wants or needs prestige, but it can really help you to sell your book to readers, booksellers, and librarians. Also... I want it. ? Three, most importantly, I trust the agents and editors who gatekeep for the industry. They are the experts. If they don't think my books are both good enough and marketable enough to be worth printing, I believe them.
That isn't to say that the gatekeepers aren't ever wrong. But if they're all saying no, then there are three explanations: I'm being rejected because of prejudices related to my marginalized identities (very unlikely in my case), my book has a very niche audience that gatekeepers can't pander to (untrue in my case), or my book just isn't sellable in any genuine way. I'm not looking to just publish a couple of books and let a handful of friends buy them online. I'm looking to have a real career with a decent audience where I can make a difference in people's lives. That means I have to live up to the standards of the gatekeepers. (Of course, trends in the marketplace can affect the responses you get at any given time, but trends change. It's not too hard to work around them if you're patient and you stay up to date on industry news.)
In the end, originality and creativity are two aspects of craft as important as any other. Like any other part of the craft, I have to practice and improve on them. Maybe that'll take nineteen manuscripts; maybe it'll take a hundred. But as I said earlier, I'm stubborn, and I'm willing to keep working until I get there. And as I said in last week's post, at the core of my desire for a writing career is my love of writing. Even if I decided today to give up on my dream of publication, I would still write novels--one after another, year after year, with all sorts of new ideas and challenges. Because I love it. I don't see that ever changing. So I might as well try to publish the books I write, since I'm going to be writing them anyway!
For now, I'll keep trying to think more outside the box while staying true to who I am and the stories I want to tell. Until then. I can be happy knowing that at least my beta readers like me. ?
That's today's post! Share your thoughts about creativity and originality, and I'll be back next week with a speedlinking post!
Images via moody.af.mil, Velvet Brandon on Pinterest, NjoyHarmony on Pixabay, and giphy.com.
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