On Being Unique

One of the biggest takeaways from the writing program so far is that good writing is unique. Unique ideas, unique thoughts, and unique ways of expression. That’s why cliches are eschewed and genre fiction frowned upon: they aren’t unique enough because people have already explored those roads.

But it is an overwhelming thought to regiment yourself to only uniqueness. It starts with the plot: has this sequence of meeting someone new and a life changing been written before? Then it leaks into the character: has this type of neurosis paired with this backstory been used before? Then it’s the language: has this description been done before? Before you know it, you’re wondering if you should be inventing your own language in order to be unique. (This might be why some authors have gone ahead and done this. James Joyce, I’m looking at you.)

Then there’s the fact that people like predictability. We love genre fiction because we know what is going to happen. We don’t have to worry about uncertainty. I know I read romance or mystery novels partly because I can guess who’s going to end up with whom, or who did what, and I like that. Plus, I don’t have to worry about whether the author is going to do something crazy with the plot that will ruin the entire book for me: I know what I’m getting when I buy the book. So why try to be unique when what’s already been done has been proven to work?

I’m still struggling with this issue, but for now, this is how I think of it: the point of fiction is to tell a story through characters, and in doing so to immerse the reader in those characters. And each character is a person, which means they have a unique worldview. So in the end, the point of uniqueness is to capture that worldview while still telling a compelling story. If the uniqueness gets in the way of the story (James Joyce, I’m looking at you) then it kind of defeats the purpose.

For now, that’s how I’m staving off being overwhelmed by challenging myself to uniqueness every time I sit down to write. Because if you think about it too hard, you realize every story has been told before and every word has been written, and then you can’t write at all.

Speaking of writing, I’ve got some cheery writing news! The Portland Book Review published an article of mine (a reworking of my Show, Don’t Tell post), which you can read here.

Also, Line Zero published my review of Pastries: A Novel of Desserts and Discoveries by Bharti Kirchner. Here is information on how to order a copy of the magazine (my review is in Volume 2, Issue 1).

And finally, if you’re a blogger and want to spread some holiday cheer, check out Cassandra Marshall’s Book Lover Holiday Swap!

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Literary Magazines

This post is inspired by the great news that a short story of mine will be published in the next issue of Line Zero! If you go to the website, you can see MY NAME on the list of finalists for the literary contest. Let’s all take a moment to do a happy dance.

You may be wondering what Line Zero is. It recently started as a new, independent arts and writing journal. Basically, that means it has joined the ranks of McSweeney’s, the Paris Review, Glimmer Train, and many more in publishing short stories, poems, creative essays, and other arts. These publications almost always have a small but dedicated readership of people who love the art of art.

Most literary magazines focus on that: the literary. This means that the fiction published aren’t genre; the stories are often experimental, with more focus on language, and they often are harder to access. The side effect of this is that lit mags aren’t very popular in just the same way that literary fiction doesn’t sell well. I don’t think my piece is particularly experimental, but I’ll let you guys judge for yourselves.

Although the general populace does not know very much about literary magazines, these journals play an important role in the careers of writers. Getting a short story published in a lit mag is a big boost to your writing resume, something you can put on query letters to impress literary agents. Of course, this means that literary journals are flooded with submissions from hopeful writers, so it gets difficult to find a publishing credit there. Enter the newer indies (like Line Zero) that don’t have the historical allure of the New Yorker, and college publications like Northwestern’s Prompt (of which I am Managing Editor), and you have more of a chance to begin building your publishing credits.

The New York Times recently published an interesting article on the fate of the literary magazine these days, which you can access here. I am honored to be published in Line Zero and I hope some of you will become part of its readership!