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Great Minds Think Alike, They Say: A Poll

February 9, 2011

It’s true.  Great ideas aren’t that uncommon, and it’s not infrequent that many people will approach the same great idea and take it in different directions.  And that’s a good thing, as great ideas are like Legos: they can build on each other.

But, I think, there may also be a caveat to this wonderful exchange.  In the marketplace of ideas and story seeds and plots, there can come a point in the life-cycle of a given idea that it becomes an “already-done”: where in the collective mind of the story-consuming public that idea has already had its fullest expression in a prior work of art or fiction, and any later work that starts from the same point is classified as a “copy-cat” work.  Even if that later work adds something new, different, or substantive – something unexplored by prior works – if it starts from the point of an “already-done” idea, I suspect it may never gain a significant audience.  Over time, the collective memory of the “already-done” may wane, but is the memory of the book and art-consuming public not a long one?  I’m not sure.

To some extent, this question is the pervading problem of epic fantasy, in general.  Every epic fantasy written in the last forty years lies in the shadow of Tolkien‘s “Lord of the Rings“, and incorporating any of the same ideas is considered cliché, passé, or even taboo.  I have read many times that there is nothing – full stop – that you can do, say, or write about Elves, Dwarves, or Orcs (and to a lesser degree Wizards and Dark Lords) that will add anything new or original or interesting to the general fantasy framework Tolkien laid out.

It doesn’t matter whether that’s true or not.  Enough influential voices within the halls of speculative fiction creatordom and fandom believe it to be true that we’ll get relatively few opportunities to test that hypothesis.

Which leads me to the subject of today’s poll.  It is for the above-stated reasons that over the past few days I’ve become concerned about the future publication prospects of my most recently completed novelette, “PFTETD”. 

Let me provide some context.  Over the weekend while taking a break from homework I read an interesting article about the future of film adaptations of YA speculative fiction literature in the waking of the coming conclusion of the Harry Potter series and the Twilight series.  It was an interesting article, and I enjoy staying abreast of developments in speculative fiction film and literature.

But I learned something that I did not know before.  There is a YA book with themes and ideas strangely similar to those I used in “PFTETD”.  But that’s as a starting point… this YA book takes them in a very different, more “Twilight”-like direction. Which is a very fine thing to do.  In normal times both stories could coexist in the marketplace, using similar ideas as starting points to serve the differing needs of differing consumers (readers).  But in the post-Harry Potter, post-Twilight era, this is one of several YA books that has been optioned for possible film development in the hopes of catching another bodacious wave.

And supposing this book and movie adaptation go forward, and supposing it makes a big splash?  Where, then, does that leave “PFTETD”? 

Admittedly, I’ve semi-trunked the novelette.  It’s too long for almost every online story market.  It’s a good story, but not quite great enough to break out against tales told by my undiscovered peers.  And I lack the auctorial clout to make a dent in the venerable old print markets.  It’s a story that could someday find a home in a story anthology… but I’ll need lots of time and lots of feedback if I’m ever to revise it sufficiently to make it even better.  But if the central idea is an “already-done” by then… it could be dead in the water.

“Well,” said Dear Wife, as I told her this, “Couldn’t you self-publish it as an ebook?”

Oh my.  Now what a can of worms we’ve opened.  Couldn’t I?  I suppose I could.  Should I?  That’s a question I’m unequipped to answer… I was planning on simply keeping it in the trunk for now, making it privately available to willing gamma readers (i.e. some few of you who have the time and inclination and contact me privately about the matter after I make it known that this is what I’m doing, if any such of you in fact exist) for potential feedback and eventual Story Revision Mark III to prepare for submission to anthologies as I discover them.  But if that chance never comes, is it better to make it publicly available now, in some form or fashion, or to chalk it up to writing experience, swallow my pride, and move on?

What say you?

(When you’re done here, trot on back to my post and poll on writing journals; I got precious few responses to that poll, and I’d love to see more.)

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2011 5:28 pm

    I think trunking it is a good idea…for now at least.

    And I don’t mean trunk it forever…just for now. Start on something new. Think of it as a sunrise on a new day.

    PFTETD may have its time someday in the future though.

    • February 10, 2011 8:54 am

      So then, you wouldn’t be worried about the story getting skunked by a YA book going big on the big screen? I do plan on working on something new (my plan for when I have time to write, hopefully this summer, is to work on other stories and hopefully start on my book).

