It’s Your Ashtray

Remember when you were in summer camp, and took a pottery class, and they made you make an ashtray for your smoking parents?  One that your parents displayed with pride even though it looked a lot worse than the one in this photo?  It’s relevant to this post, I swear.

The other day, I was a little concerned about whether my manuscript is original enough.  Because, you know, the market is currently flooded with Jewish vampires.  Oy vey.  So I asked a certain author whose opinion I really, really value.  It went something like this:

ME: “Was the police station scene too much like Jim Butcher?”

HER: “No, it wasn’t.”

ME: “Are you sure?”

HER: “Yes, I’m sure.”

ME: “I mean, it’s a big dog-monster rampaging in a police station. Are you sure it isn’t a ripoff of Fool Moon?

HER: “I’m sure.”

ME: “Because I didn’t think about it until after I wrote the scene, but I really don’t want it to be a ripoff, and I think it’s different because different stuff happens. Like, it’s not a guy turning into a werewolf, it’s a demon rampaging. And he’s kind of having fun, you know? He doesn’t have to go nuts, but why not while he’s there?”

HER: “Yes, he’s brutal and savage and was playing. You’re not ripping off Jim Butcher.”

ME: “Are you sure?”

We moved on from there, but my mind was going, “AH-HA!  DO YOU SEE? SEEEE? AH-HA HA!

‘Course, what this means is that my mind was wrong.  It’s wrong pretty often.

We care about originality.  This is a good thing – I mean, c’mon, you can only see so many ripoffs of Jaws before you tire of “Close the beach/apple festival! The giant shark/wallaby is attacking!”  Without originality, we wouldn’t have… original things.  Original is good.  Ripoffs are bad – in fact, stealing something already done by somebody else (and often done better) is terrible.  Yeah, I know, you’ve never read anything like this before, but I’m just making sure we’re on the same page here.

But the thing is, every vice is a virtue gone astray.  And sometimes, our desire for “originality” can go a little too far.  If two works of fiction are in the same genre, we trip over ourselves trying to figure out who ripped off whom.

“Yeah, The Hunger Games is just a ripoff of Battle Royale. I mean, they both have teenagers killing each other!”

“Yeah, The Sword of Shannara is just a ripoff of The Lord of the Rings.  I mean, they’re both medieval fantasy!”

“Yeah, Jurassic Park is just a ripoff of Clan of the Cave Bear.  I mean, they’re both about… things!”

After riling ourselves up to the point where if two works share anything, it must be plagiarism, we tend to worry about the craziest things.  But just how original is original?  I mean, if I tried to create something totally original, it would probably turn out like this:


Although this is probably ripping somebody off, too.

Or maybe it would be like this:


Wait, no!  Garbage Pail Kids are copyrighted!  I FAILED!  WOE IS MEEEEE!

But you get my point.  You don’t have to be insane to be original.  You shouldn’t rip people off, but you need to recognize that there are only so many story ideas out there.  So what now?  Nothing we do is original.  How do we manage?  Do we give up?  Do we rip everything off in a Tarantino-esque orgy of theft?  Of course not.  What are you, insane?

Back to the ashtray.  Remember the ashtray?  Right.  The ashtray.

Is clay original?  No.  Clay is the same everywhere.  It’s just wet dirt that clumps.  But what you do with that clay is what matters.  You can sculpt anything from that clay.  Of course, they make  you sculpt an ashtray, but you can still do anything you want with it.  Is it all the same clay?  Sure.  Have other people made ashtrays with clay?  Yup.  Does that make yours any less special?  Well, your parents will still show it off on the coffee table, even though they don’t smoke.

But what does that mean about yours?  If you made your own ashtray, then it’s yours.  Sure, if you spent your time staring at someone else’s ashtray and copied it, you ripped it off… but that’s not what we’re talking about.  This is about that horrible nagging feeling of “I know I ripped stuff off because it shares a common language!”

Let’s go back to my first example.  A fight in a police station – is just something that happens in this kind of story.  And if it’s an urban fantasy, it’s usually a supernatural thingmabob doing the fighting. As for the scene itself, it really is different – different sequence of events, tone, mood, types of violence, banter, action… you get the drill.  The canine issue isn’t even valid, no more than the fact that apples and oranges are different kinds of fruit. One’s a businessman-turned-werewolf.  The other’s a grand marquis of Hell from the Ars Goetia.

So, how does this principle apply to everybody else?  To you guys?  It’s simple:  If you want your writing to be original, then write something that is distinctly yours.  Everybody works with the same clay, but it’s your ashtray.  Make your own story.  Own it.  Make it yours.  If you still worry about whether it’s too close to something else, then change it.  Just remember to keep it simple and sane.  You can’t change the clay, but you can make it your ashtray.  And I guarantee that it’ll end up on the coffee table even if your parents don’t smoke.

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