The Problem of Originality

I was poking around the site of novelist Jonathan Carroll, and discovered the following enlightening passage from a commencement speech given to the 2012 AIS graduating class of Vienna:

I’ll tell you one other thing I have learned over the years: No matter what your interests are, find your heroes. Learn from them, then take everything you need from them and move on. Soon it will be your turn—with what you’ve gathered and learned try to make something entirely new; something so different and great that it could only have come from you and your vision. Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen. In the end, try to become the kind of hero you were once looking for.

– Jonathan Carroll, AIS Commencement Address 2012

A little while later, on an unrelated note, I was googling some of the writer Kelly Link’s short stories, and read the following essay, posted to Charlie Finlay’s LJ from Link’s essay on the OWW site. Have a read:


In the past few months, it seems to me that there is a great deal of competent work being posted to the Online Writing Workshop. This month there was a handful of stories that could have been Editor’s Choices, and all of them are probably good enough, with minor revisions, to sell to some of the second- or third-tier markets. Some of you will sell – or already have sold – your work to _Asimov’s_ or _F&SF_. This is one of the largest workshops that I’ve ever been a part of, and it works. I read the comments on stories, and, like any workshop, there is good advice and bad advice and just plain weird advice being given. Part of becoming a better writer is not only learning what to take away from good advice, but what to take away (or figure out) about bad advice or off-the-wall advice. The only kind of critique that I worry about, in the long run, is the tendency of a workshop to sand off all the interesting edges from a writer. Workshops frequently reward writers of competent prose who can tell stories that are smaller in scope and easy to understand. A group of writers will find it easier to agree about certain kinds of stories – the kind that ought to sell to magazines, because we’ve all read exactly that kind of story in magazines – than about more ambitious stories. The more ambitious or individual a story is, the argument goes, the fewer readers that story will find. So play it safe: tone down the interesting stuff.

The problem with this kind of advice is that there are a lot of writers out there who can pull off an accomplished and enjoyable story. (Like I said, I could have selected a whole handful of pretty good stories this month.) So even though some of you are writing stories that are good enough to be published, you’re competing for magazine space with writers who already have readers, and relationships with editors. Your competent stories may not actually be good enough to sell to the magazines that you would most like to be in. So what do you do? You can make a career (and a name for yourself) out of selling work to second- and third-tier magazines. But again, there are a lot of pretty good writers out there. Even at a zine like _Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, we have a backlog of two issues’ worth of short stories. We have more good work than we can publish. So what can you do?

What I would like to see workshop members doing, now, is beginning to submit more ambitious work. The only thing you have to offer an editor, and readers, is you. Your voice. Stories and characters and narrative twists that only you are strange enough to want to write. Take risks. Some of you are in critique circles that have been going for quite some time. You know each other well enough to have built trust. And it takes trust to show a workshop the kind of ambitious work I’d like to see. Take chances. Write stories whose characters and the endings surprise even you. After you’ve written them, go back over them and make them even more surprising. And don’t think by “ambitious” I mean that the prose style has to be eccentric(although it certainly can be). And read widely – not just the new stuff, and each other’s work, but older work, too. I’ve been reading through the collection PLATINUM POHL, and there are fantastic and alarming and wonderful short stories in there. Are there some inside you?

–Kelly Link

I opened this blog post with those two passages, because they highlight the problem a lot of aspiring writers (including me) face in originality.

I’d argue that the skill required in writing original stories is more than the sum of its parts.

What I mean to say is that one cannot expect to combine beautifully speculative ideas with well developed characterization and poetic sentences to create an original story. These are necessary ingredients for any good story, and as Kelly points out in the essay, can result in technically competent stories.  But, what is the difference between a technically competent story and a story that shimmers among the cobwebs of your memory? The story that you read and reread a week or ten years later when you are seeking inspiration? The stories that you unconsciously mimic when developing your own voice?

For me, these are the stories that illuminate the world in a way that I’m not expected to seeing it, that surprise me at the different meanings revealed in each subsequent rereading, and who I can’t help but mimic in my own writing.