      • February 10, 2011 11:20 am

        You mean someone beating you to the punch? Stories have been told millions of time over. Just take, for instance, the Bible, and compare it with any movie out there…

        I don’t remember, were you in school last Summer? I took it off, and am planning on taking this summer off too. Time for leisure is so important for me…

      • February 10, 2011 11:27 am

        I’ve had class every summer. That’s the way my program works. (I mean, theoretically you can choose not to take classes, but then you’ll be thrown off-track for graduating on time…) No class this summer, because I will have finally crossed the finish line! But yes, I sort of mean someone beating me to the punch. Although… not quite in that they “beat” me, but in that the popularity of their work will impact the story’s potential.

      • February 10, 2011 1:29 pm

        Ah, i get it. For instance, who’s going to want to see another movie about vampires now that Twilight’s had it’s heyday?

      • February 10, 2011 1:54 pm

        It’s even more subtle than that… Vampires are an old horror/fantasy trope, and they’re not going to disappear just because of Twilight. But let’s say you wrote a story where Vampires can go out in the daylight, but choose not to because direct sunlight makes them appear grotesque and unnatural? Likewise, my story involves dragons (I do believe I’ve said that before, once). Dragons in fantasy aren’t going away and won’t disappear just because a YA fantasy romance uses dragons in the tale. But what if there are other specific things in the cocktail that are shared?

        Like I said to Tessa below: I realize this is just my paranoia alarm going off… I mean, there are lots of specific little details that are used in Twilight (and have been used before) that most probably won’t prevent those same details from being used again: like the animosity between Vampires and Werewolves, for instance, or the existence of a powerful ruling cabal of old European Vampires. I guess those are more akin to the sorts of overlapping elements I’m thinking about – only substitute dragon folklore for vampire folklore.

  2. February 9, 2011 5:59 pm

    Posting work online worked out unexpectedly well for me, but I’d never intended on trying to sell my serial or writing exercises. The serial (novella) was just an old bit of writing I wanted to try dusting off/editing for practice. You could take this route, but if you do you’d probably not be able to sell it in the future.

    I agree with JP. There may be no home for it now, but you never know what opportunities might show up later. Plus I don’t suggest getting it gamma read if you don’t have time to work on it right now. Comments are good when they’re fresh and actionable! IMHO 🙂

    • February 10, 2011 9:03 am

      Same question for you, then: would you be unworried about the impact on those hypothetical future prospects by a YA novel that has very similar and overlapping ideas hitting the big screen? I’m hesitant about posting it online right now; as you say if I did that would exhaust its prospects for the future, but for a dubious benefits since my traffic here is low enough that I wouldn’t likely get anybody (outside of a small handful) to actually read the story just by posting it for free. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      • February 10, 2011 11:21 am

        Hmm…Here’s an idea for you.

        Are you worried that people will think you copied it? Well then, how about before the Rival Story goes “BIG,” you take PFTETD, put it in an envelope, mail it to yourself, then store it away. That way, when you ever need to prove to an editor that you thought of your first, you can just show him the postmark & sealed envelope. I don’t know, just an idea…

      • February 10, 2011 11:30 am

        It’s not editors I’m worried about. Nor about my story being thought of as having copied or cribbed a more popular work. It’s a concern that the basic ideas of my story will seem “already-done” by something more popular. It’s a concern that the reading public will have had their fill of the idea, and decide that anything else is just retreading tired tropes. I’m probably making mountains of molehills… but I guess I’m worried that although I started work on this story some years ago, at my current rate of writing and making a name for myself I’ll be way too late to the party for this story to be interesting anymore.

      • February 10, 2011 12:55 pm

        I remember reading a story about William Gibson. “Blade Runner” came out in theatres just as he was finishing “Neuromancer”. The similarities between the books were striking, especially the opening sequence – so he rewrote the first chapter multiple times, now it’s a classic?

        I wouldn’t worry about the similarities it too much 🙂

      • February 10, 2011 1:18 pm

        See, I know it’s just the paranoia center of my lizard brain that’s telling me I should worry… but it’s hard not to worry. And basically I just want as many people as possible to read and enjoy it…

  3. February 10, 2011 8:28 am

    I’ve found myself in a very similar predicament which I’ll be blogging about shortly. I think it’s important to remember that unless there’s been some crazy alignment of all the planets, your story won’t be the same as the other one. There will clear distinctions between them and the trick is to make sure people are aware of and focus on those.

    What do though? Well if it’s just a novella, personally I’d self publish it. Maybe refine it a bit more of necessary then fire it up on the Kindle or here and give people to purchase it as well if they like it. If nothing else it’ll raise reader’s aware of you and your work.

