Derivative

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be;
and that which is done is that which shall be done:
and there is no new thing under the sun.
10 Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new?
it hath been already of old time, which was before us.

Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 (King James Version)

Ok, so I’m a bad man. A minor author and editor of my acquaintance – very much of the fashionable artsy set, very PC, the award winning kind of author (in other words about as diametrically opposite to this lowly simian scribe) was angrily holding forth, insisting that people stop comparing his work to other authors. He’d spent x number of years honing his style into something unique that was all his own. And if anyone else told him his snippets were like some other author’s work – he’d just stop posting them. So there!

I’m a bad man. I typed: ‘This reminds me strongly of John Norman.’…

But I had second thoughts, laughed and deleted it. It’s a pointless exercise, he wasn’t going to stop — not for anything, and was just wanting all his fellow travelers to tell him how unique he was. And he is unique. Just like every artsy literary novelist of the last 20 years in the PC straight-jacket. Unique. All of them, and near indistinguishable in their uniqueness. Unique!

That’s another word for ‘Harem Guard’ isn’t it?

Sigh. Really, there ain’t no such animal, or if there is it’s a pretty ‘orrible thing. Squiggles on a page, meaning nothing except to the ‘author’. Otherwise everything we create is, ab initio, derived. Sometimes from Latin – who derived it (or culturally appropriated it) from the Greeks, who in turn etc. until we get back to Ogg the caveman (a cousin of mine, if a bit hoity-toity for me). All language, and therefore all literature, is derived. None of it is ‘unique’. It has balls, and continues to procreate.

This is a good thing, rather than a bad one, because if we did not derive, did not learn, did not appropriate, Cousin Ogg, in his cave in Africa would be the human race. Now there are people who claim this would be a good thing, but oddly they haven’t rejected the internet, let alone flush toilets and supermarkets, for the freely available joys of the cave. I know: they want others to do it, not them.

The key of course is what and how much appropriate and derive. The trick is to take the good bits, which is harder than it seems. Sometimes it is also worth considering reading around the subject (so for example about vampires, rather than just ‘Twilight’) – if you don’t want to be too influenced by it. But people do come up with remarkably similar lines. I started plotting a military sf Novel –only to be told it was essentially a movie I had never seen, and barely heard the name of. Hey, I can think of lousy ideas as well as the next guy! But if I had seen it, I would have known that.

First off, you can’t pick and choose what to take… if you don’t read. It’s not really a win – not to read. You end up deriving none the less – games, or TV or movies, are a common source. You can tell, quite easily which authors have not done much reading. You can tell which of them haven’t done much reading in genre. You can tell which critics haven’t done a lot of reading out of genre too. They tend to find run-of-the-mill literary derivation pushed into sf … unique.

The problem, of course, is that you can’t un-cross the same river. You are the repository of those stories, those styles, those mannerisms. You can’t passively assume that none of it will come out in your work. If there are some things that you see as less-than-worth-repeating, it is rather up to you to avoid that. As for the rest- you can actively try to imitate what is good, or you can just let it stew in that anti-computer (your brain is not a computer, and doesn’t function like one, at the base-level. Not even politics is actually a matter of 10 sides) and let the wonders of neurological pathways take their course.

You can actively spot the bad – or things you don’t like – and plan to avoid them. You can seek to mimic authors whose work you do admire (and doing this well, is itself a serious challenge) – but most of the time what effect that reading has is to mix and meld and allow your writing to become richer. And yes, readers will catch echoes of the other authors you’ve read in there. It adds depth and richness –if you have read enough. If you haven’t, of course, that shows too.

Most of what is extravagantly praised as ‘unique’ tends to be latter, so, personally, it’s a label I’d prefer to avoid. I’m kind of good with my work reminding readers of authors that they’ve read – one hopes with enjoyment because mostly those are the names you remember. And even if it’s an author I don’t like, it is a form of recognition, and of flattery too. Yeah, even poor Jim Theis (he was 16, for goodness sakes, and yep, it was plainly derivative). At least people remember his work, and that, to a writer is priceless.

So: in short – worry less about being ‘unique’ and more about being read and enjoyed. There’s not much of a prize for the former (Maybe a Chavez Award) and the possibility of a good living for the latter – and remember ‘All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full’ and ‘the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.’

