Wednesday, September 5, 2012

IWSG September edition

Today I wanted to talk about unwelcome comparisons that reduce your work and originality to a pile of crap.

Yesterday, I put up a picture of my character, Jordan, that I drew myself (completely from my imagination) and posted it online. I went for a walk with a lady that I know, and she asked to see it. When I showed her using my cell phone, the first words out of her mouth was, "I didn't think you could draw something like that." Followed quickly by, "It looks EXACTLY LIKE so-and-so."  Now "so-and-so" is a 35-year-old man that she works with that she thinks is hot. And although she may think he looks young, to me he looks 40.  Sorry Mr. so-and-so, you look forty. Things are a saggin'. Gravity (as we say in the physics world) is a relentless bitch. My character is 18-years-old. Ahem *hand on hip (yes I had attitude at that point.)

I was like, "What the f*ck? They don't look anything alike." At which point she was mortified that she'd insulted my picture because I wasn't on the same page as her, and I WAS PISSED OFF because she took something that I'd created and said it looked like something or someone it clearly wasn't.

Ladies, imagine making a dress and taking the time to make it look the best you could possibly do with your talent and then have someone come in and say, "OMG, I saw this same pattern in Doris' house down the street so you must have copied that. It looked great over there, and it looks great here." But you know that your friend is "mistaken" because it isn't the same pattern. They're totally different. The only thing that's the same is the fact that both are "dresses." And then an argument ensues because you are insulted.

For the nerdy's an example for you to help better explain. You spend all this time making a Magic: The Gathering Deck to play in a tournament, and then someone says, "Oh you copied that from some online forum. Tell me where it is so I can get the breakdown and copy it too. It plays great." And then you KINDLY explain to them that you stayed up all night play testing cards and these were the best combos that you could come up with.

It's insulting.

I had one book blogger say, "Michael Offutt's Slipstream is a knockoff of Stephen King's 'The Dark Tower' and King did it better." I've read "The Dark Tower" and my book is NOTHING LIKE IT other than the fact that both have "towers" in them. If that's the case then how is "The Dark Tower" not a knock off of Tolkien? Tolkien had towers before King did. No one in my story is the man in black. No one is the Gunslinger. No one is Jake, the kid from earth.

My point is that there are clear knockoffs (and plenty of them out there), but it IS possible to have an original idea that hasn't been done yet (contrary to popular belief). I think it's bullshit that people say that. They say "There are no original ideas." Whatever. Just none you've ever heard, so you dismiss them as unoriginal. True, there will always be elements to a story that need to be borrowed from pop culture and lexicon. There's no getting away from language and images that all humans share. But I hate it when some person (and probably not all that well read) skims something probably not devoting too much time to it, doesn't wait for the climax for all things to be explained, and then dismisses it as a hackneyed copycat of something else.

My book has been called "weird" and "strange" and "bizarre" by reviewers. I take those as compliments, because it means that people who have absorbed what's going on in the story, and haven't been derailed by the occasional typo or misplaced/missing comma, will see that it's something they've never seen before. And I take pride in that, and was really f*cking hard to sell. Publishers don't want weird. They don't want strange. They don't want different. That's because they don't know if it will sell and if people will even like it. People tend not to like "weird". They tend to not like stories that clash genres. Because "genres" are sacred to them. It's how you've been taught.

But I seriously have contempt for genres. And it shows in my writing.  I take young adults and make them have graphic sex, throw them into hard sci-fi with no promise of a romance, and do it all in third person omniscient. I'm okay with people staring at my baby and whispering words like "What the hell is that exactly? I've never seen anything like it. I don't know if it's beautiful or ugly or WTF is it? Is the author insane?" Yeah, I'm okay with that.

What I'm not okay with is comparing it to something that is out there as if I couldn't come up with an idea of my own and needed to rewrite someone else's plot. My co-workers say (as if they are thinking that this is a shoe-in) "Mike, rewrite Twilight." As if I'd even want to do that or even could. I can't write like that. And it's insulting for people to suggest that I should try. But I guess it's all about getting the snicker in on my behalf, or rather, snickering at me behind my back.

