A series of lyric inspired blog posts on craft and inspiration counting down to the next Coheed & Cambria concert? I don’t mind if I do.
When exploring a novel’s identity it’s hard not to compare it to the zenith of its genre, the very best of the best that make your story, in comparison, seem like a cheap knock-off. When fleshing out my 3rd novel I knew that I wanted it to be about a road trip, a really epic road trip. The problem though, as is with most, if not all ideas, is that obviously it’s already been done. A lot. There are so many road trip novels that it could practically give rise to a genre all its own. Trust me, my objective was not to be cliché. I just had this idea and I needed something a little lighter to sink my teeth into; I wanted to write something a little more fun. Emphasis on “a little.”
But it didn’t take long before this project took on a life of its own and my expectations began to change. I started thinking about this particular novel’s presence among the others like it and I started to become discouraged. What if the journey isn’t profound enough? What if it doesn’t do the setting justice? What if my character and therefore readers aren’t discovering anything new?
I had this idea in my head that in order to stand out, this couldn’t just be any road trip book, it had to be THE road trip book. I thought what’s the point in doing something someone’s already done unless you do it better? Of course this is impossible but it’s also the sort of mentality that can sneak up on you when you’re trying to adhere to certain genre conventions and certain reader expectations. The story can get away from you. It can start to become this responsibility rather than this work of art.
Eventually this started to seep into every decision I made when it came to my story and the whole thing just started to feel…contrived. Because it was. I was thinking too much about the overall effect and not enough about the individual’s journey, not enough about my characters. And I had to remind myself that I’m not telling a story about a road trip. I’m telling a story about people.
My characters are the heartbeat—their reactions, their emotions, their growth—not this adventure I was trying to create for them. That’s just the catalyst. But the characters, they’re everything, they’re what makes this story unique. Not how profound or all-encompassing it is, but how specific. The devil’s not in the details, the magic is. These distinctions are what move people; are what create deep connections. And I was losing sight of that.
The truth is most stories can be boiled down to one over-arching theme—the triumph of the human spirit. We write stories about self-discovery, about good conquering evil, about falling in love because those are the threads of life, those are the universal truths we need to survive. But just because something may be universal or may seem overdone doesn’t mean it can’t be made new again. It’s the individual’s journey; that unique perspective that will give rise to unique revelations. And it’s your distinct voice as an author that will weave these universal truths into something new and yet at the same time subtly familiar—which is the foundation of every story, even the zenith you didn’t think you could ever live up to.