On making it yours…

You may have seen my tweets about the local writing seminar I attended on Saturday (Sumner, Washington’s Write in the Valley, in case you’re wondering). It was a fun event; small and intimate, with a diverse panel. There were traditionally published authors (Kimberly Derting! Love her books!) and self-published authors, authors of fiction and nonfiction, and a Book Doctor who shared all kinds of useful information.

The audience was full of writers, both starting out and experienced, and some fantastic questions and conversations came up. One topic that seemed to dominate much of the discussion, though, was that of plagiarism. People seemed very afraid of copying another writer’s work (unintentionally, I presume) and getting called out on it down the road. They used gentler words to discuss plagiarism (“borrowing” and “honoring”), but the gist was pretty much the same: How can a writer ensure that their work is original when there’s so much published material already out there? 

To be perfectly honest, I’ve never worried about this. There are hundreds of ghost stories on the market, thousands of books set in old houses, innumerable protagonists dealing with the loss of a loved one, countless teens sent to live with relatives, zillions of girls forced to choose between two boys. Yet, I know my story, Where Poppies Bloom, is unique. It’s told from my perspective, with my life experiences to back it up. My characters are original, the setting is my own creation, and my inimitable author voice carries the story. I did the creative work to draft, revise, edit Poppies, and I’m certain that no one else has written (or will write) a story quite like it. Nobody can tell Callie’s story the way I can.

People have been writing stories since they dwelled in caves. To think that you’ve come up with an idea that’s never been done is a little presumptuous and a lot arrogant. My mom and I were just talking about this the other day: She mentioned that every piece of women’s or literary fiction she’s picked up lately has been about a middle-aged, middle-class woman with a cheating husband who has to rebuild her life from scratch. Gosh, I feel like I’ve read that book one or two (or one-hundred) times.

I mean, really… How many fictional YA girls are there out there who have an exceptional ability and are fated to save the world? How many dangerous paranormal boys have we seen fall in love with a Mary Sue? Was Stephenie Meyer the first author to write about vampires? Of course not. Before her was Anne Rice, and before her was Bram Stoker, and before him was John William Polidori. I’m willing to bet every subsequent author drew inspiration from those who came before them. But did they commit an act of plagiarism? No way. They each gave the old vampire tale a spin of their own. Edward Cullen sparkles in the sun… didn’t you hear?

That said, there are only so many basic plots. I’ve found arguments for the idea that there is only one (ONE!) plot with millions of variations. I’ve also seen research that claims there are three (The Basic Patterns of Plot by William Foster-Harris), seven (The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker), twenty (20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them by Ronald Tobias), and thirty-six (Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti).

We can subscribe to whatever idea of maximum number of basic plots we want. What’s important is that we embrace that fact that, when boiled way down, there are only so many original ideas. Every story, at its very core, can be sorted into one of these: man vs. nature, man vs. man, man vs. the environment, man vs. machines/technology, man vs. the supernatural, man vs. self, or man vs. god/religion. It’s what we DO with the fundamental “plot” we choose that makes our stories innovative and imaginative and  memorable and ours.

Tell me… What, in your opinion, makes a story unique? 


20 thoughts on “On making it yours…

  1. Lindsay says:

    Ah, this is a great post Katy. I think you do a good job of drawing a distinction between plagiarizing and taking a concept or equation that’s been around for ages and making it your own. Lovely and very well balanced!

  2. Alison Miller says:

    Wonderful post, Katy. I never really worry about this either because I think it’s a combination of so many things (voice, character, plotline) that makes a story unique. I do get worried when my arrogant self sees that someone else has published something kind of sorta similar to my story, but then I just convince myself that this is a good thing – there’s a market for what I’m writing.

    Have a great week!

    • katyupperman says:

      I do occasionally worry about that too, Alison. Oh no! Another boy-next-door story! I should just give up on mine. But, no, that’s silly because my spin and my characters and my voice and my plot will make MY story totally unique. Thanks, Alison!

  3. Erin Bowman says:

    “It’s what we DO with the fundamental “plot” we choose that makes our stories innovative and imaginative and memorable and ours.”
    ^ THIS! A million times over.

