Question for Monday

Tell me this happens to you, too:

You write something that, to you, is unique. You’re careful not to use wizards going off to wizard school, dumbass girls falling in love with stalker vampires, or teenagers being all hungry and having to kill each other in a game of some sort*. You reject your muse’s first offer (and second, and third) to try to make everything unique.

You write. You revise.

And then you read new books that have elements that are similar to yours. Not the core concept (at least for me, not yet, knock on wood), but a setting, a situation, a character’s background. Frenemies trapped in a tight space while bad guys lurk outside. A guy who lost his mom young, who was forced to not show feelings, who effing hates his dad.

It’s not that I expect my ideas to be completely unique; I truly believe it’s all been done, and will be again in new ways. And these are small things, and the way they come into my story is nothing like how they show up anywhere else.

But it makes me want to go scream to the world that I thought of it before I read it in someone else’s book. That I’m willing to share, but I didn’t copy off of another student’s paper.

It’s just me being silly, but that’s my question to writer types. Has this ever happened to you? I’m on number 3, which probably isn’t too bad for minor issues… Did you just shrug and go, “eh, whatever,” or did you immediately think that you’ll be accused of lifting other people’s ideas? Do you burn books and curse authors when they [retell the fairy tale you’re retelling, have a similar love story concept, use a name you really wanted]? Change your story? Let it be, secure in the knowledge you’ve done nothing wrong?

I’m not so much asking for advice here; I already know what I’m doing about it. I’m just wondering about times when this has happened to any of you, and whether you changed your own work in response, decided that you’re the only one who would notice anyway and left it, screamed and cried and threw your manuscript (or computer) out the window, stalked the other author and demanded to know how they got into your head… story time!

(For the record, I am changing one name after finding out that my brother and sister duo’s names are the same as a romantically linked couple in a popular YA series I haven’t read yet, but the other stuff is staying.)

*Crap, there goes my idea for “Starvation Backgammon” 😦

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About Kate Sparkes

Kate Sparkes was born in Hamilton, Ontario, but now resides in Newfoundland, where she tries not to talk too much about the dragons she sees in the fog. She lives with a Mountie, two kids who take turns playing Jeckyll and Hyde, two cats, an intentional boxer and an accidental chihuahua. She's the author of the bestselling Bound Trilogy (mature YA Fantasy). www.katesparkes.com View all posts by Kate Sparkes

35 responses to “Question for Monday

  • wendy lowden

    That’s what holds me back from writing my mystery! I get a great idea, then I am so afraid that I read it somewhere in my past that I don’t write it. I don’t want to be sued when it makes the NYT’s bestseller list!!

    • katemsparkes

      If it makes you feel any better, you can’t be sued for using a similar idea, only for copying exact words. Ideas can’t be copyrighted (though I think you’d have issues with publishers if your basic plot was the same as an Agatha Christie novel, or you wrote about Schmerlock Schmolmmes and his partner Blontston).

      Why not just write a “practice” novel and not worry about it? At least you’ll be writing and getting experience. Your first one probably won’t be the one that hits the list, anyway. πŸ˜‰

  • Emily Witt

    I dunno, Starvation Backgammon totally has potential.

    I actually sit and identify tropes in my own writing and then go and read the TVTropes page about it and see what else does it, so I guess it doesn’t really trouble me.

  • robsparkes2013

    Yeah, I’m sure it happens, but you’ll always have the unique slant that you are writing from; which is everything that you’ve lived through and seen and learnt – that’s what makes it unique.

    • katemsparkes

      Exactly why I don’t worry about it too much. Like they say, even if two writers had exactly the same idea to start with, they’d come up with totally different stories in the end. We’re all unique, and bring our own lives, memories, and worldviews to the table.

      We do have similar influences, though; maybe that’s why these little similarities do show up so often.

  • Charles Yallowitz

    I’m at the point where I shrug and go ‘eh, whatever’. I focus on what I’m doing differently from the other idea. I’m not as bad as my friend who has designed characters and ideas for video games that he wants to make then finds them staring at him a few years or months later from a store display. Maybe this comes down to ‘great minds think alike’.

  • ontyrepassages

    I really wouldn’t worry about it until you’ve gone quite far. General similarities are totally different then specific plot points or characters. Besides, unless your far already you’ll be making further changes down the road. If books didn’t contain similarities than publishers wouldn’t ask about what books are similar to yours.

    • katemsparkes

      I don’t worry. The work I’m referring to is far along (past the point where I might drop these things anyway), but the similarities are minor enough that it doesn’t bother me. Big things would freak me out, though! πŸ™‚

  • L. Marie

    Kate, I don’t know if you read Natalie Whipple’s blog (http://betweenfactandfiction.blogspot.com/), but she mentioned how her book about an invisible girl was acquired. She then found out that two well-known writers also have a book about an invisible girl debuting in the same year. So, I guess stuff like this happens a lot. I dropped a novel because I saw something similar. But I wasn’t that into the novel, so no big loss. But I worried about writing a book about a dragon when SERAPHINA hit big. Would anyone read my little novel after that debut? I hope so. I don’t plan on dropping it. So, I think the world can handle books with similar premises. (Starvation Backgammon sounds great!)

    • katemsparkes

      I do now! πŸ™‚

      Do you think maybe some concepts are too big and broad for this to apply? Like dragons. Goodness, how many dragon books are out there, and people are still willing to look at a new one with new ideas and twists on the idea? Or vampires, superheroes, love-against-the-odds, mysterious pasts, self-discovery… OK, now we’re getting into themes, but you see what I mean. Once you get to a certain size, there are a million angles to tackle a concept from, and yours or mine are every bit as valid as what came before.

      Also, dragons frigging rock, so there can never be too much of that.

