I was nineteen years old, a freshman in college. I'd started out as an acting major, but by this time I'd switched to theatre education. I'd already decided that I was going to devote my life to writing, but I figured I needed a job while I was cranking out those first million practice words. I was interested in teaching, and my degree included a concentration in English, so I figured I'd teach high school while I wrote on the side, until I became rich and famous and could retire from teaching to write full time. (However, when I finally did my student teaching my last quarter in college and saw what working in a high school was really like, I lost no time applying for graduate school so I could teach at the college level -- but I digress.)
The best teacher I ever had was Dr. Jeffrey Huberman, the professor who taught my acting class. We all hated him at first because he was strict and demanding, and we were lazy middle-class kids used to vegging out in front of the TV in those pre-Internet, pre-Facebook, pre-video game days (unless you count Space Invaders and Asteroids). But most of all, we hated Dr. Huberman because he refused to accept anything less than great work from us. He repeatedly told us that we all were capable of greatness. We just needed to believe it, reach down deep inside ourselves, and never give anything less than our absolute best. But he didn't do this in a rah-rah cheerleader kind of way. No, his way was absolutely terrifying. He acted as if our potential was a simple fact, no more remarkable than 1+1=2. Whenever we performed a scene in class, instead of saying, "Begin," Dr. Huberman repeated the famous challenge Sergei Diaghilev gave to Jean Cocteau: "Astonish me."
At first we resisted trying to live up to what he believed we could do, but then -- little by little --the scenes we performed in class became electric, alive with tension and passion. Drama in the truest, best sense of the word.
At the time I'd already written a couple unpublishable novels, a dozen or more unpublishable stories, and a couple unpublishable plays. Like a lot of college kids in Dayton, Ohio, I hung out at the weekly midnight Saturday showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Little Art Theatre, and since I'd loved horror all my life, I figured I'd try my hand at crafting a horror musical. So I wrote the script and lyrics for songs. No music, though. I figured I'd need a collaborator for that. You know, someone with actual musical ability. And when I was finished writing, I took everything to Dr. Huberman and -- nervously -- asked him to read it and tell me what he thought. I honestly didn't expect him to do it, figured he was too busy, but he agreed, and a week later he told me to come to his office to talk about my play.
The first thing he did was point to portion of a scenery description I'd written that said " . . . standard horror shit." It had only been a note to myself, and I was embarrassed that I'd forgotten to change it to more professional language. I started to explain that I wouldn't use the word "shit" in the final product, but Dr. Huberman cut me off. It wasn't the expletive that bothered him. It was the word "standard." He said that while there was some fun stuff in my play, most of it was nothing but a rehash of well-worn horror tropes. Why would I choose to write standard anything? After all, I was capable of so much more. He knew it. And, after having been in his acting class for a while at that point, so did I.
So I trashed that version of the play -- though I kept the awful title, Dementia Praecox -- and wrote a brand-new, much more original, and far better version. Which of course still wasn't good enough to be produced, but it was a hell of lot closer.
Dr. Huberman taught me never to settle. Unfortunately, it's a hard lesson to pass on to beginning writers. We all live in a world where the lowest common denominator is king, and mass media is about serving the audience whatever will bring in the most profit as quickly as possible . We watch TV shows and movies that are copies of copies of copies, and just like a degraded Xerox image, resolution is lost with each succeeding generation until the image becomes a meaningless blob. We learn that imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery, it's one of our culture's most cherished values. And what happens when an original work of art finally comes along? If it becomes popular and makes money -- let the copying and mass production begin!
But the coin of the realm isn't always money. Sometimes it's praise or critical approval. Literary writers are just as capable and guilty of playing the copying game as entertainment-focused writers, even if they often only get paid in exposure (and if they're academics, having something to put on their tenure applications). How many clones of Raymond Carver have their been over the last thirty years? How many short stories dealt with AIDs in the eighties? With cancer in the nineties? With middle-aged children struggling to take care of infirm parents now? Want to write a serious, important literary story? You have to tackle whatever serious subject matter is currently in vogue.
So, whether you write genre fiction or literary fiction, or some blend of both, how do you go about becoming original? Here are some tips.
- Read a hell of a lot. You'd think this would be a no-brainer, but far too many beginners want to write without having done much reading. (How and why this occurs is unfathomable to me, and o every other professional writer I've ever spoken with about it. My theory is these beginners would rather be making movies, but that's too much work, involves too many other people , and requires wads of cash, equipment, and technical training, so they settle for trying to write fiction.) The more you read, in and out of your chosen genre, the more you'll come to realize that maybe the world doesn't need any more stories like "The last man and woman to survive the nuclear holocaust are really Adam and Eve!" or "Oh my gosh! The narrator dies in the end and he's really a ghost!" Knowing what's come before will keep you from reinventing the wheel.
