Would You Like A Cookie?

A Guest Post by: James A. Owen

When I was in high school, I took part in a program called the Academic Decathalon. It was a competition that was a cross between semester finals and the Roman gladiatorial games, only with more pressure and relatively less bloodshed. Relatively. Most of the completion was in written tests on different subjects, but two of them were to be presented orally: the interview, and a speech.

I wasn’t particularly worried about the interview, but I was pretty concerned about the speech. We’d been given a general set of guidelines with some suggested topics, but it was also stated that NONE of the topics being suggested had to be chosen. And, being high school students, even academically-driven ones, everyone opted for one of the half-dozen or so suggested topics — but none of us consulted with any of the others about WHICH topic we’d selected, and the teacher advising us was not particularly inclined to encourage a stretching of our horizons or a testing of decathalon limits.

On the day of the competition, we all dutifully showed up early to the school and loaded ourselves onto the bus for the ninety-minute trip to the school where the regional decathalon was being held. We’d all been thoroughly versed in the exam subjects, but the two things we couldn’t really test for were the interview, and the speech. The interview we’d rehearsed a few times, but most of the preparation for that came down to making sure you kept eye contact as you answered the judges’ questions, and trying to remember to not pick your nose. The speech was a different matter: it was basically an essay, but one that had to be delivered out loud. And ten minutes into the bus ride, it became painfully obvious that very few of my peers understood the differences between prose that was meant to be read visually, and the flow and cadences of words that were meant to be spoken aloud.

Worse still was the fact that the two dozen of us going to the competition had chosen the same three topics to research and present as speeches. And ALL of them were maddeningly similar. Mine as I recall was “What The Constitution Means To Me.” The same topic NINE of my friends had chosen. Multiply that by the ten or so schools participating, and you end up with three hundred students giving speeches about the same topics to the same judges for an entire day — and with sudden clarity, I realized that there was only going to be one way to truly set myself apart from all the rest of those speeches, so I pushed down the window, and, to my teacher’s horrified dismay, threw my notes out of the bus.

Over the next half-hour, I improvised a speech about economic value systems based on an old Harlan Ellison essay about how Quality can be defeated by Quantity, using the example of how the classic high-quality Hydrox cookie had been pushed into obscurity by the inferior-quality Oreo cookie.

In a competition where the expectation was to hear and evaluate hundreds of nearly-identical speeches about American values, I took off at a right angle and delivered a speech about the economics of cookie quality. And I won by a pretty healthy margin.

Following the crowd may seem like a good idea, because it’s safe — but it also makes it that much harder for you to stand out. It’s a no-brainer to try to capture lightning in a bottle by writing about boy wizards, and vampire love, and stabby children dystopian futures, because even if you can’t catch the lightning, the thunder is still pretty profitable. But if you really want to beat the expectation game, your best bet is to do something completely unexpected — like my friend Gama, who is starting to build a career out of stories about a Unitato: a half-unicorn, half-potato. Didn’t expect THAT, did you?

No one did. But that’s how you WIN.

James A. Owen
Silvertown, AZ

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James A. Owen is the author of the bestselling Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica series, the creator of the critically acclaimed StarChild graphic novel series, and the author of the MythWorld series of novels, the author and illustrator of the forthcoming series Fool's Hollow, and the author of the nonfiction trilogy called The Meditations. Visit him at heretherebedragons.net and at jamesaowen.com.


7 Responses

  1. Heck yeah!!! I’m a reader as well as a writer, and I’m 99.999% sure that most readers value innovation and originality, despite what the experts say. Far too many writers chase trends. Not enough writers aim to set trends.

    For a little while, I considered writing trendy formulaic stories in a trendy sub-genre because so many writers earn a living doing that, and it’s theoretically a lot easier than coming up with innovative new stories. But I just felt dead inside whenever I considered it. I became a writer so I can tell my own original stories; I can’t settle for less than that.

    • Nathan Barra says:

      Thanks for reading Abby! I agree with your sentiment regarding innovation and originality, though I wonder how far out is too far out? After a certain point, if the story has too steep of a learning curve, then you’ll lose some readers. I think the brilliance of young James was that he took a concept that was familiar to the audience, but subverted their expectations in a way that caught their attention and made them laugh. It comes to be about the Strange Attractor once again! Where do you think the line between not new enough and too much lies?

      I know what you mean about trendy lit. I considered doing the same at several points, but my focus was on how I could “make the genre richer” with a new twist or perspective. Many of these ideas never came to fruition, because frankly I wasn’t all that interested in them. And if I’m not excited, who would be?