Reading the above two essays at this time have been particularly pertinent because I’m constantly trying to break out of this unconscious and repetitive mimicry of ideas that I’ve read in the fiction of my influences.  Occasionally, I can point to a short story or novel passage and say: that is definitely my voice. Despite this, I’ve come up against a wall because I feel that my ideas are original, but at times too literal.

The best stories, the rereadable ones, have many layers, and the full impact of the story isn’t realized in the first reading. I realize that may be a poor analogy, and too abstract perhaps for what is better termed as a “sense-of-wonder” imparted from  superlative storytelling. Some examples of the stories about which I’ve felt this way:

Scout’s Honour By: Terry Bisson

The House Beyond Your Sky By: Benjamin Rosenbaum

The Cartographer Wasps and The Anarchist Bees By: E. Lily Yu

There are cool ideas at the centre of these stories, and they are peopled by well rounded characters, but that is not all. There’s an indefinable spark surrounding the whole story that brings me back to reading these over the years. And that spark is what I believe is needed for writing truly original fiction. How one develops this spark is entirely another matter. There is no formula for imbuing fiction with this element of otherworldliness. If there is, I would say the majority of it would come from practising the craft on a regular basis, learning from your mistakes, and not being afraid to write something original.

(As a side note, for a very insightful look at how to learn from practising your craft, I highly recommend Theodora Goss’ blog post on Deliberate Practice.)

Let’s be clear: I am not devaluing or promoting anyone’s work based on the metric of originality. I’d guess that most of us come into our preferred genre of by the established authors of the field: whether they be Tolkien, Jordan, Eddings, Gaiman, Bujold or Rowling. In time, we may outgrow these influences and start to tell our own stories.  But more often than not, the new storytellers bring forward a large part of their influences in their own stories. To requote Jonathan Caroll from above:

Learn from them, then take everything you need from them and move on. Soon it will be your turn—with what you’ve gathered and learned try to make something entirely new; something so different and great that it could only have come from you and your vision.

I feel that we ought to take more chances and be less afraid to tell our stories. The beauty of the world of literature lies in the diversity of viewpoints that exist today, not in the innumerable variations of stale themes.  Themes that were once fresh in the storyteller whose hands brought the shadows on the wall to life.

At this level of the writing process, commercial saleability or marketability shouldn’t enter into the equation. As authors all we can control is the quality of our work, pretty much everything else is out of our control. Readers may respond with a strong  like or dislike of the work and there are too many factors at play to ensure the commercial success of a story before it is released into the world. Writer Kameron Hurley wrote a response to Kelly’s original essay, and I will repost a part of it here:

The one thing you’ve got on everybody else in the writing world isn’t talent, and likely isn’t persistence, either. There’s always somebody more talented and more persistent than you.

What you’ve got is you. Nobody else has that.

I wholeheartedly agree with Kameron’s statement.  Most importantly, originality should never be forced–a tradition of literary one-upmanship will never produce good literature.  It may be a case I will have to write a hundred stories before I write something truly original, and that’s a chance I’m willing to take. In the long run, it’ll be worth the effort.

To Get Better, First Write Badly: A Brief Retrospective of My Last Eight Years

I sat down today and looked at my writing projects from the time I started to write seriously (Grade 10) till present day (a period of about eight years.) I’d like to share some of the things I discovered about my writing progress with you all.

– I finished eighteen short stories in those eight years. I’m being charitable to myself when I say I finished these stories. In reality they’re mostly first draft efforts, with the odd story that I took the time to revise into a second draft. Its fairly clear from my progression that I’ve gotten a much stronger handle on plot, character, and setting. I was surprised at how much ambition I showed in those early stories, though I lacked the foresight and skills to revise my work.

– I mostly wrote those stories for myself. I was trying to figure out who I was a writer; imitating various authors, trying different narrative styles, and playing with language. These days I’m more focused in my goals. I’ve been setting deadlines for myself, and started submitting my short stories to markets. Compared to my previous efforts, these stories are getting finished faster and I’m learning more from each one.

