12 June 2010

The Conversation of Books over Time

I never heard the expression "the conversation of books over time" until my virtual friend Cynthia Leitich Smith introduced me to the phrase.

I had written to ask her if she would participate in an online conversation/interview with our newly formed Shortgrass Children & Young Adults Writers group and also to tell her about my latest project, NEVЯLAND

She accepted the invitation, but she also noted that my project NEVЯLAND
sounded like a couple of other books.

Normally, this wouldn't have bothered me: I know that the concept of "original" ideas is a faulty concept.

But, still, the idea of NEVЯLAND seemed so fresh and novel to me that I had it in my head that absolutely no one had come up with such a unique idea.

Then Cynthia guides to me to a couple of books written years ago that are similar to mine.

I was quite saddened, indeed, even crestfallen.

I had ensnared myself in my own self-made trap of ego and self-importance and made the blatant assumption that a story about the disappearance of adults as happens in NEVЯLAND was mine and mine alone.

Within minutes, I set my mind on dropping the project entirely and resume my YA dragon fantasy (which I had stopped because NEVЯLAND seemed so innovative and refreshing).

I became angry. I became depressed. I sat down with my wife and had a conversation about continuing or stopping the project all together--voiced in all the seriousness as one would if talking about getting a divorce.

I had known from the beginning that my idea for NEVЯLAND was not entirely original: Lord of the Flies, Home Alone, Peter Pan, and many other works had explored the idea of a world where Children are left on their own without the supervision and restrictions of adults.

However, NEVЯLAND was a fresh, bold look at this idea. The idea had gripped me like a long-lost lover, and the thought of letting go was devastating to me.

All because Cynthia told me about two other books she had read. I looked up the two books Cynthia had referenced. Egad. She was right.

Then as I read the synopses and even the first chapters of the books, I began to realize that NEVЯLAND, while similar, was quite different in conception and execution.

NEVЯLAND still had life.

I feverishly rewrote the first chapter--which had been written in third person from Laynie's point of view--to make it better and more unique than the two examples I had just read.

Now NEVЯLAND would be told in first person by Laynie.

Suddenly, new life was breathed into the story and the original flame and passion I had felt as I outlined the first book of NEVЯLAND engulfed me once again.

Then I got a very kind and needed note from Cynthia:
There's something called "the conversation of books over time." People make this huge deal out of ideas that are "totally original" and there really is no such thing. It's about what you bring to the circle of storytellers, stretching back to the first fires. Hm, that's sounds awfully poetic, but you see my point. If there was a wholly original story, NYC publishing would have no idea what to do with it, there would be no market, and people would probably remark on the author's stability/sanity.
I've never had Cynthia as a writing teacher, but as a virtual friend, she has been inspiring, caring, and motherly.

I met Peter S. Beagle in the fall of 2009, and he related the story how he felt parts of his best-seller and classic The Last Unicorn had plagiarized The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney, which Peter had read as a child.

After The Last Unicorn was published and Peter realized the similarities between parts of his book and Finney's book, he wrote to Finney, telling him he wasn't trying to plagiarize Dr. Lao.

Finney wrote back to tell Peter that he was amused and told Peter not to worry about it, this happens quite a bit to writers.

Even Cynthia said she had a similar experience with her first novel:
The year my first novel, RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME came out (and was in ARC), Carol Lynch Williams released CAROLINA AUTUMN. Both books are about girls who're photographers, healing after the death of a loved one (best friend/sister) and each chapter opens with a journey entry. The novels have a LOT of similar elements. But the executions are different. You know who noticed? Me and Carol.
Just recently, a NEVЯLANDer (those who are members of the NEVЯLAND Facebook Group page) said that NEVЯLAND had the same elements as a book called The Girl Who Owned a City published in the 1970s--another book with a similar story line I had never heard about.

This time, I just laughed.

Creative minds really do think alike, and story-tellers have been telling the same eight or nine stories since that first campfire.

As Cynthia so aptly and soothingly put it, it's what the story-teller brings to the campfire that's sets his/her story apart from the other, not the parts of the story.

After all, how many vampire stories have been told since Dracula or flesh-eating zombie movies been made since Night of the Living Dead or dystopia novels since We, Nineteen-Eighty Four, and Anthem?

From this point on I promise myself not to worry about originality of story but concentrate on originality of voice and bringing a different set of eyes to the campfire to awe those sitting around the embers.

See you on the bookshelves.

Larry Mike

PS: The very, very first story I ever wrote was a "novel" of ten pages when I was 9. It was about a t-rex that washes up on a beach and it spits radio-active fire and about the scientist named Mike who saves the world by killing this dinosaur. I had just seen Godzilla on the local Chiller horror show the week before. At that time, I didn't care that my story was similar to Godzilla--I just wanted to tell one hell-uv-a good story. And I've come full circle now.

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