The few friends that I've had in my life said that I was born with an incredible imagination that blew their minds wide open whenever they sat down and talked to me about stories. My parents said I had an overactive imagination. Maybe that does NOTHING for stories in today's world where the demand is for two hot guys and a girl in a love triangle. But IT IS THE ONLY THING that I have that I truly call my own. And I will never ever rewrite someone else's story. That's just not how I roll.

So yeah, if you were to ask me, "Mike do you think you write original stories?" I would say, "Yes. I think my stories are fairly original. Maybe not 100%. But I think they're in the 80% range of things you've never seen before." Is that arrogant? No. It's just what I think. I may not be the greatest word smith, but I have a lot of ideas and always have had them even when I was little.

And here's where I say, you do too. Stop listening to the lies. Yes, there is such a thing as genius. It's rare, but some people have it. Some people can be brilliant. Some people can think of things no one else has thought of before. But there's some bizarre thing about our culture that almost shames smart people. Like, it's not okay to be smart (think of Rick Santorum calling Barack Obama a snob--a thing brought about because Obama is SMART). It's not okay to be brilliant. When you pop off with an idea that no one is heard of, there are all kinds of people just waiting to tear it down. I wish America would stop attacking smart people and start listening to them. Maybe we wouldn't be in such a mess.

There are lots of ideas in the independent presses that I've been reading that don't match up with anything I have read before or seen before from both men and women. Some are really brilliant.  Maybe these authors' babies got called ugly and weird too and agents didn't know what to do with them, so they got rejected. Yes, you CAN have an original idea and get absolutely no reward and no money for it. Just because someone has money does not make them smart. But don't allow people to belittle your project by saying that it's a knockoff of someone that made it big. That's just adding insult to injury. Stand up for yourself and tell those people to F*CK OFF.

You have my permission to be smart. And I'm not going to call you arrogant for doing that. I like smart people, especially if they are smarter than myself. Stop being ashamed of your intelligence.

*end rant


  1. I see this all the time, and it makes me mad. As a writer, I worry that people won't take me seriously because they assume I'm ripping someone off. People see one little similarity, and they cry foul.

    And I know what you mean about it not being okay to be smart. I've been called a snob (and worse), and it's usually by people who don't take the time to get to know me. It's the unfortunate reality of the world we live in.

  2. Two people can look out the same window, you ask them what they see and 9 times out of 10 they will both see something different. Not to mention those who need glasses.

    Weird is good, weird is grand...Take your weird and make a stand :)

    Siv Maria's blog, Been there, done that...

  3. A-freakin-men! I agree one thousand percent. Holy hell I am so sick of cliches and this mentality that says we have to be the same. Be original, be a freak.

  4. There will always be those who call you work derivative. Try to let it go. It happenes to us all.
    It hurts when you know so clearly what you are saying and others do not.

  5. I actually loved reading your rant. I feel like I've just had a (slightly one-sided) conversation with you and now know you better. Couldn't agree more about society's need to encourage intelligence more - we have the same issues in Australia.

  6. Hello Michael, thank you for stopping by my blog. Your blog looks cool and I'll certainly be stopping by again.

  7. What Siv said about two people seeing something different. Or finding something they can relate to in something else. That's just people.
    Didn't know it wasn't all right to be smart though.
    If you KNOW you're writing something that will be looked upon as weird or strange and you're good with that, why worry? Write it anyway. If it lines up with your goals for your work as an author, then do it and don't worry.

  8. Well said, Mike. This is part of the reason self-publishing has blasted off as it has. Publishers sometimes don't know what to do with some of the imaginings we writers come up with. I had that experience with Distraction, worse it's something from an alien culture.

    I've despaired of having my YA novels published traditionally and stopped querying ages ago. They have nothing paranormal about them, nor any love triangles. The last publisher got good feedback from the ministry of education, but you know what? They passed because it wasn't something that would fit into the school curriculum and that is where they make most of their sales.

    But you know what? I've said what the heck. I am a storyteller and I will get those stories out in my own time, despite the nature of the plot and whether or not it fits in with societal norms.

    Your work is always going to remind readers of something else, no matter how tenuous. But you have the right attitude. I agree that it's more than counter productive to have people stifle creativity with careless words.

    Have a great day.

  9. Well said. I think some folks like to put things in order even when there is no order. We label things, put things in lists, etc to make sense of them. But you are right. Sometimes it doesn't fit and that is totally okay. =)

  10. I hate when people say, "This is like [something or other]" and that something or other is something you've never read/watched/heard in your entire life because if you say, "Well I've never read/watched/heard whatever before" then it sounds like you're lying.