– I’ve racked up close to 600 pages in free form journal writing. Writing a journal didn’t directly help my fiction writing but it did get me used to the act of writing on a daily basis. In retrospect, it was an invaluable habit for me to develop.

– A lot of my fiction writing was tied up in collaborative storytelling on online forums. An forum story role play (RP for short), for those not familiar with the concept, is basically a shared world story created and written about by a small group of writers in a fairly standard phpBB forum.  I must’ve written reams of fiction in those days, although most of it is now erased from the Internet.  Looking back on it now, forum storytelling was my first real exposure to longer form story with multiple characters and subplots.

Reflecting on progress is helpful, I think, because in the day to day process of writing we don’t perceive those imperceptible leaps in skill where the broken elements fix themselves and the story stands on its own.

In the end, I wrote a lot of fiction in those eight years, most of it bad. But from each story I finished I learned incrementally more about all the elements of story. In the long run, the last eight years have just been a drop in the bucket. Some of my favorite writers like Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss needed twelve unpublished novels and ten years of focused work respectively to get published. Its at once humbling and exhilarating to see how far I’ve come on this journey and how far the road ahead is.

Once Upon A Time: A Trunk Poem

Following in the tradition of revealing my trunk stories years after I’ve written them, I would like to share a poem I wrote lo’ those many years ago. I didn’t understand poetry fully then (still don’t) but something about the imagery in a few lines of this poem were evocative enough that I thought to finish the whole thing. Enjoy!

Once Upon A Time

We remember fables from childhood:
How the synthetic greenery
Of Old Earth
Once bled to a black clot.
Where ebony graves
Were tucked snug in the
Cracks of desert floors,
And ebbing ocean tides
Orphaned continents
Whose true names we’d long forgot;
Then, that Earth was stripped bare
Of fuel rich mineral guts:
As a cancer grew deep in her lungs.
As we survived and
crusaded to the vastest reaches
Of space.

Alone,she squandered her infinite lives,
Star-gifted to planets,
To bring breath to a choked sky
Struggling with certainty,
Grappling with fate.

When transient echoes of life
Were heard, across time and space
On another home, an adopted Earth,
We felt the stasis of a planet,
We thought dead,
Only a myth.

Again there were verdant swatches,
Oceans kissing land,
The uncanny shuffling of mountains
Creasing continental brows,
And all the beleaguered triumphs
Of the civilizations which followed
To the stumbling cadence
Of nature’s paradigms.

Now, we quest across the cosmos,
Seeking a home old as time,
Turning revolutions, far, far, away.
How long before her breath gives,
How much longer can she live?


Flashbacks: My Interview With Jack Skillingstead

This interview first appeared a little over two years ago in the Internet Review of Science Fiction, and qualifies as my first published article. Jack’s a masterful short story writer, and I was glad to be able to interview him. He discusses some of his influences in authors and books, origins of his short stories, and advice for writers. Fans of his work, and aspiring writers will enjoy it, I think.

Jack Skillingstead is the critically acclaimed author of over two dozen short stories published in venues including Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, and On Spec. Mr. Skillingstead’s stories, including the Theodore Sturgeon Award finalist “Dead Worlds,” have been reprinted in a number of Year’s Best Science Fiction anthologies. In 2001, Jack’s story “Bon Soir” was chosen by Stephen King as a winning entry in a writing exercise from his book On Writing.

His upcoming projects include work on Couplers—a YA graphic novel—and “Are You There And Other Stories” a collection of short stories from Golden Gryphon Press. Mr. Skillingstead lives in Seattle with several thousand books. Over the past few weeks, I exchanged emails with Jack to discuss his literary influences, some of the finer points of his concise short stories, upcoming projects, and how he became the writer he is today.

Arun Jiwa: Which authors would you say have been a strong influence on your own writing?

