I see it a lot. New writers, experienced writers, everyone does it at some point. Most of us have heard the voices, and those who haven't are either lying or extremely hard of hearing: Why write? You're not doing anything original. There's nothing new for you to do. You can't come up with anything fresh. Everything has been done already, and done better than you ever could.
These voices can be awfully persuasive. I've spent many a day in a blue funk (or a "brown study", apparently, as I learned while looking up idioms to teach my Japanese students — who knew?) because I'm convinced I'll never rise above the slush pile. And I've been writing as long as I can remember.
It's a wonder writers get anything done at all, especially young ones. I've seen so many older, experienced writers gleefully crush a young hopeful's dream by informing them how derivative their new shiny idea is. The first comment when someone describes their new plot is usually telling them which book or movie it "sounds just like". It's dismissive, cruel, and unnecessary, because, let's face it, everything has been done before. Yes, it's annoying when someone prances around acting like no one has ever written non-evil vampires before (cough) but it's not the end of the world. Yet, writers — who should, by all rights, be loving toward their fellow sufferers — love to trample on the dreams of others.
The other day on the NaNoWriMo.org forums I came across a post that at once angered me and broke my heart. A young writer posted asking whether her plot had ever been done before, which in a writing community is like jumping into Lake Erie covered in papercuts. (Non-Ontarians, take note: this is a lake which boasts warning signs like, "Don't swim when it's windy! The waves stir up the toxins in the water!" which children gleefully ignore in the hopes they'll turn into Aquaman.) Initial commenters were quick to point out that every element of the plot she put forward had been done before, but afterward came the usual "buck up!" advice about originality vs. craft.
The writer came back and announced that this was an idea she wanted, but now that she'd learned it had been done before, she refused to write it. She was going to keep looking. Because, she said, she'd been taught by her parents that she had to be the best of everyone, and if she couldn't come up with a 100% original idea, she wouldn't the best. Implied was the assertion that those of us who'd attempted to comfort her could slug on with our sub-par, unoriginal novels, but she refused to sink that low. One day, one day she would find that shimmering, brilliant, never-been-done-before idea and be the best writer ever.
Ha. Forget Lake Erie; you know that line in "The Big Bang Theory" where Raj says he'd rather "swim naked through the Ganges with a papercut on my nipple" than work with (for!) Sheldon? That's pretty much what this poor girl did here.
I'm sick of this idea that writers must come up with 100% original bases for their stories. Tropes are tropes for a reason; readers recognize them and can identify with them. "Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finally gets girl" is old and tired, but can still be shaped into something interesting. "Dog meets toaster, dog electrocutes himself attempting to consummate the relationship with toaster, dog's owner gets gives him artificial genitalia that allows him to finally have physical relations with toaster" is new, but I'm not sure it would take off. Why? There's very little for the readers to relate to. Readers need something they can grasp before moving on to something new.
This is not a cop-out. I'm not saying "well, everything's been done, so let's just churn out shlock for the rest of our lives!", which is where plenty of authors — and nearly every romantic comedy film in the last twenty years — stop. What I mean is, the trick to writing something new is to take old elements and recombine them. Naomi Novik invented neither dragons nor the Napoleonic War, but look what she's done with them.
If something has never been done before — that is, none of the unique elements that comprise the story have ever been tried, not the combination thereof — then there may be a good reason for that. Rule #34 exists as proof of this. (If there are any sweet, innocent Internet-users for whom that's just another number, stay away from Google. Or at least have the booze handy.)
Many would-be-writers cling to the idea that they will, someday, dig out that jewel of complete originality, and then the rest of the world will be theirs forever. And guess what? Either these people will grow up to realize this doesn't happen, and they will find a not-so-new plot and make it their own, or they won't. The first group of people will graduate to writers. The second never will. This second group will go to their graves having not written a word, clutching their dream tightly to their chests — and one hundred percent convinced they are better than those shmucks who settled for second.
Unfortunately for them, the worst, most derivative, unoriginal piece of dreck churned out is better than the most brilliant thing they never wrote. But people don't seem to realize this. They're convinced that their jewel of an idea — which they haven't even thought of yet — is better than every novel and every writer out there. It's a level of naive arrogance so past even hubris that I don't think there's a word for it.
As of yet, the original poster hasn't returned — maybe we scared her off. There's a good chance she'll think we're all just jealous meanies determined to crush her creativity with our collective mediocrity; who knows? Hopefully, though, she dusts herself off and starts writing for real.
None of this is new advice, but apparently it bears repeating. You don't have to be sparkly snowflake original. You just have to be good.