Two Smart and Simple Ways to Make Your Fiction More Original

If you’re writing a novel or a short story and want it to stand out, it’s essential that your writing be original. Here are two simple and effective ways to get you headed in the right direction.
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If you’re writing a novel or a short story and want it to stand out, it’s essential that your writing be original. Here are two simple and effective ways to get you headed in the right direction.

Phillip Lewis was born and raised in the mountains of North Carolina. He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law, where he served as editor in chief of the Campbell Law Review. He now lives in Charlotte. THE BARROWFIELDS is his first novel.

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The first and most critical step in making your fiction writing original is to find your true voice—a voice that is unique to you. Of course, this is easier said than done. Most writers read a lot, and if you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself inadvertently emulating the style of someone whose writing you admire, or even the style of the book you’re currently reading. Spend the summer reading Hemingway, and your autumn novel might start to sound like Ernest, but not in a good way.

Here’s what I’d recommend: Stop all your fiction reading for at least a few days or a week (as difficult as this sounds). Then, when you have a quiet moment, sit down and write something for yourself that no one else will ever see. In other words, write it knowing that you’re never going to show it to anyone, and that you’re going to destroy it by fire or by swallowing it or something as soon as it’s written, posterity be damned. This step is important, because otherwise you’ll be too caught up trying to make it pretty on the off-chance that after you die, someone will find it in your desk or wherever you’ve conspicuously left it and read it and think you were eloquent—and this, unfortunately, will be fatal to the exercise.

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So with the idea firmly in your mind that you’re the only person who will ever read what you’re about to write, describe in detail a painful emotional experience. If you’re a writer, chances are you’ve been abandoned by a loved one on more than one occasion, and this subject matter is as good as any. Don’t try to write it as literature, or with any artificial beauty or grace; discard all pretense. Just write down what you recall of the experience and your feelings about it, and do it as honestly as you can. This, I can just about guarantee you, will result in a voice for your writing that will be new and fresh and unique.

Now, instead of destroying it, take what you’ve written and keep it somewhere safe so you can refer back to it from time to time. Remember the honesty with which you wrote. Remember the conviction. Remember the voice.

Second, when describing anything, avoid resorting to common similes, metaphors, comparisons, idioms, clichés, or figures of speech. These are shortcuts you shouldn’t take. Linguistic mechanisms like this too often result in novice writers using what George Orwell called “dying metaphors,” meaning turns of speech that, by overuse, have become so incurably stale or shopworn as to be effectively meaningless. These moribund metaphors are murderous to originality. You can’t be original if you’re writing what so many others have written countless times over.

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Don’t write, for example, that the night was “eerily quiet,” or that “the wind howled,” or that “her golden face was like the sun.” The very first time someone described the wind as howling (probably in one of the discarded books of the Bible), I’m sure it was haunting to contemplate. But ten million children’s Halloween books later, the efficacy has been lost and now it’s just an empty phrase.

Similarly: Imagine you’re describing a character in your novel and you want to say she is sitting there quietly, perhaps in a state of anguished contemplation. You might be tempted to write something like “She was [as] quiet as a statue” (thank you, William Ernest Henley, for that one). While this imagery is surely superior to quiet as a mouse, to reflexively grasp for what is now a well-known simile to depict our lovely yet brooding protagonist here is letting yourself off easy, and your writing will suffer for it. Instead, try to describe her first without metaphorical devices. You’ll find it’s hard to do, but once you manage to do it, your description will be far more original and evocative for the reader.

If you write with your own voice and steer clear of meaningless metaphors, you will be well on your way to the originality needed to get your writing noticed.

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