If you’re a voracious reader, even if you’re just an average reader, you’ve probably come across two books which are very similar and came out around the same time from authors with no connection to each other.
If you are a writer, you’ve probably experienced that sinking sensation of working on something you whole-heartedly believe to be utterly unique and never seen before in the world of publishing, only to pick up a book with almost the exact same premise. Received a rejection from an agent because they have something similar already on their lists. Or come across scenes, descriptions, or conversations that could have been plucked right out of your sleeping head by mischievous plot bunny fairies while you slept.
I’m not talking about plagiarism, which is an entirely different thing. I’m talking about cases where two writers don’t know each other or never read each others work. In some cases the books come out around the same time.
I’ve seen writers talk about it time and time again, especially new writers. There are a number of cases taken against (usually big time) authors and even in the film industry where someone claims absolutely that their story came first so the second must be a copy. In the world of publishing there are often trends. This is partly to do with selection by bigger publishers pushing the market a certain way, but it also has to do with many writers using the same themes at the same time.
I’m not one to give advice on writing often because writing is such a struggle for me. I don’t necessarily feel qualified to speak as a mentor about what others should and shouldn’t do. I have done, mostly in private, when asked my opinion. I usually wait to be asked.
This post was prompted by an interview on Jennifer M Barry’s blog yesterday and a Podcast she linked me to last night. While discussing her standout reads of 2014 and those she’s looking forward to in 2015, she talked about not reading The Shades books yet and the weird circumstances under which we came to know each other. My reasons for not reading The Kingdom books yet are pretty much the same. Generally speaking, I avoid intentionally reading books similar to what I’m writing until I’ve finished. You can listen to the entire podcast here.
Authors release summaries, but around release we are often found all over the web talking more in depth about our stories and characters, our process, and inspiration. Jennifer and I got to know each other and support each other because although we’d never talked before these books and come from different continents, we were taking a mythology, unravelling and twisting it up, but somehow taking the same leaps and coming up with similar direction.
It’s not the only time this has happened to me. I’ve just been reading Jessamine by Shani Struthers. When I finished, I emailed Shani to tell her I have a half-written project(one that I’ll probably never end up finishing) that is very similar in many ways. The opening is almost exactly the same, the motivation of the main character, the setting, and the people she meets are very much alike.
Back to The Kingdom and Shades books -- Anyone who has read Shades of Atlantis or Shades of Avalon will know how the different threads of mythology are weaved together. When I submitted Shades of Atlantis to my publisher, I also submitted a detailed description of exactly how I weaved a multitude of seemingly unrelated threads into the story. So how could someone a half a world away be creating a similar tapestry?
This morning my brother crossed his arms in the way he does when we discuss a bigger view and plastered on his professional brow to explain it in terms of psychology and cultural anthropology using lots of big words and historical references. He’s very clever. I told him how I’d always thought of it in terms of monkeys.
You might know the theory that a monkey with a typewriter and infinite time will eventually writer the works of Shakespeare or some similar work. My theory is a hundred monkeys on one side of the planet and a hundred on the other with time and typewriters is bound to produce at lease one or more on each side coming up with Shakespeare.
With humans who have an ability to write and aren’t just hitting random keys, and are also working from the same pool of human experience, the probability of coming up with almost the same thing in a more realistic timeframe increases. With a limited range of words, the likelihood of similar phrases or descriptions of settings, emotions, or sensations can’t be zero.
We are programed to make the same leaps to a large extent. If I say picture a cup. Now picture what’s in that cup. You are more likely to picture a liquid of some sort than 50 miniature cars. With the advance of globalisation, our shared experience increases. Some say there are a finite number of plots and we are all telling different variations of them. Writers using the internet for research are more likely to come across the same information and books. So, that initial random spark of an idea together with our similar unconscious leaps and pooled knowledge can often lead us in the same direction others are travelling, or have travelled before us, or will travel in the future unknown to us.
But don’t panic. Don’t dump that manuscript you’ve been tinkering with for ten years. There’s a big, bright, positive side too. It’s not so much about the similar but about the differences and the delivery. I bolded that because it’s the most important point to take away. Ideas are ten a penny and recyclable, and even basic plot points.
Yes, Jennifer’s books and mine have similarities but there are huge differences too. They are not the same books. Like I said before, publishing moves in trends and if someone reads a book and loves it, they will probably intentionally go looking for a different book with some similarities. So it can be a bonus when it happens. Likewise with Shani’s book and my half-finished project, there were some similarities but in more ways they were completely different. Besides Shani’s amazing way with words, probably a factor in my enjoyment of the book was that I obviously had thought about the same themes in the past and they interested me enough to want to write about them. Of course I would enjoy reading this book immensely and it doesn’t take away from the story I want to tell in the slightest, if I ever get around to it.
I’ve collaborated with Debra Anastasia in the past on visual media and one of the reasons we’ve always said we work so easily together is that we often share a vision of a project and are on the same wavelength. We can anticipate each others ideas and use it to work together. A bonus for an ability to take leaps together.
So, don’t give up if you some across something similar to your project, or a book similar to your book. Try not to think of it as negative. It might even be positive, you might end up helping each other to succeed or gain a friend.
Despite everything, remember only you can tell your story in your way.
Drop in tomorrow for my review of the fabulous book, Jessamine.