Thursday, April 21, 2011

Derivatives, trends, and you

It's oft-repeated that there are only seven true stories out there in the world, and that all fiction derives in some way from those core tales. Christopher Booker wrote about these seven stories in 2005, and he summarised the plots as:
  • Voyage and Return
  • Overcoming the Monster
  • From Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Tragedy
  • Comedy
  • Rebirth
(See here and here for a bit more detail on what those entail, if it's not obvious enough)

Voyage and Return/ Odysseus

I've always been fascinated by this idea, and I think it's largely true. There are theoretically exceptions to every rule, and stories that involve more than one of these plots, but by and large I'm yet to come across any tale that does not in some way fit one of these categories. If you have, I'd love to hear about it!

My story is a nice mellow blend of Voyage and Return (the brothers go away to war and come home changed), Overcoming the Monster (the monster being war and subsequent shellshock), and Rebirth (with characters overcoming their demons to survive, or at least redeem themselves). There's a little sprinkling or two of Tragedy in there, too.

Overcoming the Monster/ Dracula

At this level of broad, overarching storyline, no-one need worry if their work is derivative- the simple fact is, if you look at it like this, all work is derivative. It's the nature of human storytelling, and as an archaeologist I can tell you the patterns of telling these stories go back tens of thousands of years. They remain relevant and central because they tap into the centre of what it is to struggle and be human.

(If you want to read more on this idea, go check out Austin Kleon's fabulous and inspiring blog post about How to Steal Like an Artist. Go ahead, I'll wait.)

And yet these plots are just sentences, just a few words, if you look at them. What makes your "derivative" work original and different, even when it contains elements of those previously told stories, is your characters, your plots, and above all else, your unique and individual voice.

From Rags to Riches/ My Fair Lady

Angela Meyer at LiteraryMinded wrote an interesting blog post this week about trends in acclaimed Australian fiction over the last few years, in particular in relation to voice. The post was about the Miles Franklin Award shortlist for this year- which, we are pleased to note, contains our recent interviewee Chris Womersley in the final three (congratulations, Chris!). I was reading merrily along until I hit this observation:

But isn’t it striking that Australian life, according to the Miles Franklin judges, is still represented by the past and the outback, and is written in a male voice. Sheep stations, war, colonisation. Like I said, I’m sure the books are good, but I feel the award continues to narrowly define ‘Australian life’

And then, I admit, I broke out into a small amount of cold sweat. Because it so happens that I am, as a budding Australian novelist, also writing about the past, the outback, sheep stations, war, and doing it all using a male point of view.


Have I tripped into dangerous territory without even noticing?

Tragedy/ Othello

I realised last month that there were not one but two current release Australian novels (Bereft, and Traitor, which is next on my TBR pile) on the market right now that deal with World War One, and felt the same twinge of discomfort then. Coming up to ANZAC Day this Monday, I'm reminded again, constantly, of the ever-growing interest in remembering the fallen from the war, and it feels like this is a hot topic at the moment.

I'm not sure what feels worse- the idea that I've missed the boat by not having my story ready for a current trend, or that publishing a First World War novel two or three years from now may be seen as derivative, when I've actually been working on it for more than a decade.

Now, this is where I come back to the seven stories idea. The reality is, each of those First World War novels couldn't be more different in terms of character, plot, setting, genre, and especially voice. Just because they happen to share some things in common- a time, an event, male voice- doesn't make them alike.

The Quest/ The Count of Monte Cristo

Looking at it from the perspective of an individual author, all the advice when it comes to both originality and trends is the same: write the best book you can write. Don't pay attention to trends; they come and go so fast that what you write now to match a trend might be the least popular thing around by the time you get published. Don't worry about what everyone else is doing- only make sure your writing is as good as it can be, and your voice as unique as possible. Work hard, craft a great story, and it's not going to matter what else is happening in the market.

That being said, don't avoid those authors who are writing the same kinds of books you are. They're not your competitors- they're your inspiration, they're your compatriots, and with any luck, your book is going to be snuggling up next to theirs on a shelf one day. So, read them, and appreciate their skill. Let bits and pieces of their writing sink into your mind and inspire you to write at the same level of excellence.

