August 15, 2014

Every story has already been told

Last time, I talked about how worthless a story idea is if you don't do anything with it. What if you have the opposite problem? Instead of thinking that your idea is great, what if you don't like it because you think it's a rip-off of someone else's idea? Well, to tell you the truth, it probably is. That's because, at some level, every story idea has already been taken.

I just read Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. It's about a government that forces a group of teens to kill each other until there's only one survivor left. Does that sound familiar? Hunger Games, anyone? Yup, when The Hunger Games grew in popularity, some critics accused it of ripping off Battle Royale, which was published earlier. On the surface, they are two very similar story ideas, but I believe Suzanne Collins when she said that she wasn't aware of the Japanese book and came up with her idea independently. Anyone who's read both books will see that both authors treated the subject matter in different ways, their writing styles are vastly different, and as a result, a reader can enjoy both books without feeling cheated by two seemingly identical story ideas.

To take it to an extreme, some say that there are only seven basic story plots. (I've also heard as few as three.) So what are the chances that the new story idea in your head is different from what every author who's come before you has written? Zero. But don't worry. You're not Hemingway, you're not Stephen King, you're not Suzanne Collins. And I mean that in a good way because it means that your take on the idea will be different from theirs. Despite the apparent similarities, if you're true to yourself and write the best story you can, it'll be sufficiently different from what other authors have written.

Now, I don't condone plagiarism or conscious rip-offs of other works, but there's a lot of room to work with before you reach that stage. Consider the number of sparkly vampire stories that popped up when Twilight became popular. Those authors were definitely trying to capitalize on Twilight's success by emulating it. I haven't read any of those books (nor Twilight for that matter, although I've seen the movies), but if they can be deemed different enough from the original, chances are that your story idea will be considered original as well.

Don't let the fear that your idea isn't unique stop you from pursuing it. As I mentioned before, an idea is worthless if it stays in your head.

August 9, 2014

Book review: The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni

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The year is 1867, and seventeen-year-old Verity Boone is excited to return to Catawissa, Pennsylvania, the hometown she left when she was just a baby. Now she will finally meet the fiancĂ© she knows only through letters! Soon, however, she discovers two strangely caged graves . . . and learns that one of them is her own mother’s. Verity swears she’ll get to the bottom of why her mother was buried in “unhallowed ground” in this suspenseful teen mystery that swirls with rumors of witchcraft, buried gold from the days of the War of Independence, and even more shocking family secrets.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

August 2, 2014

Story ideas are worthless

You know that great story idea you have in your head? The one that you think is so awesome and so original that it's sure to be a bestseller? Do you know how much it's worth? Absolutely nothing... if it remains just an idea.

For those who don't know, I'm not a full-time writer. I have a day job as an engineer in the Bay Area, home to Silicon Valley. I've worked at my share of tech startups and have even once started my own company (which was obviously a failure or I'd be writing full-time from some tropical island). One thing that a lot of wanna-be startup founders misunderstand is that their world-changing ideas don't mean anything. They worry about telling people their ideas for fear they will get stolen, and they insist on anyone they share it with signing NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) before revealing their big ideas. Well, what I've learned is that the best startup idea in the world doesn't translate into a successful company without proper execution. Look at Google and Facebook. They didn't come up with the idea of search or social networking, respectively. They just did a really good job executing on the idea, better than their competitors.

Now back to writing. If you're an author, I'm sure you've had the experience where you talk to someone and they say, "I have a great idea for a book!" Or you may be an aspiring author yourself who thinks you have an idea for the Next Big Thing. But in most cases, I bet the person with the idea won't have taken the next step of turning that idea into a book. So what's their brilliant idea worth? Hmm, let's just say that the idea and a dollar will buy me a cup of coffee at McDonald's.

I have a notebook full of story ideas. I think some are brilliant, but they're just notes in a binder that don't do me any good right now. It's not until I turn one of them into a story and then publish it that the idea has value, both to me and to you as a reader. And sometimes, I'll execute poorly on it and choose not to publish it. That can happen to good ideas with flawed execution, like a startup that delivers a poor product or runs out of money before they hit their goals.

So if you have a great story idea, don't just let it sit. Write it. Do the best job you can to bring it to life. Then publish it for the world to read because if the idea remains in your head or in a notebook, it's worthless.

