On originality and writing a book that doesn’t already exist

shakespeare-in-love

Hello gentle reader,

Today is Thursday and I thought a post about the writing process was in order.

 I was actually inspired by this post written by YA author Aimee L. Salter on 19th November 2012. In her post, Aimee made a list of all the good reasons we writers have to read other people’s books. Among other things, she mentioned the importance of knowing the competition and of understanding what works (or doesn’t work) in other books.

On that same day, Epic Fantasy writer Jeff Hargett published a blog post in which he admitted to having just realised his book (which he has been working on for ten years) was very similar to the TV show/movie Airbender and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time book series.

It reminded me of another blog post I read in February 2012. Back then, YA author Elizabeth May published a great post entitled The Unfortunate Case of the Book that Looked Just Like Someone Else’s, in which she confessed having written, edited and queried a manuscript that was extremely similar to a published book that she bought later on Amazon. When she found out about it, she felt embarrassed and she shelved her manuscript, feeling that she had somewhat wasted her time and the agents’ time.

So what’s the moral of these stories? Listen to Aimee’s advice and READ. If your story is derivative of other works, you need to be aware of it and it needs to be intentional. Being derivative by accident is the worst thing that could happen to you as a writer.

Secret Window

Let’s face it. If you live in the US, Europe or Down Under, chances are you are influenced by the same things that other writers are. We all watch the same movies and TV shows, we all hear about the news from around the world and we have all read the same books as children. This means that it is likely we will write stories that remind us of other stories.

And it’s fine, AS LONG AS YOU ARE AWARE OF IT.

Discovering that the book you’ve worked so hard on already exists is crushing. To avoid it, read the books that are already out there. Read books in your genre and category. Read publishing news and newly published books. Agents do. Publishers do. You won’t have the excuse of not knowing once you try to get your own story published.

I’ll finish this post with my own little experience in the matter: I finished writing the first draft of THE LAST QUEEN in the summer of 2011. Then I heard about a series of books entitled THE SEVEN REALMS (by Cinda Williams Chima). The blurb goes like this: “Times are hard in the mountain city of Fellsmarch. Reformed thief Han Alister will do almost anything to eke out a living for for his family. Meanwhile, Raisa ana’Marianna, princess heir of the Fells, has her own battles to fight. Her mother’s plans for her include marriage to a suitor who goes against everything the queendom stands for.” My heart dropped. This sounded A LOT like THE LAST QUEEN. Especially the Princess Heir part. So I bought the book, read it (loved it) and realised that this book had nothing in common with mine. Cue sigh of relief.

But I keep reading YA High Fantasy books. For my pleasure, to know the competition, and to make sure no one has already written and published a book similar to mine.

What about you? Have you had that kind of experience? Have you written a book then found out it was similar to another book? What did you do? I’d love to read your comments!

11 thoughts on “On originality and writing a book that doesn’t already exist

  1. Ah. See, this is the hardest part of “reading a lot” to me.

    In the case of discovering a book (after you’ve written it), I’m left with the question, How do you know before you know? I mean, I’ve started nosing around for books on/including Djinn/genii characters, and they’re not like Harry Potter’s Hogwarts letters yet, but if I was writing fairy/faerie/fae, they would be.

    I’m overwhelmed enough knowing I can’t keep up with all the books I want to read, all the book I want my kids to read, etc.

    How do you know “missing” a book was negligence and not just a numbers game?

    • EM Castellan says:

      Excellent question. Obviously we can’t read all the books, especially since we are trying to write a book at the same time. So this is when beta readers come into play: they’ll tell you if your story reminds them of another book. Also the Internet is a useful tool here: sometimes just reading blurbs on Goodreads helps you get an idea of the popularity of your bright idea. Finally keeping up to date withe the industry is good: you can find out about the main plots of all the major new novels just by reading a couple of magazines.

  2. A great piece of advice! I remember writing an original essay at school during an exam (I was about 13) and the teacher told me it was an old storyline (person steals something and is then plagued by guilt). I remember feeling really put out because it had been original to me in my limited life experience. At least if you find out someone has already written (and published) your idea – at least you know you’re capable of good ones!

  3. EM Castellan says:

    Haha, I hadn’t thought of that! But you’re right! 🙂

  4. Miss Cole says:

    I know it’s impossible to be completely original and that everything we write does, in one way or another, already exist, but I always tell myself no one can tell my story the way I am telling it. Thankfully, I haven’t read anything so close to my own book that I should hide it away.

    • EM Castellan says:

      I agree. Voice is key here. Some stories have been told a million times, but sometimes there’s still room for one fresh take on the topic, and it works. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Jeff Hargett says:

    Great post! (And thanks for the mention.) I’m with Raewyn on the whole “at least you’re capable of good ones” notion. And it’s good to see Miss Cole say the same thing I ended my post with. 🙂

  6. Yael Itamar says:

    Great post.

    Part of my project this year was to try to read books that were similar to mine in some way–either they had a criminal/severely flawed protagonist, or they contained some aspect of utopian fantasy or the Chosen One archetype. In addition to being able to compare/contrast the use of these tropes, I discovered some great books.

  7. Lydia says:

    I’ve had a book idea for years. Haven’t quite gotten anywhere with it yet since I keep deleting everything! But I wanted to somehow do a search to be sure it doesn’t exist already. Plus I don’t have a lot of time to read a bunch of books, so I will try your tips! Thx

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