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Cursing the Heavens: The Trials and Tribulations of a Big Idea

August 7, 2012

So, you know what’s awesome?

The book I’ve been writing, the secretively-titled “Book of M” is basically getting published.

You know what’s not awesome?

The person who wrote the aforementioned book getting published wasn’t me.

Okay, in all seriousness, no, “Book of M” is not getting published.  But it just so happens that the debut novel of author Meagan Spooner, called Skylark, has a premise that is startlingly similar to the premise of my own W-I-P, “Book of M”.

We’re talking, if you read the description of the book in the “Big Idea” post I just linked to, you would find a roughly 75% overlap in the world-building and ideas behind the two stories.

There are differences, of course.  The two protagonists have very little overlap.  There are several important aspects of my worldbuilding that don’t show up in the short description.  And the magic system described in Skylark has very little in common with the magic system I’ve described in my world.  And since my magical apocalypse is pretty closely tied in to the nature of the magic in my world, that means some important background details will be different.  And Skylark appears to be a Middle Grade or Young Adult targeted novel, whereas I’ve conceived of my book as being targeted as an adult novel (albeit that distinction doesn’t mean much in the post-Harry Potter, post-Hunger Games world).

It was ironic, to me, that earlier last week author David B. Coe was talking about the fears we have about our ideas on the Magical Words blog.  I responded in a comment about my two greatest fears related to my own ideas, one of which is this exactly: that however great the idea I have for my book is, someone else is writing it right now, and is better positioned to take advantage of the good idea.  Of course, David’s advice was that sure the ideas may be similar, but don’t worry about it, because your own take on it will be thoroughly and unmistakably yours.

Except, yeah, it’s easy to say that. It’s tough to embrace that notion when someone else’s book has so many similarities to the one you’re working on now.  So many that it’s positively uncanny.

So, I’m pretty anxious about it all right now.  Given the high degree of similarity between the ideas behind these two books, what are the chances any editor will ever express any interest in a book that would, at first blush, look derivative.  Would my book be more interesting to editors and readers if this other book does well, or will my book seem even more derivative.  And what do I do now?  Do I keep on writing, or, well, just give up?  It’s likely I’ll want to read Skylark at some point, but should I avoid it until I’ve finished writing my book, out of fear that reading it will taint my own creative process, or read it sooner rather than later in order to make sure I avoid being too similar?

What would you do, in this situation?

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. August 7, 2012 1:34 pm

    This has happened to me too, but you know as they say “There are no new ideas under the sun”. I’m sure your execution would be different, however it might be harder to sell an idea that seems like its been done. One idea: read the book, and see how similar it really is, modify accordingly. Another idea: Just write, and don’t worry about it, because the chances are they won’t really be the same. Third idea: Play up the parts/details that are unique and different about your story. Go at it from a different angle, while keeping the main story/premise the same.

    I read that William Gibson rewrote his first chapter of “Neuromancer” a frustrating number of times because Bladerunner had come out in the movies, and he was afraid everyone would think it was the same. It happens!

    • August 8, 2012 5:48 pm

      I didn’t know that about William Gibson. Interesting, considering that now Gibson’s opening line there is one of the most famous in Speculative Fiction.

  2. August 7, 2012 1:47 pm

    My first reaction is that I wouldn’t want to read the other book at least until the first draft was finished so that I wouldn’t subconsciously pick up any themes, character traits, etc. The other thing is that unless your book comes out soon after theirs, it is less likely to be seen as a copy – at worst yours may be seen as influenced by it. Its a real bummer though.

    • August 8, 2012 5:50 pm

      Yeah, unconscious copying of something that I fear I’m already too similar too was one of my potential fears.

  3. August 7, 2012 1:58 pm

    I certainly wouldn’t give up. Actually, the timing (given what you’ve reported about your projected completion date) is probably to your advantage. If Skylark is successful, it will be good for you (based on what I hear about agents and publishers wanting to know what successful books your book is like). If not, by then it will be long forgotten.

    But, that aside, I wouldn’t give up anway. Just make your book the best it can be. The rest is always a crap shoot anyway.

    I would definitely not read Skylark until at least after your first draft is done. It could cause you to second-guess what you’re doing, and that’s not going to be helpful in writing the best book you can.

    • August 8, 2012 5:54 pm

      If anything, the timing I’ve reported on the completion of my project is wildly optimistic. I did a quick number crunching today. The soonest I can realistically anticipate finishing my book… in first draft form, would be sometime in 2014 (although my goal is 2013). More likely… 2015. And then there’s edits.

  4. August 7, 2012 2:29 pm

    Oh yes… I had that OHNOOMG! moment when Myke Cole came out with Control Point, but then just went ahead and read the whole book (only ’cause I was like on the umpteenth draft of mine, haha) and life was good again. :) (In other words, I felt there were enough differences that I was able to deem the similarities as just coincidence.)

    But honestly, I may have absolutely nothing to worry about if I keep up my current pace! *sighs* Psyching myself out with all I still have left to finish with my project is more of a problem at this point than worrying about what some other author is doing over in Published Land…

    Yeah. So don’t worry, I’m sure your story will be way cooler than Skylark. ;) In any case, I would still read it sometime–like others are saying, probably later, though that’s up to you–so you’ll perhaps have something (established) to compare it to in the future.