- Be careful of jumping on bandwagons. Like zombie stories? Want to write a zombie story because they're popular right now and you think you'll have a better chance of selling one? Maybe. But every other eager writer out there is thinking the same damned thing, and they're all writing the same zombie story you are. If you must write a zombie story, try to pursue an angle you haven't seen before. I once had a student write about a man whose dog had become a zombie, and how the man tried to deny what had happened and pretend the dog -- his only friend in the zombie-decimated world -- was still normal. Nothing standard about that.
- Don't go with your first idea. Or even your second. And be suspicious of your third one. No matter how hard we all try, the first ideas we come up with are often retreads of something we've seen or read before -- without our realizing it. Toss out your first few ideas or at least keep massaging them until they're no longer run-of-the-mill.
- Examine your idea from every angle. This goes back to the zombie dog story. Whenever I come up with an idea, I imagine it as a physical object that I can pick up and literally examine from all angles. Want to write about space explorers? Every heard of a little TV show called Star Trek? Try a different angle. What if instead of exploring, the space travelers in your story work to keep other races from inventing space travel -- perhaps for these races' own safety? Or what if, instead of finding all sorts of cool and interesting species and phenomena in space, your explorers -- maybe after centuries of searching -- haven't found anything of particular interest in the galactic void. Would would they do then? Quit? Or try to create a more interesting universe to explore? And then perhaps erase all knowledge that they did so from their minds, so that they would then have something unknown to encounter, something they would have no idea they were responsible for making.
- Begin with the end. Many beginners save their best idea for the end of their story. You should begin with your best idea and make the story even more awesome as you go. An example I always use is the horror story cliche of the disembodied hand. At the end of this story the (gasp!) living hand grabs hold of the throat of the person who killed the hand's owner and the rampaging appendage exacts righteous retribution. (Cue scary music, roll credits.) In "The Body Politic" Clive Barker begins with the notion that not only is one hand possessed of life separate from the body, but all of our hands possess separate intelligence, and they're sick of doing our constant bidding and being our slaves. They're waiting for a messiah to appear and lead them in a revolution, where they will finally escape the "tyranny the body" and be free to forge their own destiny. In this story, Barker takes the end of the cliched story -- the hand is alive! -- begins with it, expands it, then runs with it.
- Rub two ideas together and see what happens. Take two unconnected ideas -- say, a firefighter experiences panic attacks whenever he or she tries to enter a burning building, and a child has terrible nightmares each night about a clown that stands at the foot of the bed, giggling softly. How do you make a single story out of these ideas? Damned if I know. I just made them up a couple moments ago. But I'd begin by exploring connections between them. Are the firefighter and the child related? Is the firefighter the child all grown up? Could the clown be connected with fire somehow? Maybe the child, terrified, tried to burn the clown one night and ended up burning down the house? Maybe now the adult firefighter is starting to hear a clown giggling whenever he/she tries to enter a burning building. I could keep going from here. Maybe I'd change the clown into something else since scary clowns are a cliche. Or maybe I'd have the clown be an image the child projected over the reality of an abusive father. I don't know. I'm not getting paid to work on this story, so I'm dropping it here. Any of you who want to steal it and run with, feel free. If you do, just name the kid Timmy, okay?
- Write what you -- and only you -- know. Instead of drawing your ideas from the bottomless well of pop culture detritus we all have within us, try drawing ideas from your own experiences and observations. The more you can be aware of the things you see, think, and feel, the more you can develop stories only you can tell. For example, a year ago a group of workers from Florida moved into the apartment above mine for a (thankfully) temporary stay. Five very sketchy-looking guys who were drunk every night and who exhibited some, shall we say, less-than-normal behavior. Eventually they moved, but the experience of my wondering just what the hell they were doing up there every night, gave me the idea for my upcoming small-press novella The Men Upstairs. I know the story is original, because a good part of it really happened, and it happened to me and only me out of all the people on the planet. (Well, technically, most of it happened above me, I suppose, but you get the point.) And just as I turned that experience into a horror story, you can take your experiences and, with a little imagination, turn them into ideas for mystery, romance, thriller, fantasy, science fiction stories.
So, to wrap it up, don't settle, try to astonish us. And in the process, you just might end up astonishing yourself.
Department of Shameless Self-Promotion
My novel Ghost Trackers, written in collaboration with Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson of the Ghost Hunters TV show on the SyFy Channel, is out this month. Not only would it make a great read for Halloween, you can buy several dozen and hand them out to all the trick-or-treaters who knock on your door. But you might want to look through the peephole first before you open the door, just in case there's a clown standing on your porch, smelling faintly of smoke, and giggling softly. . .