Dear Sam (Somebody who Ain’t Me),
The other day I heard a radio interview with Alan Gannett, author of The Creative Curve a novel dispelling the myths about creative geniuses being a unique breed or anointed by the gods. The interview, novel, and Gannett’s view of how to be successful in any field (for me that’s publishing) sparked my interest. I thought I’d elaborate more on one major theme he mentions in the interview: there are no new stories just different ways of telling them.
This idea in general isn’t a revelation. There are only ever seven conflicts told: 1. man v. man 2. man v. self 3. man v. society 4. man v. nature 5. man 6. machine 7. man v. supernatural. Granted, there are others some will choose to include like man v. God, but I’m going to stick to these seven.
This can be further expanded into seven story archetypes:
1. Overcoming monster 2. Rags to riches 3. Quest 4. Journey and return 5. Comedy 6. Tragedy 7. Rebirth. A great example of “Overcoming monster” is the Classical epic Perseus and a modern retelling of the same archetype in Stranger Things. They feature a protagonist who rescues someone they care about and slaying a monster. But do people bemoan this repeated clash of man v. nature (more specifically beast) again and again? Because Stranger Things isn’t the only retelling of “Overcoming monster” nor is Perseus the first of its kind. It’s in the differences that make these stories so popular and unique even when they share the same bones.
When it comes to the stories of how an author got their big break, we are so quick to place them on a pedestal and laud them as being a unique genius like nobody else. In a previous article I wrote called In the Age of Giants, I expressed my concerns about new authors being heard when in the shadows of literary titans like Tolkien, King, Rowling, and Martin. We–and I mostly mean non-writers/artists–love to romanticize the rags to riches story of how JK Rowling became a household name. I’m not going to pretend that I haven’t fallen for what has become more legend than actual truth. She’s a big part of why I want to become a full-time author. I’m also not going to say she hasn’t suffered and earned everything she has and more. What I will admit is creating a myth around Jo and other authors as to how they caught lightning is alienating to new authors who look up to them. It makes achieving a fraction of their success impossible, even laughable to some of our peers. You wonder why we keep our author-ness a secret most of the time. . . .
Something I “love” to be told when I say Jo is my biggest inspiration is: “you should be realistic” or “yeah . . . but that’s JK Rowling.” At a writer’s panel, people said how publishers won’t put much money into new authors because they’re focused on the ones that give them profits (like JK Rowling). But JK Rowling wasn’t JK Rowling, until she became JK Rowling. So too her success didn’t even happen overnight or much more expected by her, her agent, or her publisher! It was the readers who made her who she is AND timing. Timing, I think, is the great adversary to Gannett’s method of gaining success without being a ‘genius.’ This doesn’t mean I want to be JK Rowling. I’m not her. I want to be like her, not a copy. Which brings me back to the original thought of this article: there are no new stories just different ways of telling them.
Best-selling authors should get their due because they have spent the time to master their craft and help better our lives. They do so by telling the same stories we’ve been telling since we started telling them! They only change the way they say it. This is one of the secrets of capitalizing on the creative curve. Make it sound familiar while being different at the same time. Imitate your inspirations from Homer to Lucas, see what works for them, and then experiment on your own stories. I’m not advocating for fan-fiction. Quite the opposite. These narrative conflicts and archetypes are all there is because they touch overlapping qualities every reader can relate to. Viewed in this manner, it can seem not as a difficult as we think to be successful. The only variables are what agents/publishers are looking for or willing to invest in and (again) timing. If your story sounds familiar enough but unlike one ever told, I think the readers will come.
I intend on reading Gannett’s book in full to grasp his complete conclusion of the science behind success. I simply took a small parcel of his work as a springboard to write this article. I encourage you to expand your knowledge and let me know what you think about this.
feature photo credit: Max Pixel [https://www.maxpixel.net/Hands-Literature-Book-Know-Pitched-Read-Education-3531412]