This post is not meant to call me out about the book I haven’t written yet, but that’s probably going to happen along the way. Because we’re not chatting any of my normal haunts today, but something I’ve only mentioned here or there.
Recently, in one of my writer’s group workshops, while discussing the introduction to a novel (that I’m now getting to read in full and so damn excited about), the author mentioned that she was thinking about changing the last name of a character because it was too similar to something in Game of Thrones. I was quiet for a second, but we kept talking about it, and, well, ya girl is not known for being quiet when it comes to GOT.
“Okay, I have to play devil’s advocate for a second. First, Game of Thrones is trash, and second, he stole from Tolkien, who stole from Beowulf who stole from the Bible who stole from the Pagans, so??? Keep the damn name.”
And really? That’s some real mic drop shit right there. It’s so true. Everything is literally fanfiction of something else. In an Instagram story I was watching recently, someone asked how they could come up with a topic that no one else had done for a podcast, and the answer was simple. “Everyone has done every topic before. But no one has heard your perspective on that topic.” And that, right there, is where the line is drawn. Everything has been done before, and you’re definitely stealing eight million things from everyone, but when it’s your version of it, that’s what matters.
Obviously, you don’t want to legitimately steal someone else’s story. I talked more in-depth about this when discussing using other characters, so I’m not going to rehash all that. Today is more about what happens when you’re so inspired by something that you want to write something with it in mind.
I haven’t talked about Bad Call by Stephen Wallenfels in a while, so let me take a long moment to shout about it. It’s a horror novel about these four kids who go on a camping trip despite the fact that they’re severely unprepared and there’s been tension brewing between them. Combine that with a massive snowstorm, getting lost in the woods, and an axe, the story takes one wild turn after another. I read it in one sitting because I just could not put it down, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since then. And this was in 2018, so it’s been just over two years since I read it.
I read Bad Call in May, and it took seven months of percolating before something started to take shape. Over those seven months, I’d done a fair amount of hiking, though not as much as usual, and I was missing it big time. I kept thinking about these angsty teenagers getting lost in the woods and both nearly dying and nearly killing each other. I didn’t know yet that I wanted to write my own version of it, but then, in the middle of the summer, my dad and I made a spontaneous decision. We were on the top of a mountain, and we were feeling good, so we decided to extend our hike. Don’t worry, this doesn’t end with us getting lost and desperately trying to figure out how to build a fire and fend off bears in the middle of the wilderness. Though we have seen a bear before. (I think, can’t confirm, but we were in bear country, and it was huge and black, just moving too fast for us to make it out. Also, we were terrified, so not really paying attention to the giant thing crashing across our trail.)
But, toward the end of our hike, we came down out of the trees into a huge, open field. Smack in the middle was a rotted RV. It looked like it’d been there for years, abandoned, and I honestly have no idea how it got up where it was. The first few miles of the trail weren’t bad, mostly level walking, but the mile or so leading up to the field was just straight scrambles and narrow trail, so, like, was this thing helicoptered in? I have no idea.
We paused to take in the scenery–big blue sky overhead, towering trees all around, the field yawning open around us, and this spooky, abandoned RV in the middle of nowhere. I turned to my dad, and he just laughed. “Alright, so tell me about this novel that just came to life in your head,” he said.
Bad Call was in my head, and though there was no way a snowstorm was about to descend on us (it was probably July, and though we’re in New England, we’re not that crazy), something I’d later refer to as the ones we left behind was beginning to form.
Now, at the start, the ones we left behind, otherwise known as the hiking novel, was 100% just Bad Call with different characters. That’s how most of these things start. You love something so much that you want to write your own version of it, and, originally, most of them aren’t going to be that unique. But I was smart enough to not try writing it right then in the middle of the summer. Instead, I gave myself some time to think about it, to let it slowly brew, to come back to it when I had more of an idea that wasn’t just fanfiction.
I’ve talked about this process before, from conception to first draft, and really, that’s how a lot of these get written. Unlike most of them, I didn’t write a short story about my hiking characters, but I did let it sit in the back of my head for seven months before I finally sat down and started working through the details. I really enjoy using Pinterest for this, and it’s become a vital tool for me when creating characters. It’s a great way to not only create a character’s aesthetic, but to help flesh out the parts that might have only happened in writing before. A lot of the time, I figure out things that would have required some serious rewriting, but now, I’m figuring them out long before I even start writing. The Pinterest board for the ones we left behind is a lot of that. Starting out, I originally had four characters–Greyson, Luca, Cooper, and Jonathan. They’d fulfill the normal stereotypes (rich asshole, soft sad boy, cool Dad™, and angry misfit), and that’s really what they were at the beginning. But, as I started to pin things, I realized I was missing some pretty important information. Because, at that point, they were still just foils to Wallenfel’s characters.
Truthfully, I’ve only written four chapters, and I’ll definitely rewrite those when I actually get around to working on this novel, but I think it was about chapter two that I realized I wanted a bigger cast. Not a lot bigger, just one more character, but the addition of Greyson’s sister, Olivia, completely changed things.
(Side note: can someone please never allow me to use another variation of that name again? I’ve got an Oliver, Olive, and Olivia, all in separate novels, sure, but jfc.)
If I’m being honest, Olivia was probably what finally took the hiking novel from fanfiction of Bad Call into its actual own thing. Are there still a lot of similar elements? Of course! The ones we left behind is still about a hike that goes wrong, and while mine won’t have attempted murder, it will have a hell of a lot of screaming at each other and probably some actual fist fighting. But Greyson is no longer just Ceo given a new name. Instead of just being some shitty wealthy jackass, he’s an overprotective big brother, a victim of domestic abuse, angry at literally everything except Luca (duh of course mine is gay), and desperately trying to break out of the shadow that haunts his familial name.
They’re all different now, really. Sure, Cooper is still a definite Dad™ figure, but he’s also insanely passionate about photography, will cut a person if you get too close to his friends, kind of obnoxious sometimes, and just so damn excited to be with his friends. Jonathan is definitely still angry, and definitely still feels like he doesn’t belong with this close-knit group of boys, but he’s also stopped trying to prove himself to them, learning how to just accept himself as he is, starting to learn how to stand on his own and step out of the shadow of his debilitating family. And Luca is always going to be soft and sad, he’s my favorite type of character, but he’s also obsessed with flowers, would really love to just travel the entire world with the Norwood siblings at his side, actually highkey excited about this hiking idiocy, and may or may not want to take a glitter bath.
I feel like Olivia isn’t getting her own shoutout, but she’s been fully realized since her conception, so uh, yeah, she was always meant to be a badass lesbian, but she’s also 100% not going to take anyone’s bullshit, in love with boxing and leather, will both break her brother’s nose and break your nose for insulting him, and just wants friends who don’t backstab her later.
The long and short of it is, everyone has already written your idea, but no one’s written it the exact way you’re going to write it, so let yourself be inspired, and then make it your own.
What story have you been inspired by?
I’ve also got something to ask of you guys! Thus far, I’ve discussed the process of conception to first draft, writing a query letter, revision, finishing a book, using other characters, research, and outlines in the #marywrites series. This is the last one I currently have planned, and though I can definitely come up with more ideas, I was wondering what you wanted to see? Are there any writing-specific topics you want thoughts on? Any processes you want to see how I work through? Let me know in the comments below!