Sep 10, 2013

A writer's worst nightmare

I've been away from work for four days now and I'm feeling quite refreshed, I must say. With no deadlines or projects that need my attention, I've been able to relax for the first time this year. I've been catching up on some Skyrim (very important, especially as I'm coming up on the big 300 hours on it!) and I've even found some time to do some reading.
All of that is not to say that I haven't been working. I've started writing a little short story that I hope to have done and illustrated in a few weeks. I've also been working on my novel a little bit, which brings me back to last Friday when I had the biggest fright of my life...

I had just finished up for the evening and was officially on holiday as of that point. I packed up my things and cleaned out my drink bottle before putting it into the recycle bin. As I was placing the bottle in, I noticed a few publisher catalogues had been put in the bin too. I like publisher catalogues, especially the children's book ones. I try and keep them when I find them, as I figure they might come in handy when I go shopping for a publisher once the book is ready and I can see which publisher would be a good fit based on their existing output.
So I grabbed the catalogues and had a quick flick through them as I chatted to other staff members. Then, in one of the catalogues, I saw this:

I think I might have cussed at this point.
Here, in front of me, was a book about a Gnome and an otter. What are the chances? I'd certainly heard of the Gnome from Nome, what serious Gnome fan hasn't? But a book about a Gnome AND an otter? My heart skipped a beat, I'm sure.

On the bus back home, my mind was spinning. Did I see this book some time in the past and unconsciously regurgitated the theme? Was I an unwitting thief? Was I guilty of the very crime I so disliked in other writer's work: stealing ideas?

I've looked into the book and honestly have no recollection of ever seeing it. But that is irrelevant. The important thing is what I do now. I could, of course, change my story so that it doesn't resemble this existing one so much. I could make the otter a badger, or some other animal. But that would mean a complete rethink of the whole story. I'm not against doing that at all, but it would mean that the story simply wouldn't be as strong, it would be weakened, inevitably, by the process of altering such a core element.
Another option is to scrap the book altogether and get to work on something else. This is a scary thought and not something I want to do.
The third option, the one I'm favouring, is to keep on going with the story as it is and accept the consequences that come. Though the main characters ARE the same species, I doubt very much whether any other elements of the story are the same. The Gnome from Nome book takes place in the actual place called Nome, whereas mine is in Faerie. My book is populated by a whole array of Faerie beings that I am certain don't resemble anything in the other book; and the theme, while just as heart-warming, is very, very different.
The thought that is allowing my to sleep at night is that there are no new ideas, and there are multiples of every conceivable archetypal match-up already out there. So what if there is already a book featuring a Gnome and an otter! Does it matter if my book also has those two creatures too, done completely differently? I don't think so.
Look at it this way- I love J. R. R. Tolkien's work. I think that many of J. K. Rowling's characters are carbon copies of his ones. I used to say that Dumbledore is just Gandalf, but more colourful. But then I realised that Gandalf is just another version of Merlin, and so on.

The trick is what you do with the archetype to make it different and your own. As I'm a fan of analogies, let me put it this way- imagine you are baking some cookies. You have your baking book out and it tells you what to do and when. You pull out your cookie cutters and you see that you have one just like the shape used in the book. So you slice out a cookie in the shape of, say, a star, just like in the book. Now you have a choice, you can follow the decorating patterns the book shows, or you can do it your own way and make it yours. So instead of chocolate drops, you put almonds on, instead of a white chocolate topping, you use strawberry, etc. Once the cookie is baked, it looks nothing like the one in the book. It retains the same shape, but it tastes different and IS different.

That's what I am going to do. My book may look superficially like the Gnome from Nome one, but that's where the similarities end. In fact, as far as I can see, that is the only connection that can be made between the two. In all other aspects, from appearance of the characters, setting, book length, moral, audience, to packaging, these two books are worlds apart; quite literally, in some cases.

Thankfully, Willow and Berrie (yep, I settled on that spelling) are just two of many characters I have at my disposal. They are the lead characters in this first book, but others will step forward to fill that role in subsequent books.

I hope that Stephen Cosgrove, the writer of Gnome from Nome (as well as some 300 other books, props...), if he ever reads this, believes me when I say that I did not, in any way, intentionally use characters similar to his. I respect both the sanctity of other people's work, as well as my own ability to come up with my own characters. It's a horrible cliché to say, but it really is 'just one of those things.'

I'd be very interested to hear what other people think about this situation. Feel free to post your thoughts in the comments box below.

My next post will be of a completely different nature, for those wanting to know. I'll be discussing the joys of Autumn, a Troll sighting and foragers rewards. It should be up in a couple of days...

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