The Originality Trap

Warning: I’m going to use a bit more coarse language in this one than I usually do in the stories because I’m going to be talking about a book so bad, on so many levels, that it personally offended me. So if you’re made of pure, sinless crystal… why the hell are you on a site that features a woman whose claim to fame is cutting dude’s heads off and Nazi angels? Seriously. Priorities, people.
On to business.
Despite my last few baldly self serving, link filled articles, I don’t want you to click the following link. The link is one that leads to the Amazon page for Ghost Ocean, honestly the very worst book I’ve read this year, possibly this decade.
There are no ghosts. There is no ocean, and by the end, you will want to strangle this woman.

There are no ghosts. There is no ocean, and by the end, you will want to strangle this woman.

Granted, the past couple of years of reading I’ve done have been dominated by the talented, tag-team stylings of Brandon Sanderson and Jim Butcher (explaining why I reference them so much), but the fact remains that Ghost Ocean was wretched.
As you’ve probably guessed, I’m not exactly a highbrow literati. I enjoy books even most hardcore genre fans find toxic: the contract-farmed works based on Magic: the Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons, for example. It’s incredibly easy to please me: just be entertaining. Give me a fun situation, characters I like spending my reading time with, and a narrative voice that’s not got its head up its ass and we are cool.
Ghost Ocean actually managed to do all those and still managed to make me come out of the book feeling cheated, violated, and distinctly like the author, S.M. Peters did this to me on purpose. It is so bad, and the experience so traumatic that I read it in September and I still have a bad taste in my mouth over it.
There are a lot of reasons why that is. For example, the characters are interesting, but nothing’s really done with any of them beyond acting out the plot. The book also tries to present an interesting moral quandary, but the monsters who we’re meant to see as ‘misunderstood’ are clearly evil—not just ‘they’re so far beyond us we can’t understand’, Cthulhu type evil, just human torturing/eating evil.
Frankly, the world seemed… empty too. Like there was no one there in it besides the monsters, the characters, and a scattering of victims. There was no one else there and no one cared that, for example, teenagers were just randomly going insane and living in the park/with a drunken vampire/being freaking eaten. All hell breaks loose in this place over the course of a week and you never, ever see a cop.
Oh, and like I’ve complained with comic books, this book mistakes sex and vivid descriptions of gore, decay and anything that might count as ‘gross’ for depth and maturity. I’m sorry, Peters, but having some dudes ogle teenaged girls and then constantly drone on about how disgusting certain things are did nothing but hurt this book.
As a writer, when I read, I’m also analyzing. Not in a literary, educated sense, but more like a marketing guy. I look for what worked, what failed, why those things were true, and how I can strive for or avoid them in my own work. I mentioned doing this with fan fiction in another article, but I do it with everything. It’s just that fan fiction is free, where this goddamn book cost me seven bloody dollars (And you guys paid for it, because I bought it with my first Rune Breaker payment. So you should also be mad about this. Ghost Ocean wasted your money.)
What I took away from Ghost Ocean and the vaguely unclean feeling I got from it was that the reason it failed, the reason for all the terrible, annoying things I just outlined were as simple as they were terrifying to the very core of any writer: Peters had set out to be original in every aspect of his work. He succeeded in beatific perfection at this task. And in doing so, at least to me, caused the readability of his work to flame out in a catastrophic hell-explosion the likes of which rivaled the sun in its brilliance.
Like this, only without the awesome.
Basically, he ran into what I shall now dub ‘The Originality Trap’: a scary place where the actual entertainment value of a work suffers from trying too hard to be different and not hard enough to tell a good story. It can also be used (as I will in this article) to describe a situation where an author finds themselves paralyzed because whatever idea for a story popped into their heads ‘has been done before’.
Now I sense some of you who are, no doubt, better read than me getting ready to complain; so let me take just a moment to talk about something called ‘New Weird’.
Both Wikipedia and TVTropes describe New Weird as a genre, but it’s more of an attitude, like the ‘punk’ part of Steampunk/Cyberpunk/Etcpunk. A genre to me is a broad set of conventions and New Weird defines itself by breaking normal Speculative Fiction conventions within a genre without going completely out of it or going too far into deconstructing/parodying it. New Weird is all about taking creativity up to the screaming edges of reality.
The works of China Mieville, Neil Gaiman, and Jasper Fforde all fall into this category, and I’m not going to sit here like a dumbass and say their works suck. Perdido Street Station might not be my cuppa, but I really liked American Gods and I can write a whole other article about my love affair with Fforde’s Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes books.
However; these people know what they’re doing. Not everyone does. It’s like parkour:
I will never get tired of posting these.
I don’t ever want people to stop learning to do and then making videos of parkour. However, I know that for every one of these hyper agile superhumans, there’s a dozen who are going to break their face on the ground at some point. People fall while walking too (some even die that way), but the results are rarely as cascadingly horrific as when someone fails at something that requires a great deal of mastery.
So don’t take this as an admonishment of the New Weird movement or of originality in general. This is just a discussion about the pitfalls of getting too focused on just being creative instead of doing something with it. Pitfalls like…
Plot Lock
I have this friend; and no, I’m not posing this in one of those ‘I’m trying to disguise the fact that I have an embarrassing amount of European ski-suit porn’ hypotheticals. They’re a real person who is not me. They’re also a writer. A good writer. Very good. I’m not ashamed to say that they’re a much better writer in terms of atmosphere and technicals than I am.
Their major problem is that they tend to blow their ideas of out of the sky before they ever get more than a few chapters in; just when things are getting juicy and their talking about it is making me want to read it.
Sometimes they just stop feeling it, which I can’t honestly get mad over. I’m a little less forgiving when they experience a sudden self-esteem crash and decide their stuff sucks and Should Not Be. In fact, on one of the forums I frequent with a lot of writers, I make it a point to do everything in my power to keep writers from trashing and thus losing forever work just because they feel it’s not up to snuff. And that’s a lesson anyone who writes should take away from reading this too: No matter how terrible you think it is, it has value, if only as a learning experience. Do not destroy your stuff just because you’re not happy with it in the moment. There’s a lot of other moments to come and you might need it later, like those random items you pick up over the course of a videogame RPG.
Cloud Strife never got out of the bad habits of his youth.

