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Too Much Inspiration?

This was 5 days ago, and I'm still on the streak.
I did my first Facebook live chat this last weekend and there were a number of questions asked, but there was one that I answered a bit in the video, but I wanted to dive into more detail about it here.

The question came from Eric Onkenhout, and he was asked, "Are you afraid of being too close to an established story?"

And this is a big question to deal with and the answer might be different for every single writer. At what point does inspiration turn to plagiarism? Can you love something so much that your writing reflects it in a way that it's copying or parroting it?

It's possible.

But I think the key is to not try to emulate just one thing at a time. Put a number of different influences in a blender.

Sometimes, I'll get ideas for novels to put in that blender from the impossibly different sources you can imagine.

Take, for example, a novel I currently have out to query:

The first part of the idea came when I was queueing for Space Mountain at Disney World. There was a very Stanley Kubrick sort of vibe to the queue and it was a flavor I wanted badly to recreate in a book somehow, but I didn't quite know how. I didn't have a plot, per se. I didn't even have an inciting incident, I just wanted parts of the book to permeate in the feeling I got when I was there in the queue, imaginging that I was a space traveler of some kind. Disney is hyper-experiential, so it was the smell, the sounds, the look, everything about the aesthetic.

The second part of the idea came from my deep love of the Alien franchise of films. I don't think there's a better sci-fi survival horror picture than the first film, as directed by Ridley Scott. The dynamics of the crew, the way the mystery unfolds, all of it is baked into my consciousness in a way I couldn't purge, even if I wanted to.

The next part came when I read Stephen King's book On Writing. I was fascinated by King's writing process. By having a hook, an inciting incident of some sort, and an idea for a character (or variety of characters) and then write yourself into a corner based on how these characters would act authentically. This was a technique I'd been baffled by when I read about the process the Coen Brothers had used for screenplays like The Big Lebowski. How do you write without knowing the ending? How do you write without knowing what's coming in.

The fourth part of inspiration came in the form of a partial manuscript of my brother's that I read. He's a much more philosophical writer than I am, but his sci-fi mystery really made me wonder why I wasn't writing a science fiction novel. He made me feel like I should be writing one, especially since I was working on the first draft of The Aeronaut at the time. The Aeronaut is set in an alternate World War I, 1915 or so, which is as far from deep-space sci-fi as you can get.

Since I was thirsty for science fiction, my notebook became filled with ideas I could use to start. And through those iterations in my notebook, I finally hit upon the idea I wanted to open my novel with: A colonizing ship's crew awakens from hyper-sleep to find that they've overslept for six months and continued flying during that time. The captain goes to wake the navigator for trouble shooting and finds that she's missing. Her pod was sealed, her life signs aren't detected on the ship, and there is no record of her leaving.

Those are all of the main ingredients I put in a blender and ended up with one of the most thrilling and fun writing experiences of my life. In the first draft of the book, I wasn't accustomed to jumping into a narrative without knowing all the details of what was coming later, so I began with the characters. I asked who should be there and why? What were they like? How would they react in the situations presented? Since that was all the work I'd done, I'd patterned my opening a little too closely to the opening of Alien. Aaron Allston read the story and pointed it out. That was as close as I came to getting too close to an established idea or story aesthetic. But I caught it in the early stages thanks to a rigorous and knowledgable writing group and it reminded me to pay attention in the revisions.

But the story is mine. Completely and wholly. Even though it was inspired by everything from Ridley Scott and Disney World to Stephen King and my little brother.

You just need to make the ideas your own.

I've also been fascinated by what references or ideas that resonate with you, that shape you, that you can bring from other stories. I think George Lucas is the best at this, which is why I've been working for so long on my Cinema Behind Star Wars series for so long. George Lucas put Edgar Rice Burroughs, Akira Kurosawa,  Joseph Campbell, and a hundred other things into a blender and ended up with Star Wars. And it was amazing.

As long as you're varying your input, you're going to juxtapose ideas and things that inspire you in ways that won't occur to anyone else. But just to be sure, run it through your writing group, get eyes on it that like to see the same sorts of things you do. If you've come too close to something, someone will tell you. And occasionally people will ask if I've seen some movie or read some book or another because of similar flavors and I'll have to report, "No, I've never heard of that."

There aren't any original ideas, per se, just original ways of putting them together.

So the answer is no. I'm not afraid of being too close to an established story. And neither should you, as long as you have a good writing group to keep you honest, and you're committed to fixing it if you've strayed too close into someone else's territory.


As for my work elsewhere, I had a new piece come out in Salt Lake City Weekly. It's called Heroic Call, and it's about how fandom can be so much more.

I was also on two episodes of the Stuff You Missed in History Class Podcast. The first episode is about the history of film in Salt Lake City, the second is about the Nazi obsession with the occult and how that comes to influence Indiana Jones.

I've hit the endgame in my latest novel manuscript and hope to finish it in the next week or two, so that's good news. I'm still turning in stories for a number of outlets, and I'm keeping up on everything else, too.

I'm setting my sights on my next big project: revising my fantasy novel. I printed it to start the process and was blown away by how large it is. In standard manuscript format, it's 650 pages and clocks in at well over 130,000 words. But it's going to be so fun to work on. I'm looking forward to sharing more about it with you when there's something to share other than me just working on it.


As a reminder: The Aeronaut and Escape Vector are still out and still need your purchases and reviews. If nothing else, they can use you telling people about them. If you want signed copies, visit the shop here on this page.

As far as my work outside of all this: There's a lot of great stuff on Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith for you. 

And please, please, please don't forget to check out any of my books, drop reviews of them on Amazon or Goodreads, and follow me on twitter and Facebook!


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