Journalists are trained to get the story first or at least gather new facts that are exclusive to their reports. As an author, you should be striving for a different sort of exclusivity – original ideas, characters, voices, structure and plot. After all, why would any publisher want to invest in a story that has basically been done before – unless you have a truly unique spin on the material?
While writing Game as Ned I had a day when I questioned whether I had any original ideas in my head. I picked up the Saturday Age and stumbled across a double page spread on Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Not only did this oft-awarded book focus on a teenage narrator with an autism spectrum disorder but it was already so successful it had been added to the Victorian VCE reading list. Most Aussie authors would kill to have one of their titles make that list.
Given that I was writing a book narrated by a teen with an autism spectrum disorder, I feared nobody would be interested in a story so similar in subject matter to Haddon’s. Game over.
That night my wife and I scored a babysitter and had a night out. For want of other choices, we saw the Jack Nicholson movie Something’s Gotta Give. The plot, coincidentally, echoed that of a short story I’d just had short-listed in a writing competition. That realisation hit me like a bus. I became genuinely worried that I was just a big sponge for other people’s ideas. It was a dark day on the author odyssey.
On the up side, it inspired a major rewrite of the Game as Ned manuscript, a new co-narrator and, I believe, a stronger story.
My next book Five Parts Dead deals with death, dying, guilt and grief. It’s set at a lighthouse in South Australia. Not so long ago I stumbled across reviews of two new YA novels – one focusing on exactly the themes I’m tackling*, the other set at a remote West Australian lighthouse. Ouch.
Perhaps I’m older and wiser now. I’m certainly more philosophical. It’s impossible to prevent overlap between stories.
Death and grief are universal themes. People have been writing about them since… forever.
Lighthouses are evocative and iconic**. Umpteen books have been written about them.
What I have to work on is delivering a fresh way of looking at age-old subjects. Screenwriting guru Robert McKee once wrote a dedication for me in his book, Story. It read: “To Tim, Write the truth.” I see my task as an author as finding a new truth that’s worthy of a) publication and b) reading.
That’s my focus while I’m working towards an end of year deadline for my Five Parts Dead edits.
*I’m currently reading this book, Lia Hills’ The Beginner’s Guide to Living. I thoroughly recommend it – probably to readers 16 and up. Sure, Lia covers very similar issues to those I’m trying to tackle. Thankfully, she does so in very different ways – even if we reference some of the same materials.
**My Word of the Week is the noun for lighthouse lovers – “pharologists”. Would you believe there’s a Facebook group for lighthouse buffs entitled “Pharologists are light-headed”? Of course there is.
Caught Pixar’s Up with the kids on Fathers’ Day. Liked it better than Wall-E and Cars but nowhere near as much as The Incredibles or Monsters Inc.
The kids liked it but didn’t love it. I wonder if that’s because they didn’t really see themselves in any of the main characters – a grieving curmudgeon, a lonely boy scout and a misfit talking dog. I know, I’ve blogged previously that my daughter sometimes plays at being a Grandma so she should connect with the movie. Looks like I was wrong.
I know the Pixar crew are graduates of the Robert McKee screenwriting courses. It felt to me that they’d gone with some real McKee angles in Up – writing stories/scripts that address universal truths such as loneliness, shattered dreams, grief and old age. Indeed, the first five minutes of the film told a story that almost moved me to tears. After that bit of magic, it was sound the trumpets and bring in the action and gags.
Some of the best gags involved a) old age and b) dogs chasing squirrels. The kids obviously didn’t get the former. As for the latter, we don’t have squirrels Down Under so the joke lost a little impact (though we still laughed). I was also surprised by how Pixar handled some of the later fights scenes (no spoilers from me) and how scary some of the hunting dogs were. The Little Monkey (5yo) found it all a bit tough once the villain arrived on the scene. Interestingly, her cousin the Little Engineer (4yo), had no such qualms.
So, it lacked the wow factor we’d hoped for. And I’m a tad worried that I identified somewhat with the old guy Carl…
I’m now hoping Ponyo might be a better fit for the Little Dragon and I.
Update: I just spent a night making Up mobiles to hang in the kids’ rooms so they must be at least slightly under the Pixar spell.