Monday, 9 July 2018

Climb Every (Writing) Mountain...

This week I had a bit of a panic. I got a sudden sinking feeling in my stomach, where I found myself saying, 'Oh shit,' to no one in particular. I'm fine now, but I had to calmly talk myself back from the potential drama it could have been.

Let me set the scene. Over the course of writing My Next Book (that's a placeholder BTW - title TBC) I've avoided reading anything fictional with a similar style. Books that are conversational and informal, easy to read novels full of dialogue and colloquialisms, stories with humour and relatable plots. Now that mine's all done bar the nitpicking, I've finally been able to read for pleasure, confident that nothing will subconsciously emerge in my own writing. 

Caitlin Moran's new book.
I'm saving it for my hols!
Last week, Caitlin Moran's new novel - How To Be Famous - came out. Because it's a sequel to her last one, I decided to reread that first. I read it as soon as it was published in 2014, but I've slept since then. I knew I loved it, but couldn't remember much about the plot and characters. Yesterday I re-read Chapter One. 

Here's where the panic came in. Fairly early into the chapter, Moran references The Sound of Music. Not just once, but several times. She describes it playing on the TV as the large fictional family interact with each other. It's funny. It's specific. It sounded strangely familiar. That's when the 'Oh shit' feeling kicked in. Reader, I have referenced The Sound of Music throughout My Next Book! The coincidence is uncanny! 

The Sound of Music isn't current or topical. It's a clear oldie having been released in 1965. There's no obvious reason why it came to both of us independently. And it came to Caitlin Moran first! It's a really random coincidence for two authors to reference the exact same film in their novels about family life. Isn't it? Too random to be believable because I've subconsciously nicked it? Cue sinking feeling and 'Oh shit' utterances.

Twirl, Liesl, twirl!
My first reaction was 'I've got to rewrite everything.' If it was just the one reference, I could swap it for another film title and think no more of it. It's not mentioned once though. It's a fairly established piece of background for my narrator. Her full name is Liesl, named after the eldest child in The Sound of Music's Von Trapp family. Liesl (or Leeza as she's known in my story) identifies with Screen-Liesl because they're both the oldest of a large family. She feels a mental connection with her. Plus, it's her mum's favourite film and gets played a lot at home. It would be a nightmare to start changing all that. 

But back to the random coincidence. Could it really be that something I read four years ago had lodged in a recess of my brain, only to emerge as 'my top idea' two years later? I worried about that for a bit. Then I came up with an alternative theory. One that shows my motives are innocent and well-meaning. Hear me out. See what you think.

Growing up in a big family is a fairly unique experience. Except it's not. Not really. Quite a few people experience it when you get chatting to them. But seeing a large family on TV depicted positively, is rare. It feels like it's a unique experience because there aren't many positive examples of large-scale family life out there. Large families are usually framed through a 'benefit scrounger' lens. Or a 'Nine Kids to Eleven Men' caption on Jeremy Kyle, as some poor woman gets yelled at by a baying crowd. So what's left? Where are our role models? Why, in The Sound of Music of course. 

Classic Bond family move

As the eldest of what eventually became seven, I loved The Sound of Music when I was a kid. I don't think it was even about the big family-ness* back then. I liked the songs, the fact it was the only VHS cassette we owned when we got our first videoplayer, and I loved Liesl's swishy frock that she wears to sing 'Sixteen Going on Seventeen' with Rolf the Nazi. It's a timeless classic but with a large family, shown in a (reasonably) positive light. I am the oldest of seven children and Caitlin Moran is the eldest of eight. Is it any wonder we referenced the same film?

There could be more similarities between the two books if I looked for them but I'm not going to. I don't want to obsess over it any more. Sharing a similarly oversized nuclear family means sharing a similar perspective of the world. The fact is, there are loads of universal truths that children from large families instinctively understand. Here are my top three. 
1. Lack of money. Basic economics states that the more mouths there are to feed, the less disposable income there will be. Clothes are multiple hand-me-downs. When something breaks, it stays broken forever. Branded foods are a decadent luxury. The Tooth Fairy is not reliable. 
2. Tired parents. When there's a new baby every couple of years, then the rolling programme of sleepless nights goes on for over a decade. Babies tend to take up parents' waking hours too, the needy little buggers. Parents are tired or busy or both. And as a result of that comes...
3. Self-Sufficiency Children from large families can entertain and amuse themselves with very little adult help. Building dens from two brooms and a table cloth. Playing allotments by digging with a twig and planting blades of grass. Reading the entire contents of the local library. These are all things that multi-sibling units learn as standard. With no money, and parents occupied with sterilising bottles, changing nappies, and dealing with wet patches, imaginations become limitless. Resourcefulness is engrained.  
Caitlin Moran's last book.
I'm rereading it calmly, now.
These are basic truths that have informed My Next Book. (I will defo decide the title soon). I think, upon re-reading Chapter One of her last novel, these are things that could have informed Caitlin Moran's writing too. But beyond that, the story differs. The plots are separate. The families are distinct. The characters are original. It's all OK. Instead of panicking that I've ripped off one of my favourite authors, I'm going to relax and accept that this must happen all the time. It's fine.

So for now, I'll breathe calmly again. I'll keep spell-checking my manuscript, and I'll crack on with rereading How to Build a Girl. Panic over, everyone. As you were.

Have a lovely week, folks.

*While typing the word family-ness, I reminded myself of The Family Ness. Remember? A happy thirty seconds of You Tubing ensued.

No comments:

Post a Comment