    I can honestly say Slipstream was unlike anything I'd ever read before.

  11. I think Jordan looks like a teenager, 17,18 tops. Sometimes I think the human brain need comparisons, or needs to relate something new/weird to something already on file. It's reassuring to some people. That poor lady. There she was thinking she was giving you a compliment. But if you and I were at a bar drinking beers, I'd probably argue with you over what constitutes an original story. I guess it all depends on how you define "original" in literature. (:

  12. strong emotions today!
    i agree i dont like to be compared

    i sent my older query to a well known agent for critique and she said my genre was not thriller, but she didnt know what it was and that my mc was a cliche...a little contradictory now that i think of it. the positive is that i figured out how to improve the query and got a request for a full (from a diff agency)!

    everyone as a diff opinion, not much we can do about it. but definitely dont change because of it =)

  13. I think we are all capable of genius and should strive for that. Otherwise, why do it?

    If we buy into the idea that nothing new can be written, that everything that needs to be said has been said, then why bother writing or reading another book.

    My favorite books and movies are the ones that break the rules and are unique and original, which proves it is possible.

  14. @L.G.: Exactly. If you are a smart, educated person in America you will most likely be called a snob for doing so. It starts in high school and continues on to your later life. It's like people fear you for being the brainy kid.

    @Siv: That's a neat analogy.

    @Melissa: LOL. Thank you, Melissa. I got kind of riled up yesterday, I admit.

    @PenandInk: Agreed.

    @Cally: I think it has to do with our celebrity-obsessed culture of Jersey Shore and stuff like that. It isn't "cool" to be a smart person. You've got to binge on tequila and basically be stupid to have friends.

    @Kiru: Thanks. I'll be checking yours out often as well.

    @Alex: You didn't know it wasn't all right to be smart? Explain Michelle Bachman's attacks on scientists who stand behind evolution (an undeniable fact). Explain Rick Santorum's comment of referring to Barack Obama as a "snob". Explain the popularity of shows like Desperate Housewives and the Jersey Shore (which at its height attracted a ton of viewers). Explain why smart kids get picked on in high schools? It's been going on for decades. If you show any brains at all, then you risk losing friends. Ask any of the smart women who comment on your blog to tell you how they were treated in high school. I bet they have stories of being "avoided" because they were too brainy.

    @J.L.: Thanks for validating me, J.L.

    @E.Arroyo: Maybe there's a human need to categorize things.

    @P.T.: I hate it when they say stuff like that and they HAVEN'T read the story they are comparing it too. I suspect that the person that compared my book to "The Dark Tower" hasn't read that western? And yes, it's a western in sci-fi clothing.

    @Elise: I was on a walk with the lady so we both had about twenty minutes to explain our points. I understood that she complimented me on the drawing saying it was good enough to look like a real person. I told her that I didn't like her review of my work, so we both traded insults. All is good.

    @Tara: Yeah I got riled up.

    @Tonja: I agree. Genius can come from anywhere.

  15. I am all for originality and being true to yourself. If you're smart... USE IT! Same with any talent.

    I was the oddball in HS because I had friends in ALL cliques. Smart, creative, athletic, etc. I accept people for who they are and if they're are real, honest, and sweet.

    Who is anyone to JUDGE? make false accusations? or just plain attack for the sake of being different?

    Good RANT, Michael! Keep it up. WE need people like you in this world to point out the injustice of it all.

  16. This is the best post you've had in a while. If there is one thing that it's absolutely not okay to say in America it's "I'm smart" or "I'm smarter than you." People have decided that intelligence is some kind of subjective thing and, therefore, no one can be smarter than anyone else. Unless they work in science, but, then, those people are hardly viewed as actual humans, so it's okay for -them- to be "smart." The truth is, I am smarter than most people. I'm not saying it to be saying it; I know because intelligence tests and all sorts of other objective measures have told me so. I've never understood why people hold smart people in such disdain and spend their time trying to belittle them. Even my younger brother used to call me things like "King Nerd" and "Nerd of Nerds" because, not only did I go to a school for smart kids (so I was a nerd), I was an honor student at that school (so I was a nerd of nerds). Anyway...

