Friday, February 02, 2007

Fearing Cliches

The Big N has had a long past. Okay, not so long. It would have been written a year ago, had I not picked up Robert Doherty's Bodyguard of Lies. You see, he'd come up with the same premise I'd come up with: a spy trained without her knowledge.

Fine, fine. I re-vamped, threw out my plot. Came up with a new one, wrote a couple more chapters. (I kinda liked my old plot, though, darnitall.)

And then I discovered Ted Bell. Lord Alexander Hawke was awfully close to my character's name: Alyx Hawke.

(Kinda glad I lost that name.)

Honestly, I swear to dog and heaven, I had not remembered or known any of the above before I picked the exact same name/plot twist. So I sat stumped for two months, avidly reading everything I could get my hands on for fear I'd write something that had already been written.

As I bet you know, this made matters worse. Not only had every idea I'd come up with been done before, it'd been done better than I could do it!

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago. I picked up a book. Totally cliche plot. Totally! Get this:

Abused wife; abusive husband who's a cop so she can't file charges; wife runs away.

Erm, how many books have you read with that premise? With that opening? How many storylines based on that exact same situation?

Here's one: Stephen King's Rose Madder. (You probably thought of it right off the bat.) It's taken me awhile to get back to King. When I was young and read horror, I was in the Koontz camp. Sure, I read King now and then. The TV premiere of Carrie was a Big Deal when I was young, showing on one of the three channels we received. (Hah! Amazing how time changes the world so quickly!)

Anyway, I picked up Rose Madder and couldn't put the book down. Cliche opening through and through. Not a single surprise. And you know what? It was totally freaking awesome. Amazing!

How did he do it? First of all, he never settles for cliche. He's an author that digs deep into character, so deep that you can't take your eyes away. I mean, it's so good it's freakin' insane. I'd have to quote the whole opening to you, and when would I stop? I doubt Blogger would let me post the whole entire book in one post. And I think that would infringe on copyright, LOL!

Second, he crafts a story. Hook, mystery, and craft. No, make that Craft with a capital C, not to sound pretentious. The abused wife who's lost a baby (because he punched her in the stomach) and who's almost died several times, finally leaves over--get this!--one drop of blood. One drop! How perfect is that? I couldn't tear my eyes away!

I'm clamping my mouth shut. I'll ruin perfection if I talk about it. Geezuz, it's so damn good I want to cry. Seriously.

But what I've learned? Cliches don't mean a thing, if you dig deep and craft a story.

Especially if you're as good as Stephen King.

And I'd thought I'd almost talked myself out of fearing them ...

14 bonus scribbles:

StarvingWriteNow 2/02/2007 06:48:00 AM  

There's a book out there somewhere that talks about the fact that when you boil all literature down to the basics there's only about 12 main story plots. Just because whatshisname did a story about a spy trained without her knowledge doesn't mean you can't use that same premise--just go off in your own direction and make it BETTER. It's how you approach it that makes it your own. You have the talent and the drive to kick ass. So go do it!

Bailey Stewart 2/02/2007 12:15:00 PM  

It's true - storylines have been used, abused, vamped and revamped through the ages. It's in the telling of the story that counts. Pick you plot and spin it well.

Brenda Oig 2/02/2007 01:26:00 PM  

I know exactly what you mean. I'd just begun a book, one that had been sitting in my brain for several years and one I was really excited about, when I picked up a book by Jodi Picoult and it was almost the same plot! I'd never read this book before or even heard of it and yet there it was. I got this sick feeling in my stomach, but then I read on. I was relieved to find out that it was different enough that I could carry on.

It's true that there are only so many plots out there, but if you focus on making the story your own and give it your all, it will be unique.

Holly Kennedy 2/02/2007 02:04:00 PM  

Great. Now you're got me so curious about Rose Madder I've got to head into the city this aft and buy it! I didn't NEED a trip into the city, especially with all this snow we're getting, but... I now have no choice or it'll bug me all weekend. I'm dying to read it!
Thanks. Really. :)

Avery 2/02/2007 04:59:00 PM  

I went through the same issues when I was writing my novel. It seems like the universe knows what you're trying to do and makes sure that when you go to a bookstore every book in your path nearly gives you a heart attack with its similarities to yours.