      • L. Marie

        Yes, I think some tropes have staying power. I know some people make a good case for the overuse of some. And I can understand the need to think outside the box (hence SERAPHINA). So many books have similarities. Think of how many scrappy heroine-fighting-in-the-arena books that are out there.

  • mysticcooking

    I’m always a little nervous that one of these days I’ll read a book about a chef who hunts dragons…but so far that hasn’t happened, yet. πŸ˜‰ But I totally know what you mean – it can be frustrating when you think of something that you feel is unique to your story only to turn around and read something really similar in the next three books you pick up.

    • katemsparkes

      I think you’re safe so far, but it’s scary. I’d been working on Bound for two years when I read someone else on the NaNoWriMo forums saying that she’d had this brilliant idea about _____ and ______ and also one character’s magic is bound inside of her and…

      I was not amused. Not the most unique idea ever, and the stories are totally different, but we never like seeing our core concepts being used by someone else.

  • thelovelymessy

    Ugh. I read a book a few weeks ago and almost died. Literally. I was so upset because I was like, NONONONO. I thought I was so flipping clever. But I wasn’t, or am not, or whatever. In the end I know my story is so much different than the one I read. I mean the book I read was set in a fake Russian union, and my story is post-apocalyptic America β€” so yeah, different. BUT. STILL> enough similarities for me to obsessively stalk good reads for an afternoon making sure there wasn’t tooooo many books out their with heroines holding the same super power:)

    • katemsparkes

      OK, not to laugh about this, but I read that as “the book I read was set in a fake Russian UNICORN” and almost spit my tea all over the computer. Sorry.

      I think you have a good handle on the problem. We know our own work so well that every little detail that’s similar hits us like a smack in the face. Most readers aren’t going to have that other book in mind when they read yours.

      Even when you get something like people screaming, “The Hunger Games is a Battle Royale rip-off!” because of surface similarities, it doesn’t necessarily hurt one or the other– and they have a very core concept in common, not a character ability or a scene detail.

      It does freak you out, though, doesn’t it?

  • Jae

    Nothing new under the sun. I wouldn’t worry and here’s why. A tale of two books: Twilight and Firelight. They almost sound exactly the same. And their plots are almost identical minus a few details shifted around. Yet where one book failed the other excelled. I didn’t want to throw one book across the room or tear out my hair or laugh hysterically at awfulness. Why? Because the person telling it has their own unique way of telling it. In the hands of one, it worked, at least for me. In the hands of another, it was a struggle to get through.

    Point being, you are the only person who can tell you story and tell it in the best way possible. It will be similar to someone else’s story, guaranteed. The Graveyard Book has A LOT of story elements in common with the Harry Potter series, but it’s still its own creature. Just be you, forget similarities. Besides, future drafts may eliminate those similarities naturally anyway, or take them to a unique place.

  • ioniamartin

    Absolutely. I have had that happen. Once I had a place name that was exactly the same as the novel I wrote. I thought, did I read this and forget? That is an unusual name and maybe I subconsciously stole it away…but ahh–their book was published after mine so i do not have to commit writericide!

  • Lena Frank

    I’ve totally had this happen too, but it was regarding a very popular movie instead of a book. The movie ends with a main character getting a physical injury in the same spot as my character does, and ends up stronger for it. I haven’t changed my book, but I’m hoping it doesn’t get written off as “done before” whenever I go to shop it around. Though maybe I’m the only one that will notice the similarities! *crosses fingers*

  • Jack Woe

    This has only vaguely happened to me, but I don’t care. I’m not even afraid of putting my concept ideas out on twitter for everyone to use them.

    Go a head and write a Poirotian murder mystery in a fantasy castle, I dare you! Complete with CSI magicians if you’re up for it. C:

    Right now I’m not afraid of someone using the same concept I’m writing about (which is only a short story) because I know my character creation, setting and above all, plot twist will be unique.

  • picturemereading

    Makes me nervous with both my art and writing..but I think you have to be true to your vision!

  • L. Palmer

    I’ve noticed this, and then I think of all the similar stories that have come out in the past. For example, last year’s Snow White and the Huntsman vs. Mirror, Mirror. Both films are about Snow White becoming a kick-booty princess. However, Snow White and the Huntsman is dark and serious, while Mirror, Mirror is light and farcical. Take out the name of Snow White, and a brief mention of dwarves and a poisoned apple, and they are completely different stories.
    We all pull from the same melting pot of culture and stories. It’s how we draw it out and rearrange it that makes it our own.
    And dragons can elevate any other story (i.e. Romeo and Juliet and the Dragon.)

  • Kira Lyn Blue

    Yep. I had an incident with the first book I attempted writing a couple years back where maybe a week after I’d written this awesome scene, I found almost the exact same scene in a fantasy novel. (shakes fist at Christopher Paolini)

    Every time I get the feeling that what I’m doing resembles another book, I just remind myself how many vampire books I’ve read. Vamp romance, vamp origin story, vamp hunters, I don’t care I like them all. The concept never gets old and I like seeing different authors’ takes on it.

  • kathils

    It’s all in the way you tell it. I have a fine art degree. There are many little snippets of my college years that stick in my head, but one in particular comes up every time I notice a similarity between works, or find myself wondering where the originality went. Our instructor took us out on a day trip to her home. I *loved* those kinds of out of the studio trips. She gathered us all around a tree in her back yard, sketching tools of choice in hand, and our assignment for the afternoon was to draw that tree. There were maybe ten or twelve of us. It was the same tree for all of us, but at the end of the day no two images were the same. Each of us portrayed that identical object in our own unique way from zeroing on the texture of bark, to zooming out and putting the tree in a fantastical landscape. We each told our story of that tree in our own voice. That’s where the originality comes from.

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