    As for the whole genre thing:
    The first books I ever read that blended genres were Anthony's Apprentice Adept series. I loved them for just that reason. I thought the sci-fi/fantasy crossover world was, like, the coolest thing ever. I can't really read those now, but I loved them when I was 14. And Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel kind of to prove that any genre could be done in sci-fi after someone told him it couldn't be done. Especially the detective story. It's a brilliant book and just goes to show what can be done when you put your mind to it.

    As for Magic, I was, of course, playing before you could look any of that stuff up online. My friends and I came up with all of our own decks. I will never forget when Scrye magazine came out and started printing decks in it, and someone brought me a copy of one of the early issues and said, "Look, they put your deck in here." It became a pattern for a while with decks my cousin and I came up with.

  17. I can certainly say Slipstream is oiginal and not a bit like The Gunslinger. It's like saying that my house and yours are exactly alike since we both have kitchens. Also, there is no way that the drawing of Jordan could resemble a 40 year old man.

  18. Until you mentioned it, I'd never noticed all the similarities between your stuff and Tolkien's. He had two towers, you have two towers, he had Frodo save Gondor from Mordor by taking on Galadriel in a hockey game, he had all that hot, hot sex between Boromir and Gandalf...

    ... or was I reading a fanfic? Hard to tell.

    I read Slipstream, and I loved it. I thought it unique and well done.

    Don't worry about people who want to make comparisons. It's easier to tear someone down than build yourself up, and every idea I've ever had has at some point been the subject of a "didn't {x} do that same thing?" YES, EVEN THE ONE ABOUT HOW A PINEAPPLE CREATED THE UNIVERSE.

    Screw people. That's what I say. But thanks for the permission to be smart. I'd been holding back.

    How is the exercise working?

  19. People like you to be stupid in some specific, grippable way, so they can throw that thing at you and make sure you don't think you're little miss uppity here talking about how much money she should be making or what she should be writing about or what she should be doing with her own damn body, thankyouverymuch.


    I recently was accused of "bullying" someone because I told that person not to verbally attack a third person. People like to use words like "bully" and "snob" to put you down into the place where they think you should be, i.e. lower than them. Infuriating, but it happens. You don't have to take it.

    I see how you could be upset about Jordan being compared to a 35-year-old, but it does seem like it was intended as a compliment, albeit a poorly-delivered one. :(

    And some people don't understand the concept of originality whatsoever.

  20. I'm proud to like the weird, the odd, the strange...

    and I'm content to write it too, even if that makes it unpublishable.

    I can only do what I love to do :) I'm happy to know there are others out there doing the same.

  21. I feel your annoyance. Everyone gets inspired by other books, people, and so on. Much of it is unconscious. Some is conscious. But people can take old ideas and make them their own. An example is The Beatles or JK Rowling. Try to smile and nod. Not easy.

  22. I agree that a lot of people don't like smart people. If someone seems more intelligent than they are, they feel threatened and attack. It really is a shame, though.

  23. Michael, always remember that when God made artists and writers he created critics from the scrap that was left over. You are not Stephen King so your story CAN'T be his.

  24. Rewrite Twilight? Have they not heard of 50 shades? And also, how is your book anything like the Dark Tower. That...that just makes no sense.
    But, all that said, i'm a firm believer that there are no original plots. BUT i mean, when you boil it down to bare bones, everything is pretty much the same. Or one of a few varieties. That doesn't mean that there isn't original work. There's tons of original work! And we allll know the devil's in the details.
    Also, you'll be glad to know there are no love triangles in my work. Because, sigh, boring.

  25. 'To thine own self...' and you just gotta let the rest of the world 'go to hell' sometimes.

    Love the rant, love the drawing, book is in my TBR. Go get 'em Michael and don't worry about the un-smart, they will be their own worst enemies.

  26. Oh, that lady was just seeing what she wanted to see because she likes that "hot" guy at the office. Every guy probably looks like him.

    As for comparisons, they can be good for a more positive review, of course. Readers seem to want to make connections and label stuff as others have said. I tend to be the opposite..I want unique and compelling ideas.

    All this being said, I can't think of any book or movie like Slipstream.

  27. People who try to shame you for being smart or different are afraid to let their own genius show.

    The world is like one big Rorschach test. People find strange patterns in it. Patterns that only they can see. And those patterns tell you a lot about the person.