[There was another great blog post recently about why the Australian market is a tough one, but also a uniquely supportive one for authors- worth a read if you're an Aussie.]

Comedy/ Aristophanes- The Frogs

None of this, of course, addresses Angela's concern- just why is it that we're not seeing other fictional aspects of the Australian identity recognised to the same extent? I won't attempt to answer that here, though I have some thoughts I might save for another day.

Rebirth/ It's a Wonderful Life

So, tell me- does your story fit one of those seven plots? Do you worry about being derivative, especially if you're watching market trends in a niche genre? And do you read other authors who are writing similar stories, or avoid them?

And lastly, any Aussies out there writing in that rarest of commodities- female point of view- who'd like to talk exceptions to the rule?


  1. Great post, Claire! I think my WIP blends Overcoming the Monster (Abuse) and Rebirth. My dear Laura Grace needs to be reborn with all her personality evident instead of retired widowhood.

    FWIW, we have to write the story we see and let the trends and derivations fall where they may. I don't think we can hope to succeed when we write something we don't feel.

  2. Thoughtful post, Claire. When I think of Australian literature, the first novel that comes to my mind is Colleen McCullough's "The Thorn Birds," which is from a woman's POV. But that was written almost 35 years ago, too long ago to include in the current trends.

    My own story falls into two categories: Voyage and Return and The Quest. It's set in a time and place that I'm fairly sure no matter how long I take, the story won't become a derivative of a trend. (wry grin) It may not ever see the light of day due to its unpopular time period.

    Your story, OTH, has many merits, including its plot, memorable characters and unique voice - all things that help sell a book no matter what.

  3. Re "Australian life" - I think it's probably a matter of categorising, rather than there not being any female POV/contemporary/urban Australian books out there.

    Off the top of my head for some authors of contemporary books set in Australia - John Marsden, Melina Marchetta, Elizabeth Honey, Kerry Greenwood, Keri Arthur. Most of their books have female main characters.

    But where are they shelved? Respectively: YA, YA, childrens, crime/mystery, fantasy. Not in the "Australian" section.

    I don't know how likely it would be for a female POV contemporary book to get _classified_ as "Australian fiction", that might depend on its content/genre. I tend to suspect that label is mainly reserved for literary fiction.

    But I certainly don't think that female POV contemporary Australian fiction doesn't get _published_. I think it's just not put in the Australian section.

    Oh, and yes, FWIW, I am Aussie and writing in female POV, in a contemporary setting. I don't see that being any sort of obstacle to getting published. I write genre, though, so I doubt I'd be classified/shelved as "Australian fiction".

  4. Helen, neither my comments or Angela's (I don't think) were discussing the likelihood of general publication- it's mainly about what's getting nominated for serious literary awards these days. So less about the broader Australian market, and more about what gets critically acclaimed within the literary genre.

    Certainly not an obstacle to getting published in any genre, but it just set an undercurrent of what's considered worthy in literary fiction at the moment.

    I discussed the idea of being derivative more broadly because I think it's relevant to all writers for all kinds of reasons, but the specific female POV thing is a pretty niche concern at the moment.

  5. @Zan Marie- agreed, wholeheartedly.

    @Susan- I rather think you're underselling yourself there (wg). I think all the same things- voice, character, and plot- will transcend any preconceptions about your setting and make it possible for your story to get out there. Who knows, it might be the beginning of a turnaround in the negative attitude toward that era in fiction?.

  6. Hey Claire, I think the main point is the one you said yourself - write the best darn book you can and worry about the rest later. Who knows, if those other stories are inspirations for yours (and patterns being cyclical and all that), e few years from now reviewers might be saying things like "Greer's stories is the culmination of all the stories that have come before it, and the best by far" [bg]
    Mine's got a bit of voyage and return, a bit of rebirth, but I like the way all of my stories also seem to feature a little bit of the quest.
    And say, you've certainly got a counterpoint to male pov in Kit!