Sunday, 10 November 2013
Why I Couldn't Cross Gaiman's Ocean
As a struggling writer and devoted reader, a dilemma has been eating at me of late, a most unique problem which applies solely to me and you, my fellow restless creative types. Recently I started to read The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, the highly acclaimed novel by Neil Gaiman, a personal hero of mine and arguably the most important writer of fantastical fiction of our age. It is a beautifully realised work of dreamlike fiction in every way, but as I hit the halfway point of the book I couldn't go on. I couldn't even look at it.
A realisation had struck me. I'd read the book before, and what's more, I had written it myself.
Well, not that book, but a story very, very much like it. In 2010 I sold a short story entitled Beneath An Orange Sky to an anthology called Explorers Beyond The Horizon (published by Positronic Creations in conjunction with the Dead Robots Society podcast), which eventually came out in print and ebook formats in the middle of 2012. That story's central premise, central character and several elements of it echoed in my head as I read Gaiman's exemplary book, which came out a good long while after my story had been published.
Of course, I would never entertain the thought that me of all people had been plagiarised by the greatest writer of the era. What bugged me was that his massively popular book had essentially made my story, which was released way before it, seem like a rip-off. This was difficult to deal with, as Beneath An Orange Sky was my first semi-professional fiction sale outside of my other writing, and as the copyright had reverted back to me I was hoping I could place it elsewhere and get a little more longevity out of it. Now, that is impossible as it would be seen as a Gaiman copy.
This created an odd dilemma - should I be upset that one of the biggest writers around had basically done the same thing and killed my story, or should I be pleased that I had written something that a giant of modern literature had also had a similar idea to?
I find myself somewhere between the two. Ideas are common, and much of the power of a story comes from its individual execution, but the thing that hurt deeply was the sheer number of similarities. Even certain phrases and places were similar. I doubt very, very much that Neil has even heard of my short story, so it's just irksome that they are coincidentally so similar in many ways.
What can I learn from this as a writer? My wife pointed out that if I have had fiction published which was like something Neil Gaiman would write, then I'm evidently doing something right. She has a point. I may not be able to place Beneath An Orange Sky in another publication due to its similarities to The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, at least I know I have tapped into a creative vein in which there is certainly public interest.
Disheartening as it may be to find out that a hugely successful writer has had the same idea as yourself, you owe it to yourself as a creative individual to take these things in your stride and move on to the next idea. Yes, it'd be nice for the story you wrote to gain some more recognition and help you to further your career, but try to see it as a good thing. Something to help to continue shaping you as a writer.
As all struggling writers must do, I must carry on and write the next story. And the next. And the next, and not stop until I can create something that people will love as much as a Gaiman book. That may never happen, but as writers, we must try. I might even finish his book sometime once I've had another sale, as I would rather like to cross Gaiman's ocean soon.
Andrew Hawnt is a rock magazine journalist and popular culture columnist as well as fiction author. He lives in Nottingham with his wife, his son and enough books to build a castle with.