Jack Skillingstead: Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Roger Zelazny, and Harlan Ellison. These are all guys I read obsessively when I was much younger, at a time in my writing life when I craved strong voices to guide my ambition. I don’t see any of them exerting a strong influence on me nowadays, but back then I carried their voices inside my head like splinter personalities, so it’s likely they shaped me.

AJ: What are five of your favorite books?

JS: The answer varies. Restricting myself to genre, five that spring immediately to mind are: More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon; Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, by Philip K. Dick; Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury; The Marriage Of Sticks, by Jonathan Carroll; Nova, by Samuel R. Delany. Since at this stage I’m primarily a short story writer, it might be more useful to name five story collections that have mattered to me (again, in genre): Deathbird Stories, by Harlan Ellison; Driftglass, by Samuel R. Delany; The October Country, by Ray Bradbury; Night Shift, by Stephen King; The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth, by Roger Zelazny.

AJ: I heard that you’d started a short story project with Harlan Ellison. What was it like to collaborate with someone who was influential to you as a writer?

JS: Surrealistic. Harlan had been a presence in my consciousness since 1968 when I first saw his name appear at the end of a Star Trek episode. As a teenager and young adult I was occasionally obsessed with his short stories—with his voice. Certainly I’m not the first to have had that experience. At the Nebulas in Tempe, in 2006, during a private conversation I asked him if he had any thoughts about publishing something in Asimov’s. I thought it would be cool to see my name in the same table of contents with his—sort of a full circle experience. Harlan said he would do one better than that and write a story in collaboration with me, if I wanted. It took me a couple of days to accept his offer, since I found the prospect intimidating.

In our conversation I’d mentioned his book of collaborations, Partners In Wonder. Much later, when we were on the verge of starting the story, he referred to our project as “Partners In Wonder Redux.” This got to me a little bit, for personal reasons. I’ll head off your next question by telling you that no, a co-written short story has never resulted from all this. I can say that in preparation, to get a rolling start, I wrote five short stories of my own, and wound up selling four of them to major markets. More recently I finished a story directly connected to Harlan and my encounter with him. So it’s all good and I have no complaints.

AJ: Having been through the collaboration process once, do you feel you’ve learned more as a writer? Would you ever collaborate again?

JS: I didn’t learn any writing lessons in particular. I don’t feel this attempted collaboration gave me much of a feel for the process. I did learn a few things about myself and other people in the SF world that have been useful, or at least enlightening.

And of course writing those “preparation” stories was good. It taught me I could produce under pressure. As for future collaborations, sure, I’d give it another shot.

AJ: Ok, let’s talk about your short stories. On a rough estimate you’ve written about 20, and have been published in various markets—Asimov’s, Talebones, and Realms of Fantasy. Out of all these is there a particular short story where you feel you completely succeeded in what you set out to do?

JS: It’s 27, if you’re including smaller markets such as On Spec as well as sales to original anthologies, most of those 27 occurring since 2003. Not that I’m counting. None of these published or soon-to-be published stories are bad (I’ve written plenty of bad ones that didn’t get this far), but some have succeeded more than others. I should add that I rarely “set out” to do anything in particular when I begin a story. In fact, the more I think I know going in the less I seem to accomplish, and the harder it is to get there. I know this doesn’t make logical sense. Writing a story is a strange night journey. You get in the car, throw the map out the window, and concentrate only what your headlights reveal in the near distance, leaving to Fate the ultimate destination.

So, altering your question a little, is there a particular story that I think succeeds from every angle? I can think of a couple, one of which isn’t in print yet. But “Dead Worlds” (Asimov’s June 2003) strikes me very well. When I started it all I really had was the concept of telepresence. That was the “idea.” How did it succeed? First, the story meant something to me. It presented clearly some of my highly personal perceptions of the world and prefigured most of my major concerns which would turn up in later stories. Second, all the sentences were solid and served the outcome. When surprises came along they fit the matrix. It was all there, and I knew it. Once completed, I could hold the story in my mind almost like a physical object, turning it this way and that, admiring its lack of major flaws. Of course it has flaws, but no glaring ones.

