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.
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 RT 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.