      • A lot of people seem to conflate ‘new/innovative’ with ‘experimental/abstract.’ I cringe a little bit whenever I tell someone that I’m writing something that’s different/unique/original, because deep down, I worry that they’re mentally translating that to “abstract/experimental/arsty-fartsy.” But I don’t see why that has to be the case.

        True, a lot of “different” art is painfully terrible, but some of it is amazing and transforms an entire genre or industry. Before Stephen King, there was no horror genre. Before J.K. Rowling, YA fiction wasn’t really a thing. Before George Lucas, epic space fantasy was only for the nerdiest of dorks. But I’ll bet that when they pitched their stories, before they were famous, people assumed they must be writing some weird, abstract, experimental crap that only a very tiny niche audience would buy.

        Readers are much more likely to talk about a book that blew their minds, rather than a book that was good-but-standard fare.

        • Nathan Barra says:

          The well trod path is smooth because of the tread of many feet that have come before you. Such things are for tourists. Though the way of the explorer may be rocky and rough, it’s the only way to see the new and the innovative. Though I see your point about the difference between newness and experimentation, I would argue that both run similar risks. If reading is truly and emotional exercise (as Dave Farland oft claims, and I agree), then the reader needs to feel pushed beyond their comfort zone in order to grow. However, they also need to feel a personal connection to the story, so a concrete grounding must also be present. Often, I have seen this done to great effect through the use of believable and sympathetic characterization. No matter how strange the milieu, or how far out the circumstances, a sympathetic protagonist that I can relate to will make me feel as if I have a stake in the story.

          Don’t get me wrong, fiction is all about pushing limits, especially the speculative genres. If we keep writing the same sorts of stories over and over again, we feel start to feel comfortable and take the work for granted. In modern society, it seems to be many of us are facing a fight against boredom. We are so overwhelmed with stimuli and “newness” that we forget to appreciate the little things. However, fiction can push this boundary. It can and should bring us to entirely new worlds. The real question is where does the line get drawn? Just because something is innovative doesn’t mean it is good, nor does it mean it is bad. It just is.

          With regards specifically to successes like King and Lucas, I find it very interesting to see how they shift a culture. You are right. Epic space fantasy was only for nerds, but I think that it took much longer than just Star Wars to allow that sub culture to be appreciated by the mainstream. You needed the combined weight of Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, and countless other similar shows to sway public opinion. There are always niche markets that ebb and flow quickly. However, change the course of the tide takes time, momentum, and yes, novelty.

          • I think it’s entirely possible to write a fresh, original story that has a sympathetic protagonist. I don’t understand your point there.

            I agree that “Star Wars” is not the only SFF franchise that transformed geek culture into mainstream cool culture, but it was a major rock in the avalanche. Perhaps it started the avalanche. It certainly contributed to changing our culture in that direction. George Lucas might have understood that his upcoming SFF film was original and innovative, but I suspect everyone around him at the time assumed it was too niche to appeal to mass audience. They probably said, “Everyone knows that space fantasy is pulp silliness that only nerdy boys go to see. No one else will watch this film.”

            And today, there are people who say the same thing. “Everyone knows that post-apocalyptic fiction has been done to death. Only niche audiences go for that sort of thing.” Then ‘Wool’ comes along. Maybe not an avalanche-starter, but it might be the one that inspires the next avalanche-starter. Before ‘Star Wars,’ there was ‘Dune.’

            I write epic space fantasy. There hasn’t been a new hit in 40 years. It’s ripe for something original and innovative that transforms that genre into something popular and mainstream.

          • Nathan Barra says:

            I think our conversation is getting crossed. I didn’t make the point that fresh, original stories couldn’t have sympathetic protagonists. Just the opposite. Rather, the further you take a story away from what is comfortable, the stronger the lifeline back to the concrete grounding must be.

            I think, in the end we need to write the sort of books and stories that we enjoy. Yes, large audience appeal great to sell books, but if we don’t enjoy what we are writing, it’ll be apparent in the prose. No matter how large your audience appeal is in theory, you need the practical lure of a good story, strong characters, interesting milieu and enough novelty to intrigue. There have been books upon books written about how to create the “perfect best seller.” However, no one seems to know all the secrets. The only common thread that I’ve seen is that the passion and hardwork of a writer resonates with the readers.

            As for your epic space fantasy, good luck! I hope that you are able to find that right mix of story elements and timing needed to take off and start that next avalanche.

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