Ramblings on Writing - May 20, 2010
The inspiration for this week’s Ramblings is due to a variety of reasons. First is because I spent a good portion of this week brainstorming rather than writing (despite my enormous post about my word-count goals), mostly the cause of having multiple college examinations landing on the same week. The second is a certain person has been drawing comparisons between Paradise Seekers and Dashner’s The Maze Runner, and rather then do a post explaining why they are different, I felt taking a more general approach the to topic of inspiration would be helpful.
Something similar to this has actually been a popular topic on the podcast Writing Excuses. In fact, I believe it has come up twice, if not three times before. How do you manage your influences, and how are you certain you don’t just blatantly steal every good idea you run into? It can be hard, certainly, especially when you see a cool movie or read a good book, and you just really want your book to be that amazing. But how do you make sure your imitation or inspiration isn’t just a blatant ripoff?
I think a key part is to be an active reader/watcher. What do I mean by this? I mean gauge your emotions, your thoughts, and your ideas as you read. If you hit an emotional scene, try and figure out why it’s emotional. If you find yourself thinking hard about something neat that you saw in a movie, try and figure out why you think it is neat or exciting. Once you come to this source, you’ll be able to modify it to better fit your liking, and you won’t be blatantly stealing it anymore.
Often when I, and other people read, we discover cool ideas and concepts on the paper, and in our minds we automatically expand on them. For example, one of the main appeal of the Harry Potter series for me was the setting. In my mind, when I wasn’t reading, I was often considering situations Harry and co. would be put into, often ones I thought were much “cooler” than the ones found in the book. I was automatically expanding on Rowling’s ideas, making them to best fit my needs.
Another good example, for me, is actually an odd one. Years ago, in the PC video game Warcraft III, there as a custom map where some clever mapmakers had made a variety of custom heroes. One of them was called a “blood mage,” and in the basic sense of the game, he stole life (“blood”) from his enemies, and then used his own life to cast the spells. While this is a clever game mechanic, I immediately thought this would be a neat idea to twist and put into a novel. After much changing, this idea turned into the Seraphim in my novel Harbinger. In Harbinger, the main character (named Harbinger) is a being who cannot live without the blood of others. In order to survive, he must kill people, draining their blood directly into his own body. Over time, the blood in his veins will freeze, making him have to harvest again. The twist is, with that same blood, Harbinger could use a power called Stampede, a magic that allows him to heal, jump higher, see beyond things, and more. All this is set in a Wild West setting, far from the fantasy roots of the Warcraft III video game. Was the idea of a “blood mage” originally mine? No, but due to changes both in character, magic, and the setting itself, I was able to turn it into something that was unique to my novel. It didn’t stop my writing group from calling them “Cowboy Vampire Angels,” but it still was something unique one hasn’t seen before.
On the subject of “Cowboy Vampire Angels,” that’s another trick one can do: When you find something they really like, combine it with something else you also like. This one can be trickier, and you still have to be careful that the end result isn’t a complete ripoff, but even if the basic components aren’t original, the end result is. Cowboys, angels, and vampires on their own are all cliches. But by combining them, I created something entirely new. A side note for this, however, is that combining “elves” with anything usually doesn’t work. Trust me, if it is rooted in Tolkien or D&D, odds are it’s going to take a LOT of mixing in order for it to appear original.
But I haven’t really addressed the main issue, which is that, after you read Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, you too wanted to write a novel about people who eat and burn metals for powers, and can fly around and throw coins at people. You know that you can’t just steal, so you started writing something anyway, and guess what? Bits of Mistborn are sneaking in unbidden. How can you distance yourself from these awesome ideas you discovered?
I’ve noticed this issue tends to happen more when I discovery write rather than outline. So, if you are like me and are discovery writing, and suddenly you are writing Mistborn 4, a good idea is to actually plan. Not a lot, if you are afraid of planning, but enough that you know the distinct differences between your book and the one that seems to be guiding your influence. Pinpoint key differences, and how you plan on making sure these differences are detailed. If parts of the plot seem too similar, change them. I often have a “3-point rule” for things like this. If I can find three things in a scene, or in a magic system, or in a world that seems like a complete, 100% ripoff of something I’ve read recently, I must change it somehow.
Which brings us back to Paradise Seekers, and how, at first glance, one might see influences from The Maze Runner. First off, I hadn’t even heard of The Maze Runner before I began planning parts of Paradise Seekers, but that isn’t the point. I began writing the book after reading Dashner’s, so it is certainly possible influence is creeping in. However, it passed my “3-point rule” in nearly every aspect. Both books begin with viewpoint character having a loss of memory. Dashner’s novel starts with him in a metal box, being lifted up into the dirty, messy home of the Glade. Paradise Seekers starts with Sam waking up from a dream in a bed, in a near-utopian society. Similar? Perhaps. But not enough for those having read both to set down the book and say, “Wow, Major’s a huge ripoff.”
My last point is actually going back to my first one, which is being an active reader. Often times when I read great fiction, I find myself enjoying ideas or themes in books, and wondering: what would happen if they were taken in a completely different direction? What if the immortals in this story were considered gods, rather than just normal people? What if all the gods in a world had died? What if the Wild West was being controlled by malicious divine beings? What if, rather than having a clear black and white fantasy setup, the line were blurry? What if the Orcs were the good guys?
Expand on these ideas. Create your own worlds for these themes to blossom. Design characters that can interact and explain how they feel about them. Write a unique story that incorporates them all together.
Congratulations, you’ve written a completely unique novel, and not plagiarized that Dragonlance book you read when you were twelve.
A few more examples of thing I see, that later inspire me to write something completely different.
- Seeing a cool sword in a movie or video game, and wanting to write a story about that sword.
- Hearing a song with words or phrases that just sound good or unique together, and then forming a story around them ("Paradise Seekers" is actually part of a line from a Nightwish song)
- Reading about a society were magic made you elite over an enslaved non-magic population, then wondering what would happen if that were completely reversed. The magic users would be slaves, with the non-magic users their masters.
- Wondering why using magic to throw fireballs out of your hand doesn't burn the user's hand. Couldn't a world where people have black, charred hands mean that the magic users would be easier to pinpoint out?
- How about a system were magic gradually kills you? In most, magic is used to keep people alive and save them. What if it did the opposite, slowly crawling over your body, corrupting you...(hint hint as to what future book this is referring to)
- Reading happy endings, and wondering what a "realistic" ending would be like. Writing both endings! See which you like better!
- Seeing a villain die in a cool way, and wanting my main bad-guy (or good guy!) to die in a similar way.
Next Week's Topic: Character Death. Discussion will included how and why it should happen, and how to make it meaningful and not out of the blue.