    Good luck whatever you decide to do!

    • February 10, 2011 9:11 am

      Thanks for your thoughts. I’m not worried about the other story being too similar in the larger sense – as I mention it’s described as being “Twilight”-like, whereas mine most definitely isn’t. Instead, it’s the underlying idea that forms the milieu in which the two stories take place that is virtually identical. The published YA novel that may get the silver-screen treatment take that milieu and turns it into a romance. Mine turns it into a tragic comedy.

  4. February 11, 2011 7:52 am

    My advice is either trunk it or get critiques once you’re able to put in the work on it. (I’ve found that T.S. is right–waiting to implement the critiques makes them less helpful.)

    I would disagree with those who say there’s nothing new you could add to things like elves, dwarves, and orcs. Doing a classical approach may seem pretty clichéd and not get past the slush pile, but if you have a different take, there’s still plenty of room to explore. For example, a few years ago, people were mourning the death of epic fantasy. Then along came this guy named Brandon Sanderson. He’s writing about prophecies and reluctant heroes and thieves and magic and a thousand other things that, on their own sound over-done, but when put together, unite into something new and exciting.

    Maybe not the best example, because he doesn’t have elves and dwarves and orcs in his fantasy? Okay, well, remember that LOTR came out about 70 years ago. That’s a LONG time for something to be around and for its children, grand-children, and red-headed step-children to grow up, have babies of their own, and die. Granted, things move faster these days, but I have a hard time believing that something could end up so over-done that you wouldn’t be able to wait a year or two (or even ten) until you’re able to polish up the story and find a market for it. And until it’s overdone, there will be lots of places looking to ride the coat tails of the Big Idea, giving you more room to publish than you might otherwise have.

    I also wonder if a lot of those saying that elf/dwarf/orc stories are overdone are the same people who are tired of reading novels that are too clearly someone’s D&D campaign shoved into a novel. There’s certainly plenty of that, both in print and in the publishing house dustbins. But if your story is good, if it has original characters reacting in understandable ways to a setting that feels real, don’t sweat it!

    And if you’re still paranoid, do I need to say “Eragon” at you? A YA book that was hugely popular. Somewhere between “Let’s make a movie out of this” and the big screen, the story got run through a meat grinder, losing in the process the things about the novel that most drew the book’s audience in. Adapting books into movies is incredibly difficult, because the formats require very different things. All too often, you lose the heart of the story in the process. I felt the same way with the Percy Jackson movie, and heck, with the Harry Potter movies, too. The center of what I loved about the books aren’t in the movies. (And sometimes the stuff I didn’t much care for in the books ends up on screen instead, which makes it worse!) So even if the film does get made, there’s every chance it’ll burn in the back theaters and not actually start a new wave. Marketers are always trying to make the next big thing, but they really have no idea how it happens, or we’d be overwhelmed by the next big thing at least once a month. Besides, both Twilight and HP were big as novels, before they hit the screen. Hoping a movie adaptation will make the book into the next big thing is going about it the wrong way, in my opinion.

    Also, I’d say, especially when first starting out, don’t give away something. It sets a bad precedent for you to say “Well, this isn’t the best, so I’ll just put it up on the web and move on to the next idea,” rather than forcing you to buckle down, make the revisions, and get the story the best you can. Also, this is your work. Even on a bad day, you still want to get paid. “I’m sorry, I had to redo the spreadsheet three times today, and I have to put more work on it tomorrow, so you shouldn’t pay me for the stuff I did today.” Would you ever say that? (Or at least say it and really mean it?) If not, don’t think that way about your writing, either! (Especially not on the fear of a novel-to-movie adaptation sparking the next big thing!)

    Um…. /waves. Your wife probably didn’t know what she was getting into when she linked me your blog. 🙂

    • February 11, 2011 9:58 am

      Also… You know Dear Wife?
      .
      .
      .
      .
      (I should mention that I only call her “Dear Wife” here, just to protect her privacy on an otherwise public forum.)

