Where Ladybugs Roar

Confessions and Passions of a Compulsive Writer

Friday, June 17, 2011

Deriving Miss Daisy--Embracing the Derivative

So, I first started thinking on this subject long ago, but it was brought to mind when I read several reviews on City of Bones and reviewers compared its themes to Star Wars and the writing style to work she'd done on Harry Potter fanfic. This isn't the first time I've heard of a book being compared to Harry Potter or Star Wars. I want to argue that the themes in both books were hardly invented by their creators but, on the other hand, what does it matter?

As a writer, you live with two big fears. The first being that someone will beat you to telling your story. Yes, that's right. If you're a writer and you're reading this, other writers have that same fear... the ticking clock of a great idea that you're afraid has already been brought to life. Maybe they'll do it better than you... maybe they'll do it worse... but they'll get there first, and that's terrifying. At least, it is to me. I worry that I'm too late to the game... every day.

The second fear is that people will see what you've written and think you stole your ideas or themes from someone else. I mean the reality is that there are no new ideas. There aren't. I once saw someone claim on Twitter that their idea had NEVER been done before. NEVER. EVER. Some folks laughed outright and some laughed inside our head and mentally patted this writer on the head and thought, "That's cute that you actually believe that."

Wow... I sound jaded, but I don't care.

The truth is: It's all been done before. IT ALL HAS.

I've been thinking this week that I'd go a step further and say, "YOU WILL STEAL IDEAS." We're not set in the middle of the ocean of nothingness to write our stories. Our stories are the product of so many different sources. Sometimes, it's as simple as a theme from a story you read and you think, "I could do that differently/better/with jazz hands and a hip wiggle." Sometimes, it's because you stayed up late watching Big Bang Theory, had some Chinese food which made your stomach grumble, and your dreams were out of control whacked... and, well, doable. Pop culture, a story your mom once told you, a book, a sign outside the women's restroom... we are all derivative. Your stories are not unique thoughts born of nothingness and ether and magic.

Anyway, I just had to get that off my chest.

BTW, Sentinel's Run... is based on Terminator, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, X-men, Running Man, a documentary on Kuwait, this boy I once knew, these pictures I once saw, this knife I researched for my Honor books, a fascination with farm equipment, and a sleepless night where I thought, "That could be a novel... really." But mostly Terminator. Well... about 17-18%. Of what I remember from when I watched Terminator when I was a teenager... and hated the ending so I never watched it again. It's completely derivative. We all are.


  1. I think the 2 big fears you point out are some of the most important for new writers to overcome. They are spot on, and you're totally right; it's nice to hear that someone else is scared their idea will be scooped. For a while, I refused to look at the "Just Released" shelf in the bookstore for fear of seeing something just like my "brilliant" idea. We've all just got to move past that and believe that we've got enough of a unique approach/voice to spin the "same old" story in a fresh way.

  2. I proudly write derivative works of fiction based off mythology. Why? Because there are still things to be said and still moments and emotions to explore, and that is the only thing that matters.

    Has it be done before? Oh yes. And let's not forget that The Lord of the Rings is one giant derivative work from which an entire GENRE of derivative works was founded. I don't think Tolkien lost any sleep over it, so why should we?

  3. Learning to get over the idea that there are no truly original ideas took me a really long time.

    Now that I've embraced it, I'm confident enough to say that this series is derived from: the Rachel Morgan series, the Nightrunner series, anything by Neil Gaiman, a surprising amount from the Hellblazer comics, my constantly evolving ideas on Christianity and Judeo-Christian history, my ex's apartment, A Midsummer Night's Dream, the names of people I forgot I knew, my sister's car, my own neuroses, cats both in general and specifics, Tim the Awesome, and a plethora of other things.

    I'm reminding myself that just because I can see where I'm getting the bits from, doesn't mean the whole is a rip off of any one of them. Like you said, we don't create in a vacuum.

  4. I took all your comments to discussion on Twitter but I'm quite disgusted that you all said it more eloquently than I did. Mine sounds all rambly by comparison.

    Scott, so you don't still have that worry? I saw a book last week whose title struck fear into my heart because it sounded like it could be similar to mine. It wasn't, but I had a few moments of heart-pounding anxiety.

    Amalia, perhaps if Tolkien was alive today, though? *raises eyebrows* Actually, I've always found it fascinating what famous classic writers expected to exist beyond their lifetime. Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle had thought his true greatness was in his historical novels and romances... which no one has heard of. Tolkien would probably be amused to think that his work is taken so seriously.

    Eric, you one-upped me... you've got your derivations going much farther than mine and that's levels of awesome I can't compete with. It's either interesting or psychotic that WE see the paths sometimes our minds takes... and sometimes it seems so obvious. Also, you used the word "plethora" and for that I both love you and hate you... because you used it first. *steals your monocle*

  5. This is a perfect line, Wendy: "I could do that differently/better/with jazz hands and a hip wiggle."

    We writers SO want to be original, but "there is nothing new under the sun." So alas! We cannot invent the wheel, only make it better or at least our own. Which is still a whole lot of fun for us and our readers!