Cloud Strife never got out of the bad habits of his youth.

Back on topic though, the thing that kills so many of my friend’s ideas is the crippling idea that a story must be 100% original. They will be so excited about their new concept as to be giddy, then a week later, they’ll come back and be like ‘I just found out about such and such novel where they had something kind of like my idea. Fuuuuuuck.’ And then they stop working on it. For good. Never coming back.

Because to them, if they’re not the first, they’re just ripping people off. This is the mentality that caused the internet to waste even more of everyone’s valuable time a few months ago when The Hunger Games became a movie and because it bore a resemblance to the anime Battle Royale, they could not shut up about how much of a rip-off the whole thing was. And then people pointed out that it had also been done in The Running Man, and a bunch of other movies and books and everyone completely lost sight of one important thing: The Hunger Games is kind of a good story on its own.
That’s what’s important. That’s the point. It doesn’t matter who called creative dibs on the idea of people killing each other for entertainment, or even teenagers killing each other for entertainment. It just doesn’t. The Hunger Games is not Battle Royale, is not The Running Man, is not whatever other story with the same core concept you’re thinking of. They tell the same basic tale, but in a different way with different characters and a different setting and the end result is… different.
Never abandon an idea just because the core bits have been done because I can promise you that from where we stand, seventy thousand years from the dawn of mankind, whatever you come up with, someone can find someone who did it before.
Jules Verne was writing submarine and space travel stories long before those were things. Mark Twain wrote a story about the internet. The Hero’s Journey is one of the base elements of storytelling and has been an object of study for longer than anyone you know has been alive. You. Can’t. Win.
Again, I’m not saying to abandon originality. What I am saying is not to abandon an idea because someone’s done the concept before. Creativity is not just in the core; it’s in everything in every step of the process. And just because someone else has already done it doesn’t mean they did it like you would, or even that they did it in a non-shitty manner.
A good idea is a good idea, no matter how often it emerges and as Jim Butcher once proved with Codex Alera, good execution can save even terribly stupid ideas.
But the Originality Trap doesn’t stop there. You can also get in trouble if…
You Have No Idea How To Actually Use What You’ve Created
To quote the great Lewis Black “You could have a solid gold toilet you’re still gonna take a dump in it.” And that’s exactly how I feel when a writer ends up squandering something amazing on piddling crap that belies its greatness.
Going back to Ghost Ocean (Because that book still has a reckoning coming with me like I am Inigo Montoya and my enjoyment as a reader was my father.), the gold toilets are embodied in the characters. Taken by themselves, outside of the story they appear in, they are all fairly unique, shining stars worthy of great praise. In the story, they could have all been replaced by the cast of the Twilight movies for all the flatness that they display in action.
For example, there’s Angreal (I… think. I’m not looking it up but that sounds about right and I think that’s what they called magical items in The Wheel of Time, so there’s that.). This character is a tarot reading precog who is part of the monster hunting team, had a torrid affair with the main character’s dad in the past, and is revealed to be a monster herself, cursed to be reborn in a disabled human form over and over again. She carries with her the scars of centuries of being left to die as a child, being burned as a witch, and all the other fun stuff humans do to each other. Except this time around, she’s experienced love and acceptance and it’s starting to break through her resolve to secretly help the bad guy.
If you’re thinking ‘Holy Crap that’s awesome’, so did I… until she is never, ever useful to the team, forgetting to use her powers, or just not telling anyone of the horrible things incoming. And then she gets her powers back and becomes a cartoon supervillain who has no bearing on the story and has no resolution.
The main character, Te is worse. She’s the bored daughter of a paranormal investigator and an apprentice to the same who only just now discovered that paranormal stuff is real and oh yeah—that’s she’s paranormal herself and expected to unleash all the horrible creatures in the city on humanity. She’s also got superpowers that let her capture any of the monsters too.
How does she react to this?
Only with duller eyes.

