Writer’s Craft #5 – Does it matter if it has been done before?

This week’s guest blogger is Theresa Crater (http://theresacrater.com/) , author of Under the Stone Paw and Beneath the Hallowed Hill (coming in April 2011), reporting on a panel she took part in. Theresa writes:

Does it matter if it’s been done before? That was the name of a panel I had the pleasure of moderating last weekend at COSine, Colorado Springs’ con. The writers included Carol Berg, Ed Bryant, John Stith and Sarah Hoyt.

Not all great writers created original stories. Shakespeare borrowed from Ovid and Belleforest, among others. Then Forbidden Planet stole from him. Each generation seems to need to retell certain stories. How many versions of A Christmas Carol have you seen? Who’s your favorite Sherlock Holmes? Guest of Honor Sharon Shinn said that Jenna Starborn could definitely be read as a rewrite of Jane Eyre.  Why do we retell stories? Everyone agreed comfort is a big part. We enjoy a story. Retelling it in a new way, at a new time, delights us.

What works in retelling a story, and when doesn’t it work. Carol Berg talked about story patterns and myths, how people retell types of stories over and over, but the important thing is originality. Bring your own voice or twist. John Stith agreed, citing more examples.

Ed Bryant talked about “angle of approach.” Tell the story from a different character’s perspective, like the wicked witch in Wicked. My favorite rewrite of Jane Eyre is told from the madwoman in the attic’s point of view in Wide Sargasso Sea.

One event that contributed to forming this panel came from a writing contest judged by an top international writer. The story he critiqued was well written, the writing promising. But would it get published? Unfortunately, the story had been done before. When told this, what was the writer’s response? Something like, “Nobody reads that old stuff anymore.”

All the writers agreed that it’s important to read your genre, especially your subgenre. Know the history. Ed Bryant pointed out that some people only read back a decade, others twenty years, some one hundred, and others five hundred. Sarah Hoyt thought that in YA, this isn’t so important. Children and young people can’t be expected to have read the canon. But writers? Definitely.

Please comment on stories are you conscious of retelling in your own work, and how you make them new.

E-mail your ideas for future articles to me at lynda@okalrel.org either as a question to be illustrated by myself or with your own example. Please include CLARION in the subject of the e-mail. Thanks for taking part!

8 thoughts on “Writer’s Craft #5 – Does it matter if it has been done before?

  1. My only comment… this post sent me scrambling to Amazon looking for books in my genre. I have a nice stack of 4 to read on the kindle! hehe.

  2. No writer can read everything published in a genre. To make it even more complicated, some writers work in several different genres. Imagine trying to keep up with everything. That’s not the point. All stories are variations of certain iconic themes: boy meets girl, and so on. There is no use getting all bent up and paranoid that you are using an idea that someone else once used. Of course you are. The point is to bring yourself into the equation, to make it yours with your own viewpoint, style, resonance, whatever you want to call it. Writers we admire put so much of themselves in their work that we consider it uniquely their own, even though they are dealing in classic themes just like everyone else is. Your “voice” is just you telling the story the way only you can.

    1. I agree John. Not to discourage Kari from reading a small sample of works from her field of interest, but “some” should be enough. My personal idea of being well-enough read is to read some of the seminal works everyone knows, and a scattering of other works in the field. In reality, however, I tend to read what I like. 🙂

  3. In my own work, the 10-novel Okal Rel Saga (6 in print), I combine and tweak stories as old as time. Amel is the prince raised as a commoner — but he’s also the prostitute with a heart of gold and since he’s male that’s a twist, too. The Vrellish women are sort of like Amazons but their men are full equals in their society and they are physiologically different as well. Sevolites in general owe something to the Frankenstein story and all kinds of myths of creating superhumans. Horth Nersal is “Lancelot” — the undefeated warrior. Except I have given him a language impairment and there’s no love triangle with him and the “Arthur”-like character in my saga — Ameron Lor’Vrel. But Horth does get in trouble, ultimately (book 10) , over love. In his case it’s a cross-cultural conundrum based on Demish vs. Vrellish attitudes toward monogamy which bedevil him in the midst of an all out war. Ameron is literally the “once and future king” because he comes back from time-slip after a 200 year absence. In Righteous Anger, Branst and Tess are sort of romeo and Juliet, except Branst is the one whose more like Juliet emotionally. Certainly Righteous Anger, on the whole, was inspired by the story of Masada although it is only Beryl who feels herself “trapped by the enemy” at the end. And that’s just for starters! In a nutshell, I “make it new” by overlapping stories, changing elements, re-setting legendary stories in a novel social environment where the rules surrounding male and female norms vary with sub-culture, and allow myself to change the ending.

      1. If anyone is Arthur it’s Erien. And there was a kind of triangle, Horth probably would have married Luthan if that Dragon Lion accord thing didnt blow up so hilariously.

  4. Character makes a difference — even all the difference. An odyssey is an odyssey, but it’s a different experience for the reader if the journeyer is, say, Neal Cassady. Or Holden Caulfield. Or Bilbo Baggins.

    Style also makes a difference. Heart of Darkness written by P.G. Wodehouse and transposed from the Congo River to the Henley Regatta is going to be, again, quite a diifferent experience for the reader.

    That experience is the real test as to whether or not a story is “the same old thing.” The readers of 2011 are culturally different from the readers of 1961, so the “same” story becomes two different stories when surrounded and informed by the different contexts of those two periods.

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