21 April 2013

Flash Fiction– Great Minds

Punishment for writer's conceit strikes in insidious ways. When I reply "I'm a writer" to the so-what-do-you-do? question, rarely do I receive that sought-for adoring gaze I crave to bask in. More often, authors hear, "Oh, yeah, I'm gonna write a novel too," as if they might say, "Oh, yeah, me too. I'm also gonna build a backyard shed."

Worse for most authors is the response, "I've got a great idea for a story…" The rest of the sentence can unfold in predictable ways, such as, "Would you read it for me?" Or "Would you finish it for me?" "Will you recommend a publisher?" Or "I'll share my idea for 50% of the box office– I've done all the work already."

Companies like Disney fear lawsuits stemming from unsolicited ideas, so when letters with ideas or manuscripts roll into their offices, they return them unread to avoid lawsuits, which Disney defends vigorously. Coming from the software industry, I practice a simple solution: I advise an unsolicited sharer not to reveal their plots without a nondisclosure agreement.

While this usually deters unwished-for sharing, it unfortunately feeds the public Murder She Wrote perception that authors are a hideously bloodthirsty lot, stealing one another's plots. While I find gimmick ideas interesting as murder devices or potential clues, ultimately a plot must be my own.

Hard Swallow

From time to time, ideas I concocted have shown up in other stories, twice by John Lutz, which is one reason I admire his work so much. It's inevitable, so many creative minds poring over material. But three days ago, well…

Last year, the flash fiction muse sat on my shoulder while I cranked out a few stories, two that I shared with readers (here and here). Cate thought another of these flash fiction stories was so unique and good, she urged me to find a buyer for it.

I consulted those masters of flash fiction, John Floyd and R.T. Lawton, asking them about markets. John advised that FF pieces are often used as filler and the market is sparse. I tucked my piece away for a day when I might stumble across a buyer.

On Thursday, Cate and I found ourselves killing time in a government office. Cate had brought along her Kindle loaded with a multitude of free reading and I packed along my Android loaded with sudoku. She handed me her machine and said, "Last night, I read this short story and didn't want to tell you. From the first sentence, I knew how it would end."

There in 500 words (mine was only 37), lay my concept right down to the punchline.

I didn't know if it made me feel better or worse, but this story, J.A. Konrath's 'The Big Guy', published in Crime Stories and a 2004 anthology, Small Bites, won a Derringer award. I took a deep gulp. It was eerie to see another tale– an award-winning one– so similar to my own. I think Cate felt sicker about it than I did.

After a short reflection, I felt an odd gratitude: Had my story been published, sooner or later someone would have remarked upon the similarity and I could not have come off looking good. No matter how much proof I might muster, there would always be a whiff of suspicion I might have copied another's work.

Mine's a flash fiction I remain proud of and one I'm pleased to share with you. Be sure to read Konrath's 500-word version, now a PDF. And here is mine:

My Pal George
by Leigh Lundin

I'm excited! For the first time ever, I'm taking my friend George shark fishing. Some might not understand how I could be so forgiving finding out about him and Joan, but he's my best pal, my chum.


  1. Hey Leigh: You are directly on target. New writers like me need to understand that nothing in terms of plot is new. Everything happens at a particular time based on collective convergence of consciousness. This is something I have never forgotten while earning my degree in Anthropology. For some reason it can never be explained. A new idea appears over here, the same idea occurs over there. It seems to happen regardless. A while back, I mentioned a plot idea to Dixon Hill when we were discussing how far back children's memories go. Guess what? A novel was just recently released that was based on an en utero baby seeking revenge on her mother's killer. Yours truly, Toe.

  2. Well, that FF was painful. Thank you.

    Back at CB I wrote about reading a Lee Child novel and thinking, is it possible he stole the opening from one of my stories? Then I discovered his was written years before mine, and I had never read it when I wrote mine. Both involve a guy sitting in a diner when cops burst in to arrest him for a murder he didnt commit. both guys are eating eggs....

