The writer’s dilemma, or “Dammit, that was my idea!”

I’m working on a short story for a competition. The competition’s theme is the Apocalypse, which isn’t really my cup of tea. So I decided to do a lighthearted take on the four horsemen of the Apocalypse instead of a gloomy breakdown-of-society story, and have it all turn out happily in the end. I do like me some happy ending.

In completely unrelated news – or so it seemed – someone recommended Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman to me while I was standing in a bookshop on Saturday. Naturally I bought it. Why else stand around in bookshops? I like Terry Pratchett and this is one of his I haven’t read before. But guess what it’s about?

I’m now nearly halfway through, and it’s vastly amusing but dammitall, they’ve used half my jokes! For instance, their apocalypse is set in a small English town, and when the horsemen arrive they comment that they thought the apocalpyse would start somewhere bigger, like New York. Mine’s in a small Aussie town, and when the horsemen arrive they comment that they thought the apocalypse would start somewhere bigger, like Washington or Beijing.

Aaargh! Guess I’ll have to take that line out.

Clearly Pratchett and Gaiman don’t have a monopoly on the Apocalypse. Just because they’ve written about it doesn’t mean it’s now off limits for everyone else. It doesn’t even mean that no one else can write a funny version of the Apocalypse.

But it certainly makes it more challenging. While I know I started my story before I realised theirs existed, other people reading my story won’t, and if it’s not sufficiently different they’ll assume I’m ripping off Good Omens.

Some writers refuse to read the work of other writers in their field, not wanting to be influenced by others’ ideas. I’m glad I’m not one of them since I found the bit about assuming the apocalypse would start somewhere bigger. Leaving my very similar reference in would just look like plagiarism.

You’d be surprised how often this kind of thing happens. People will often come up with similar ideas for books, movies, songs or inventions quite independently. Sometimes it’s because of some big event that moves a lot of people to write about it, like September 11, or a need that becomes apparent that prompts several inventors to design the same thing. Other times there’s no apparent reason. It just happens.

The common writing wisdom is that there are only so many ideas around anyway. The idea isn’t important; it’s what you do with it that makes your story different from the others. Look at vampires, for instance. There are shelves and shelves of vampire stories these days, but none of them are the same. And nobody tells all those authors they can’t write a vampire story just because Twilight’s so famous.

Nevertheless, some of my initial enthusiasm has faded. I’ll still finish the story and submit it. It’s an amusing yarn, and really nothing like Pratchett and Gaiman’s apocalypse. It’s just …

Damn. I wish I’d been first.

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