Monday, January 5, 2009

Damnit Part I: Scooped

How many times has this happened to you: you have this awesome idea - a really killer, brilliant idea - and then it turns out that someone else got to it first. Maybe you find out when you tell someone else all about your brilliant idea, or maybe you stumble across the offending book yourself. Maybe you feel like someone is tearing a part of you out of your body and holding it in front of your face so you can watch it die, even as you try to laugh it off so your friends can't tell that your soul is shriveling up inside... or maybe for you it's a more mellow experience. Either way, it's never pleasant. I've seen good stories die after hitting this stumbling block, and I've let good books gather dust on my shelf for months to avoid it (The Sharing Knife Volume 1: Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold, borrowed in December of 2007, read in April 2008 - sorry, Gavin!).

My friend Jon, in conversation about this post, helped me identify what I wanted to say far more clearly and cleverly than I was going to on my own. So rather than pretending all the good ideas are mine, here is the conversation (paraphrased) in all it's gory glory.

"What are you writing?" Jon asked.

"A Burning Zeppelin Experience post about how much it sucks to be scooped."


"That's when you have a great idea, and then it turns out that someone else got to it first."

Jon eyed our (my and the Abigail's) bookshelves, full from top to bottom with probably more than a hundred titles of all kinds of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, not to mention a huge collection of roleplaying games, and said "that doesn't seem to stop anyone."

I thought about it for a moment and presently replied "and you know what the difference between them and me is, Jon? They're published."

And that just about does it.

I always feel like a dick when my advice comes to "suck it up and do it anyway," but that's about the shape of it. There are not an infinite number of plots. There aren't even an infinite number of words (even if you sometimes make some up). Therefore, there aren't an infinite number of sentences you can write, or stories you can write them in. That means that whatever you write, there is a chance that someone else will write it in the future, and worse, a chance that someone already has written it in the past.

The trick is, you can do it differently, you can do it better, and you can do it your way. And who knows? Maybe your way will be better. Maybe it will touch lives in a way that the other work couldn't. Maybe it will even sell. For example, while I would never claim to be a better writer all around than Lois McMaster Bujold, a master of the fantasists craft who has been doing this for a very long time, I think A Knight of the Land is better than Beguilement.

That's right. I said it.

I think A Knight of the Land has a more interesting setting, more dynamic characters, and a more compelling story arc. I think it manages to achieve in one book what the whole Sharing Knife series hasn't achieved in two. I also think it needs a lot of work before it's even ready to go to agents, let alone publishers. However, I'll never get that chance if I don't edit it, and I'd never have gotten to edit it if I hadn't finished it.

So, case in point, when you are scooped, get off the floor, pull your heart back into your chest, and write it anyway.

* * *

One last point: the great ones deal with this, too.

In his introduction to Martin Millar's The Good Fairies of New York, fantasist god Neil Gaiman wrote that he let The Good Fairies of New York sit on his bookshelf for months - months! - because he was afraid that it would kill his enthusiasm for American Gods.

This brings me to my last point: if you think reading something will kill your enthusiasm for a project of your own, do what I (and, you know, Neil Gaiman) do. Don't read it! Trust me, books don't go anywhere. It will still be there when you're done (and ready to steal the best ideas for your first edit!).

* * *

  • When have you been scooped?
  • How did it feel?
  • What did you do about it?
  • Am I a dick for sometimes writing advice that comes out as "get the hell over it?"


Anonymous said...

I'm sure it happens to everyone. God knows it happens to me all the damn time.

Point is, I think when you look really close, the similarities are rarely that tragic, and I believe as a writer there are things I can do with words that another writer can't or won't.

Besides, a storying being written is different than a story being edited is different than a story done and on it's way out the door. There's no saying what you're starting with is what you're going to end with, so who cares if the ideas are the same.

There are only seven stories anyway, right? Or is it five?

Gavin said...

Does that mean I can have my book back? :D

Abby said...

Yes, Gavin...we'd both finished reading it the last time you were here, you just told me not to bother digging them out of the bedroom. So we can bring them to the baby shower. :)

I really should clean the bedroom, shouldn't I?

I'm still grumpy about "Impossible" scooping "Silence," down to some of the things that happen in their respective prom night scenes. But since Becca started insulting "Impossible," I felt a lot better.

I've found that "someone did this before" syndrome can be absolutely crippling, if I let it. It's not just exact plots. It's also themes. I think in some ways this is even tougher for fantasists because we work so much with archetypes. Absolutely everyone has written a morally ambiguous villain trying to take over the world. It's been done. But here's the thing. Archetypes can also be our playground. Fairy tale retellings are practically their own genre of YA fantasy these days, and they're awesome. Sometimes I find that if I do something like this and deliberately embrace the derivativeness of all fantasy, I find something new comes out of it. For example, in Silence I deliberately had my fairy villain be vulnerable to every fairy tale cliche in the book. Once I made the derivative nature of fairy tales my playground, I felt better about the whole novel. Does this make any sense?

Anonymous said...

Wow, I really hit a nerve with this one.

@ Filamena: I've heard seven and I've heard five, but my favorite is three. What are those three? Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man, and Dog vs. Vampire.

I actually have the entire story of Dog vs. Vampire in my very head, and one day I will write it. I think I'm still getting over the disappointment of the guy who was going to help me write it in graphic novel form giving up on me.

@ The Abigail: That's a good point. Sometimes we can take those tropes that are so powerful they could hijack our stories and give us that "oh noes!" feeling and subvert them, making them serve our foul intentions!

Also, yes, you should clean the bedroom :-P.