  3. Rob, by 'painful', I assume you mean superb, wonderful, and tremendous. Come to think of it, you've set more than one story in diners, haven't you?

    Toe, you and I follow in the footsteps of those who've gone before us. Hmm… how can you apply your degree in anthropology to enhancing your success in writing?

  4. Leigh, a writer told me years ago that I'd never find anything really new to write about. The trick, according to him, is to tell it in a different and better way.

    When my first book was published, many friends shared with me that they had written a book, too. One showed up at my door with no advance warning. She said, "I've written a book, and I want you to help me get it published." Now I know better, but back then, I was willing to take a look at it. When I told her that I had no secret codes to getting anything published but that I'd read the first couple of chapters, she said, "Oh, no, I've written it in my head. I want you to put it on paper for me."

  5. If you put "Seven Original Plots" in our search box, you'll find my post on the subject that appeared on SleuthSayers in October 2012. There are no new plots--but I'd like to think no one else is likely to come up with my voice or my characters.

  6. Oh no, Fran! I can't think of anything that could go right with that scenario. A few years ago, I received a query if I'd consider writing a biography of a small town's football hero. I thought about it for 30 seconds or so and had to tell them I couldn't do the story justice. Beyond the artistic difficulty, the economics didn't seem reasonable: Calculating how many copies might be sold, I figured my take would be about 30¢ an hour.

    Elizabeth, you've got that right. The characters are what make stories unique. But the same punchline is disturbing!

  7. Leigh, that's happened to all of us. I think it was Mark Twain who wrote that Adam was the only person who, when he said something, could be sure that no one had said it before him.

    By the way, this is probably the only time my name has appeared, or will ever appear, in a piece with "Great Minds" in its title.

  8. Leigh, I love your short humor and play on words. Got my laugh for the day.
    As for other writers with similar ideas, my premise for the 10th story in my Twin Brothers Bail Bond series had lingered in potential story notes for over a decade. Then a couple of years ago, a blogger at the AHMM site mentioned this (same) idea he had and wondered why no one had used it yet. At that point, it was write it or lose it. I finished the story and submitted ASAP. MORAL: Write it quick or someone else will.

  9. RT and John, you're correct– use it or lose it. And I fully appreciate the support.

  10. Leigh, I'm a big fan of flash fiction and envy writers who can pack a punch in a few words. Brevity is the soul of wit. It is also a powerful tool when used properly. Love your story!

  11. Yours is a good story combining humor with the (tiny) plot. Nice punch.

  12. I read your other two flash stories. Hey, I like this flash fiction stuff and must read more.

    There are no new plots only new ways of handling the old, eternal ones.

  13. Herschel and Louis and anon, thank you. When the muse strikes, the results can be satisfying.

  14. Loved it Leigh! I think Ellery Queen had to ditch a novel in progress because Agatha Christie hit on the plot first. And I tossed one of my own stories when Edward D. Hoch published one with the same idea!

  15. Hey Jeff! I was just talking about you this afternoon!

    Have you reconsidered going ahead with your story? If the characters are different, could it obviously be your own?

  16. It seems everyone copies everyone else's ideas in television and in movies. So many similarities pop up that I already figured out who did what in the first five minutes. Writers do the same thing plotting variations of the same theme and just changing the names. It is disconcerting as you have indicated but hard to prove plagiarism unless copying word for word. Just have to do it better I guess and hope for fans that want to read your stories and not someone else's.

  17. It seems everyone copies everyone else's ideas in television and in movies. So many similarities pop up that I already figured out who did what in the first five minutes. Writers do the same thing plotting variations of the same theme and just changing the names. It is disconcerting as you have indicated but hard to prove plagiarism unless copying word for word. Just have to do it better I guess and hope for fans that want to read your stories and not someone else's.

  18. Leigh, I'll do it someday; it depends on coming up with another method of impossible vanishment from an impossible place (and I may have it!)


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