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The 700 lbs Gorilla: J.K. Rowling
Michael Guarneiri
Posted: Sunday, May 15, 2011 8:23 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 29


Well... there's an offensive discussion title if I've ever seen one. Alas, all publicity is good publicity. 

I've been writing a contemporary fantasy piece (Solomon Pierce) for about three-four years now. Craziness, I know. Every time I mention that I'm writing a novel, I get the same question: so... what's it about? AS IF THAT WERE EASY TO ANSWER. It's a book! There are like a bajillion words in there and you want me to sum it all up in like one minute? Yes. They always do. So I give it my best shot: It's about a boy that goes to school to become an angel. And, invariably, their response will be: Oh, so it's like Harry Potter. Once upon a time, I argued that it was not. Now, I do not see the point. No matter what, when it comes to writing contemporary fantasy (especially anything involving a school) the 700 lbs gorilla (i.e. JK Rowling or Harry Potter) will inevitably ruin your originality party. 

So... what are your thoughts on all of this? How do you get away from being 'another' Harry Potter? Should you write AWAY from that sort of contemporary fantasy story (i.e. avoid it) or just go with it, knowing that your story will be pegged as 'another' Harry Pottery?



Danielle Bowers
Posted: Sunday, May 15, 2011 8:44 PM
Joined: 3/16/2011
Posts: 280


The first thing I do is I don't write about a specky kid who runs with a herd of gingers.

Other than that, I think there is no way to write a book involving a boarding school involving magic without it getting compared to HP. My advice would be to just write what works for you without worrying too hard about trying NOT to be HP.
Alex Hollingshead
Posted: Sunday, May 15, 2011 10:04 PM
Joined: 5/2/2011
Posts: 61


Everything has this. "You're writing about elves? Like Tolkien?" "You're writing about vampires? Like Stephenie Meyer?" "You're writing about a magical school? Like Rowling?" "You're writing about a dystopia? Like Hunger Games?" If somebody is not well versed in a genre, there only reference point is the popular example. If you told me or anyone in this subforum you were writing about a school of angels, we'd probably ask "what type of angels (scary, Biblical sorts, or humans-with-wings sorts?)", "what type of school?", etc. But if you tell that to someone who has, perhaps at best only watched the Harry Potter films, let alone read the books, then yeah, "like Harry Potter?"
Robert C Roman
Posted: Monday, May 16, 2011 3:59 AM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383


*agree* with @Alex and @Void on this one.

I get constant 'what's it about' questions, and I get some really inappropriate comparisons from folks ignorant of the genre. When it's my students, I recommend good genre reads to them. When it's my coworkers, I often can do nothing but nod my head and say 'yeah, it's like that', because I don't have the time or energy to correct them.

At the same time, one of my former employers read XLI and said 'I never thought I would like Sci Fi. I'm reading more of it now, since I liked yours'. Which was a HUGE ego trip, being a positive introduction to a genre. So you might want to say 'it's a little like that. Do you want to read it?'. Until you're published, any giveaways are free publicity, which is priceless.

For the meanwhile, when writing, just write the story for itself. Doin't try to mimic Potter, don't try to avoid Potter. Just... be *informed* by Potter. If you see things Rowling did that you hated, don't do them. If she did something particularly cleverly, steal it, file the serial numbers off, and move on.
Revenant
Posted: Monday, May 16, 2011 6:12 PM
Hahahaha file the serial numbers off. Priceless.

I like that thought of being informed by Potter. One of the recent reviews I received got caught up in "originality". My character names were not original, the name of my country was not original, the themes of my work were not original, and the beat goes on... Anyone who has dug down into the tremendous depths of fantasy fiction knows that originality is hard to pull off and more often than not we are taking the works that "informed" us and trying to give voice to our own elves, our own boy wizards, and our own hunky vampires. You cannot repeat but you cannot avoid, settle down into the void between and just write for yourself.
MB Mulhall
Posted: Monday, May 16, 2011 8:13 PM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 81


Here's the deal: It's very very hard, almost impossible, to be completely original these days. Books, movies, music have been around for so long that there's bound to be something your work can be compared to. What you need to do is take those old ideas and polish them up so they look almost new. Add a twist, make it believable, have 3 dimensional characters, etc. Don't worry about comparisons, worry about making it the best you can make it.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Monday, May 16, 2011 8:22 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383


While I agree that perfect originality is rare, if it exists at all, you *do* need to avoid certain things, and be aware of others.

Names are one of those things. If you name your wizard Harry, you're up against not one but TWO recent famous wizards (Potter and Dresden). Unless you have them beat cold in at least two or more storytelling categories, you're hosed.

