Monday, March 31, 2014

The Thing About “Original” Ideas

Here’s the thing about them: there are none.

We’ve likely all heard it before: there are no new ideas.

And yet.

Yet, even knowing and agreeing to that, I don’t know of much else that takes the wind out of my writer sails than to be explaining a WIP to someone only to have them say “oh, that sounds exactly like “insert book/movie/show title here!” Or to be almost done with said WIP, and then stumble along a Publisher’s Weekly deal announcement for a book that somehow sounds exactly like yours. And that just sold for six figures. That could have been yours. But now your idea is old news. Aaaaaand *cue sad violin song*

On the world's smallest violin

And even once your book sells, the comparisons continue. Some of the first few comments on FALLS Goodreads’ page compared it to a book I’d never even heard of, and so of course, I looked said book up, and realized they were right. As we'd sent FALLS off on submission, this book that had many of the same ideas about cloning as mine had already hit the shelves that same month.

And it totally sucked.

Because even though we’ll probably all admit that complete originality is impossible, most people don’t like being called copy-cats. I know I didn’t. For years, I’ve had this idea that I must be original, that real artists/writers can’t be compared to anything else. Heck, I used to freak out when I was reading a book and came across a name too similar to one of the ones in my WIPs.

But the more I think on it, the more books I write, and the closer I get to FALLS’ pub day and see more and more people excited about it (despite its supposed unoriginality), the more I think that maybe “new” ideas are less important than genuine ideas that you want to write about, even if they’ve been explored before. Because chances are, you’re going to explore them in different ways, from different angles, through the eyes of different characters. Two stories based off the same basic idea can have wildly different plots. And in some cases (I’ve observed personally) some people who loved the book that yours is constantly compared to will actually be all the more excited for your book, because it gives them another chance to explore more of what drew them to that first book to begin with. 

So take heart, dear writers; even if people have seen your story before, chances are a lot of them will still give it a chance. Then it’s up to your writing and story elements to win them over from there (no pressure!). Originality exists in details, in the way you tangle and untangle your plot and characters and spin each unique sentence together. Since after all, if you boil stories down to just a few basic lines (like we see in blurbs and on covers) it's sometimes hard to see all of these little things that make your story, well, yours. Because essentially, when you get down to the bones, all stories are about the same things anyway

Hey! That's my story in a nutshell!

And one last thing before I go: I’m not saying ignore what’s already been done. I think it is a good idea to pay attention to the market, and to fill in gaps where any exist, IF the books that fill those gaps are what you want to write. Because bottom line? A book that you’re genuinely passionate about is always going to be a better book than one you wrote just because it seemed unique at the time.

So what do you guys think? Is it more important for a book to be completely original, or completely well-written? Or maybe a bit of both? Tell us your thoughts in the comments!

Stefanie Gaither writes YA novels about killer clones and spaceships, with the occasional romp with dragons and magic-users thrown in for good measure. Said writing is generally fueled by an obscene amount of coffee and chocolate, as well as the occasional tennis and/or soccer break. She's represented by Sara Megibow of Nelson Literary, and her debut novel, FALLS THE SHADOW, is forthcoming from Simon and Schuster Books For Young Readers in 2014. You can add it on Goodreads here!

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4 secret replies:

  1. Ah yes, that is the stuff that drives writers MAD. I agree, it's important to know the market, and if you have an agent and/or editor, that's their job too. You can't possibly know every single book that ever touched on the topic you're writing about. All you can do is make your concept as original *feeling* as you can, and that's all execution, which you CAN control.

    The other thing is, what if people really liked X book and want more of it? If they are similar in themes, that's a good comparison book "If you read X you might like Y." Too often I see the big titles compared to "if you liked Hunger Games and Harry Potter, you'll love Y!" Whe more likely they should be comparing to a book that is not a multi-million franchise with more likely is closer in theme.

  2. I have done the exact same thing so many times--reading about a published (or soon to be published) book and thinking it was EXACTLY like one of my manuscripts. Sometimes, I avoid those books like the plague for fear of them worming their way into my own writing, but sometimes, I read them to see how similar they really are. As it usually turns out, there will be one big similarity (like the concept), but every single detail is so different that I would never compare the book it to my own. Funny how those things work.

  3. I always vote for completely interesting and wildly entertaining. You're so right about the originality being in the things that only you can do. I freaked out not too long ago because I was reading a book that had an element in it similar to mine. But when I read more, the differences became greater and greater. It is really hard to tell how different concepts are from each other with just a blurb. A blurb is just the basics after all and that's where the commonality is going to be.

    I kind of see it as a good thing. I think if people can't find something similar than there might not be a commercial market for it. People always like more of the same. I don't know how many books I've read with the same general plot line. But none of them are boring, because the execution and style and details and everything varies so much from book to book. Making it more of the same, yet different at the same time.

  4. My biggest fear is this happening while my manuscript is still in the query stage. Any time a book rings similar to mine, I buy it, read it's realize that nothing is going to be exactly like what I've written, not in style or concept even if it has a similar feel. The thing is, do the agents see this or are they reading the first sentence of a query and going been there done that? And they pass because it sounds like 5 other books when it's really nothing like them. So I guess it depends upon what stage of the game you're at.