Ambrose Bierce Probably Had It Right

Hot damn, I’ve been busier than a cat on a hot tin roof. Normally, Your Humble Author here likes to move at a stately pace, a princely sort of slow motion that affords plenty of time for dignity, breath-catching, and refreshment. As a young lad playing Little League Baseball in Jersey City, I learned a valuable lesson: When I try to move fast, I look awkward, and sweat copiously. So I always try to keep my pace steady. Otherwise you might spill your drink.

Recently, though, that’s been hard to do. I’ve just had a lot of physical-labor type work to do recently (the joys of home ownership) leaving me with a lot less time to do my usual. As some of you know, I try to write a short story every month (well, try is a bad word for what is really a compulsion). Forcing yourself to write stories means you grab onto any piece of inspiration that floats by, and you worry about how good it is later. Usually years later, because fresh prose is pretty vitriolic and might explode in your face while you’re handling it. You also can’t think too hard about the provenance of ideas: In other words, write the damn story and worry about how original it is later.

First off, just because someone else had an idea first doesn’t mean you can’t do it better. And second: There is nothing new under the sun, only things we didn’t know about before. Trust me: The chances that the central idea in your latest story has been done somewhere, some time before are pretty goddamn good. People have been writing, in all languages and cultures, for thousands of years. You’re simply not smart enough to outsmart the rest of the world. The flip side of that is when you have a story you really like and think it’s got that certain something to become a great story, a sold story, and then … someone else beats you to the idea.

My best example of this is actually a novel I wrote some years ago. I like this novel; not sure it ever would have sold, but I like it nonetheless. It involves a force of human marines securing an alien planet in order to extract vital resources from it, while fighting and subduing the indigenous race, and eventually everyone realizes that the planet itself has a  consciousness.

Right: Basically Avatar. Except in mine, the aliens are horrible, screaming demon-like creatures who tear the marines to pieces. Still, if I tried to market this book now a lot of folks would likely think I was just copying James Cameron, and I would die of shame.

The only way to handle shit like this is to shrug it off and take your base: There is simply no way to avoid occasionally sharing your ideas with other folks in the universe. As a matter of fact, a lot of books and movies out there are just riffs on old ideas anyway – there’s nothing weird about that. And since there’s some question about just how great the plot of Avatar is, anyway, maybe I should be happy that my novel remains in my desk drawer, unseen. Thanks, universe!


  1. Elisabeth Black

    Wow I thought you were joking. Kind of uncanny that the plots are so similar.

  2. Bill Cameron

    Your version of Avatar sounds a lot better, though I admit my favorite version of that particular idea is A Man Called Horse.

    I think you should sue James Cameron on this basis of him thinking hiring engineers to generate eye candy is somehow revolutionary and important. And also for mysteriously convincing Dan that Avatar isn’t a windy ball of decorative suck.

  3. jsomers (Post author)

    Bill: I should probably sue Cameron for Titanic and leave it at that, actually.

  4. jsomers (Post author)

    Beth, I know! I mean, I knew when watching the movie that the script was kind of tired and cliche-ridden, but I didn’t realize just how paint-by-numbers it was until later rumination. This gives me hope that any old hack can win a major award. Even me!

  5. tim

    Avatar’s plot is really not cutting edge stuff if you read sci fi even occasionally. The movie gets by largely on its truly dazzling special effects.
    In print form, your novel (from the half or so I’ve enjoyed reading) makes Avatar it’s bitch.

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