Now, it's possible you can do that. I've JUST seen it done, and, here's the rub, I don't think people *realize* it's been done yet. I'm reading a series that everyone I speak with *thinks* is loosely ripped from Potter, which couldn't be further from the truth. There is a coming-of-age element to the story, and that's about the only comparison. The *deep* story is parallelling an entirely *different* major recent series, and I"m not srue anyone has noticed yet.

In my case, I used the name 'Ophilia' without thinking about the freight associated with the name. If you use the name Ophilia, you need to include some madness associated with the character. I got lucky; the character in question is the muse of insanity.

Other than that? Just make sure you file the serial numbers off cleanly
Revenant
Posted: Monday, May 16, 2011 9:32 PM
The joke worked twice! Also, I've posted an update that tried to incorporate some of your review into the reworking for Revenant, Mr. Roman.

I do have a question with originality now...
You said the names thing is important and I understand that completely.

The names called out in mine were Necromancer, Alewine, and Middlemarch.

Necromancer has a pretty rich, overused history, but for the sake of my character and novel I found the name unavoidable. It's what he is after all. Aside from a german novel back in the day and a few other titles, these characters often take a backdrop role. In a story about the undead, I think I have a unique enough glance at who the Necromancer is and how he works to survive that.

Alewine and Middlemarch I didn't understand... I had no reference for an Alewine in poular lit and Middlemarch would have been a bad reference to steal in the 1800's, but aren't two centuries enough to separate me from unoriginality with this? I had to read that long, bomb of a story in college... i think I'm spicing things up with my version of the country.

Either way... at what point do you say, screw it I have to use the name that I envisioned... and at what point do you say.. ok, back to the character list?
Danielle Poiesz
Posted: Wednesday, May 18, 2011 7:44 PM
Like many of you have said, originality is a strange concept these days. Everything will remind someone of something--there's not really any avoiding it.

It is important though to be aware of the similarities between your work and what's out there in the marketplace so you can try to prevent "unnecessary" similarities from creeping in.

Stories are going to be familiar to readers for one reason or another--but don't let that deter you. It's your voice and the way you tell your story, even if it's similar to someone else's plot-wise, that is going to make you stand out.

So just keep writing. Don't worry about the necessary similarities in draft 1--instead focus on making your writing as engaging and fresh as it can be. That's what will give you an edge. When you go back to revise, then think about where you might be able to do something a little different or if there's an element that's TOO familiar and you can re-jigger. And sometimes, at that stage, you will have to kill some of your darlings for the sake of the competition--but don't get caught up in it until you reach that point. Just let the creativity flow, write it the way it wants to be written, and go from there!


Michelle L Ross
Posted: Wednesday, May 18, 2011 9:39 PM
Joined: 5/8/2011
Posts: 9


If you think you've got it bad, just look at what Kaza Kingsley has had to deal with for her Erec Rex series, particularly the first novel. While I did see some similarity to the HP series, it was not enough for her to have gotten the lash back she got from readers. Still, her sales did boost quite a bit despite the bad publicity.
AJR Sottil
Posted: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 12:24 AM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 9


Ah. The Perennial Question.
Somebody mentioned it before, the whole creativity thing. My view is, the characters themselves, elements of the plot, etc, are rarely going to be new... The way you twist them, combine them, add them, or color them is what is new.
However, this is my dispute with contemporary fantasy. It is not so much the creativity issue. Its the convention/way to do things- thing. I am not that interested in another chosen-boy-to-defend-realm thing. Enough with that. Harry Potter was great. Wheel of Time, okay. Eragon, pushing it. Almost all fantasy I have picked up recently are of this sort.
why aren't these conventions broken? For example, why not write it from the point of view of the bad guy? Why not make him loose instead of triumphing? Etc.
In this respect, I consider a lot of modern fantasy unoriginal in their theme, not necessarily the names, the plot, or the content.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 1:37 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383


@AJR - the reason the bad guys rarely win is simple. People are reading for entertainment, and they want a happy ending. There *are* authors who have done otherwise. Their work is either taken as very dark or comedic, depending on the reader. Off the top of my head, Moorcock and Gentle both did it, and did it well, but in both cases the 'bad guy' who won was sympathetic in some way, and they were up against another 'bad guy' who was less sympathetic somehow.

One thing I often find amusing is how newer readers will occasionally cite a newer, derivative work, then point at an older work and call the older work 'unoriginal'. I'm not sure if that was your intent with Potter and Wheel of Time, but it was amusing. I saw it a *lot* when the Lord of the Rings movies came out. "but LotR is so *derivative*" was the cry I heard, and anyone familiar with the genre just winced.

