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The race to the finish line

January 11, 2010

There’s nothing like that sinking feeling when you’re sixty thousand words into a novel and then find out that somebody’s beaten you to your plot.

I say ‘sinking feeling’, but that doesn’t accurately describe the utter frustration and loss of hope that you experience in that situation. I say this because last night the first episode of series two of Being Human did one of my plot points first.

There’s a background to me and Being Human. I’ve been planning my current novel, DPM, for possibly nigh on four years now, and writing it for nearly two. It was just when I was starting to write it that a friend of mine who works for the BBC pointed me towards a pilot for a show about a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost. My heart did that sinky thing – I thought, to commence work on the novel or not? I do get a bit irrational about this subject and have to frequently and sternly remind myself that within genre writing you are going to get a certain amount of crossover of subject matter and comparing my work to what has gone before is about as relevant as comparing Buffy to Supernatural or Dracula to Interview with the Vampire – yes, there is overlap, but they are very different stories. A lot of the time overlap can even be a good thing, as the public don’t want to read something that is so completely original that they can’t identify with it; they like some aspects of familiarity. So I commenced to write DPM – with all its slight similarities to Supernatural and Buffy, to Hellboy and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Abarat, Cabal and Poltergeist, to Neverwhere and everything Terry Gilliam ever directed, hoping that the Being Human pilot would never get commissioned.
It did.
And yes, there was overlap but on the whole I was satisfied that my setting, plot and characters differed enough from Being Human that the thematic similarities wouldn’t matter. As to my actual opinion on the show (last night’s in particular) I am a fan of it, however I do find it very hit and miss. The pilot was fantastic, the finished product less so – more production, I suppose, drawing out the storylines and so on. My favourite thing about it is the dialogue, which has moments of actual brilliance, and some of the lesser sub-plots (Mitchell’s friendship with the boy down the road, Annie’s relationship with Gilbert) are lovely. However, I find the ‘world domination’ plot ridiculous and the ‘other’ vampires cartoonish and to be honest, nice as it undeniably is, if I have to see Russell Tovey’s bum one more time I might throw something at the screen. The fashion to sex up every television series going has claimed another victim, I think.

A year passes. On I soldier. I’m now 60K into DPM and it’s difficult juggling everything in my life and managing to write as well. This is only the second novel I’ve ever tackled and it is very noticeable how much easier it was to write whilst briefly unemployed, at the computer from nine ‘til five, making tangible progress every day and knocking out a 130K book in eight months.
Last night, after managing to finish the ghost story I was writing for submission to a new online anthology call, I settled down to watch the Being Human series two opener. Halfway through I was pounding a cushion in dismay as they related, verbatim, one of the points I’ve used in my novel. It’s not a major plot point, in fact it’s quite a minor one, but it’s something I was pleased with and thought was original – the use of a decompression chamber, an iron lung, to prevent werewolves from changing at full moon.
I watched further and witnessed the Being Human test subject expire gruesomely in smeared arterial spray as their experiment failed (it was rather good actually). That cheered me up a little, as in my version the cure works and it’s definitely presented very differently. I’m still horribly uncomfortable at the similarities though and the fact that if by some miracle my story is ever published that people will think that I copied a television show.

So, the question is: to revise or not to revise? How important is complete originality?

At this point, I don’t think I can ditch my plot point. The mythology of my universe is too deeply entrenched within my mind and I suppose it wasn’t such a way-out idea that it hadn’t been used before. It does highlight though another stressful element of being a writer. Not only is the work demanding and isolating and often pretty thankless, but you’re constantly battling against all odds to be first across the finish line. Writing a novel, unless you are a career writer or have the luxury of a lot of free time in which to do it, is a very, very lengthy process. During the course of my writing DPM I’ve seen steampunk, vampires and werewolves come very much into vogue – when I started writing it, steampunk was only a tiny splinter culture within the goth scene – and now, because I’ve taken so much time about it, I’m terrified that I’ve missed the boat with these current trends and despite not writing for fashion when I started out, I’m afraid that my story will be seen as old news when it’s finally finished. At sixty thousand words in, though, shall I stop writing and abandon it?

It’s easy for people to advise you to ‘write for yourself’, but why does anyone write other than to be read? At this point in my career, even though I’ve been published several times, I do still feel rather like I’m penning endless messages to be launched in bottles into a vast ocean, not knowing where they’ll end up or if anyone is even reading, waiting to, one day, receive a reply back.

Just keep your fingers crossed for me, if you please will, that Being Human (or anything else for that matter) doesn’t use any more of my ideas first.

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