    When people say stuff to me that throws me for a curve, I try to remember this. I shrug. And I try to move on. Because what they think of me should not matter in my grand scheme of things. (This is what I aspire to, anyway.)

    Makes for a good rant, though.

  28. Michael, my dear -- we're really on the same wavelength this week! It is SO frustrating when someone compares your work unfavorably to someone else's or complains that it doesn't fit in a genre. Of course SLIPSTREAM wasn't strictly genre; this made the story all the more intriguing and unpredictable to me. And the fact is, when people smash through genres they can hit the big time. PASSAGES combined sci fi (or at least high tech) with vampires; the TWILIGHT series was different enough to be rejected by 14 agents; and even the TRUE BLOOD series was rejected for a couple years by publishers as being too different. Then, of course, there was my rant this week about a magazine editor comparing my historical manuscript unfavorably to Edith Wharton or Gone with the Wind. You know what my reaction was.

    Hang in there. You're absolutely right that this genre obsession and fear of originality is one big reason why self-publishing is taking off.

  29. Lots of my favorite books don't fit into a specific genre. Lots of indie publishers thrive on their willingness to take on books that are different.

  30. I tried not to get offended when someone said THE BREAKAWAY was a knockoff of 50 SHADES OF GREY. Say, what?

    I loved this rant. :)

  31. I tend to not take things too personal unless I think the person is deliberately trying to piss me off. Like when people through the word 'talent' around. I don't think it's 'talent' that makes someone spend 20 or 30 hours a week, without any hint of reward, often when working/going to school full time, to practice a craft until they've mastered it.

    Then, when they unveil what may have taken them years and years of preparation to get ready. Some folks take a look at it and say, "wow, you're talented."

    I disagree, that's hard work/perseverance/dedication. But I don't get too upset about it either. They're trying to tell you that you're good. It's a compliment. When they come my way I eat them up and thank the giver profusely.

    And that picture you drew really was amazing. Disbelief in others is just their awe at what you've done.

  32. Nothing wrong with weird and strange. I look for it in books and movies I watch. It is hard when people compare our "babies" to something else.


  33. There's so little originality left in the world that anything original that comes about is immediately declared to be a copy. It sucks :(

  34. You're beckoning me with strange, weird, and bizarre. Now I'll have to read the books in front of it faster, so I can delve into it. That's exactly the kind of thing I love to read.

    People say insensitive crap all the time. One, I don't think they think, and, two, obviously your friend's perceptions are warped toward seeing Mr. So and So. Since she thinks he's really hot, it was probably meant to be a compliment.

  35. Firstly, I like books that don't fall into any certain mold. Why is it that if your book doesn't fall into a certain prescription it can't be labeled a book? Authors who follow their own lead and write what they love are the successful authors, if you ask me anyway.

    Second, I want to write in third person omniscient but no one wants to read what I write because I didn't stick to a certain POV and they couldn't agree with my writing because of that reason. They say, "Change you POV and you should be good to go."


    Third, boy, I just wrote some really long sentences...

    Nice to meet you through ISWG:)

  36. To the non-artists, comparisons help them relate and they don't typically understand that the artists find their comparisons offensive. Art should push boundaries, find beauty in things that are anything but, and ugliness in stereotypical beauty. You've pushed boundaries beautifully. I have an urge to push harder with my own work.

  37. This is the kind of post that I love. One I can read and get that feeling that I have read something worth reading. One where I can tell the writer put a lot of thought into it.

    Though really, people have never really put me down because of my intelligence. There was one class I was in last year where I occasionally caught a resentful comment, but I didn't mind because I knew I had done the reading and work to know the answer to the question and they hadn't. Most of my classmates don't really treat me that different except for rare moments of awe or when I'm suddenly swarmed because everyone has a question. 0-0 I swear some days I let one person look at my paper so they can understand how I worked out a problem and it ends up getting passed to everyone. I have often wondered, however, if they're all just afraid I won't help them if they're rude...

  38. People call my writing "weird" all the time. I guess they are expecting the watered-down soup of everything else? I think my work's fresh and original. Half the time I'm proud when I get the "weird" label and half the time I realize ... ah, this is why people write predictable, ho-hum mush ... to avoid the "weird" label.