Friday, 17 July 2009

Originality in writing

There are some excellent discussions going on today around the subject of plagiarism, what it is, what it isn't and how to avoid it. Rather than attempting to replicate, I will point you to a selection of the best, beginning with How Publishing Works, which links to other blogs including Sally Quilford's thought-provoking piece at Quiller's Place which discusses, among other themes, how fanfiction fits into the debate. This is a topic close to my heart (I once wrote a published letter to Mslexia about it) and it was great to see Sally tackle it so sanely. Try accusing Susan Hill or Jean Rhys of plagiarism, and see how far it gets you. I'd like to raise a glass to the best fanfiction writers out there - you make my life better and brighter, so cheers!



Now I'd like to talk a bit about originality, because it's one of the things that impresses the socks off me as a reader and a writer. I've been an avid reader since I was six and have read a fair few books in my time. This makes me sympathetic, to an extent, with theories that there are only ten plots in the world (or is it five, or three?) but nothing beats the buzz of discovering stories which feel brand new, stories that come at you from the angle you least suspect and stay for a long long time. I'm not talking about the weird and wacky so much, although I am partial to the imaginings of Jennifer Pelland, whose collection I read for The Short Review. I'm talking about stories whose plots may be as old as the hills but the telling of which is fresh and vivid and generous in the way that the best writing can be generous - a gift to the reader. And a gift to the writer.



Wait, am I straying back towards that plagiarism discussion? What about the rule that says you mustn't read other people's stories when you're writing your own, in case you inadvertantly allow it to influence what you're writing? I hate that rule. It's daft, and insulting to a writer's intelligence, as if we're wayward children incapable of admiring a toy without breaking it, or as if we're unable to retain two or more strands of information in our heads at any one time. If we're good at anything, as writers, it's working with threads - holding each one separate from the other as we weave a story together. If I read something original and I love it, it inspires me. Sometimes, yes, it daunts me. My imagination can feel fallow or inadequate besides these giants of ideas. But the overriding impact is one of renewed enthusiasm for my craft. I wouldn't stop reading for anything, least of all while I'm writing when I need that enthusiasm the most.



So here's to the giants of ideas, the writers who have inspired me most recently and those who've taken up residence in my head (and my heart). Just a shortlist for now, although I may add to it over time:




The White Road by Tania Hershman


Some New Ambush by Carys Davies






Uncle Fred by P G Wodehouse


Life-Size by Jenefer Shute


Oh and most of Grace Paley, Muriel Spark and Helen Dunmore. Some of Ivy Compton-Burnett, Mervyn Peake, Nabakov and Nancy Mitford.




16 comments:

Erin Ryan said...

I love The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Sarah Hilary said...

It's excellent, isn't it, Erin? There's a short story by Saki that reminds me of it a little, although Saki's tale stands in its own right. It's called The Unrest Cure and it's a brilliant bit of black-humoured farce. Track it down, if you're able to. Well worth a read.

Quillers said...

Thank you for the link, Sarah. Nice to meet a fellow fanfic fan!

I'm interested in what you say about not reading others work whilst doing your own. I agree with what you say to a certain extent, but there have been times when I've read a novel or story by someone else that has gripped me so much that the next time I pick up a pen, I find myself writing in their 'voice'. So sometimes I need a day or two's space just to rid me of that influence. I suppose the main point though is that I'm very aware of when it happens, so will immediately stop and give myself the space I need to rediscover my own voice.

Erin Ryan said...

The Complete Works of Saki is in fact one of the books on my own shelf, but it's been so long since I revisited it that I don't remember The Unrest Cure. Thanks for pointing me toward it again. I'll have to read it this afternoon!

Sarah Hilary said...

Your post was excellent, Sally, it really got me thinking.

Jane Smith said...

Sarah, thank you for linking to my blog, for writing this thought-provoking piece, and for listing some of my very favourite short story writers. I'm off now to read those lovely links you've provided but not before I add a link here to my blog post.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Jane, for spear-heading the debates I enjoyed reading yesterday.

Sarah Hilary said...

And thanks, Erin, for prompting me to re-read Chesterton!

Julia Bohanna said...

Hi Sarah...hope all is well. Great post..whets the appetite for rereading writers of note......

jenniferpelland said...

Thank you for the lovely plug :) And I got my start in fanfic, so I'm happy to be mentioned in the same article as it.

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi JuliaB! Great to hear from you. I've added your blog to my list, hope that's OK. It would be good to keep in touch.

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Jennifer, I was happy to plug your collection (various of those stories are still with me). And fanfic is my secret love/vice/lust. So happy to plug that, too.

Tania Hershman said...

Excellent post, Sarah, I love what you say: "the overriding impact is one of renewed enthusiasm for my craft". Exactly! Actually, I am inspired to write by reading great writing, and I am inspired to write by reading awful writing, so it's a win-win! And thanks so much for the mention, it's lovely to be in such a line-up:)

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Hello there, and thanks so much for a good useful post as part of Jane's campaign, and for the plug of my book. I am so so glad you find inspiration there. That's really lovely to know.

love

V

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Tania, yes I should have thought to mention the inspiration that can come from awful writing!

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Vanessa, and you're welcome. Not just your stories that have inspired me, but also your encouragement and enthusiasm and the generosity you bring to places like the Fiction Workhouse, and Fish. I'm in your debt for persuading me to attend Fish last year. It remains one of the highlights of my writing career thus far. How was it this year, by the way? I have a tiny tiny winning piece in the Anthology, so I'm curious as to how it looks in print, apart from wanting to read all the big wins like yours.