    • August 9, 2012 3:25 pm

      Well I have to give Skylark at least the benefit of the doubt. It is, after all, a published novel whereas I am an undiscovered author. And I have to admit, the premise sounds pretty cool to me. I suppose it should… since I had almost the same ideas. Based on that, I’d recommend it. But yeah, I know how you feel on the whole time thing. See my reply to Anthony’s comment, and the years likely ahead of me…

  5. August 7, 2012 4:46 pm

    Don’t read it. You can, of course, later (much later), but not now. Take a breather, and FINISH YOUR BOOK.

    • August 9, 2012 3:25 pm

      Yeah… that seems to be the consensus here. Given that clearly I like the premise I suspect it’s likely I’ll eventually read this… but maybe not yet.

  6. August 8, 2012 4:53 am

    (1) Breathe.
    (2) Don’t read it.
    (3) Keep working on your book.

    One day, after your first and possibly second draft is done, you may want to read Skylark to see what it’s like, but don’t do it now. And don’t let it get you down — even if there was a 100% overlap, your story would be completely different. You’ve got a different set of values, beliefs, personal history, focus, life, and (obviously) gender. Even if you were writing the same plot, your story would be different.

    • August 9, 2012 3:26 pm

      Thanks. There seems to be agreement that I should wait. But given how long I figure it’ll take me to finish my book… that’s a long wait. (Of course I’m a slow reader so a book that goes on my reading pile now I likely won’t read for another two years anyway.) I feel like I should encourage other people to check it out to make up for my embarassing angst over it.

  7. August 8, 2012 7:33 am

    You’ve got some pretty fantastic advice here–earlier commenters have said what I was going to say! Which is: don’t panic. The books probably aren’t as similar as you think! Even if you and I had started with the exact same idea (which it seems like we haven’t!) no two people are going to write the same story the same way.

    This actually happened to me when I had just finished SKYLARK, and in a big way–just as I was getting ready to query, one of my top agents ended up selling a book in a hugely publicized deal that, from the PW blurb, sounded EXACTLY like mine. Like, scarily so. Like she’d been sitting on my shoulder as I wrote, soaking up my ideas. I flipped the hell out–it was terrible. I was inconsolable. It felt like this person had unwittingly stolen the idea that I was so sure was going to be my big break. I hated her, and I’d never even met her. But it turned out that despite the similarities in premise, our books were wildly different in substance, style, character, focus… everything that mattered. Now, people rarely even draw comparisons between them despite the fact that they released only about six months apart.

    The best part is that no matter what happens with SKYLARK, it can only be good (or at least not harmful) for you. If it does well, then houses will want their own SKYLARK-esque book. If it does poorly, then by the time you’re ready to sell your book no one’s even going to remember SKYLARK ever existed. Publishing moves slowly, but it also moves SO fast. It’ll be a different landscape when you get there.

    Okay, that’s a much longer ramble than I should make on someone else’s blog, but if you want to talk more about this, please don’t hesitate to email me! I know exactly how miserable this feels, and I’d hate for you to spend a second longer feeling this way than you have to!

    • August 9, 2012 3:59 pm

      Heh. I’m curious which book it was that you thought scooped Skylark

      But anyway, thanks for chiming in. I think it should be obvious that I think the ideas you’ve put into Skylark are great ideas, and should make for a great novel – otherwise I wouldn’t have been writing a book with similar ideas and themes. So in some ways, I can definitely look at this as a sense of validation of what I’m writing. Well… validation of the ideas, anyway. I’ve yet to prove I’ve got the writing chopes to execute.

      Needless to say, I’ll definitely be interested to see how your book does, and whether it succeeds. I definitely do wish you luck, even if ultimately that means my own book will look too derivative some years down the line. I suspect I’ll be following the advice of some of my blog commenters here, and I’ll likely put off reading Skylark in the medium-term (at least until I’ve substantially completed most of my first draft), if for no other reason than to avoid being unconsciously influenced by it.

      But, on the flipside, I do hope that if this book sounds at all interesting to any of the folks who pass by my blog that they pick it up and give it a read.

  8. August 10, 2012 4:42 pm

    This type of coincidence must not be as rare as we’d think. A few years ago my brother had a really original, intriguing idea to do an adaptation of the Snow White story where the main character was the Huntsman. Yeah… apparently so did somebody in Hollywood, probably around the same time. All you can do is chuckle and move on. And take it as a sign that your ideas are definitely the sellable kind, and that next time you’ll get there first.

    • August 13, 2012 10:19 am

      Indeed, I think you’re right that this sort of coincidence is decidedly more common than we’d otherwise think. It’s tough when it happens to you, but somehow I’m sure I’m not the first aspiring author to have faced this particular conundrum.

      > Date: Fri, 10 Aug 2012 20:42:38 +0000 > To: karro_clawson@hotmail.com >

  9. August 18, 2012 1:12 pm

    Listen to David. Everything has already been written. Your take is unique. If you give up on writing something only because something similar is coming out, you might as well giving up writing altogether…
    I think you should write your book of M, send it out (query or indie-publish), THEN read this other book – out of curiosity. Just my two cents… :)
    Happy writing!

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