I was writing a brief critique this week, and as I wrote something like, “You’ve done a nice job of telling this tale,” my itchy s-finger slipped in an extra letter so what I typed was, “You’ve done a nice job telling this stale.”
It occurred to me that there is a fine line between telling a tale and telling something that is stale.
Call it a “cliché story” or just admit it’s something you’ve heard before a dozen times, either way, we can fall into the trap of repeating ourselves in our work. Worse, we can repeat the same story someone else has already told, just with different character names and a change of location.
Recently, I’ve read new fiction that reminded me of elements of my own stories. There are a finite number of themes and plots; if we break down novels or stories into bare-bones minimums, there isn’t much variety. So, part of the real work of writing comes in making those similar elements dissimilar enough not to feel ripped-off, repetitious, or redundant.
This is where the concept of the author’s unique voice comes in. Each of us sees the world through a different lens. We observe and translate our observations in different ways. We have to bring something new to the table, but the good news is, our own idiosyncrasies can help us get there.
For fledgling writers, it is tempting to try to write the same way Hemingway does, but then we are only copying a master, not developing our own style. When we study the works of other great writers, it is very helpful to copy them, as long as we do it to understand how they tackled the problems of craft. What is even more helpful, is learning to twist that knowledge into our own, unique perception and style. Sometimes, getting feedback and critiques can squelch our personal style, leaving us with a clean but passion-less manuscript. One of the “next steps” for writers is learning how to take critique and the input of others and use it in a way that doesn’t decapitate the distinct perspective and voice they bring to their writing. This isn’t an easy thing to do.
For me, though, this little error made while typing serves as a good reminder: the difference between a good story and a mediocre one is often very slim. Every word, every sentence, every turn of phrase can push us one way or the other. The hard work of writing comes in weeding out the stale bits so the really good tale can be seen.