“All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” -Leo Tolstoy
I remember when I finished my third novel I began looking around for how to query and what to query. (Author’s note: I HATE QUERYING LIKE I HATE HELL, ALL MONTAGUES AND SYNOPSES.) This was around 2003, if I remember correctly, and I remember reading a blog post by a potential agent named Rachel Vater. I think that blog post is long since gone but I recall she said something to the effect of, “I am not accepting anymore quest-based fiction.” And that was a punch in the gut for me because I really wanted to query her but I also knew pretty much everything I had ever written was quest-based, in some form or another.
But then I began wondering, “Is it possible to remove ourselves from the big metanarratives of story and tell a different story?” And then when I read the above Tolstoy quote, I started applying it to a handful of great stories I’d read:
Call of the Wild: both.
The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger: both.
IT: a stranger comes to town.
The Stand: both.
Old Man’s War: a man goes on a journey.
The Hobbit: both.
So are those amazing stories just cliche? Maybe a little. But maybe cliche, done well, isn’t quite the pejorative we think. Maybe we’re all trying to tell five big stories and just keep telling them in different ways, with different characters, and those stories are the songs of our humanity? Being told what you write is cliche is difficult. And maybe all that I ever write is just hack-ish with sprinkles of decent prose scattered here and there. And maybe I’ll never, ever be the next Stephen King.
But I have to remind myself that my joy in writing is for others to enjoy it, not for it to be some standard bearer for the perfect piece of fiction.
I want to write stories that matter. I want to write stories that people enjoy. And yes, I do want my writing to maybe one day support me. And maybe all of that is cliche too. If so? I’m okay with that.