Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Writer Zen: Unique in Context

Technique Tuesday

I've called this series, "Writer Zen," because like zen riddles there are things that writers must simultaneously believe and not believe. Today's pair is one of the most important.

Nearly every agent holds a querying author's claim that there's nothing on the market like the proffered manuscript as a major strike against that query. And not without reason: such a boast is usually a good indicator that the writer is not a reader.

And yet, at a certain level, every writer must believe their work is unique. If it isn't, if it's simply a knock-off of something else, why bother? Why put in all the agonizing time and effort to produce something that proudly shouts, "I'm a clone! I'm derivative!" The very act of writing implies (even if the ultimate product is derivative) that we believe we have something new to say, something to add to the conversation, or something that hasn't been said in quite the way we want to say it.

When it comes time to promote the work, however, everyone from agents and editors to readers wants to know what it's like. The classic Hollywood log-line, where we say {new movie} is like {movie A} meets {movie B}, is an extreme, but concise way of putting a new project in context. The same is true for the genera, audience, and comparable books we're supposed to include in our query letters.

The frustrated author might ask, "How can my work be both unique and at the same time like something else?"

The enlightened answer to this zen riddle arises from understanding that uniqueness is relative and only measurable in context.(Thus is it possible to be unique and similar.) Uniqueness* is best understood as a measure of the degree to which the new work exceeds or changes the expectations defined by the context in which the work is experienced. The original Star Wars movie (Episode Four for you young-uns), was unique when it premiered because its special effects gave it an almost documentary feel compared to contemporary space operas.

The deeper problem, of course, is the implication that the claim of uniqueness entitles the author to instant market recognition with no further effort. It's the literary equivalent of walking into a cocktail party and shouting, "Everybody shut up and listen to me."

Your job is to add something relatively unique to the conversation. But before you can add, you must be a part of the conversation and understand the context.

* I'm talking, of course, about novelty, not rarity.

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


  1. Great post Deren, and in some ways there really are no new stories, just archetypes, but as you've pointed out, you can still make those stories yours.

  2. Thanks, Matthew.

    I once heard someone say that everyone may have heard the story before but they haven't heard it the way you tell it.


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