There is Nothing New Under the Sun (*Sigh*)

I was invited to do a reading for a sci-fi/fantasy group in Kansas City. After the reading, there was a Q&A. During the conversation, I mentioned Irish Wolfhounds, and I noticed a somewhat skeptical expression on the face of one of the participants. She also asked if I had read any Brandon Sanderson, and when I said I hadn’t and had been recently chastised for it, she said she was a beta reader for him, and agreed that Mistborn was a great entry point.

I read the Mistborn trilogy the next month. Wolfhounds figure prominently. I connected her skeptical reaction with that fact–that she may have thought I copied Mr. Sanderson’s idea. I had this feeling of shame: “How dare I ever use a wolfhound in a book! Everyone will think I copied Brandon Sanderson! How could I have been so stupid!”

After reading the Mistborn books, I looked up his BYU lectures on YouTube, and watched the ones on publishing. The self-publishing lecture mentioned a writer who has a student travel back in time. He said the books are extremely well-researched and she puts out a book every four years. I looked up this author on Wikipedia, and I sighed–my “Wow! That idea is so great, I can’t sleep–I have to write it!” idea was done decades before I even began writing.

In the MCU, I sometimes see little scenes and phrases that make me wonder if someone read my books and took a few bright snippets from them, or if I’m just that obvious (things like “ouch, ouch, ouch” when Spidey’s back is getting stitched up at the end of one of the movies–that’s at the end of “Stasis.” Or the line about making everything “a chaotic mess”–one of Evil Bob’s assessments of the heroine in “Stasis.” Or the Winter Soldier’s difficult relationship with his therapist, including his angst when she takes down a note-the heroine has a similar relationship with her counselor in “Stasis.” Etc.).

Years ago, I taught a Sunday School class of older teenagers. One Sunday just before class started, they were whispering with each other and laughing. They stopped when I went to the board and started setting things up for the lesson, but then one of them started asking me questions about myself. I gave them the basic answers, nothing to write home about, but after five or six questions they were all laughing after each of my responses. Then they asked me if I knew a person named Stephenie Meyer who’d been an English major at BYU about the same time I was there. I said I’d had a roommate by that name who’d left my bike outside for a party when I was gone for the weekend and it’d been stolen, but I didn’t know what she majored in. That got them rolling on the floors.

I didn’t know until my husband’s birthday, when I asked him what he wanted and he said, “The ‘Twilight’ series,” that there was a famous author by that name. (She could not have been my roommate–she doesn’t look like her and ‘Meyer’ is her married name and obviously my roommate wasn’t married at the time.) Some time after he finished all the books, I read the series. There are details in there that do match a lot of things in my life, and the questions the kids had asked me a couple of months before were all about those things, so I could see why they laughed. But I saw an interview she gave where she said she’d made her main character, Bella, someone with characteristics that lots of women could identify with. Those similarities were like how a fortune-teller works–getting enough details right that you think, “How does she KNOW me so well?” and you ignore all the details that don’t match you.

People talk of a “spiritus mundi,” where every creative thought goes into a communal well from which anyone can draw. I remember hearing Sting say that he’d had a vivid dream and turned it into the song “The Lazarus Heart.” When he told a psychologist friend of his about it, the friend said it was the stereotypical dream of a certain group of, I can’t remember, fishermen tribes, or something. Sting’s response was something like, “I can’t even dream creatively!” The obscure fishermen had put their dreams in the communal well, and Sting’s subconsciousness had drawn it out, according to that theory. Every artist giving inspiration to every other artist to make new and more exciting things. A synergistic growth fueled by every individual’s creative energy and work. Nothing wasted, nothing lost.

Other people assume that anything new that resembles anything that came before is an act of copyright infringement. (Today’s laws are unworkable–I got a “copyright strike” warning on YouTube for putting up a video of me playing and singing Mozart’s ‘Alleluia,’ pirated copies of my books are up for sale on sites in China within hours after I publish them on Amazon, the “life of the author” standard means no one knows when old works by obscure authors are public domain, etc.) (My kids showed me this Tom Scott video, and I agree with the vast majority of it: YouTube’s Copyright System Isn’t Broken. The World’s Is.) These people can’t stand the idea of someone taking a tiny seed of an idea they had and turning it into an entirely different creative work. This attitude stifles creativity by requiring any creator to: 1) Know everything that exists; 2) Look over one’s own shoulder while creating to ensure that nothing that is being created bears any resemblance to anything that has ever existed.

However, there bad actors who grab other people’s work and are jerks with it–not just those who steal other’s creative works outright, either. For example, I think Miguel de Cervantes was perfectly justified in verbally sticking that loser author in a pillory and mocking that loser author’s lame copying of the Don Quixote character and mocking that loser author’s claim that his sucky book was a sequel to the original.

But there’s a continuum. Maybe Coldplay should’ve have had to pay some type of compensation to the guy whose guitar piece has the same chord progression as “Viva la Vida.” But to think that guy could’ve stopped Coldplay from making that song, a song that bears no resemblance to the guitar piece aside from the chord progression, sucks–it’s basically saying, “Let’s make the world a more boring place.” Should “Viva la Vida” not have been written, and should we, as a world population, been stuck with only the obscure guitar piece, just because the guy with the obscure guitar piece says so?

What if an MCU writer liked my, “ouch, ouch, ouch” scene and used it to make the end of a Spider-Man movie a little more entertaining? Should I have had the right to say, “No! I wrote that idea first, and you may never, EVER, use it!” But if the writer had gotten the idea from me, it would’ve been super-cool for the writer to give me a little good press–hopefully something better than: “I hated this book, but there was this one bit in it I liked, so I made it better and here you go” (and maybe take me to lunch to say thanks or something). What if an author uses bits of history or personality from people she knows or has heard of in order to make a character more realistic? Should every human who sees themselves in a character have a veto power on that character’s existence (couldn’t the author legitimately respond: “What do you care if I borrowed your personality and history? You weren’t doing anything with it!”)?

What an ironic problem to have: I can’t find a marketing genre that perfectly fits my books because they’re so different from what’s out there (people tell me: “historical fantasy” except it’s too gritty and science-y; “romance” except there’s peril and it doesn’t fit the extremely rigid romance plot structure; “sci-fi” except there’s too much of interpersonal relationships and not enough “hard” math and science; “fantasy” except it doesn’t have wizards or magic; “action-adventure: time travel” except it’s not strictly a page-turner; “diversity fiction” except that even though its main character is an ASD biological female she doesn’t count as diverse because she knows she’s a woman and she likes men, etc.), but I still have a nagging doubt that everything I write has already been done.

As I write, I find that just like Virginia Wolfe had to kill the angel of the house, I need to kill the voice that whispers: “You have nothing to offer. Everything you think or imagine has already been done, and better than how you, at your best, would do it. People will think you’re a fraud because they’re familiar with things you aren’t familiar with and will recognize elements of those things in your work.”

As the Preacher saith: There is no new thing under the sun.

And yet, I refuse to believe it. Guess I’m a heretic. 🙂