What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. – Ecclesiates 1:9
Though those of you with a new iPad might disagree, King Solomon wrote those words so long ago thinking not of technology but of humanity. Fiction is about humanity; even fiction about animals or aliens is ultimately about humanity at some remove. And with humanity, there really is nothing new under the sun.
That used to depress me; it used to make me feel like I had nothing to contribute. Everything had been done, everything had been written, so why bother? But this insight contradicted what I felt; and what I felt was that I had unique things to say, I had unique stories to tell.
So how could they be unique? Not in their basic ideas, their basic tropes. I’d venture that almost every piece of fiction I ever read was 90% or more derivative. So what’s new, different, and unique about my stories, or any other author’s? It’s nearly always in the execution, in the rearrangement of characters, situations, settings, plot, not in their basic material. Until I put pen to paper, there never was a Franco Lucius, a DJ Markis, a Jill Repeth. Before Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged, there never was a Dagny Taggart. Before Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, there never was a Scrooge and, incidentally, an eponymous term for a miser. Before Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, there was no Harry Potter.
Yet all these works are hugely derivative, mine included. They are stitched together in the authors’ minds out of pieces of their own first- or second-hand experience, . If any author lets herself get stopped by derivativeness of her own work, even something so blatant as Terry Brooks’ Shannara series (very derivative of Tolkien) then none of us would ever publish.
Because truthfully the reading public does not want complete originality. Complete originality generally does not sell, at least not right away. The public will buy Andy Warhol paintings of Marilyn Monroe and soup cans before Picasso’s cubism.
Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, relates in a recent Newsweek column how when he came up with this “totally original” idea for the show, his main pitch to the studio was brought short up when one of the executives asked him, “Doesn’t this sound like Weeds?” Breaking Bad would be about an ordinary middle-class guy who goes off the rails when he discovers he has lung cancer, deciding he’s going to be a methamphetamine dealer. Weeds, already in production, was about a middle-class woman who discovers she has cancer and decides to deal marijuana. Still, the studio thought it was different enough that they backed it and the rest is years of television history.
So when I finally decided to act on my latent desire to be an author, I decided to stop fretting about whether I had an original idea in my head. I figured I’d just write what I wanted to, write the kind of thing I’d want to read, write what I thought others would want to read – and quit worrying. Don’t let anything get in my way. You know what? My stories do have original ideas in them here and there, that came naturally out of the creative process, but I didn’t try to come up with it before I started. If i had, I think I’d have never written a word.
And that’s my bit of free advice for today, worth exactly what you paid for it. Don’t let worrying about your derivativeness get in your way.