Sunday, May 10, 2009

Back on the Blog Chain: How Do You Keep Your Story Ideas Fresh?

It's time once again for another Blog Chain Pooooost! (I need to hire an announcer with a deep voice to do that line.) This round, Carolyn (better known as Archy) chose the topic:

How do you keep from telling the same story over and over? What are your tips and tricks for finding fresh ideas and adding new twists to your work?

Annie posted before me, and Jessica will finish the chain. This is different from our normal blog chain order, so feel free to explore all the links in the chain from the beginning or by visiting the blogs listed on the sidebar.

The Bible says there is nothing new under the sun, and that applies to fiction. There are supposedly only 36 types of plots, including some so specific to Greek tragedy that they aren't used anymore. So perhaps it's understandable -- and to some extent forgivable -- if an author repeats the same themes in different books. It becomes a problem if the books become too predictable for readers or if the author never pushes her limits and becomes stagnant, failing to grow as a writer.

I know I have repeated some elements from my first serious novel, Day of All Seasons, in my current one, Across Two Universes. Day focuses on the relationships among a quartet of female magic-users; ATU also has a group of four teenagers working together toward a goal, though only one of them has a supernatural ability. Both stories were inspired by the Beatles, so that explains the quartet. Oddly, though I initially conceived of all of these characters as straight, after I wrote each book, one of the secondary characters became bisexual and interested in the lead character. Talk about a way to create complications! I did address this in the sequel to Day, but I'm not sure how I want to handle it in ATU. It might put some readers off if Paul is in love with his best friend's sister while his best friend is infatuated with him. (It might be easier if Yvonne and Scott weren't related. Hummm...) Another trope I tend to repeat is altered consciousness, especially when combined with magic or anything indistinguishable from magic. In both books, when the characters use their special abilities, they become disconnected from the "real world" to manipulate organs, cells, or even molecules. As a scientist, I take a very rational approach to my magic. (That sure sounds rational, doesn't it?) The laws of the universe can't change too much, or else life would be impossible, and I wouldn't have any characters for my stories.

So, how do I keep these two books distinct? For one thing, the settings are quite different. Day is set in a fantasy land similar to Victorian England, while the other is science fiction complete with spaceships, wormholes, clones, and alternate universes. The plots also follow different structures. ATU is a quest story, with Paul forced to make a journey to obtain something and learn about himself. My characters in Day stay in their country, but they must learn to work together to ward off a national disaster. Most importantly, the characters are different. When I read a lot of books by the same author, I notice more if they reuse the same types of characters (e.g., mistreated teenager, older man in love with a teenage girl) than if they recycle the plot. (Sometimes, though, if they recycle the characters, the plot stays the same too.) The characters in Day come from different social classes: a noblewoman, a farmer's daughter, the daughter of a foreign merchant, and a seamstress. In ATU, the characters all grew up together on the same spaceship, but they still have widely different temperaments and skills. There are two boys and two girls, so that alone makes the interpersonal relationships much different that it is for a group of four women. Finally, the lead characters are different. In Day, the noblewoman Gwen is intelligent and rational but arrogant and full of class prejudice in the beginning. Paul is also intelligent, but he's more impulsive and intuitive, plus he's wracked with guilt.

I didn't consciously plan these differences; they arose over the course of the story. Instead, what I try to do is write a tight POV. Even though each character is a part of me, they have unique voices and perspectives. It was challenging to write Day using each woman as a POV character; I look back on it now and am amazed I managed to write it. (That said, it's way too long and needs a serious overhaul.) Paul narrates most of ATU, but I know how his friends would tell their tales. I'd also like to point out that there was a gap of several years between Day and ATU. I've been through a lot of changes in the meantime, and that affects how I write and what themes interest me. (Previous posters have made that point earlier in the chain. Remember what I said about there being nothing new under the sun?)

To answer Carolyn's question, I would suggest exposing yourself to new experiences and developing different types of characters in your stories. Brainstorming might help you come up with new backgrounds or personalities for your characters. Other than that, I would suggest focusing on improving your writing skills (it doesn't hurt to try new techniques) and your current WIP to the best of your ability. New ideas will come to you if you're open to them. After all, my next two novel ideas don't involve quartets.


Anonymous said...

Nice post Sandra. I remember going to a Cassandra Clare booking signing. She said that it was important to read books of genres other than what you write...that in doing so you keep your own genre rich and fresh...I think she may have been right. I think it relates to your suggestion of exposing yourself to new experiences...

Great job!

ElanaJ said...

Ugh, you want me to get on that stretching wheel, don't you? Set it to FIFTY! Ha ha! But great points. The way we evolve as a person also affects our writing.

Michelle McLean said...

great tips! :) A good round of brainstorming solves a lot of problems, I've found. And mixing things up with vastly different settings is always fun. It's interesting to see how very similar situations can turn so different when you tweak the setting and a few character traits :)

Kat Harris said...

Opening yourself up to new experiences, opening your mind to new ideas -- that's a great way to keep things fresh.

Awesome advice!

Kate Karyus Quinn said...

Love how you sum this up - that new ideas will come if you are open to them. That is terrific advice, not just for writing, but for life as well.

Carolyn Kaufman said...

The beginning with the Poooooost for some reason made me think of the Muppets: Pigs. In. Spaaaaaaace!

Ahem. Yes, new experiences. That actually gave me an idea!! *off to write it down...*

Annie Louden said...

I liked how you discussed the similarities and differences in your two novels. You know, I bet if you compared all books to each other, there would be tons of similarities.

And yeah, each year that goes by, or after each major experience I have, the writing changes. Like, I'm a lot more open-minded now than I was 10 years ago, and I know that helps me write better characters.

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