July 27, 2014

Book review: Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin

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Everything is in ruins.

A devastating plague has decimated the population, and those who are left live in fear of catching it as the city crumbles around them.

So what does Araby Worth have to live for?

Nights in the Debauchery Club, beautiful dresses, glittery makeup . . . and tantalizing ways to forget it all.

But in the depths of the club—in the depths of her own despair—Araby will find more than oblivion. She will find Will, the terribly handsome proprietor of the club, and Elliott, the wickedly smart aristocrat. Neither is what he seems. Both have secrets. Everyone does.

And Araby may find not just something to live for, but something to fight for—no matter what it costs her

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

July 23, 2014

The Sixth Sense ruined another book for me

Contains spoilers for The Sixth Sense! If you haven't seen the movie yet and don't want to be spoiled, stop reading now!

I doubt it was the first story to employ the device, but The Sixth Sense is the first movie I recall watching where we're led to believe that a major character is alive when he is in fact dead. It's gotta rank up there with the biggest reveals in movie history alongside Citizen Kane, The Empire Strikes Back, and Psycho. The idea that a character may be dead is now something I look for all the time in suspense/horror movies, and it's led me to correctly guess what's going on in at least two movies (I won't name which ones so that I don't spoil them).

Lately, the same thing has been happening with books I read. Just in the past two months, I've read two stories where at least one of the important characters is dead. In one case, I wasn't looking for a twist, so it caught me by surprise. In the second case, the book description reveals that there's going to be a twist (a bad idea IMHO because that's a hard promise to keep), so I tried to figure it out as I read the story. Sure enough, not even halfway through it, I started picking up the signs that certain characters might not be alive. I noticed how other characters didn't interact with them, how they were described, how people reacted at the mention of their names, etc. So when the supposed big reveal came at the end, I had already guessed what was going on, and the book was ruined for me. (There were also other aspects of the novel that annoyed me, so I was waiting for the twist ending to save it).

Am I going to stop wondering if so-and-so is dead when I watch a movie or read a book? Probably not. It is kinda fun to try to figure these things out. However, now that The Sixth Sense planted the idea in my head, I can't shake it.

July 19, 2014

Book review: Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

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Finally, after four hit novels, Carrie Fisher comes clean (well, sort of ) with the crazy truth that is her life in her first-ever memoir. In Wishful Drinking, adapted from her one-woman stage show, Fisher reveals what it was really like to grow up a product of "Hollywood in-breeding," come of age on the set of a little movie called Star Wars, and become a cultural icon and bestselling action figure at the age of nineteen.

Intimate, hilarious, and sobering, Wishful Drinking is Fisher, looking at her life as she best remembers it (what do you expect after electroshock therapy?). It's an incredible tale: the child of Hollywood royalty -- Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher -- homewrecked by Elizabeth Taylor, marrying (then divorcing, then dating) Paul Simon, having her likeness merchandized on everything from Princess Leia shampoo to PEZ dispensers, learning the father of her daughter forgot to tell her he was gay, and ultimately waking up one morning and finding a friend dead beside her in bed.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

July 12, 2014

The Mirror Stage and an interview with J.J. Stone

Fans of thrillers and suspense novels, I'm pleased to announce the release of The Mirror Stage, the debut novel of author J.J. Stone (no relation, but what a cool name!) and the first book in The Imago Trilogy! J.J. has also graciously agreed to participate in an interview that you can find below.

Ada Brandt wants everyone to think she’s normal. A writing professor at a local Seattle college, she personifies the saying “those who can’t, teach” after a few failed attempts at becoming an author led her to the classroom. She owns a chic little house, drives a sporty car, and comes home to her dog after a long day at work. You’d never know she’s the daughter of one of Seattle’s most infamous serial killers — a fact Ada has labored her whole life to bury.

Then the FBI’s BAU team arrives to investigate a recent murder spree and Ada is strong-armed by the BAU’s bull-headed lead agent James Deacon into helping with the investigation. As Ada and the BAU dive deeper into the case, two things become glaringly apparent: this is not a typical murder case, and catching their suspect is only the beginning of an investigation that will alter the lives of everyone involved.

You can buy The Mirror Stage at: