Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Where Do You Get Your Ideas? (And Does It Matter?)

"Where do you get your ideas?"

I mean, really, is there any other question so ubiquitous in the life of an author?

That said, it’s also a GREAT question because I know as a reader I often find myself looking up from the page and thinking, “I wonder how the author came up with this?”

After all, since the birth of the Internet we all have access to scads and scads of information. So how can it be that two people might look at the same occurrence or the same news article or the same commentary and then disappear into their offices to write two entirely different books? How can it be that Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse (once called her “Southern Vampire” series) be incredibly different from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight? Which is different from Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat? Which is different from Bram Stoker’s Dracula? Which is different from Rosemary Laurey’s Kiss Me Deadly?

Truth to tell, there’s nothing new under the sun. Or, ahem, under the full moon either.

Today I found an old handout from Lou Heckler, one of my favorite speakers. Check him out at http://www.louheckler.com/ It would be difficult to find a more thoughtful, entertaining and erudite platform professional. If you ever get the chance to see him, by all means do. (While you listen, pay careful attention to the structure of his talk. He’s very canny about the order he uses to present and emphasize information. Really, each time he speaks, it’s a master class in the art of giving an effective presentation.) In this particular handout, Lou discussed how “theme” is not the same as “slant.” You see, all those books I mentioned above have vampires as their theme. Each book, however, has a different slant.

Charlaine Harris’s work raises questions about xenophobia, what it means to be human, and whether our prejudices might stem, in part, from our religious beliefs.

Stephenie Meyer’s work takes the form of a romance novel with its extended riff on unfulfilled sexual promise, but she is writing about the trauma of being an awkward teenager.

Anne Rice’s work had a decidedly gothic theme and a religious viewpoint. Their setting—New Orleans—was as vibrant as any character.

Bram Stoker’s work wasn’t the first mention of vampires in literature, but it was probably the great granddaddy of most of what we think about the undead, blood-suckers. Written in epistolary form (diary and newspaper articles provide much of the information), it sprang from the legend of “Vlad the Impaler.” The novel is supposedly a riff on the clash between the new world and the old.

Rosemary Laurey’s work is incredibly romantic and yet very modern. It follows many of the ideals of popular romance novels, but adds in the sort of questions that are part of our zeitgeist.
As I write this, I think of the classes I’ve taught about getting published. Many times students will tell me they fear having their ideas stolen. That’s reasonable. That can happen. But most ideas for books are fungible. It’s the slant, the plotting, and the author’s voice, that make a book unique—and therefore, salable.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Very true. After all, there are only so many basic plots...then we all add a bit of our backgrounds and experiences to make them unique.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Lisa Bork said...

Great post, Joanna. It is the slant, twist, spin...and the voice.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Yep. It's the voice that trumps all, I believe.

Alan Orloff said...

You are so right, Joanna. Ideas are a dime a dozen, but a unique voice is...priceless

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Excellent post, Joanna, and so on point, or should I say on slant? And wonderful use of the current vampire rage as an example.

Several times aspiring writers have come up to me and said: "My idea is just like yours, but better." (Yes, they really do say that!) The answer is: No, it's not. It would just have a different point of view because it would come from you, not me.

This is why so many similar themed books (crafts, ghosts, cooking, etc.) can thrive in a crowded market place. It's all about voice and the unique personal experiences we each bring to our work.