I once wrote a story that included a field hospital where all the nurses and doctors were vampires. It wasn’t the main point of the story but it was in there and as I went back over it during rewrites something about it bothered me. It seemed derivative but I couldn’t think where I had possibly seen something like this before. But that happens a lot. For instance, I accidentally steal from myself all the time. I’ll be humming along and put something in that feels just right and then later remember that I had originally put that in another story. If that story hasn’t been published, the theft becomes permanent.
Then one day I was reading Black House by King & Straub (I think it was Black House. I honestly can’t remember. It could have been one of the Gunslinger books) and I got to the part about the field hospital manned by vampires. A cold chill went through me. This may seem like something minor — it was an honest mistake, after all — but I can’t imagine how awful it would be to inadvertently plagiarize something. Imagine becoming known as the Dane Cook of weird fiction.
That incident stays in the back of my mind while I do rewrites like a constant warning klaxon.
But it brings up another point. Not too long ago, pop culture was considered a crudity, something to be shunned, a habit to be indulged in private if at all. I still remember having to hide my Creepy and Vampirella magazines between my mattress and box springs lest they disappear during one of my mom’s security sweeps. Many a Mad Magazine suffered such a fate because I had a tendency to read them all in one gulp and then leave them lying around carelessly but I would read my horror mags over and over so they had to be protected.
I could see SF and Horror movies as long as they had been made in the 1940s, but unless I wanted to watch a Western, the choice of current movies in the theater was limited. This was one reason why we were so crazy about the Saturday night Creature Features shown by our local UHF channel. Not to get too sentimental, I’m just trying to explain how little popular culture was actually in the air back in the day, but this was our guaranteed two hours of horror or science fiction or what have you — along with lots of aluminum siding commercials..
These days? It’s on every television channel and there should be a whole season just called Marvel Movies. Audio books in the car, eBooks on the couch while I’m watching Supernatural on the CW. There is almost no time when I’m not receiving some sort of pop culture feed. How do you make damn sure that every idea you put in your work is entirely your own and not inadvertently lifted from another source?
Honestly, you tell me, because I don’t know. The only thing that saved me from having a possibly angry editor contact me about my blatant attempt to steal from a famous work of fiction was a nagging feeling that it felt a little too… familiar.
On top of that, add in simultaneous invention. Because nothing is truly new, all creators pull their ideas from the sphere of knowledge that exists around them, incidents of simultaneous invention have been recorded all throughout history. And they are even more common now because that knowledge sphere is so freakin’ dense and it’s being poured into your head all the time.
I’ve written before about a novel of mine that was about a modern day police detective who gets stuck in 1946, a book that my agent was pushing all around town right when Life On Mars came out in Britain. These were very dissimilar stories based on the exact same idea. Did someone steal? No, it would have been impossible, but when you consider the number of people out there coming up with ideas, writing up their stories, and sending them out you realize that we are close to an infinite number of monkeys situation.
Fortunately, a lot of the content being created out there is intentionally derivative. Someone comes out with something new, Harry Potter for instance, and a whole cottage industry of books about magic boys instantly springs up in its shadow.
For me, writing knockoff material based on someone else’s work has no appeal. That’s why when I’m casting around for a new idea, I look around at everything that’s being done and then try to come up with something else. You might stand a better chance of getting your stuff into the market if you write quickly and jump on the right bandwagon (Fifty Shades of Grey started out as Twilight fan fiction, after all) but I can’t imagine it feeling like an actual success.
And, of course, even when you do come up with something relatively original, there’s no guarantee some guy in London didn’t just sell his pitch for something very nearly the same to BBC.
Just repeat to yourself, “This good idea, is not my last good idea.” And then move on.