That was also my first professional sale. Not that I believed it would sell. My experience up to that point had been total rejection. I was used to it, accepted it, and after a great deal of pain and soul searching had virtually given up on the idea of being published, ever. I remember getting the letter from Gardner Dozois. I’d just arrived home from work. It was 11:30 at night. I’d stopped to pick up the mail. There was one of my SASEs. I opened it in the kitchen. My wife and daughter were sitting on the sofa in the next room. My wife asked me what was wrong. I must have looked stunned. Maybe I should have given up sooner. By now I might have a real career going.

AJ: Two of your stories—"The Chimera Transit" and “Scrawl Daddy"—feature some very unique developments in the way of space travel. Can you talk a little bit about your inspiration for these developments and/or the inventive thought process behind those systems of space travel?

JS: I’m not a science guy. I’m not against science. I’m not ignorant. But when space travel occurs in my fiction it’s there purely to serve the narrative intent. The practical mechanics of space flight are fascinating, but I’m probably not the guy to write about them. Others can do that much better. When I was a teenager I read a lot of Arthur C. Clarke, books like A Fall of Moondust and Rendezvous With Rama. I really loved these books, but I never aspired to emulate them. In "The Chimera Transit” the ship “devours itself” because my character is devouring himself. Language supports the image. The Universe contracting into a “whirling funnel of stars,” etc. is received imagery from the science fictional vault. I care about getting the science right when I need to, though. There’s real science in “The Chimera Transit,” the science of brain chemistry. But mostly I care about whether the story says something true about my character’s interior life and whether it works as narrative. And I care about getting the language past a purely utilitarian level.

Writers with tin ears, who don’t care about language, are failing to use the one element that distinguishes prose fiction from other storytelling media. It’s like a movie director deciding he doesn’t need a decent cinematographer or somebody who knows how to light a set, as if he considered those things the precious traits of a “style monkey.”

“Scrawl Daddy” features one-way portals and clones on nursery ships. Both serve what passes for my literary intent. It isn’t one of my best stories, possibly because I had to do a little extra handwaving to pull it off at all. I love it anyway, though. It’s fun and full of surprises. It also helped me process some confusing events in life around the time I wrote it.

AJ: I’ve read a few of your Harbinger stories, and a blurb for one of those stories—"Girl In the Empty Apartment,“ I believe—talked about the consciousness evolution of the human race. For readers who are unfamiliar with those stories, can you give us a bit of thematic background on that idea?

JS: Basically, I cribbed the idea from Colin Wilson’s theories of a "new existentialism.” That was the starting point. My take is a soft SF version of the current all-purpose BIG IDEA: the Singularity. In the case of my stories it’s human consciousness arriving at a transcendent tipping point. Why not? This idea has worked for me in some of my short stories, but the novel has met with universal rejection. I’ve been told it’s too unconventional. No one seems to know how to market it. This strikes me as strange, since I’ve always regarded SF as the place to go with unconventional ideas. On the other hand St. Martin’s passed on the novel because their senior editor thought it was too science fictional, with insufficient crossover appeal. Sometimes you can’t win. Of course, it may just be that I’m a crappy novelist.

My new book presents nine-foot-tall tentacled alien invaders who rip people limb from limb. I predict a barn burner.

AJ: You’ve written some stories that seem like straight SF, but have a strong slipstream feel. In those terms do you feel that the definition of genre or sub-genre is a restrictive border or something to be ignored?

JS: As I’ve sold more science fiction stories I’ve tried to address the usual expectations of the SF audience, which I respect. However, I don’t really think in terms of genre distinctions. Asimov’s has been a great place for me to publish, since for the most part I’ve been able to tell exactly the stories I want to tell. I know I tend to…veer. But most readers don’t seem to mind. Besides, it’s about how jazzy the story works on its own terms, not some arbitrary restrictions, isn’t it? Having said that, I want to add that I really love science fiction, the history, the current state—all of it. I grew up saturated with it from every medium and continue to read and enjoy it immensely. I’ll never forget the first time I saw my name on the cover of Asimov’s. I’d been more or less dreaming about such an occurrence my whole life.

