Writing-Tip Wednesday: “A Feat of Association”

Sometimes, originality lies not in the absolute novelty of what we come up with, but rather in the connections we make between two or more disparate influences.

One of my favorite musicals of all time is West Side Story. The music is gorgeous, the story line heartrending, the action poignant, gripping, deliciously tragic. And of course, there is a reason the story works so well. It is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s New York City, with music and dancing added in. In place of family rivalry, we have gang violence. In place of the friar, we have Doc, the drugstore owner. In place of blades we have a pistol. But the story is just the same.

The legendary Japanese film director, Akira Kurosawa, used MacBeth as the inspiration for Throne of Blood, which he set in 16th century Japan. Later in his career, he would use King Lear as the creative inspiration for Ran, also set in Japan’s feudal period.

For those who prefer Disney films to foreign films, The Lion King is, essentially, Hamlet. Look it up.

Shakespeare, of course, is not the only source of adaptive creativity. Alex Bledsoe is a friend of mine and a fantastic writer. His Dark Jenny series is a fantasy/noir treatment of the King Arthur legends. “Jenny” is Guinevere. I recommend the books.

I have written about ideas before in this Writing-Tip Wednesday feature, and it seems I’m doing so again today. They are, as I have said, our bread and butter, the currency in which we do business. And I suppose I am focusing this time on adaptations because I have an idea for a new project, something utterly different from anything I’ve written before.

First of all, this new project is going to be science fiction rather than fantasy. If I had to classify it further, I would call it space opera. Why am I taking this on? I honestly couldn’t give you a reason beyond the obvious and most simple: When the story came to me – when I first imagined my narrative framework and my lead characters – it was in the form of an SF story. There were planets and interstellar ships and nebulas and cool shit like that. Who was I to argue?

Second, this project will take as its inspiration a set of classic books by one of my favorite authors. I am not ready to say who, or which books. I’ll just say that when the idea hit me, these books and the basic outlines of their plots came with it. I couldn’t tell you why. So now I’m reading. I’ll be reading for a while, since I envision a trilogy. And that’s fine, because I’m currently in the middle of writing another project.

This is supposed to be a writing-tip post, and so allow me to offer some advice in this regard: Coming up with new ideas is not always easy, and I have seen too many young writers beating themselves up because they think their idea for a book or story is too close to something else that has been done. Originality is important, no doubt. And I would certainly never tell any writer to copy the work of another. But to quote Robert Frost (who said this, or a form of it, more than once), “An idea is a feat of association.” Sometimes, originality lies not in the absolute novelty of what we come up with, but rather in the connections we make between two or more disparate influences.

My new idea is, on the face of it, not anything new. Space opera has been done a thousand and one times before. And obviously, if I am inspired by a work (or set of works) of classic literature, my narrative structure is not exactly breaking new ground, either. But I am certain that no one has thought to put these two elements together in this way. THAT is the originality, the novelty. That is what has me so jazzed about my “feat of association.”

Stay tuned.

And keep writing.

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