Hello readers! And welcome to the first installment of Being a Better Writer’s Summer of Cliche Writing Advice! Where we’re looking, one week at a time, at all the cliche writing advice out there, the quick sentences thrown out by dozens of Facebook, Tumblr, and (shudder) Twitter users, or even just regular folks at a coffee shop. The kind of stuff that comes in a quick, digestible sentence and sounds like it’s useful.
Catch is, most of this sort of writing advice is so brusque that it’s really not that useful. Instead, it’s a bit like, well, like a small wooden carving that’s been carved one too many times. it still has the general shape, yes, but it also isn’t quite what it should be. But people keep passing it around anyway and saying “This is that thing!” because now it’s small, somewhat attractive, well-worn, and easy to pass along. Even if the thing it supposedly represents isn’t all that close when someone who’s actually seen one picks the carving up.
Which is why this summer, for the next month or so, Being a Better Writer is going to be digging into a whole range of cliche writing advice sayings that are spat out and regurgitated without much thought for how accurate they really are. The kind of things that are easy to remember and say … but may not hold as much truth, or really even useful advice, as most people think.
Or maybe they do? That’s what the Summer of Cliche Writing Advice is here to find out. We’re going to break these cliche sayings down, see what makes them tick, see what they’re intended to accomplish, what they actually accomplish, where they go wrong, and then see if we can’t glean some good old fashioned knowledge to improve our craft out of what’s left. And the cliche for this week?
There’s nothing new under the sun.
Okay, this saying is one that I see bandied about all the time. Especially on writing forums, chats, and subreddits. “There’s nothing new under the sun” feels like one of the go-to bits of writing advice for some people. Someone asks for advice? Here it comes. New poster looking for feedback? Here it comes.
Ultimately though, in my time spent writing, this is one of those bits of writing advice that inspired this whole summer special. It’s repeated constantly, bandied about like some great bit of wisdom … But ultimately, it’s really not very good advice, especially the way it gets used.
Okay, so let’s back up for a moment. Let’s deconstruct this and look at the original intent of “There’s nothing new under the sun.”
It’s pretty simple. The origins of the quote are, fittingly enough, ancient. Like, really ancient. We’re talking biblical. While the saying has been around for so long that finding an exact source is almost impossible, a number of scholars point at Ecclesiastes 1:9 in the Old Testament:
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
Yes, that does make the origin of this saying several thousand years old. And, in a fit of irony, it’s worth pointing out that if you take this quote verbatim, it’s utterly inaccurate. After all, exactly how much new under the sun has their been in the last 2000-3000 years? The new of the last decade can fill a book, to say nothing of the last few millennia.
But that’s if you take it at face value, and face value alone. As one philosopher pointed out, the real meaning of “no new thing under the sun” as he understood it, was that in the larger scheme of things, not much changes. People still work. The sun still rises. People marry and have children.
Actually, it’s a pretty good quote, so I’ll drop it here. This is the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius speaking on the subject:
Consider for example, and thou wilt find that almost all of the transactions in the time of Vespasian differed little from those of the present day. Thou there findest marrying and giving in marriage, educating children, sickness, death, war, joyous holidays, traffic, agriculture, flatterers, insolent pride, suspicions, laying of plots, longing for the death of others, newsmongers, lovers, misers, men canvassing for the consulship and for the kingdom …
Right, same as what I said above. “Nothing new under the sun” is a general, long-term look at things. It’s talking about broad concepts. Where it goes wrong, and when it becomes a problem when it’s doled out as writing advice, is when it is taken specifically and close in. Which, naturally, it seems to every single time.
Let me paint you a familiar picture—at least, if you hang out in online writing forums, groups, or circles. A new writer bounces in, all excited about their project and looking for some advice to start. They lay out the basics of their story, and then someone goes “Well, there’s nothing new under the sun. Don’t forget that.”
Perplexed (though sometimes not, and this conversation skips ahead a few lines), the would-be writer replies “What do you mean?”
At which point the one who’s tossed the saying out either repeats the saying, as if smacking someone with a bludgeon is their preferred tactic, or says something along the lines of “Don’t expect too much of it. I (or often “we” so the speaker can hide behind an assumed crowd) have seen this story a million times before. There’s nothing new out there.”
Sometimes it’ll get even worse. I’ve seen people follow that up with “Look, there’s nothing new out there. So don’t bother trying to make something new or get excited about it. Because it’s not new.”
Yeah, can you imagine being this new prospective writer? This is taking their legs out from under them with an axe.
And that’s what I don’t like about this saying. Those that wield it do so like it’s a cudgel, smacking newcoming authors over the head as if to say “Don’t get excited, after all, you’re not original. Don’t get worked up over this.”
That’s terrible advice. Honestly it’s not even advice at that point. It’s more akin to bullying. It’s grabbing someone who’s about to start the run up the mountain that is writing a work and saying “Hey, why bother? Someone else already did it.”