Only with duller eyes.

Yeah. She bumbles along, seemingly confused as to which side to take between humanity (one of whom is her sidekick/love interest, another of which is the closest thing to a father she’s known) and the slavering horrors from Beyond that want nothing more than to eat parts of us and leave us broken and insane shells. And in the end (Spoiler alert!) she ends up letting them all go free… just because. She doesn’t even take note of where the supernatural kill-swarm is headed in the end. She just wanders around and abandons her love interest (Who, by the way, got parts of him eaten to bring her back to life).

Ignoring the stupidity, the problem here is wasted potential. Both of these characters bring something interesting to the table and were clearly well thought out. But Peters then takes these expertly crafted characters and fails to pay off their potential. They’re reduced back to generic bit players (the turncoat and the… well, idiot) such that he might as well have no wasted all the effort in making them unique.
Meanwhile, my boy Scott Lynch (I get to call him ‘my boy’ because he owes me after taking so long on his next book) is another creative, creative dude, but when he got his rather unique concept for the Gentleman Bastard Cycle (Con men in a fantasy world), he made everything harmonize on the same wavelength. His characters are made to be part of the amazing world he’s set up and function as if they were a real part of it instead of generic drop-ins.
When writing for entertainment, creativity is not just some china doll you put up on the shelf so everyone can see how pretty it is. It is something you have to put to work and it has to look good ‘in motion’ as it were. Having something appear awesome is not the same s it being awesome.
Of course, even if you know how to implement your creativity, you’re also in danger of…
Going Too Alien
Most audiences are human. I’m sure there’s some mollusks from Rigel 7 cruising around consuming our stuff, but the majority of the audience is human and thus that’s the kind of people who need to understand what you’re doing. I’m not saying dumb it down, I’m not saying sacrifice vision. What I’m saying is that when you try something new, it can’t read as utter gibberish to your audience.
Back to Ghost Ocean for this, and this time, we’re looking at the troll logic morality the narrative espouses. The monsters, we learn, are entities from another world who arrived on Earth and can’t leave, instead ending up locked into forms on the material plane. They hurt humans: consuming flesh, blood, thoughts or spirit, though it becomes evident that they don’t need to do this to survive. Nor do they seem to have any concern for each other—our heroine’s own mother feeds off her human half, leaving her periodically traumatized and only the bad guy who needs her alive hesitates when given a chance to murder her.
In response humanity, for thousands of years, have developed mystical means of combating and containing them. Containment is the best humanity can hope for, because these creatures can’t be killed and are eternal. Not only that, but they can at the very least reproduce and create hybrids. Halfway through the book, we the audience (mostly human, remember) are asked to question if this system of locking immortal creatures that don’t belong in our world and want to kill/break us all is morally good.
Now, this could have been an interesting twist. Maybe there was a way to send them home. Maybe they can be reasoned with and we could instead give a little of ourselves to coexist with them. There are many, many ways to make this work. Or hell, maybe we, as humans aren’t worth saving. I’ve already mentioned why the humans in the Marvel Universe aren’t.
Peters used none of these. Instead, we’re just asked to look at it from the monsters’ side of things. They really, really don’t like it when they get caged and also humans are freaking delicious. That’s it. ‘The monsters are monsters and that’s just as valid a mindset as not wanting a tiny nightmare beast to crawl in your ear and make you slip into a coma. Deal with it.’
Now go wash your neck.

Now go wash your neck.

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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