Once upon a time…
There was a small, troubled child who grew up to be a larger, more troubled teenager. He had entered that phase of life when the male body decides that life on its own isn’t nearly as much fun as it can be dosed with hormones and sexual confusion. In the end he became sullen, withdrawn and then finally resorted to burning things.
This is where two unlikely agents of fate come into the boy’s story.
The Livermore Police department and S.E. Hinton.
You’d think that is an unlikely pairing and you’d be right, since I am relativity sure the author S.E. Hinton never teamed up and solved mysteries with the Livermore police. A pity because I would have watched that show over any three CBS procedural shows on the air today. So anyways, I burned things and I got caught and was thrown into juvenile hall.
I wish I had some real good stories about being incarcerated, but honestly I don’t. The kids were just as scared as I was, we all got along, and we all had separate rooms to chill in. No one threatened me, no one made me their bitch, nothing. I mean, not that I wanted that to happen. I was thirteen years old but still, you’d think there was SOMETHING that would have occurred that might have made me change my ways.
To be honest, the look on my grandparents’ faces when the police knocked on our door and hauled me away was more than enough to ensure I would never, ever do anything to make them look at me like that again. Little did I know what I actually meant was I would never, ever get caught doing something that would make them be that ashamed, but that is another story.
So during this time I was locked away, doing hard time, it changes a man. The person who goes in isn’t…
You aren’t buying this because I already told you that nothing happened. Fine. I got bored and my mom bought me four paperback novels to read while I waited for trial. They were The Outsiders, Tex, Rumble Fish and That Was Then, This is Now. I had been a big reader growing up, so I was thrilled to have something new to read but didn’t expect much from them.
I have never been so wrong, before or since.
It was more than just a book, it was a whole world, and as I was reading the four books I realized they were all connected somehow. Not just through a series of sequels or continuations; they took place in the same universe, even if the people didn’t know each other. It was mind altering to me, and I made two choices while on my long, long week of incarceration.
One, that I needed to be smarter if I was going to do bad things and two, I needed to meet the people in those books.
It hadn’t registered that they might be fictional people because the way they talked and the mistakes they made were so real, there was just no way they could be made up. I had read all of the Oz books by L.Frank Baum and know that Dorthy was fake and that Toto was made up, but Ponyboy? No way, not him. A couple of years passed and I understood that they were fictional and that authors could create whole worlds from just words. I wanted to do that, badly, but had no idea how.
The next book that shook me to the core was Interview with a Vampire.
Now, I was a wise and matured sixteen year old, and I knew there were no such things as vampires and this was all made up, but my friends raved about it so I decided to give it a whirl. What harm could come from it?
It was about two in the morning when I paused reading, put the book down and wondered where Anne Rice had found a real vampire. There was NO way that this was made up, it had to be real in some way. I lived less than fifty miles from San Francisco, and I knew the city she was describing, and the idea that vampires like Louie might be wandering around seemed far more real than, say, Ronald Reagan being an actual president to me.
And again, I wanted to be able to do that.
My final world changing book came a year later when someone gave me a copy of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. If you have never read the series, Mr. Adams does for the written word what Monty Python did for sketch comedy: shows you how it could be done differently and by insane people. The book itself starts where most books lead up to, by destroying the Earth so that aliens can make way for a hyperspace bypass that ironically is made obsolete by the very ship that saves them. It is a verbal ballet that can stun you in wonderment as you watch everyday words you thought you knew do things that no one had ever done before.
Sadly, not done since either.
If you look at these three books, you can find all the parts that make up the patchwork quilt of my writing. There is a connected world where things revolve around a location and people know each other but might never actually talk, like the real world. There is dialogue that makes characters seem real, not just realistic but real people that you know and have met. And then there is the turning of phrase that is really just a pale comparison to the magic Douglas Adams could do.
I think every writer needs to know where they come from and why they write what they write, for many reason. One, it is to give respect to the people who got you here but more importantly, it tells you what well you are drawing from. It saves you from looking at what you’ve written and asking yourself, “Why does this seem familiar?” when it is just a cover version of the breakaway pop hit you fell in love with years ago. There is no crime to cover a song by the way, the crime is in not acknowledging it.
In Taking Chances, I had Linda Stilleno make a reference to throwing wooden shoes into machinery that comes straight from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. While writing it, I had a whole set up to where she tries to come off smarter than she is and then admits she got it from one of Kyle’s movies.
I completely spaced it out.
It wasn’t until an edit that one of the proofreaders brought up it was word-for-word from Star Trek and she liked that I referenced it. She thought it was a cool thing to throw in. I felt like a thief because I hadn’t referenced where I had got it from. Once I put the line in, I felt much better and I got a couple of people chuckling over the line, but inside I was horrified that it got submitted without me saying where the line had come from.
It’s okay to emulate the things you like, just make sure you tip your hat to them as you pass by, or you’re a douchebag.
On the other hand, though, there is such a thing as divergent evolution. In science it is two races completely separated that evolve the same way and produce startlingly similar creatures; in writing it is when two writers think of the same idea at the same time and decide to write a story without ever talking to the other one. There are only so many stories in the world to tell, it isn’t the actual structure of a story that counts, but how you tell it. But I will go into detail next time, when I start talking about how to birth an idea from your mind to the page.
Spoiler alert, there are a lot of bodily fluids. FYI.
So in closing, knowing where your desire to write comes from and the people you are trying to be like helps you because it can help you hone the individual skills that drew you to them in the first place. And if you see your idol in your writing, don’t freak out and don’t throw it away because I am willing to bet people see your parents in you, and you want to see some of you in your kids. It’s natural, evolution is good.
Cloning is bad.
See every science fiction story ever.
Don’t be a clone
Ok…see you in two weeks.