The worst bit about this is it’s not even true! Sure, the peak might be the same peak that dozens or hundreds of other stories have arrived at, and the trails may cross from time to time, but unless an author sets out to use another’s trail, they’re going to forge their own path up that mountain!
Again, the original meaning of the quote is that in the broadest sense, things stay the same. So yes, in the broadest sense, a lot of stories are alike. Orphan boy leaves his home, is educated by an wise figure, and saves the day. That summarizes thousands of stories across all genres. But no one is going to sit down and say ‘Well, Harry Potter is just a rip-off of A New Hope.” Not and be taken seriously. While the stories share the same broad strokes, pretty much everything else, from the setting to the characters to the peril, is vastly different from Harry Potter.
And look, even if their trail is pretty similar to others that have scaled the peak before … so what? As long as it isn’t the same trail, then let them scale it. They may do so at night, or under rain that makes the previously hard dirt soggy and slick mud.
Now, let me be clear that I’m not saying we shouldn’t alert new readers to not copy other stories or books, or warn them when they might be treading a bit close. But the point of the phrase “nothing new under the sun” isn’t supposed to be to dissuade or put down authors by trying to argue that there are “no new stories.” And if you’ve ever thought that, check yourself, because that’s not helping anyone.
Because there are new stories. All the time. And while in the broad sense, they’re arriving at the same peak as older stories, they’re still unique in their path and how they get there.
Take A Game of Stakes, for example. None of you have read this one yet, because it comes out next February in the LTUE anthology A Dragon and Her Girl, but if I were to make a broad comparison of the peak, I’d say it’s a Beauty and the Beast story.
Except it’s not. That’s just the peak, and even then it’s not that similar. Only in the broadest sense does it become the same story. At its core, however, and from a closer look, it’s very new and different.
But when people bandy about “There’s nothing new under the sun” like a blunt club, there’s usually none of that distinction. And some of them, worse, actually believe it. They believe that there are no new stories, no new works, even in detail, context, or anything.
These people are fools. The worst kind of fool that thinks they’re a lot smarter than they really are. They’re a byproduct of a cliche statement being taken too far.
And that sort of mindset? That attitude? That hurts new writers. This “advice” can be, and often is, crushing. I’ve seen it happen. New writer hops into a forum with an idea and looking for some advice as they don’t know how to make a few steps work, only to be beaten over the head with “It’s been done before, stop wasting your time unless you’re willing to admit that you’re wasting your time and not doing anything original.” And sure enough, they leave, because who wants to sit through that? And they never come back. They put down their pen, decide they’ll never create something unique or interesting, and quit.
That’s not cool.
What should happen is that the saying should be explained for what it is: A broad set of strokes that are a reminder that a lot of things pretty much stay the same. At the end of the day, the peaks are going to be similar. As are a lot of the lookouts along the way.
But the path? And the people walking it? Those are different. Recall the quote from Marcus Aurelius given above. He doesn’t name names. Instead he speaks in broad terms. “Man.” Not “Bob.”
Because each one of those events that he spoke of will differ wildly for each name undertaking it. Each one is their own story, their own experience, even if the end “beat” is “so-and-so got sick.”
Which is what “There’s nothing new under the sun” is good for. Bear in mind, despite people making it one of the worst bits of cliche writing advice by shoving it in far too close, there is good that can come out of it. Good that new writers can learn from.
First, it’s a great case to show that nothing out there is unattainable with your story. Struggling with something? Know that hundreds of thousands of other stories have struggled to reach this peak as well … But they did reach it. Which means you can too.
It also means that there may be insight into how to reach your peak in how others reached theirs. Are you a new author that wants to write fantasy? Read fantasy so that you can see how so many others walk the path to that peak.
Lastly, knowing that others have reached that same peak? It means people want to reach that peak. Sure, there may be a million adventure stories out there and more every day, but that’s because there’s an audience for them! They’ve been popular for thousands of years! And are going to be popular for thousands of years to come! Awesome! So write a really good one!
See, there is some good wrapped in “Nothing new under the sun.” It’s a great reminder that authors have struggled with plot, or pacing, or characters for centuries. That others have reached a peak as well because we want to get there. That you can learn from other approaches even as you forge your own path up the mountain.
Sadly, this often gets buried under “You’re not original, so just give up” as so many people turn a simple, broad phrase into a cudgel of specific buffoonery. It’s not meant to be used that way. It never was.
So go write your story. Don’t worry that the peak has been achieved already. It’s still a mark of accomplishment to add your flag to those at the top. Forge your path to get there. It may overlap some others from time to time, or stop at some of the same lookouts. But the weather will be different, the time of day different, and the conditions or season different.
It’ll be yours. Your original adventure climbing to the peak. Distilled, sure, it might be the same.
But the details … that’s where your story shines true. And that’s what people are going to read so …
Good luck. Now get writing.
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