Lessons About Originality from Boxed Cake Mix

There is this trend in publishing (both self and traditional) where people look at what the latest, greatest hit is and then immediately rush to try to make something like it that hits on whatever that indefinable thing is that made it huge.  Think of Twilight and the 850,000 YA vampire novels that came after–or not even necessarily vampire…there were plenty of others that tried to hit on that Every Girl + mysterious supernatural boy formula with other critters than blood suckers.  The vast majority weren’t as successful as the original (if anything has met with the same success, I’m not aware of it–well except 50 Shades, which is kind of a whole other thing, and not what I’m talking about here).  And chances are, if you read YA, you’ve seen reviews of works where the book has been called derivative or trying too hard to be Twilight, or some other insult indicating it was a clone or a rip off of the original (even though in some cases, Twilight actually came out after the book in question–but I digress).

This whole idea of looking at the mega best sellers (even the ones we like to denigrate for whatever reason because they offend our artistic sensibilities or whatever) and trying to DEFINE that thing, figure out what the formula or secret is so we can reproduce it and try to capitalize on that appeal is not a bad one.  It’s one of the holy grails of publishing.  But there is a certain degree of originality that is expected in a work to keep people from getting ticked.  Let me digress a little more and give you a different, non publishing example.

Last week when I was standing in the check out line at Walmart doing my grocery shopping, I got behind this woman who had, it appeared, emptied out the ENTIRE baking section’s supply of Pillsbury cake mixes.  Me being me, I struck up a conversation, and observed that that was a LOT of cake mix!  I asked if she was doing a bake sale.

“No,” she shook her head.  “Bakery.”

At which point I was stunned rather speechless.  Because we’re talking about a woman who was running a business that is predicated on what the public assumes is from scratch products.  There’s a part of me that still wonders which bakery it is so that I can avoid them–but I don’t go to bakeries in the first place (I prefer pie to cake), so it was a moot point.  But the whole encounter left me disgusted.  This woman, passing off these boxed cake mix cakes as from scratch creations has crossed that line–because you know she doesn’t have a little sign out saying “Pillsbury yellow cake” next to something sitting behind the glass.  If word got out that this is what she was doing, I guarantee she’d lose business.  Because y’all, bakery cakes are expensive.  And people will pay that because a) they don’t or can’t bake themselves and b) they think they’re getting a superior product.  But if all she’s doing is baking up boxed cakes just like we can do at home, then that’s breaking an unspoken promise to the buying public.  She’s not making it enough her own.

Now there are a zillion things you can do with boxed cake mix that aren’t actually cake.  I’ve seen cake mix cookies.  I’ve made cake batter ice cream.  All these things take boxed cake mix and turn them into something NEW, something that is definitely DIFFERENT than just whipping up the cake straight from the box.  And I guess it begs the question of

HOW DIFFERENT DOES SOMETHING HAVE TO BE FROM THE INSPIRATION OR ORIGINAL IN ORDER TO BE CONSIDERED ITS OWN ORIGINAL THING?

Weigh in, y’all.  I want to know what you think.

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7 comments

  1. Like you said, you can use cake box as a base for things… Even other cakes. For example, I made a lemon cake for my daughter that started with yellow cake box mix, but ignored everything on the back and added ingredients. I got that recipe from this cookbook called THE CAKE DOCTOR, which I learned about from my stepmom, whom sells the cakes she makes for extra money, So, yeah. I’ve had to face this “is that right?”

    For me it all comes down to, if they didn’t put out a good product, regardless of the means, people wouldn’t buy it if it sucked. And can we be honest? Most people buy cakes because of how they look. My daughter doesn’t want just a lemon cake. She wants one shaped like a bee. And my stepmom takes hours doing that, like forming tiny fondont gumbas, with faces, for a Mario cake.

    I have no answer for your last question. For me it isn’t about different enough/original. It is about what satisfies my desires or needs that I approach the work for. I just want my happy buttons hit.

  2. Bakeries that use box mix actually doctor them. At least, that’s my experience. (My mother’s a professional cake decorator. Actually, I daresay my mother’s comparable to Gloria’s. ^_^)

    Also, don’t overestimate folks’ inability to even cook basic box mix cake. I’ve had conversations with adults that covered “How do you crack an egg without getting the shell in your bowl?” and “What’s ‘dice’ mean?” and “How do you cook dry beans?” (On that last one, I’ve discovered the entire “Soak ’em and don’t put salt in until after they’re salt” routine is…not common knowledge.)

  3. to me there has to be characters that makes it real. It does not matter that you can trace the inspiration if it has a soul not just a copy. Elizabeth Moon’s Paksnarrion saga is clearly in a Tolkien-ques world but it has unique characters and unique problems. I read a novel last week that borrowed a lot from “Starship Troopers” and “The Forever War” Added in a couple of scenes from “The Battle for LA” and “Independence Day” and it never came alive. It is the difference between being inspired and following a template

  4. When I first started publishing, it was bliss for me because vampires were the THING and I had LOVED vampires since childhood. So I got to jump on the bandwagon with something I loved anyway. But my vampire stories, in my opinion, aren’t like others, and they aren’t even like each other. However, there’s a well-known indie author who’s making lots of money, and whose books are a lot like Twilight, at least the first in the series was. I didn’t care for the first book I read by this author, so i didn’t read any more. It was badly edited, and it wasn’t interesting to me. BUT…she’s making LOTS of money. So who am I to say she shouldn’t have written books similar to Twilight? They are selling. I can’t say she should be more original because she might not have sold books if she had. And then her other series sell, too, because she’s now well-known. It worked for her.

    I guess it boils down to “I don’t know the answer”. I keep hearing there are no new ideas anyway, which is probably true. But if we build our own worlds and characters, we can put completely different spins on the ideas.

  5. I don’t think a story has to be very different at all from the inspiration. I think it’s more about how the author interprets their version. You could take every single major plot element of Twilight and use it in your own story, as long as it has your unique take how those plot elements affect the characters. Because what your characters do won’t be the same as what Meyer’s characters did. It’s a difference of life experiences.

    That’s the problem with trying to figure out why everyone went out a bought their book. It can’t be done. You can analyze the style and physics of the story to death, but good luck discovering “secret ingredient”.

    What’s great about these mega-hit books is that they DO inspire. In my case, Twilight and everything that’s come since, has inspired me to write own vampire tale that will be nothing like those stories. Not because I have anything against Twilight, but when I think vampire fiction, I’m not seeing a lot of what I want to see. So, I’ll write it myself and I won’t have to wonder if someone else wrote the idea I have. They probably did. But I’m sure the emotional stamp I put on it, will be my own.

    But suppose Twilight did inspire me to write my own paranormal YA? It’d still be different enough for the above reason. It’s all about writing the story that matters to you. That alone, makes it different enough.

  6. Reading that, I started thinking of this…

    Buffy: I’m cookie dough. I’m not done baking. I’m not finished becoming who ever the hell it is I’m gonna turn out to be. I make it through this, and the next thing, and the next thing, and maybe one day, I turn around and realize I’m ready. I’m cookies. And then, you know, if I want someone to eat m- or enjoy warm, delicious, cookie me, then that’s fine. That’ll be then. When I’m done.
    Angel: Any thoughts on who might enjoy – Do I have to go with the cookie analogy?

    And now I can’t think of anything else.

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