Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Thoughts on Writing

#41: Something Old, Something New

by Seanan McGuire

To provide a little bit more context, here's today's expansion:

Just because somebody else did it first doesn't mean that somebody else did it better. At the same time, just because you think you're going to do it better doesn't mean you necessarily will. Be just as objective with reworkings of old stories as you'd try to be with totally new ones. You actually need to work harder when you're dealing with the familiar.

Some people say that there are no new stories under the sun, just new ways of telling old ones. To look at the books and movies that hit it big in the mainstream, well, there's reason to believe it; Alice in Wonderland gets re-imagined again and again, the same fairy tale princesses show up everywhere from Disney to DAW, and Shakespeare has now been retold in just about every format imaginable. So how do you make an old story fresh and new again, and how much can you rest on what came before? When does "too similar" become a killing blow?

There are a lot of factors at work here, but we can at least start looking at what they are. Ready? Good. Let's begin.

Accidental Echoes.

I want to start today's essay with this statement: stories are born from the cultures that create them. Regardless of when or where you grew up, you were subjected to a wide, wonderful array of influences. You saw things. You heard things. You read things, or had them read to you, and ideas took root in the verdant fields of your mind. Now, not everyone is going to put things together the same way that you did, but I can still practically guarantee that you weren't the only person to grow up in X part of the world during Y decade and have the amazing idea to combine A, B, and Q in a magical casserole of whimsy, adventure, and talking baked goods. Cat Valente and I didn't know each other when she was writing Palimpsest and I was writing Rosemary and Rue, but our protagonists are named, respectively, "November" and "October."

Ideas are not unique. Execution, technique, and your authorial voice are what will take an idea and turn it into something magical, wonderful, and entirely yours. Saying "oh, that's been done" before does nothing but limit the stories you'll allow yourself to tell, and could, potentially, reduce the number of available tales to nothing at all. West Side Story can't exist if you say that Romeo and Juliet has been done before; Wicked depends on people being willing to give The Wizard of Oz a second look. And so it goes.

"But wait," you may ask, "if ideas aren't unique, how can plagiarism exist?" After all, plagiarism is the act of stealing someone else's story, right? Well, that's your answer, right there. "I want to do a Romeo and Juliet-type story with the children of two warring houses falling in love, only it's going to be set on Jupiter, and one of them will be an astronaut, and the other will be an energy being that eats dreams" is a new spin on an existing idea. "I want to do a Romeo and Juliet-type story with the children of two warring houses falling in love, only it's a musical set in New York, and they belong to two different gangs" is a little too close to West Side Story. Could you still get there independently? Sure. Anything is possible. Just be sure, when you're re-telling a story people already know, that you're far enough away from other modern interpretations to be safe.

Ideas are not unique. Only specific stories are.

Clinging to the Classics.

Reinterpreting classic literature, fairy tales, and folklore are absolute mainstays of the modern world. From Bridget Jones's Diary and You've Got Mail (both inspired and influenced by Pride and Prejudice) to Clueless (inspired by Emma) and 10 Things I Hate About You (Taming of the Shrew, anyone?), it seems like we're always happy to update an old story, twisting it until it screams for more. My Toby Daye books are largely inspired by classic British folklore, and several of the books are taken directly from ballads I learned when I was six. Nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and the works of Shakespeare, they're all fair game, and they're all ground so deeply into the Western literature of the last several hundred years that no one is ever truly free from their touch.

The thing to remember when telling a story inspired by or based on the classics is that everyone else gets to do it too. When you're writing your Little Red Riding Hood werewolf story (something at least half a dozen people I know have done, myself included), be aware that you need to do it in a way that will keep people interested, even though they've probably seen this before. Am I saying you shouldn't do it? No. I'm saying that you need to realize that ideas are not unique, and that you've got some pretty big shoes (and teeth) to fill, there, Grandma.

When you re-imagine a classic story, some of the things you need to ask yourself are...

Has this specific re-imagining been done before?
If yes, is mine different enough to be worth doing anyway?
If no, is there a reason for that?
Are your points of difference supported by the story, or do they seem grafted on to make you look more unique*?
Are your points of similarity really used, or are you just trying to invoke feelings of familiarity when you don't really need them?

(*Snow White doesn't need an eighth dwarf. Not unless his name is "Slashy," and you're telling the horrific untold story of what really happened in the dark foreboding forest, only to be blamed on an innocent queen.)

There's plenty of room for old stories told in new ways. We just need to take care when we're getting ready to tell them.

When Someone Gets There First.

So you've been working diligently for a year on your epic story of a half-unicorn, half-wood nymph assassin and her hot shapeshifting manticore boyfriend when you see that Horn to Run: Book One in the Chronicles of Silver Jones has just hit the bookstore shelves. This...could be a problem.

The first thing to do is read the book, or, if you're afraid that reading the book will taint your story, get someone you trust who knows your project to read the book. After all, half-unicorn assassins could potentially be a dime a dozen a year or two from now; it's their wood nymph mothers and manticore boyfriends that will make your project truly unique. Unless, of course, those are in Horn to Run, too, in which case, you're probably screwed. Sorry about that.

You probably can't get away with a series of funny fantasies set on a flat planet, even if the concept of the world being flat was around long before Terry Pratchett decided to balance the thing on some elephants and call it good. But the ideas of the vampire who goes to high school, the teen with a secret destiny, and the yellow brick road to the Emerald City? Those are all, at this point, pretty much fair game. It's the way you combine the elements you have, not the elements themselves, that will make your story unique.

(Horn to Run, and the sequel, On the Rode Again, will not be coming soon to a bookstore near you.)

Public Domain and Paddy O'Main Are Not the Same.

Finally, at least for today, keep in mind that how liberally you can borrow from an existing story is determined at least in part by the age of that story. You can legally retell Cinderella note for note; have fun, knock yourself out. You can't do that with The Stepsister Scheme.

Now get out there and find a new story from the pieces you buy at the flea market of the imagination. I can't wait to hear it.
© 2012 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with three cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded three albums, and published several novels. In 2010, she was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy. She is nominated for four Hugo awards in 2012, including Best Related Work for her music album, "Wicked Girls".

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