Really new compositions are rare. What you need to focus on as a writer is your presentation of existing compositions. That way, when you finally get a really new idea, you'll be ready to present it in a masterful fashion, rather than in a halting, hesitant way.
AJR Sottil
Posted: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 5:31 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 9


@ Roman, I was listing them off in the order I read them in. I know the Wheel of Time is older, but I read it last year. I meant the chronological order of my reading, and so as I read, I got a little tired of the same plot devices. However, other books that I've read (notably Rothfuss, Le Guin, and Novik - I recommend her a lot! It is historical fantasy-) are better with that.


Robert C Roman
Posted: Thursday, May 26, 2011 11:46 AM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383


@AJR - Ah! Wonderful. At least WoT and Potter are contemporary works. When someone reads, say, Jordan, then reads Tolkein, and says 'but Tolkien is so derivative', I die a little inside.

Believe it or not, Rothfuss is, unless I miss my guess, using the same Ur-Story as WoT and Potter, but he's doing it in a MUCH more effective and subtle way. In other words, he's using that Ur-Story as a skeleton, then layering the story over it, so you rarely get the idea that it's there. It also means I'm not *sure* he's using the same story, because there are only hints, not outright statements.

I use a lot of well worn plot devices, because I'm trying to make the original parts of what I write less foreign. I've apparently (by the looks I get) got some really weird ideas, and implementing them with equally weird plot devices completely alienates audiences, which is never a good thing.
AJR Sottil
Posted: Thursday, May 26, 2011 1:25 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 9


@ Roman; you say you alienate audiences. While you are doing it unintentionally, there *might* (and I am guessing here) be a small niche audience for that kind of thing... something worth thinking about.
Oh. that makes sense. That is, in my opinion, a function of those worn plot devices. They tether the story to a reality the reader can accept so that the extravagant ideas are digested better; in a way, then, they act as the formulaic poetry of, say, Homer, being used again and again as a linking method between the different elements of the plot.
KirkusMacGowan
Posted: Sunday, May 29, 2011 9:46 PM
Joined: 5/4/2011
Posts: 11


Writing a story is like composing music. There is an endless amount of ways to prepare any piece. Even though they all use the same notes, by changing the pace, the length, or the order of those notes, you can create something original and beautiful.
stephmcgee
Posted: Monday, May 30, 2011 3:27 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245


I think a corollary to this original idea of the plot devices being similar might be length of series. Currently I'm developing a new story idea that my muse hit me with on Friday. (World-building at the moment.) As the nebulous plot stands in my head, it might take 7 books. When that thought occurred to me I immediately heard people saying "Oh, like Rowling." Yeah.

I totally agree on the idea of using familiar elements to couch the unfamiliar in order that the reader might be better enabled to suspend their disbelief whilst reading the piece.

And @Kirkus Beautifully said.
Jack Whitsel
Posted: Thursday, June 2, 2011 3:56 AM
Joined: 5/7/2011
Posts: 35


First thing...regardless of being stereotyped, having your story identifed or compared to Harry Potter is not a bad thing. When you are a new author, it's about exposure. Some of the soap-box, intregity bits will have to be cast away. If I was writing a book about a rebellious group of warriors trying to overthrow a tyrannical regime and some inquired: "Is it like Star Wars?", my reply...You bet...you wanna buy the T-shirt?

As to your comment: "Every time I mention that I'm writing a novel, I get the same question: so... what's it about? AS IF THAT WERE EASY TO ANSWER. It's a book! There are like a bajillion words in there and you want me to sum it all up in like one minute?"

Per above...YOU BETTER LEARN. When you do blog tours, live interviews, talk to retailers, etc. you will have to be prepared to give them the Tag line treatment. If you're not published yet, you have 100-250 words (for the most part) to entice an agent or publisher to see more of your work before you're tossed in the circular file. When an entertainment studio was sniffing around the Publishing House I belong to, I was told to write a 1 sentence Tag line to explain my 300+ page novel. (my book hadn't even been through the editing process yet)

My advice...script your answers as you would do in a job interview, and don't be afraid of general comparisons. Remember, it's human nature for people to compare one thing to another in the simplest way possible in order for them to identify or understand what you're talking about. In truth, it's more of a defense mechanism for them than a slight aimed at your work.

Keep plugging away,


Cheers
AJR Sottil
Posted: Thursday, June 2, 2011 2:37 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 9


@Jack, I believe your comment has been one of the most useful yet.
You make points that are great. I, however, disagree a little.

I have not bought into the idea yet that being compared to a great or well known novel is a good thing. For one, I am not sure if I would like my novel being compared to... say, Tolkien. If it were something of the same level, sure, but not if it is something beyond my novel.
I guess this becomes a case of bad publicity vs. no publicity. I recognize the value of people knowing about your book/novel, but still, not if it is in a negative way.
It all comes down, I believe, to how it is compared...
CY Reid
Posted: Thursday, June 2, 2011 3:29 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 52


Interestingly, Rowling claimed that she wasn't even aware she was writing a fantasy novel at the time. Perhaps she wasn't - wizards and witches are so commonplace in today's pop-culture environment that most people who don't read fantasy pick up fantasy tropes via osmosis, more than through any other means.

