Monday 26 December 2011

The Curse of Good Ideas

If  there's one thing that all creative people have to learn to accept, it's the fact that there is no monopoly on a good idea. The curse of good ideas is that, if you've had it, someone else will have had it too. Success in writing has as much to do with being the first past the post as it does about the quality of the product.

Over the past 30 years I've written novels, scripts for TV and film, non-fiction books, song lyrics and, yes, even poetry. And, quite often, I'll have a great idea, work my tits off to make it a reality and then have the rug pulled out from under me when someone has the same idea and gets theirs out before me. In 1995 I wrote a four part TV script called Cowboys and Aliens. No one was interested in the idea at the time as 'cowboys aren't fashionable' (I still maintain that mine was much better than the eventual movie!). In 2004, I wrote an entire novel called Apollo's Vest about the Greek gods fallen on hard times and living in suburbia. But then Marie Phillips' Gods behaving Badly came along with exactly the same idea and is now being made into a film. Although her plot an mine were radically differnt, the core idea was similar enough that I had to abandon it. I wrote another novel a few years earlier - about the time that the Friends Reunited social network appeared - about a bunch of schoolfriends who meet up after a 20 year break and who immediately get sucked into a murder mystery as someone starts bumping them off. It was called The Dysfunctional Strippers Club and I sent it out to agents just two days before Ben Elton announced that he'd written essentially the same book and called it Past Mortem. In 2009 I started work on 364 cartoons of Father Christmas with the intention of submitting a book called Secret Santa - What he does for the other 364 Days. I showed my agent in June 2010. In August 2010 I got word that an almost identical cartoon book by Dave Cornmell called 364 Days of Tedium: or What Santa Gets up to on his Days Off  had got a publishing contract.

That's just four examples. This has happened to me maybe eight or nine times now. It feels like a punch in the guts when it happens and it's very easy to get despondent. But this sort of thing is an occupational hazard as a writer and artist and you just have to learn to accept it.

The same applies to missed opportunities. In the 1990s, producer David Lane put myself and my friend Huw Williams in touch with Gerry Anderson who was re-imagining Captain Scarlet as a CGI series. Gerry asked us, by way of a 'test' to go away and write our version of the two part pilot episode. He gave us Phil Ford's (now a writer on Doctor Who and its spin-offs) commissioned pilot script as a standard against which to measure ours. He obviously liked our take on it because we were asked to submit scripts for Scarlet series 2. Sadly, series 1 flopped so series 2 was never made. The scripts I wrote are now redundant but they were good enough - that's the fact to hang onto. And back in the 1980s, one of my Doctor Who scripts attracted the attention of then-producer John Nathan-Turner and we got as far as considering it for Peter Davison's final season. Sadly, it didn't make the final selection and, with the show being so huge now, the chances of me ever writing for it again are nil squared. But that doesn't negate the fact that my ideas were good enough for the show once before.

When something like this happens, the best thing you can do is get back on the horse, rescue what you can (a lot of your work can be recycled), and gallop off into the sunset to start again. Steven Moffat said much the same thing in an interview with Jason Arnopp: 'It’s all too easy to be a neglected genius in a reeking bedsit, railing at the world.' It is. But you can't adopt a mindset like that. Think of it like this instead: If someone does make a success of the same idea that you had, it proves that your idea was good. You just have to beat them all to the finishing line next time.

Well, it's just happened to me again. A book I was due to start promoting very shortly has been gazumped by a book with a similar format and the 'rival' book is doing very well. I've had to take a step back and do that whole re-evaluating thing and I've missed all of those lovely Christmas sales. Sigh. But I wish nothing but success to the author, and I hope they'd do the same for me if the situation were reversed. It's a tough world out there in publishing land at the moment and we're all struggling to scrape a living from writing. So damn them but damned good luck to them! That's the way the game is played. It would be so easy for me to sit here throwing darts at their photos. But, instead, I've had a little sulk for a few days and now I'm raring to go again. I have fresh ideas, bags of enthusiasm and I'm ready to fight my corner.

Regroup, rethink, re-imagine, recycle, rewrite.

But never give up.

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