Yes, actually I read that book too, and it probably derived a thing or two from it.

46 Comments

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46 responses to “Derivative

  1. paladin3001

    Reminds me of an essay I was/am working on about “Echos” in storytelling. Variation on this theme I guess. It’s good to be aware that we will write a derivative story or stories, after all the good stories follow the same pattern eventually.

  2. My college writing professor said, “Immature writers imitate. Mature writers steal.”

    He probably stole that.

    • Draven

      ‘appropriated’ we’re supposed to say ‘appropriated’

    • The quote is often assigned to Picasso. One of his hobbies was doing art in the style of another great artist, so that on one occasion Dali walked into a salon in Paris and at some point remarked to the hostess “That is a fine Dali you have on the wall. However, I did not do it.”.

    • Mary

      One of the surest tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. T. S. Eliot

  3. Christopher M. Chupik

    Originality is usually in the details. “Former hitman out for vengeance” sounds cliché . . . and yet the John Wick movies are some of the most original action movies of recent memory. And that’s because of the world that surrounds John.

  4. sceatta

    I wonder if authors aren’t writing as much for other authors as they are for their readers. They’re talking back and forth, adding new details to stories that have been millennia in the making. Someone once said there are only so many plot lines (don’t remember the exact number). If that’s true, what does that preoccupation with those particular plots say about us?

  5. Books need some originality. Some authors do it in the story (The Trickster as the wise old architect of the world, for example, or hell as the result of pollution).

    Others, whose stories and messages are dictated by the party line, need to find their originality in the style of presentation if they are to have any at all.

  6. That’s a major advantage of reading and researching Odd corners in history – you find stories that most people have not found yet, but that could make the bones of a really cool fiction adventure if you tweak this, and change that, and move the setting from here to an imagined there, and add sapient Cape Hunting Dogs, and …

    • Oh, most definitely that – all the splendid and yet barely-told stories, just waiting there.

      I’ve made my writing career out of that, now that you mention it.

      • Someone was talking about the Donner Party and I brought up To Truckee’s Trail. I’m telling you this because his comment was something along the lines of “I don’t have space for another book—ooh, ebook is $3.95, that’s inexpensive.” (Said person is unused to buying anything other than tradpub books, so I think the ebook pricing was a nice surprise.)

        • That was my first-ever book to get out there as an ebook; at the time, the Kindle was brand new, and all of us in my then-writer’s group then discussed the pricing issue. The price of a good cup of gourmet coffee was what we all agreed on. Something that paid us for our work, at least – and might tempt a reader to take a flyer on a relatively unknown author.

          (Hope they got the book and enjoyed it!)

    • Mary

      If you want unusual fairy tales, all you have to do is go read the Brothers Grimm. Just read it complete.

      • Do you mean in the original, there? Do pick a nice bright sunny morning to do so…

        • Yes. I’ve always wondered if the adjective or the name came first and if the one was supposed to reference the other. I find those stories much like listening to the band Tool. Great riffs and beats, just dissect the lyrics unless you’re in the ‘right’ mood.

        • Mary

          Well, no, you don’t have to read the first edition, which is just as well since the later ones are easier to get. 0:)

          • Mary

            And of course, once you’re done with them, there’s a lot more you can read.

          • Not on Gutenberg yet? Shameful!

            I did mean the faithful English translations, however. My German used to be about on the level of my mothers – with the aid of a dictionary and several hours, I could puzzle out most things. Not a good way to actually understand something.

  7. TRX

    The web doesn’t seem to want to return an informed guess as to John Norman’s earnings. Wikipedia isn’t even sure how many books he has sold, other than between 6 to 12 million. About half of his books have been mostly in print since the 1960s.

    Like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Mickey Spillane, or Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Norman’s books sold because people liked reading them and kept on buying more of the same.

    Scum, writing for filthy money instead of Art… We won’t let any of them into *our* club house!

    Besides, where else are you going to find mass-market prose where a single paragraph can span more than one page?