    • February 11, 2011 10:10 am

      Wow. That’s a pretty thoughtful and helpful comment. Thanks for sharing. You bring up some good points (especially about movie adaptations) that really help to douse some water on the fires of my paranoia. 🙂 I mentioned the Elf/Dwarf/Orc problem, actually, mainly by way of illustration. I’ve seen a lot of professionally published writers and editors in the fantasy world make statements like that, so there’s at least some evidence that treading down certain paths in speculative fiction are at least going to raise skeptical eyebrows… The particular story in question doesn’t involve elves, dwarves, or orcs at all, but another old fantasy trope (the dragon), which I suspect operates under similar principles. (That said, my “Project SOA#1”, also known as “the book I’ve been writing since forever”, did conceptually involve elves and dwarves in the old draft versions, though I’ll be revisiting their status in future drafts. Project SOA is by no means a D&D campaign write-up, as I started writing the original draft long before I ever knew D&D existed, at the ripe old age of about 8 or 9 years old…)

      Yeah, I think I need to calm down, take a deep breath, and push on with the next thing, coming back to this one at a later date for revisions when I have a little more perspective on it. That seems to be the general consensus… I can decide what I want to do with it again after that.

      • February 14, 2011 7:47 am

        Whether it’s true or not, I tend to take a lot of the “Don’t do this” or “People are tired of seeing that” kind of advice as things to worry about more when you’re trying to break in than once you’ve got a career going. (Which probably means I should pay more attention to them than I do, since I’ve only ever had one thing published. Ah well.) The first time you’re trying to get published, you likely don’t have much of a track record to show that, yes, actually, people will read what you write and enjoy it enough to pay for it. The publishing industry sees a lot of not-so-good stories, and there are probably things they see over and over again.

        My interpretation of their advice tends to be “If you really, really, really want to write about X subject, you have to not just be a competent writer, but really good, especially in the first few chapters, and especially on the first page.” It may be that this is the story you’ve always dreamed of writing. However, if it’s your first novel, you’re going to learn tons in the process of writing it, so maybe it’s better to wait for a second or third novel to pull off that brilliant elf/dwarf romance set against a background of a country tearing itself apart. (Darn, now I want to write “Gone With the Wind Dragon.”) 😉 However, if you’re really set on a subject and confident in your abilities, and you HAVE to write the story for whatever reason (I’ve got one like that that needs a middle desperately), just know it will have to be even better in order to get past the raised eyebrows and bored slush readers than if you took a different path.

        Again, I’m not anywhere near this point, so maybe I’m wrong. But this helps me to actually keep writing, instead of give up in despair that everything has been done before. 🙂 I find that, especially on stories I get stuck on, letting them sit for a while is the best medicine. I recently found the “aboutness” of a couple of stories I let sit for being stuck on. (Also, yay dragons! I love dragons! I’m such a little girl at heart!) 😀

        And yes, I know Dear Wife from her days in NoVa.

      • February 14, 2011 10:07 am

        I agree, that’s really advice that’s good more for writers breaking in than it is for established names and voices. Established writers seem to break that sort of rule all the time. And yes, I do feel I have to finish writing “Project SOA”… I haven’t spent the last twenty years tinkering with it to give up now. But I also realize that it does have to be pretty magnificent if I’m going to breaking rules and treading the path of genre cliches. That’s why I’ve set my sights on a different book to start working on, and finish, first – one that, hopefully, eschews cliches and conventions and tells a more layered tale (“Book of M”, as I’m calling it here). But I definitely will, and must, return to “Project SOA” in due course of time, because it is such a part of who I am… Also, “Gone with the Wind Dragon” is a fabulous mash-up title! Perfect in the age of genre-bending mash-ups.

  5. February 15, 2011 3:09 pm

    Go, Stephen!
    Join the Smashwords authors! 😀
    I’ve decided I have too much stuff in my trunk, and I’m going to pour it out in the upcoming years… what do we have to loose? 😉

    • February 15, 2011 3:34 pm

      Possibly a viable option for the future. But for now, I think I’m going to go with the advice and let it rest, until I have written a few other things, gained some perspective, and can reapproach it with fresh eyes to see how I can improve it. I don’t want to put anything but my very, very best out there (the not-so-very-best offerings on this blog notwithstanding). After I’ve done whatever I can to improve it, I’ll reassess what I want to do with it.

  6. February 15, 2011 4:13 pm

    I wouldn’t worry about certain aspects being similar to another story. I think there is more to the story than the premise and that your themes, voice, characters will force it to be different. I’ve heard a number of instances (Mur Lafferty was the most recent) where author’s were concerned that their ideas were too similar to another project.

    Good luck, and if some day down the road you are looking for a gamma reader (and I can find time), I would be interested.

    • February 15, 2011 4:15 pm

      Thanks. Someday I probably will be. But I’m thinking now I need some perspective (and a few more writing projects under the belt) before I can come back to it. But I think you’re right… I shouldn’t worry too much. Especially not at this stage.

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