Like Starvingwritenow said, there are very few plots to choose from. But, if you own your characters and details, and you stay true to the story that's in your head, it can't fail to be different. It all boils down to your unique perspective.

Kate S 2/02/2007 05:28:00 PM  

Great post, Spy. I guess we all know that feeling, and it's AWFUL. Happens to me all the time, I think I'm being so original and clever and boom. At least 10 others just like it.

Interesting point about the cliches. Will ponder. :)

spyscribbler 2/03/2007 12:43:00 AM  

I forgot about that book, starvingwritenow. Is that Master Plots? Or something like that. Thanks for the cheer!

So right, Bailey. (And at some point, I'm going to stop saying "Awwwwwwwww" every time I see that little kitten. I've been baby-crazy, lately. Evidently it extends to kittens, LOL.)

spyscribbler 2/03/2007 12:47:00 AM  

You're right, Brenda. That was the feeling, exactly! It was a year ago, and I didn't know then what I know now. I think it's re-surfacing in a different way, though. Yay!

Oh Holly, this is really one to read! It is heart-gripping, soul-gripping ... it's one of those books where you're so drawn in that you feel like you're the heroine. (Added you to my links, finally! And btw, your Tin Box has been in my "friends" pile while I write, lately.) :-)

spyscribbler 2/03/2007 12:50:00 AM  

You're so right, Avery. And one always has to confront and overcome the fear of whether or not one has a unique perspective, LOL.

Thanks Kate! It IS awful! Agonizing! Totally that sick feeling that Brenda described. What can you do?

Edie 2/03/2007 09:35:00 PM  

Spy, the same thing happened to me when I first started writing. Only it was a movie that came out with a plot identical to my book. Now I don't worry about things like that. I figure I'll write it differently or the characters will be different. If it has the same twist, I would have to find a different twist.

BTW, look how many modern versions there are of Jane Austen's books. And they proudly put this information on the book cover. LOL

writtenwyrdd 2/05/2007 04:53:00 PM  

There are so many books, don't stop just because you find ones you never heard of that have the same plot! Write it well.

Serendipidously (is that a word?) I ran across this page today: Author Lawrence Watt-Evans writes about cliche. About rules. About how there really aren't any hard and fast rules and cliche is okay if you write it well (it's not boring.)

Good luck with your project!

spyscribbler 2/05/2007 08:18:00 PM  

Thanks, writtenwyrdd!

I checked out that website; thanks! I've never been there. Good site!

The Dark Scribe 2/06/2007 10:03:00 PM  

This happens to me, too, but usually not on such a grand scale. Rather than a whole plot that's the same, lots of specifics turn up. For instance, in my novel, my protagonist drives an old Chevy that's "suffering from an advanced state of leprosy." Okay, sure, maybe not as clever as I thought when I first wrote it, but imagine my surprise when, about six months after I wrote that line, Joshua Spagnole's Isolation Ward uses the same description of a car, almost word for word! And, in the same book, his protagonist's name is the same as mine (last name). And that's just one example.

I've long believed that writers dip into a communal well for their ideas, and some of us show up in the afternoon, while all the early-risers scooped up the good ideas. (Speaking of this idea, and Stephen King, he wrote about "the pool where we all go down to cast our nets" in Lisey's Story...yet another case of shared ideas).

I think we just have to do the best we can, and try to make everything we write our own. To make it shine with our individualized knowledge and emotions.

After all, you could give the same plot to a thousand people and ask them to write a story, and in the end, you'd have a thousand different stories.

spyscribbler 2/06/2007 11:19:00 PM  

Oh! I want to read Lisey's Story. How was it? It's on my TBR list for this year.

Yet another example of why the early bird gets the worm. Of course, if we stayed up later the night before, wouldn't we get the room? (Now that statement shows I need to go to bed, LOL...)