WARNING: The following Blog entry has what I think is some good advice for new writers, but it also contains spoilers for The Damned Highway, Darkness On the Edge of Town, A Gathering of Crows, Stephen King’s Under the Dome, and Brad Anderson’s Vanishing on 7th Street. Personally, if you’re a new writer, I’d like you to brave the spoilers and read on, because (as I said above) I think there’s some good advice here for you. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you in advance about the spoilers.
Earlier today, my dear friend and occasional co-writer, Nick Mamatas, linked to this Blog entry from an apparent writer and artist named Patrick Power (I say “apparent” not derogatorily, but simply because until today, I’d never heard of Patrick, and I’m unsure as to what various talents he utilizes. Judging by his Blog, I’m guessing writing and illustration). To summarize, Patrick has been working on a graphic novel that I surmise involved Lovecraft’s mythos and Hunter S. Thompson. He’s upset that Nick and I wrote a novel with similar themes — The Damned Highway.
Nick does a very good job here on his Blog of addressing Patrick’s assumption that we must have gotten our inspiration from his artwork, as well as recounting The Damned Highway’s history from inception to publication, and even pointing out some examples of Hunter S. Thompson’s legend overlapping with other parts of our genre. The only two things I’d add to what Nick has already said are:
1. I remember writing the first chapter in early summer 2007. I remember this because in the Summer of 2007 I was feeling all of the things that Uncle Lono is feeling in that first chapter.
2. In addition to the examples Nick mentioned, I’d point out Duane Swierczynski’s Hunter S. Thompson versus zombies story (the title of which escapes me at the moment because I’ve been chasing after my four-year old all evening), the partial Hunter S. Thompson influence on Transmetropolitan’s Spider Jerusalem, and of course, Duke in Doonesbury (the latter is even referenced in The Damned Highway).
What I’d like to comment on in detail is the frustration that Patrick feels, because it’s a frustration that many new writers feel at some point in their career.
I’m a firm believer that, when it comes to genre, there’s no such thing as an original idea. Zombies. Werewolves. Colonizing Mars. Ghosts. Yeti Space Pirates fighting Talking Cats. They’ve all been done before. What matters — what’s original — is your take on these old tropes and old ideas. It’s your unique voice — a voice that only you possess — that makes these old ideas seem fresh and new and exciting again.
The Rising was the book that kick-started my career, but it certainly wasn’t the first zombie book or zombie movie ever written. And obviously, it wasn’t the last. Let’s examine The Rising’s parts. Zombies: done before. Demonically possessed corpses: done before. End of the World: done before. Military going nuts on civilians: done before. Parent looking for their child and facing incredible odds: done before. None of those things were original ideas. What attracted people to The Rising (as near as I can figure) is they liked my take on those old ideas and plot points. And given the plethora of zombie novels that have followed since then, I have to assume they like other authors’ unique perspectives and takes on those old ideas, as well.
28 Days Later, The Walking Dead, and The Rising all came out within a few months of each other. Does that mean that Danny Boyle, Robert Kirkman, and myself were ripping each other off? No. It means we all had ideas for zombie sagas at around the same time. Similar ideas, but different writers with different voices make for different stories.
There are going to be times in your career when you’ll see a movie or read a book and you’ll say something like, “Fuck! This is what I’m working on right now. A group of rebels fighting a galactic empire, and the bad guy is the good guy’s father. Damn you, George Lucas.”
I’ll give you some examples. In A Gathering of Crows, I wrote a scene in which the Revenants construct a soul cage around Brinkley Springs. When a carload of surplus teenagers hit this invisible barrier while traveling at a high rate of speed, the result is a lot of surplus teenagers splattered all over the road. In the time between when I turned this book in to my publisher and the time it came out in paperback, Stephen King’s Under the Dome was released. When I read Under the Dome, I got to a part where an airplane hits an invisible shield over a small town. The results are the same for the people in the plane, but the two books are vastly different. Similar ideas, but different writers with different voices make for different stories.
About a year after Darkness On the Edge of Town’s release, many fans started asking me if I’d seen the film Vanishing on 7th Street. They claimed it was a direct ripoff of my novel. They claimed I should sue. They posted angry things on the internet. I’d planned on seeing the film anyway, because I enjoy Brad Anderson’s work, but when I heard this, I added it to my Netflix queue with some trepidation. Turns out, it’s not a ripoff of my book at all. He had the same idea as me — a post-apocalyptic setting, a possibly supernatural darkness, people going ape-shit, etc. but he took it in a completely different direction. Similar ideas, but different writers with different voices makes for different stories.
My sincere advice to you, Patrick (and to anyone else reading this who might be struggling with a situation similar to his) is to complete your story. You don’t mention too many details on your Blog, other than that it involves Hunter S. Thompson and Cthulhu, but unless your plot is “A broken, beaten, and burned-out Hunter S. Thompson decides to reinvent himself as Uncle Lono and go in search of the American Nightmare by traveling across the country on a Greyhound bus. Along the way, he discovers that the Democratic Party are worshiping Moloch, that the Republicans are trying to summon Cthulhu, that Fungi from Yuggoth is the latest in psychedelic mushrooms, hijacks a tractor trailer, spreads hate and discontent on the Miskatonic University campus, plays both the Democrats and the Republicans against each other, and almost gets his brain transferred into a Mi-Go container by J. Edgar Hoover” then I wouldn’t worry. Your graphic novel sounds like something different than this. It also sounds like something that, as a fan of both Lovecraft and Thompson, I’d dearly love to read. You’ve got a sale right here. So finish it!
Similar ideas, but different writers with different voices make for different stories. Tell the story that you want to tell. Make it yours, even if it’s been done before. Make those tropes yours. Put your unique spin and your unique voice into it and write the story you want to read. Chances are others will want to read it, too. I know I would.