on the freshness of ideas; or,
Everything really has been done before
One of the common themes of the advertising for Dance of the Goblins is that the plot is new and fresh, that this is the first time the bad guys have been the good guys. That's not the case, as several decades of books about good giants and good trolls and good griffins and good dragons and good dragons and good dragons and augh, enough with the good dragons already, people! have shown. But I was having a hard time coming up with a specific instance of why DotG's goblins in specific felt so retreaded. There are books in which goblins aren't evil, but none I know of in which they're superior to humans, and no books in which other official evil fantasy races (orcs, drow) are depicted as good.
And yet, as I read DotG I couldn't shake the feeling of "Been there, read that, get on with the baby-eating please."
Then I realized: What fantasy race also lives in harmony with nature, hides from humans, dwells in random exotic wilderness locations, does magic, loves to dance and sing, speaks a different language, and spends much of its time pondering the brutality of humans and wishing they would grow the hell up?
According to the Hobbit movie, they even live in caves.
In all fairness to Tolkien, his version of elves is comparatively low on the human-scolding and gratuitous dancing and comparatively high on functioning like a real race. It's everyone else's version that turns the fluff quotient up to 11. And this is why DotG's goblins feel so stale: We've seen the exact same thing done several thousand times before with prettier actors. Stuffing them underground and painting them green isn't enough to make them new.
Even making them hated by humans isn't a change. We've seen that done, too. Start with ElfQuest--whose elves also live a simple life in small bands, steal from humans, and dance a lot--then move on to the part of the spectrum where Tolkienesque elves shade into the Sidhe in books like Holly Black's Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside trilogy. Their descent from humans isn't fresh, it's one of the traditional stories about how fairies were created; and evolution from homo sapiens is an idea older than The Time Machine and repeated in postapocalyptic SF story after postapocalyptic SF story. And then I realized that there are evil-races-turned-good: vampires, werewolves, aliens. Even that twist on the twist isn't new.
At this point I seem like I'm picking on Jaq D. Hawkins, but I'm trying not to. Hawkins hasn't done anything that a hundred self-published authors before her haven't done; her book is simply to hand. Claiming that their story idea is new and fresh and the very first story that contains element X is a hobby for self-published SF&F authors, right up there beside claiming that their book transcends the genre/fits into a dozen unrelated genres and that it's just like totally unrelated book Z. You could turn it into Self-Publishing Bingo, with "Traditional publishers won't touch my work because it's too edgy!" as the free square at the center.
At this point, self-published authors who are called on the newness of their ideas do one of two things:
- "My story is the first to combine those elements." After examples of stories that already combined those elements: "My story is the first to combine those elements and contain extra element A." More examples... "...and B." More examples... "And C!" Eventually, what you get is a statement like, "My story is the first one in which a spunky princess flees an arranged marriage and takes up swordfighting AND fights a dragon AND falls in love with a lumberjack AND he's bisexual AND a werewolf AND an alien and it's written by a 40-year-old Albanian-American woman, goddammit."
This is the wrong game to play. No one cares that a story contains new elements A, B, and C. Literature is not like science, where the discovery of a new element puts your name in textbooks for a hundred years. It's like cooking, where the the right ingredients and the right mixture of spices combined in the right way with the perfect amount of heat and a careful hand with the sauce will produce a dish worth remembering. New and exotic ingredients are nice, but they're not enough on their own, and your durian-breadfruit ahi-ahi with lemongrass and galangal will still be a flop if it tastes like ass.
- "There are no new ideas anyway, so why try?" This one usually comes up when critics start tossing around the word "cliche." Again, it's the wrong game. A cliche isn't just an old idea, it's an old idea that we're sick of. It's lost its emotional charge. When people say a story is cliched, they mean that the story is boring and predictable, and in the same way that dozens of other stories are boring and predictable. You can't wiggle out of it by saying, in essence, "Well... all stories are kind of boring and predictable."
Drop the games. Forget about coming up with an idea that's completely unprecedented. Give us enthralling characters, a vivid world, and a plot you've seen fewer than twenty times in the past six weeks, and we'll be there with popcorn and fanfic. Note that I didn't say unique characters or an unprecedented world. Make a Stereotype: Thief, Subclass: Clever character interesting, draw the Period: Kind of Renaissancey, Subclass: With Buttloads of Magic world so well that we can taste and smell it, and we'll be on it before you can say The Lies of Locke Lamora.
How do you do this? You read. Read until you can rattle off the names of twenty pseudo-Renaissance and forty pseudo-Medieval settings. Read until you can tell me all the other subtypes of Stereotype: Thief. Read until you know why spunky princesses drive seasoned fantasy fans to screaming. Read new books, read old books, read more new books--read new books, read new books, read new books! Don't reread the fifty books you loved in the 80's and think you have a handle on the genre. And read old books! Don't be like the boy who complained that Lord of the Rings was a total Sword of Shannara ripoff. If you think most of the genre is cliched tripe, you're in good company; seek out other seasoned readers who think the same and ask them what they're reading now. Then go read it.
And if you have a self-published book to promote and you're planning to sell it as the first book to __________, go read until you know why you're wrong. Then go rewrite your book. THEN come back and try to sell it to us. I guarantee you'll have a better pitch and a better book.
Jaq D. Hawkins replies
One of the common themes of the advertising for Dance of the Goblins is that the plot is new and fresh,
Where do you get this? Yes the idea of goblins as a Shamanic people living close to the earth instead of the typical war-mongering gaming examples of goblins is a new approach. Your comparisons to Tolkien's elves is wandering well into the land of trolling for trolling's sake. Obviously so.