So this weekend a dream sledgehammered me in the side of the head with a Shiny New Idea. So sparkly and shiny it came with a premise, a setting, a plot, the main character’s name (which led naturally to a naming strategy for all the characters), several scenes, visual motifs and a title. I wrote a 3000 word outline in about two hours. I even designed a cover (I do that for fun).
The problem – it feels derivative. But is that really a problem? I mean how many TWILIGHT derivatives were there? A million? A gazillion? It seemed like a lot. And angels? And weird totalitarian dystopias? Wow. Someone. Make. It. Stop. What is it about the future that makes turning 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 or 18 so dangerous? If I see another “When she turns sixteen she will grow horns, have to marry a fire hydrant, and give birth to the second coming of Holden Caufield” I think I will volunteer as a tribute and let Finnick Odair skewer me with his trident.
But derivativeness is only a problem for me the reader. Me the writer feels completely differently. Me the writer would gladly rewrite, reboot or re-imagine any fairy tale, forgotten classic or obvious premise if I thought I could breathe new life into it. And new life is what the market craves – old familiar stories told differently. This dystopian movement is not a new idea. It’s a rehash of Lois Lowry’s THE GIVER and any number of Phillip K Dick stories. TWILIGHT? It’s THE VAMPIRE LESTAT for teens. Zombies, for the love of Shiva. Who’d have thunk THEY would come back onto style so many years after I AM LEGEND?
Coming back to replay something from a time gone by is one thing, but can two similar titles compete with each other at the same time? If the movie business is anything to go by the answer is a resounding YES. For example, in the past two years, no less than FOUR films with basically IDENTICAL premises have come out. Boy meets girl. Boy likes girl. Girl doesn’t want anything serious. Boy agrees because, heck, complication free sex, who says no to that? Boy falls for girl. Complication ensue. Boy wins or loses girl depending on whether girl is manic pixie dream girl or broken girl or unrealistic over-achiever girl. The end.
FOUR MOVIES PEOPLE. Each made and marketed to the tune of several million dollars. No one batted an eye. I personally have seen all four of them.
Can books be so samey? If vampires are anything to go by, then yes. How is THE VAMPIRE DIARIES not TWILIGHT and vice versa? How are the factions of DIVERGENT not the houses of HARRY POTTER (Amity=Hufflepuff, Erudite=Ravenclaw, Dauntless= Gryffindor/Slytherin depending on who you ask, Candor and Abegnation=the house elves)? How are all the fallen angel and reaper books not the same? It doesn’t seem to matter. And why should it? If you love a book doesn’t it follow that you want to read one just like it? Maybe as a mature adult I’m slightly less enthused by copycats but I would have murdered someone when I was a teen, for something just like Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Trilogy. I would still murder someone for something I love as much as Harry Potter.
So I proceed with my derivative outline. I know the gatekeepers of YA literature say this is dead or that is dead but I’m clever enough to pitch my stories as something else. A good story can be sci-fi OR fantasy OR dystopian OR paranormal. I will do my homework. In the end, the heart of each good story is very simple and pure. The Quest, Good versus Evil or Unrequited Love.
And those never go out of style.