So here I am, another reading period long done and just back from my vacation, and I remember it’s been a couple months since I posted anything for you lovely people. Forgive me. The sad truth is that as much as I enjoy reading for Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, nothing really grabbed me this time around. Maybe I’ll just write about why that is and what you who submit stories can do to work on it, okay? Good. I’d like to give my focus this time to one of the most grinding tasks I go through in clearing the Slush Pile, reading through all the damn knock-offs.
So what the hell do I mean by this? It’s pretty simple. Whenever something is really popular, people start writing stuff that’s like that popular thing they enjoy. Tolkien still inspires a few thousand lousy PG fantasy stories a year. Martin does the same, but with more incest, blood, and binge-eating. Finding that a writer has more or less filed the serial numbers off of Middle Earth or Westeros for a thoroughly bland and unoriginal adventure story was easily the most tedious part of my day when reading fantasy. I can blame, in part, this annoying work ethic of mine. I feel guilty just skimming. Every story has it’s redeeming qualities, even if it’s just one scene that really worked well, or one line of dialogue from a side character I thought was funny. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not griping because I have to read stuff. It’s my job. I’m griping because I have to read stuff that feels like I’ve read it already, but better. What’s more, the authors should really be aware of that before submitting as to save themselves the time and emotional sting of rejection, because I can tell they’ve likely read the same better thing I have. Or at least seen it on HBO.
But of course I read sci-fi now. Care to guess what the most imitated work of recent times is?
Sorry. It’s James S.A. Corey. It’s surprising to no one, I’m sure, that the epic space opera turned TV hit that is The Expanse has inspired a lot of fans to write their own take on the same themes of political conspiracy, colonialism, and alien technology in a solar-system wide civilization. After all, that type of speculative fiction exists because it’s fun and intriguing to imagine how the problems we face today would continue to play out in the future. Throw in some human/alien hybrid zombies and a few space battles and you have a party, just maybe not one I want to go to for the hundredth time.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. It’s not like every story I read that borrows from other subject matter is bad. On the contrary, some few inspired authors have come up with unique scenarios based old ideas, while others take it on themselves to explore themes that the subject matter they’re clearly drawing from maybe didn’t flesh out to the fullest extent. I still rarely recommend such stories to the Editors for publication, but the effort shows in these select few, and it is appreciated.
In the end I suppose it’s unavoidable. I read a lot of stories, and some are necessarily going to feel kind of similar. I certainly wrote a few bad ones before I hit my stride and started getting published. Hell, I tried to write an epic fantasy novel when I was 14, and an epic sci-fi series when I was 19. Neither worked out for one very simple reason. I spent some time on online writing forums, and realized everyone else was writing the same damn stories. Maybe that’s the answer. Write those stories. Get it out of your system. Time spent improving your craft is never time wasted. But before you start submitting blindly, spend some time sharing with your peers, or at least poking around to see what’s out there and what may have already been done to death. It takes time and effort, as will most things in life worth doing, but in the end it’ll help you refine your thought and writing processes. When you have a truly great original idea, you’ll know it. Then the real work starts.