    It is so true. When boiled down, all stories share similar foundations. Truthfully, I think it can almost be argued that all stories are about good vs evil. Man (good) vs man/environment/technology/self/etc (evil). The evil doesn’t always have to be an in-your-face inherent bad, and the good doesn’t always have to be heavenly and pure, but stories are constantly filled with a battle between two opposing powers. They are always about conflict, about overcoming something. Every. Single. One.

    And like you said, it’s HOW the character overcomes things, the details of their journey, that makes a story unique and memorable and completely your own. Love this post, Katy. Fantastic!

    • katyupperman says:

      Thanks so much, Erin! You’re right: When it comes right down to it, every piece of fiction is about good vs. evil. There are just a zillion variations on that them. Thanks again for commenting, and for tweeting about this post. 🙂

  4. Rebecca B says:

    Fantastic post. The same stories have always been recycled–Boccaccio and Chaucer is my favorite example (nerd alert). I think what the p-word comes down to is copyright and intent. If you are intentionally copying other works for your own profit, not okay. If other works are inspiring your unique telling of a story–that’s fine. Good, even!

    • katyupperman says:

      I agree, Rebecca. There are thousands of stories inspired by Cinderella, for example, but I see new variations on that same metamorphosis storyline every month. And apparently I need to read Boccaccio and Chaucer. 🙂

  5. Ciara Knight says:

    This is a fantastic post, Katy. 🙂 I’ve met so many writers who are scared to share their story because some one will steel their idea. I always nod and smile. I think the only thing that makes a story unique is the author’s voice. It’s how the story is presented more than what the story is about. IMHO.

    • katyupperman says:

      I totally agree, Ciara. There are no copyrights on IDEAS because no two people will approach a core idea in the same way. We all have differing life experiences and authorial voices that influence the way we craft a story.

  6. Alicia Gregoire says:

    Awesome post. We talked a lot about this in my old crit group basically because Nemesis truly thought he was writing something original. He couldn’t grasp that it’s his spin that does it, not the essence.

    • katyupperman says:

      He couldn’t grasp that it’s his spin that does it, not the essence.

      Love this! I think many people who are new to the writing world have trouble with this. It’s easy to think you’ve come up with something totally and completely unique, but the second you do, you start hearing and reading about that same idea done tons of different ways. And that’s okay!

  7. lindy says:

    This is so true! Five writers could sit down with the exact same plot and they’d each finish with something completely different. Rachel’s last challenge was a great example of this! I couldn’t believe the number of ideas that sprang from the same first line. Everyone took it and made it their own!

  8. Jessica Love says:

    I love this post, Katy! It’s so true! I don’t really worry that people will “steal” my idea. And if you handed my query to two different people as a prompt and told them “write this story”, even with the character names and basic plot, we would have three very different books.

    I do get sad / disappointed when I read an amazing book where an author accomplished what I wanted to accomplish better than I can, but, you’re right, there are only so many original plots out there.

    I always think of it like cover songs. You can have two songs with the same lyrics and the same music and they can be arranged and performed in such different ways that you can hardly tell they are the same song. The musicians bring such different things to the table.

  9. doreen says:

    Great post Katy! I remember being in a creative writing class and we watched a short movie; maybe 15 minutes. It was a teenage couple at a baseball game. All 25 of us were instructed to write 500 words on what we just watched. All 25 stories were different. Some concentrated on the game, some the couple, some the food and on and on. Everyone has their own voice. At this point in time my first book is non-fiction and I’m possitive no one could tell it the way I did.

    • katyupperman says:

      Thanks, Doreen! That’s a very cool exercise, and a perfect example of how people’s tastes, voice, and previous experiences play into the way they approach writing a story. 🙂

  10. Carolina Valdez Miller says:

    It’s certainly something that’s occurred to me–and blogged about, even. On one hand, it’s a valid concern, insomuch that no one ever really wants to write a story similar to what others are trying to sell. But there’s really no way to know what else is being written and submitted. And of course, like you said, every story has really been written. It’s all about the execution, right?

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