Sunday, 7 June 2015

Don't be afraid

There are no original ideas. All fiction is derivative.

Accept this now, and you will be a much happier writer.

I was speaking at Oxford once, along with two other authors, one of whom was my tutor. While I was talking about The Bone Season, a man put his hand up and said, “Well, that’s just The Chrysalids, isn’t it”?

I was aware of The Chrysalids by John Wyndham, but I promise you, I have never read it. Before writing The Bone Season, I had never heard of it. The only Wyndham I have read is The Day of the Triffids. From what I can gather from Wikipedia, the similarity to my book is that it’s set in a future world where people with mutations – and telepaths – are branded “Blasphemies” and either killed or banished, similar to how my clairvoyants are treated cruelly for being “unnaturals”.

I was a bit stumped. I didn’t know what to say. “Sorry” came to mind; I felt as if I’d disappointed this man in some way. My stomach felt like it was full of snakes. Then my tutor wondered aloud if authors would write anything at all if they thought too much about what had come before them. Would we not be paralysed by fear, terrified that the idea has already been done? (Because it has. Trust me. Your idea’s been done.) Would anyone write anything?

If I had known about this book, should I not have written The Bone Season – even though there must be hundreds of stories out there about certain groups of people being persecuted?

I got an anonymous ask on Tumblr a few months ago, directing me to an upcoming YA book about a girl who can leave her body and briefly possess other people. (I won’t say the title, and I didn’t answer the ask, because I don’t think it’s fair to the book’s author.) The anon asked me if I’d heard of it, and if I wanted to tell my publisher so they could “do something” about it.

But I do not own the idea of astral projection, the ability to leave one’s body. It’s an ancient idea, one seen in a plethora of cultures and religions and in many different forms throughout history. I’m not the first person to use it, and I won’t be the last. This author, even if she had read every page of The Bone Season, even if she had actually taken inspiration from it, has every right to use it. So no, my publisher will not be “doing” anything about it, and I wish her all the best.

We are at a point in history where every story has been told, so we have to understand that all stories are derivative in some way. Should JK Rowling not have written Harry Potter and delighted generations because of The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy, which was published in 1974 and follows a young witch at a school of magic? Should Suzanne Collins not have written The Hunger Games, a brutal commentary on the modern world, because of Battle Royale (1999) by Kōshun Takami, a story about two young people dumped on an island and forced to fight their classmates to the death for an authoritarian government?

You, as a writer, cannot be expected to have read and researched every story ever written. All you can do is combine ideas in the most interesting and unique ways you can. Remember, even if your idea has been done before (and remember, it has, probably multiple times), nobody can tell this story exactly like you can. You will bring your own fresh ideas, perspective and style to the age-old tales we tell. So just write.

9 comments:

  1. Dear Samantha,

    I love your books and I was just looking around the internet for auditions to a movie based on it because I just have to try to be a part of it! And I found your blog..I am so glad that you take your time to connect with readers. I would love to be a writer, I am going to college and I am aiming to journalism. This post is really helpful because I have some ideas and I wasn´t sure if I am not stealing them! Anyway, thanks for this..I really needed that! I can´t wait for the third book! I can´t imagine not being able to read it in english...because waiting for czech version would kill me! Have a great day and keep up the excellent work!

    P.S. I really hope that for the movie there will be open auditions! And I am soo happy for you!

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  2. Please do a post on advice for young writers! It would help me a lot. Thank you in advance,

    DF.

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    1. I've done one about student writers, if that helps! http://samantha-shannon.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/student-writing.html (But I will try and get round to a more general one for young writers)

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  3. Hi Sam! I'm a guy from Barcelona but I'm right now in London. I've just bought your book, and I hope to see you in the street to sign it!

    Looking forward to read it!

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  4. The Chrysalids is one of my favourite books, one I go back and re-read regularly. I loved The Bone Season, and am about to re-read it before starting the Mime Order. At no point at all did a similarity between the books occur to me even though telepathy and persecution figure in both, they are not uncommon themes, I find the notion incomprehensible. You should read the Chrysalids, I think you might enjoy it!

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  5. Don't try and justify plagiarism.

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    1. Not at all! – I'm just trying to encourage writers not to worry if an idea that's vaguely similar to theirs has been done before, e.g. Suzanne Collins and Kōshun Takami. Plagiarism is a conscious attempt to pass off someone else's work (whether style or ideas) as one's own without credit, which isn't the same as writing your own take on a broad storyline that's been done multiple times before in many different ways, like "group of people being persecuted by the government".

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