AJ: You mentioned on your site that you’ve been writing scripts for a comic book series. Can you give readers an idea of the kinds of stories you’ve been writing for this series?

JS: It’s a YA space opera about life on a gigantic generation ship constructed within the core of an asteroid. Couplers is Buzz Dixon’s brainchild; I’m just a hired gun. Buzz and his partner first approached my good friend Nancy Kress, but she didn’t feel she was a visual enough writer to pull it off. When she mentioned it to me I was immediately interested. Like a lot of guys, I always wanted to write for the comics, though I had no idea how to go about it. Anyway, I asked Nancy to recommend me. What the hell—nothing ventured, nothing gained.

AJ: Was writing for comics a natural transition for you, or was there a steep learning curve?

JS: I was scared spitless. These scripts had to be ninety pages long. All of a sudden I was having conference calls and signing contracts promising to deliver something I had no idea how to do. Also, there were some restrictions, because of the nature and intent of the series. I should have been completely at sea. But…instead I found it the easiest professional-level writing I’ve ever done. It was delightful and natural to visualize panels and describe them—to tell a story in a series of still images.

The restrictions didn’t particularly inhibit me. Instead they provided a structure that allowed me to spin out the kind of big primary colors stories that are almost the dead opposite of what I usually do in my short fiction. So: virtually no learning curve at all, except for the initial awkwardness of formatting the script pages.

AJ: How long did it take you to make your first sale from when you started to write seriously and what had you learned from your writing up to that point?

JS: I was about twelve when I decided I needed to be a writer. For a long time, though, my efforts were desultory at best. When I finally got serious it took about fifteen years before I sold anything. This sounds worse than it is. Many of those fifteen years were spent writing novels that weren’t really successful and that I never submitted to publishers.

I followed a pattern of writing a dozen or so short stories, becoming discouraged at their failure, both artistically and in the marketplace, and switching to novels. The novels occupied vast stretches of time, in one case five years while I wrote draft after draft, pounding away at my little Smith Corona portable manual typewriter in rented rooms, hundreds of thousands of words. At this stage I can hardly fathom my stamina in those days. All this labor, by the way, without the least encouragement. No writing groups, Clarion, nothing. Not even a friend who wrote seriously.

What did I learn? Writing warehouses of words taught me, eventually, that less is more. Kind of a paradox. I think I started out wanted to be Stephen King but discovered my natural abilities were in a tight prose line delivered at minimum length. Not a bad lesson, and worth every year.

AJ: What advice would you pass on to aspiring writers?

JS: Write a lot and read widely. At least attempt to read difficult books. Broaden your horizons. Read SF but also read mysteries and suspense and Dickens and Nabokov and Cheever and whoever’s current. Don’t be disdainful of the so-called mainstream. If a book is too difficult for you, put it down and pick up a different one. If you don’t already love the process of writing, learn to love it. This is very hard work if you’re doing it for any reason other than love. Don’t be in a rush. Try to forget about getting published and all that. Concern yourself with what you’re doing on a sentence by sentence basis. Try writing in longhand; fill notebooks instead of hard drives. Computers are wonderful tools, but if you don’t know what you’re doing it isn’t particularly useful for your pages to look perfect. It might give you the mistaken impression that what you’ve written is perfect, too. When you think you have something good then market it. Don’t collect one or two rejection slips then descend into a slough of despond.

Much of this has to do with battling off hostile mental forces—self doubt, fear, loneliness—even embarrassment, as you watch your friends succeed at more mundane activities. I was good enough to publish years before I actually did. But I wasn’t systematically marketing my fiction. Going about it in such a haphazard fashion guarantees that luck will play a disproportionately large role in achieving, or failing to achieve, your goal. There is nothing coincidental about the fact that Gardner Dozois gave me my first pro sale just a few months after I got organized with envelopes, copies, SASEs and submission-tracking charts.

AJ: Jack, thanks for the interview.