Pratchett's response to her, in an open letter, was thus:

"I would have thought that the wizards, witches, trolls, unicorns, hidden worlds, jumping chocolate frogs, owl mail, magic food, ghosts, broomsticks and spells would have given her a clue?”

Personally, I think she may not have known, but that was a fairly amusing response. Michael, I say write it, because like others have said already, nothing's original any more. If you're going to approach writing fantasy seriously, a structuralist attitude is going to relax you somewhat. Your idea is, as far as I'm aware, very original, and I think a story about someone going to school isn't going to have any sane fantasy fan climbing the walls.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Friday, June 3, 2011 1:36 AM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383


@Jack / AJR / Michael - Check out the "Is your hook "high concept"?" thread. It's a good place to trot out your 100 word description and get some feedback.

I had my first experience pitching in person recently. I used the pitch I developed here, for a book a friend said would never sell, and even though the remainder of my pitch came across like I was the bastard love child of Charlie Sheen and Gary Busey, the editor asked to see it.

@CY - thank you. I have a huge man-crush on Pratchett, and that quote made my whole night.

@Michael - write what you're going to write. I'd rather see ten *good* renditions of the same idea than one horrible rendition of a new idea.
CY Reid
Posted: Friday, June 3, 2011 5:35 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 52


@Robert I had the pleasure/honour of meeting him in person a while back, and he'd been drinking tea and gin for hours at that point, so he was very amiable. His brutal honesty is amazing, and what makes me respect him so much - he -knows- he's good. That said, I think Rowling genuinely didn't know, which conjures up a whole other discussion of fantasy's inclusion in pop culture.

I'm tempted to pitch my book and see if it's high concept, but I don't really know the benefits of doing so. Does it mean my narrative's less viable, or less appealing? The phrase "high concept" feels a little high-and-mighty, to me.

And I'm with Robert on this one - Michael, today I saw someone claim that nothing's been truly original since the Renaissance. I agree. Go forth. and conquer.
Jack Whitsel
Posted: Saturday, June 4, 2011 5:41 AM
Joined: 5/7/2011
Posts: 35


@Ajr. I'm glad I was helpful. As far as the comparison thing goes...in the end it's more about how you perceive and accept a comparison than the comparison itself. Like I mentioned, it's someone's way of identification. Take it for what is and turn the page. You will definitely have bigger fish to fry. Trust me, whenever my upcoming release is discussed with passerbys, I offer my three cent teaser and get the Narnia, Tolkien, or Game of Thrones bit. I just smile and give my default reply, "Something like that but with a kick."

Just your friendly neighborhood author trying to keep it real and pay it forward.

Cheers
LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Wednesday, June 8, 2011 5:12 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662


It is awfully hard these days be original. The only thing we can do is try to put our spin on things and hope it stands out. I'm writing a fantasy with a setting that plays more on the style of Civil War America and its tech boom than say Victorian England. Yes there is royalty, but that is due to the idea that I wanted to play with standard Heroic Epic roots. Most people don't pick up on the tech references in my story to help them differentiate a 19th century-like setting with a Medieval one. Take for instance a reference to matches and cigarettes which would place a time line around the mid-19th century on Earth. (I believe the main problem to be my lack of reference to guns, but there is a political reason for that in my realm. I won't go into that since that isn't the point of this discussion.)

My point is that as much as you may try to differentiate your work from another writer's or even a genre, people will always try to associate it with something that sounds similar. Its a psychological technique. People grabbing for a reference point is very common. You're work could be an extremely creative spin on an old concept, but most people will only see the old concept. So all you really can do is smile and nod like Mr. Witsel said.
RFLong
Posted: Thursday, June 9, 2011 12:09 PM
Joined: 3/31/2011
Posts: 11


It's hard to be original indeed, but it isn't hard to put a new slant or twist on things. Taking very old stories and telling them afresh is a time honoured theme of fantasy (and all literature). Even Shakespeare wasn't immune.

It really comes down to concentrating on the writing - the story and the characters.

And yes, comparison can work in your favour. How many times have you heard something described along the lines of "it's X crossed with Y but set in Z instead"
Kimberly Jones
Posted: Sunday, June 19, 2011 9:02 PM
Joined: 4/28/2011
Posts: 9


I agree with the others - at a glance, or in a 1 munute summary, sure - someone COULD draw a parallel to Harry Potter, but once they read your work they'll see it for the unique entity that it is. Writers shouldn't be so worried about things like this. They write the story that calls to them and write it well. THEN it'll speak for itself.
 

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