Can you do it better?

“Can you do it better?”

These words, spoken by my old technology teacher to a schoolchum, have always stuck with me.

The context was of someone accused of copying, of taking someone else’s idea for his own. The response was simple: ideas are uncopyable. The details – the design, the manufacture – they’re your own. But the idea is free and universal.

There’s a terrific tendency to avoid doing anything that has ‘been done before’, but the more I read and the more I write the more I realise that there is nothing new under the sun. It’s all about the way the work is done, what you – and only you – can bring to the party. And this doesn’t matter. Just because you’ve heard of Ian Fleming and John le Carre doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write a spy novel.

My current work-in-progress, Oneiromancer, is heavily influenced by a role-playing game I played over a decade ago. One of the key tasks I had to do when I began to write was to sort out my own mythos from that of the game. I’ve also tried to immerse myself in urban fantasy, the closest genre to my novel. And the more I read, the more I realise that my ‘unique’ ideas have already been done and I have nothing new to say.

But no-one’s written it like I’m doing. I have my own voice and my own preoccupations – what is, in writing terms, known as ‘theme’. You can try it if you like: rewrite your favourite novel. Just take the story and try and replicate it. I can promise you that you won’t keep on track for long. Soon the work you’re doing will become yours as you become distracted by the roads not taken, by inserting your own voice between the folds.

There is no law against stealing an idea. Words, yes – too many people have been caught out with plagiarism. But ideas are free. The only question that matters is whether you can do it better.

That’s not to say that the actual book I’m producing will be up there with Neil Gaiman or Ben Aaronovitch or Jim Butcher. But it won’t be a copy of those authors either. You cherry-pick, consciously or subconsciously. You take the bits you like and ignore the others. So you can have vampires that sparkle in sunlight if it suits your purposes.

I hate magic. Fantasy magic makes no sense to me: it too often seems to have no rules. It becomes a get-out clause for authors, rather like Q’s gadgets in the Bond series (and, incidentally, am I the only person who thinks Game of Thrones would be better without dragons?). But that there is a force that can be manipulated by those who know: that I can accept. A force that obeys the rules of physics – or maybe bends them just a touch. I didn’t invent magic but I am taking the concept and putting new structures upon it, just like every author who’s ever written about the fantastical. No-one has copyright on the Minotaur.

So the next time someone reads your book and says “Well that’s been done before,” that’s fine. Maybe you need to bury the source a little deeper – after all, a series of novels about a teenage wizard in a quintessentially British boarding-school may come across more like satire than inspiration. But the important thing is to be able to say that maybe there’s a passing resemblance, but no-one can write a story in that way, with those words.

Give yourself permission to say “Maybe it’s similar. But mine’s better.”

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