Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Creative Differences - John Dougherty

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be thoroughly alarmed by the late Diana Wynne Jones.

I went to see her at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. In response to the inevitable question about her next book, she said that it would be published in February and was about a child who goes to visit relatives in Ireland only to find that strange things connected with Celtic mythology begin to happen.

"Eeek!" I thought; and at the end of the session I approached her with a question of my own.

"How do I tell my publisher," I asked her, "that my next book, about a child who goes to visit a relative in Ireland only to find that strange events connected with Celtic mythology begin to happen, is going to bomb because Diana Wynne Jones's book about the same thing comes out a month earlier?"

Well, she was absolutely lovely. She told me that this sort of thing was always happening, and that she was sure my book would be completely different from hers. Which, as it turned out, was completely accurate: I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Game, and my Bansi O'Hara and the Bloodline Prophecy was - thankfully! - nothing like it.

I'm thinking about this now because I've just read a terrific book about a boy who accidentally summons an ancient deity. The deity accepts as a prayer something which wasn't intended to be a prayer at all, manifests before the boy, and asks for worship and sacrifices. In the story that follows, the gods are shown to be capricious, self-centred and arrogant, with little regard for the rights and feelings of mere mortals.

If you're familiar with my work, you might think I'm describing my first Zeus book, Zeus on the Loose. But many of you may guess that I'm talking about Wishful Thinking by Ali Sparkes - and if you haven't read it, I can thoroughly recommend it. It's very different from Zeus - much more of an adventure and less of a comedy, though it does have some genuinely funny moments - and is clearly aimed at an older readership. It's also beautifully structured, and includes, among other delights, one of the most nail-biting car chases I've read in a long time.

I have to say, I really enjoyed reading something that started with such a similar idea to one of my own stories and took that idea in such a different direction. I've no idea which of us first came up with the idea, and I don't really care; because the important point, I think, is that neither of us could have written the other's book.

Anyone can have an idea - and any two people can unwittingly share an idea - but it's what you do with that idea that counts. So today I feel like celebrating our creative differences - and in particular the fact that thirty writers could independently have the same idea, and end up with thirty entirely different stories.

And I'm sure - as Diana Wynne Jones told me - that this sort of thing really does happen all the time. Can anyone think of any other examples?

John’s website is at www.visitingauthor.com.
His most recent books are:
-> a retelling of Finn MacCool and the Giant’s Causeway for the Oxford Reading Tree 
-> Bansi O’Hara and the Edges of Hallowe’en   
-> Zeus Sorts It Out


Robyn Bavati said...

So true. I love this post.

Keren David said...

Cathy MacPhail and I met last week as we were both short-listed for the Catalyst book award. Her book Grass is about a boy who witnesses a crime but doesn't tell the police, mine, When I Was Joe is about a boy who witnesses a crime and does tell the police. Originally she'd planned that her character would tell..was I glad that she changed her mind!

John Dougherty said...

I read When I Was Joe recently, Keren, and loved it - one of those books you keep sneaking back to for "just one more chapter" when you really should be doing something else. Will put Grass on the to-read list too!

Anonymous said...

Really beautifully put, John. I am glad it turned out well for you.

But the anxiety about defensible originality can be crippling. It feels as if the JKRs and the DWJs almost 'sanitize' vast tracts of fantasy space. Who can write about a school for wizards ever again? Schoolchildren on trains are a bit dodgy now. Owls are out. Far too many people think that JKR invented all her her mythical creatures and therefore owns them, whereas in fact she just incorporated her research well, like many a good writer.

I am writing on a vaguely St George and dragonish theme at the moment, and had a fit of the shivers when I read a synopsis of The Hunger Games. Reading the actual book reassured me.

But you always feel there is another such threat around the corner, and that it will be published three weeks before your own book on the same subject.
Michelle Lovric (as anonymous because Blogger doesnt like me today)

Nicky said...

I remember meeting Mary Hoffman at a Bloomsbury drinks years ago and being v disappointed to discover that we'd both written fantasy novels set in an alternate Renaissance Italy. They were so different I don't think the publisher even realised.

Emma Barnes said...

DWJ's Witch Week, the Worst Witch stories and - most famously - Harry Potter all involve magical boarding schools, but they are completely different in feel, plot and character.

There's very little that's truly original. My book Jessica Haggerthwaite: Witch Dispatcher concerns a scientific daughter with a mum who's a New Age witch. Jessica had alreaady been published when I opened a Sunday magazine to find an interview with a New Age Witch and her extremely non-witchy daughter - although I think the daughter wanted to be a solicitor rather than a scientist.

Truth is as strange as fiction.

Keren David said...

Aw, thanks John!

Abi Burlingham said...

What a fab post - you are so right, this must happen all the time but it's a real panic moment when you realise that someone else 'thought of it first'. A similar thing happened to me recently over the title of my forthcoming book 'Buttercup Magic' and my discovery that a book had just come out called 'Buttercup Mash'! Thankfully, these are two very different books, and unlike me, the publisher didn't going into panic mode!

Catherine Butler said...

I remember DWJ telling me (though I think she said the idea was T. Pratchett's) that these coincidences were the result of subatomic particles called "ideons" that stream through the universe, striking writers in quick succession.

John Dougherty said...

Yes, she mentioned the ideons at our meeting as well, and attributed the notion to TP.

I wasn't sure I'd remembered the word correctly, or I might have mentioned it in the post.

adele said...

Also, very often things just seem to be floating around in the air...a few years back, there were about four novels about Noah and his ark from various bods. All quite different from one another. Very interesting post!

Book Maven said...

Ooh, Nicky, which Nicky are you? I was going to say that my City of Masks came out about a week after Cornelia Funke's The Thief Lord, also set in Venice and then there was a whole slew of them.

And Marcus Sedgwick told nme he delayed writing his Kiss of Death because of City of Mask, so it cuts both ways.

I have always firmly believed in TP's ideons = inspiration particles notion.

There is no other possible explanation. But I think it might be worth letting the gods in our world idea rest for a bit. What with Neil Gaiman's Americon Gods, DWJ's Eight Days of Luke and Douglas Adams' Thor I think we should all leave it a while!

Savita Kalhan said...

Great post, John. I firmly believe in TP's ideons too. I've noticed that there are books on a similar theme every year, but thankfully, and luckily, they have mainly had a very different take on the theme.

Lucy Coats said...

Ideons definitely exist, and for more than book ideas. I'm also a believer in what might be called word-ions. That's when you come across a word entirely new to you, and then hear it or read it three times in the next week! Great post, John - and I'm incredibly envious that you actually met the great Diana herself.

Sue said...

My son definitely enjoyed Percy Jackson all the more for having read Zeus on the Loose first! I'm sure the ideons thing is exactly what Jung identified as the collective unconscious evidenced by the similarity of myths and legends from around the world.