Repeating Yourself… Or Someone Else

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.


Another Good Reason To Put It In A Drawer

That’s not a reference to safe sex (at least, I don’t think it is.  How am I supposed to know what the kids are calling it these days?).  It’s a callback to several previous posts on this blog where I have argued that you should put your work aside for a couple of months before starting the polish draft.  And also that you should never send out first drafts – not even first drafts of rewrites.

I don’t know about anyone else but when I get to the end of a project, I am worn out to the point of hating myself and everything I have wrought.  The elated sense of infallibility that started with the blank page and drove my heel through 75% of the writing process first flagged and has now completely evaporated.  What I’m left with as my story slouches toward the last page to be born is a sense of disaffection that is stunning in both its breadth and intensity.

In four words: I hate my book.

And why shouldn’t I?  What has held my nose to the grindstone for the past six months?  What have I engineered every day around?  What has leached my creativity every damn day until I am bled white?  And what didn’t manage to turn out as perfectly as I had imagined it when I started?

My book.  My goddamn book.

I’ve mentioned before that I dropped out of college and drove around the country to write my first novel.  What I haven’t talked about is the arduousness of that project.  When I started out, I was so emboldened by knowing exactly what kind of story I was going to write that I bravely pooh-poohed all the people who warned me about how hard it was to write long form fiction.  But I found out in the long run.  I found out the hard way.

This was in the pre-word processor days when my electric Smith & Corona with the auto-correct ribbon was considered the height of technological advancement.  I have a clear memory of standing in an empty apartment (I never bothered to furnish the places I lived when I was on my American journey because I wasn’t going to be there for long) standing over a matrix of printed pages, each stack in the array representing one chapter, as I began the final run on the first complete draft of that first novel.  It was the only way for me to “see” the whole story all at once.

I clearly remember feeling worn out and spent.  I remember thinking, “This piece of crap has eaten up half a year and now I’m stuck in New Orleans, broke and alone, and I have nothing to show for it.”  I quite literally thought about burning the whole mess in protest.  Instead, I quit my job as a carpenter’s assistant (I’ll devote several chapters to the life of a middleclass college boy working in the blue collar trades in my never-to-be-written autobiography), packed the novel away in the box the typewriter paper had come in, and drove to my parent’s house in Virginia.  I didn’t even think about that festering pile of diseased pages for the next few months except to offer up curses to the thing that had ruined my life.  Although, sometimes, I would lie awake at night cruising over all the bad parts in my head, dwelling on every stinking line that rang false, every shallow allusion, every character that went about as deep as the paper he was drawn on.

Eventually, I returned to Austin and kicked around for a few more months until I was psychically free of that draft, until it was a mistake I had made a while ago instead of something done recently that was still a fresh wound.  And then one day I found the box (I’m not even sure how it followed me around the country for all those months) and opened it up and started reading.

I can still remember that “Hey, this isn’t half bad” moment as I got a few dozen pages in.  This was followed by the “This could be better but it’s still pretty damn good” feeling that I got from some of the middle chapters.  I remember not liking the ending but knowing exactly how to fix it.  And as far as the language was concerned, I had just finished reading Loon Lake by E. L. Doctorow and had taken that as a license to do whatever I wanted with sentence structure and order of occurrence.

I rolled a fresh sheet of paper into the machine and started over, using that tortured first draft as a rough guide.  The result would eventually get me an editor and a whole new understanding of the process of writing.

That’s why I’m not angrily deleting this draft of my current project, hurling colorful invectives in all directions as I do so.  History has taught me that it’s not nearly as bad as I remember it and the parts that are bad can be fixed in the polish.

But only after it goes in a drawer for a couple months.

P.S. – For those of you weened on late 20th “poetry” here’s something to counter that weak sauce stuff:

Now that’s poetry.