  8. adventuresfantastic

    I know you won’t (and shouldn’t) tell who the writer in question is. Probably no one I’ve heard of. But oh, how I wish you would. The possibilities for fun and mischief…

  9. Luke

    I would much rather be cheerfully derivative than unique.
    But the funny thing is, if you steal from enough sources and put the pieces together in interesting ways, you’ll be much more unique than several pretentious bores stacked together.

    There probably isn’t a more unique writer out there than Tim Powers, and he’ll happily list off dozens of inspirations for each of his works.

  10. “I want to do something totally new and unique! A fantasy novel which involves a prophecy, a dragon, and a princess! But in this one the princess is the hero! And she knows Kung Fu! And the love interest is a goat herder! But he’s inept. And stupid. And clumsy. And useless. But she loves him anyway. Changing the paradigm! Sticking my thumb into the eyes of the patriarchy because the goddess knows there’s waaaaaayyy too many books being written for boys as boys are the main consumers and this book will change all that!” Is not an actual quote from an actual aspiring author, but is a pretty fair paraphrase of some conversations I’ve had online and off.

    Is influences a bad thing? Can you go through the world being uninfluenced by what you read? I like Ringo and Weber a lot, read a bunch of their books but I would be stunned if someone said my work was influenced by their’s (I’m not detail oriented when writing, I’m action, emotion, and humor oriented). I read them because of the difference, I admire their approach, and it excites me when I read it but it bores me when I try to write like that.

    However, I know my writing was influenced by Dick Francis, especially when I write in first person. I knew it to an extent but then had it pushed in my face when I read Mr. Francis’ son’s attempt to write in that style and it irked me that it came easily to him (I was wrong about that by the way, the novel that irked me with the ease of the style was written by both but I would bet money the first half was by Mr. Francis and the second half continued by his son because the story moved and roared in the first hundred pages and then dragged a stone behind its back for the last half. The style was aped well and felt continuous but what Mr. Francis was doing with that style couldn’t be aped by his son).

    Steve

  11. Bob

    Am I the only one who’s sick to death of TvTropes and the people who constantly refer to them?

  12. BobtheRegisterredFool

    My influences are integral to how and what I want to write, especially as I approach the limits of my current ability.

  13. Well, there went a blog topic… Wait! I’ll just derive it!

    • Terry Sanders

      Into which blog will you integrate it?

      • Mine own (checking… yes, the link is still there, WP shall survive another day).

        I don’t know just when, though – don’t want to appear too derivative. There is an Independence Day post written, which will go up tonight, Deus Volent.

  14. I keep running into authors who simply unaware of what has been done and are sure that first, their new idea is oh so fresh and original, and second, having an original idea will guarantee their success.

    “I’ve got a great idea for a novel, but I can’t tell anyone because they’d steal it.”

    “That’s nice.”

    “Okay, I’ll tell you, but you have to promise not to steal it.”

    “Sure, whatever.”

    “There’s this cop, in the future, and his partner–get this–is a ROBOT!”

    “Uh… you do know that Issac Asimov wrote a bunch of books like that a half century ago, right?”

  15. My first short story after school was called The Happy Machine. It was about a global catastrophe wherein the last vestiges of humanity were contained in an underground vault and lived full lives in Virtual Reality, never realizing it wasn’t real. The machine that was in charge of the VR was programmed to derive pleasure from doing its job well so everything was perfect. Until eventually One man escaped, led a rebellion, and freed the others so they could rebuild society.

    I only got halfway through before I realized how derivative and done to death the story was and I was vaguely ashamed of myself for thinking it so original when I started.

    This was in 1994.

    The Matrix came out in 1999.

    At which point everyone I knew flopped all over themselves to declare how original, mind-blowing, and utterly unique it was.

    Not saying the Wachowskis stole ‘my’ idea, (that’d be hard considering only one person in the world read that half story outside of me) I’m saying the idea was old before I wrote my (half) story. But they made a lot of money off that unoriginal and derivative idea.

    Sometimes I think we in the trenches, immersed in a genre, don’t realize how little those outside of that immersion know about the genre and how it’s presentation that makes the most difference as to commercial success or not.

  16. Lordy. I do so like your writing

    Busted my back and had to cut short this year’s summer reading book talks so only a few dozen kids got to hear about Changeling Island. Still the copies I made available are checked out and it was one of the titles picked (from about 40) that were available as prizes.