How to write a novel, IV. No ideas? Steal some!

So, you’ve been keeping a notebook, racking your brains and you still haven’t any ideas? What do you do?

Well, before you give up think about this:

An evil Oriental scientific genius is working to bring about the collapse of the Western world. Our hero is working to thwart him but stupidly allows himself to be captured. The villain elects not to kill our hero quickly but holds him captive and goes off to think of some needlessly complicated way of disposing of him. This creates an opportunity for the villain’s beautiful slave girl, who is in love with our hero, to contrive his escape.

Sound familiar?

Of course, it’s a James Bond plot.

Or is it?

Of course it is, but it’s something else. This all happens in The Mystery of Fu-Manchu, a novel by Sax Rohmer, published in 1913. Did Ian Fleming ever read this? We don’t know, but there’s a good chance he did. Of course, if you read The Mystery of Fu-Manchu, you pretty soon realize that Rohmer himself had Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty in mind; he even has a doctor as the sidekick/narrator.

When Agatha Christie wrote Endless Night, a thriller in which the protagonist kills his wife to be with his lover but afterwards realizes that it was the wife whom he really loved, had she read Winston Graham’s novel from six years before After the Act? I suspect that she had; we know from a reference to Unnatural Death in Appointment with Death that she read other people’s novels. Who doesn’t?

I remember hearing part of an interview with Terry Pratchett, in which he remarked that people send him a lot of fan fiction and he has no problem with people writing about Discworld but that he hopes that the writers will move on to develop their own ideas.

That is very much the point. Very few people can hope to write a novel that is good enough to be published at the first attempt. Check out the dates of Tom Clancy’s novels Patriot Games and The Hunt for Red October; it was Clancy’s second novel that he got published, after he made his name with the second. Writing is an art and most people will never make their fortunes at it, any more than most painters will be exhibited at the Royal Academy. Understand that — understand that, statistically, you will probably only ever be writing for your own amusement — and you make a breakthrough. If you don’t expect to get published you can write whatever you like. That means you can steal whatever you like without fear of getting sued.

Of course, fan-fiction is rather sneered at and some of it really isn’t very good. Still, it shouldn’t be. Publishers, especially, seem to be sniffy about anything they can be sniffy about, fan-fiction included. Yet Anthony Horowitz has written a new “official” Sherlock Holmes novel. Official “schmofficial”; if it isn’t written by Conan Doyle, it’s fan fiction! Someone called Sophie Hannah is writing a new Poirot novel. Fan fiction! Susan Hill wrote a sequel to Rebecca. Fan fiction! Jean Rhys wrote a prequel to Jane Eyre. Fan fiction! There’ve been sequels to Pride and Prejudice and Gone with the Wind. Fan fiction!  Publishers are evidently only sniffy about fan fiction if they can’t make money out of it.

Now that doesn’t mean that you can sit down, write a sequel to your favourite novel and expect to get handed a publishing contract (see above about sniffy publishers). It does mean that, when you start out writing, you should write what comes readily to you. If you read Murder on the Orient Express, Day of the Triffids, HMS Ulysses or The Woman in White and that gives you an idea for a story, write it. When you first start trying to write, the be-all-and-end-all is simply to write. Becoming a good writer is going to be hard work and a lot of that work will never be saleable, even if you do get published. Think of it like this, Emil Zatopek did vastly more running outside of races than he did in them; it’s called training.

The truth is that if you have it in you to be an original writer then, if you write enough, eventually your own original creative talent will show through. This is what Pratchett means about fan fiction. If it doesn’t, then maybe you don’t have a flair for truly original writing. Still, if you enjoy what you do, carry on doing it.

One last word on originality. Many people who are not creative do not understand originality. For example, a little while after Steve Jobs died, an admirer devised a tribute graphic, consist of Jobs’ silhouette inserted into the bite in the Apple logo. He posted it on the web but someone noticed that another designer had done the same thing some time before. Pretty soon the web was alive with empty vessels accusing the first designer — a design student — of plagiarism. Note that there is no reason to think that the second man ever saw the first design. If he didn’t, it is a simple case of two people coming up with the same idea quite independently. After all, no fewer than three people came up with the theory of natural selection without anybody having to copy anyone else.

The point of all this is that nobody writes in a vacuum. We all have eyes and ears to see and hear the outside world and, in the modern age, we all get a similar picture of the outside world. The inevitable result is that a lot of us get a lot of similar ideas. Just because you have an idea that is similar to someone else’s doesn’t mean it’s worthless, though. If you have the talent to make something different of the idea, that’s all that counts. Don’t forget the cliché that there are only seventeen basic plots in all of literature. Even if that’s apocryphal, it holds a real truth; there is a finite limit to the range of possibly plots but an infinity of ways that they can be presented.

Until next time…


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