Don’t “flatter” yourself

10/07

The other day I came across a blog entry from author P.T. Dilloway which all but accused me of plagiarism because I called my hero the Scarlet Knight, and so did he.

Basing the title for his entry on the old chestnut that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” he proceeds to tear Sidekick a new one essentially because he’s annoyed that I dared use the same hero name as he.

“Anyway,” Dilloway gripes, “I think what annoyed me the most by the end is there’s no fucking reason he had to call his character the Scarlet Knight.”

Actually, yes, there was. I’ve discussed that before. The “Scarlet Knight” is an homage to a failed sitcom project I undertook with Kris Leeds back in 2004. When I started writing the book I knew I wanted Bobby’s powers to be technology based and not a result of mutation, meta-genetics, or some other weird origin. I wanted his powers to be relatively believable for a teenager. Plus I wanted him to have a big, honking sword. So I took a name that I’d used before for a hero.

My manuscript (then called Squire) was finished on November 29, 2009. Draft manuscript was picked up by my publisher in March, 2012. Final edits were done in the summer of that same year, long before Dilloway’s book hit the shelves. The appearance of both of our books in that short space of time is nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence. And had mine hit the bookshelves before you, I wouldn’t have any right to gripe, either, because it’s a coincidence.

He continues: “[T]he name was just some random name the author picked that could have come from some superhero name generator.”

Not really. For this one you have to blame my buddy Jeffe Boats. When he read and critiqued our spec script in 2004, he suggested changing the hero’s name to “Scarlet Knight” from the original “White Knight,” because otherwise people might think he was a Klansman.

Anyway, the only people who have a right to bitch about either of us using that name are the Rutgers Athletic Department. They predate both of us.

Next: “It is slightly gratifying in an evil way to see it only has 1 Amazon review and a lower rating on Goodreads than mine.”

Well, I hate to say this, but Goodreads (while a wonderful social forum for book lovers) is not a way to judge quality. It’s too easy for someone to game ratings there. I’ve seen ratings for books that haven’t even been published yet, so it’s quite obvious that those ratings aren’t actually from readers. Goodreads can help you find your next book by helping you find people with similar tastes and seeing what they said about what’s out there, but you can’t go by star ratings.

As for Amazon, in the end it’s not reviews that matter but the bottom line. As of this writing, Dilloway’s A Hero’s Journey is ranked #416,374 in the Kindle store. Sidekick is at #158,487. I also have A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Columbine ranking in at #197,265. The only book of mine that Dilloway is currently outselling is the three year old Go To Hell. Those numbers will change and fluctuate, of course. But do not count number of reviews as the end-all-be-all.

Moving on, Dilloway says “Like pretty much all other superhero novels I’ve read, his is aimed at the mainstream people who still associate superheroes with Adam West’s Batman. He’s the Joel Schumacher to my Christopher Nolan in that I tend to take a grittier take on it.”

Actually, I prefer to think of myself as more Denny O’Neill to his Grant Morrison, but I’ll take the comparison as read.

The main problem with this comparison is one basic fact that too many writers overlook.

“Superhero” is not a genre!

It’s a character type. At best it’s it’s a category. Batman stories are not the same type of stories as Green Lantern stories, or Hulk stories, or Legion of Superheroes stories. They are aimed at different readers, different audiences, and different tones.

Sidekick is not a superhero story. It’s a young adult coming of age story where a boy finds his place in the adult world and tries to juggle responsibilities. Bobby’s being a superhero is secondary. That was just how I chose to develop the story. And Brothers in Arms is a young adult story about coping with loss and adjusting to fatherhood. It’s just that this new father wears high-tech longjohns and fights crime.

Dilloway’s A Hero’s Journey is an adult noir thriller with urban fantasy overtones. There is nothing wrong with that. But it’s a completely different type of story from the one I told. The two can’t be compared. Sidekick could not have been written as an adult thriller. The story would not work. And A Hero’s Journey could not have worked as a young adult novel as written. The two books deserve to be judged on separate terms.

One last topic to touch on, and while I’ve saved it for last it’s the first paragraph in Dilloway’s article. “There are a lot of books out there where I read them and say, ‘Jeez, how did this ever get published?’ Followed closely by ‘How did this [expletives deleted] get published and my book can’t?!’ There is a somewhat similar form of professional jealousy when you read a book that involves similar material to yours and while that book might be more popular you can’t help thinking, ‘OMG, this sucks!'”

I often feel the same way. I felt it myself recently. But the basic question of “how did this ever get published?” I’ll tell you in one word. Persistence. Okay, a second word. Synchronicity.

I spent over two years shopping Sidekick. I sent out 112 queries during that time. This was the nicest response I got:

I think you have a fun premise, but I’m afraid I didn’t quite find myself connecting with the narrative as I would have liked, and I’m just not confident enough that I’m the one to make this stand out in such a competitive marketplace.

What happened is that along the way I’d done some networking. I worked with my friends at YALitchat to fine tune the query and pass it past a couple of agents there. When Month9Books was just starting up, one of the founders remembered my discussion of the manuscript and asked for it. That led to the sale and publication.

Publishing is a very competitive business, and a lot of it is timing. Sometimes good manuscripts get squeezed out by the success of something else. If I’d written Mall Bats a year before Stephanie Meyer published Twilight instead of a year after, for example, I might have had a better chance of selling it. Instead, Meyer’s creations saturated the market for vampire novels and a quirky one like mine just didn’t fit in. So Mall Bats will probably sit in the bottom of my virtual desk drawer forever because the timing was wrong.

To be honest, Dilloway’s A Hero’s Journey is not a bad book. He’s a good writer. And if he tries his hand at Young Adult I will happily refer him to my publisher. But the lesson is not to wallow in professional jealousy. Keep writing, keep pitching, keep networking. The cream really does rise to the top, although sometimes it takes longer than we would like.

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