“But that’s MY novel!” When your idea is written by someone else.

At some point, it’ll probably happen. You’ll have this FANTASTIC idea for a novel. The characters are unique. The setting is all yours. The plot – hah! No one will EVER come up with this! You’re feeling great. You start to dig into the research . . . and come to a screeching halt when the first thing you Google turns out to be . . .

Your novel.

Written by someone else. 

How could this be? You were so sure! Unique characters! Your setting! A plot no one else could ever come up with! Then WHAT IS YOUR NOVEL DOING ON SOMEONE ELSE’S AUTHOR’S PAGE ON AMAZON?????

I know. It sucks. Been there, done that. Sort of, anyway. Mine was more creepy than this, though. I’ve been working on an urban fantasy series for a while now, and I think my plot and characters are pretty unique to the story. Without giving too much away, in one of the books, secondary character Bridget is possessed by a demon at a church, and my MC, Erin, is desperately trying to save her. Only my beta readers have seen it. Then one day, I decided to attend a writing group at my local library, just to see what it was about. Imagine my shock when one woman started to read a scene from her novel . . . involving characters named exactly the same names as mine, and set in a church and a demon has possessed one of them. 

I seriously don’t think I breathed for about ten minutes. No, it wasn’t quite the same. It wasn’t as if she’d grabbed my manuscript and tried to pass it off as hers. But damn! It was close enough. And it still creeps me the hell out. (And no, I never went back.)

But you’ve probably also heard the saying there are no new stories. And it’s kind of true. Look at how many people came out of the woodwork to blast JK Rowling for infringement over some things in the Harry Potter novels (none of which, BTW, were held up). I still swear I’ve heard the term ‘muggle’ before from some book I read as a child, but I can’t tell you which one. And I don’t really care, either.

Here’s the thing:  you can write a story and it can be similar to another, or it can have certain similarities. But will it be word for word, 100%, just like it? NO. Why? Because you wrote it, and you’re bringing different views, different experiences and justifications, different expectations, different research, to the process.

Take my own example as a – well, example. Without knowing anything more about that woman’s idea and manuscript other than what she read aloud to us, I can tell you that we were going in VERY different directions. I can tell you that our characters were creme brulee and Jell-O (see, I took inspiration from My Best Friend’s Wedding there!) – my Erin is kick-ass and street smart, argumentative and stubborn, and quite likely an agnostic (though we’ve never really discussed it); her Erin was quiet, depressed, faithful but doubting that faith. My characters are best friends; hers were mother/daughter. Just due to their very different outlooks on life, our characters should make very different choices – which will influence the directions of the novels. It was also very clear that hers’ was a Christian novel. Mine is – not. 🙂

I can’t imagine the gutting, wrenching sensation you must get when you find a book already published that, on first glance, is just like yours. I can’t imagine spending years working on a novel, only to find that its doppelganger was published just a few months ago – or maybe, God forbid, years ago. But – when you can breathe and when you can think without hard liquor in your hand – look at it rationally. Sure, on the outset there may be quite a few similarities. Look deeper. How is yours different – and more importantly, how is yours better? 

In a blog post, author Bryn Donovan wrote:

I believe that some myths are deeply rooted in our collective unconscious. Magical weapons, resurrection, demons, fairies or “little people,” changelings, ghosts, heroic quests, and other elements show up in stories across the globe.

How true is this? Think abut the books you read growing up. You and I may or may not have read the same things, but in many classrooms across the country, certain books are required reading, and librarians certainly know what we want to read and what’s popular, and strive to put those books in our hands. And even if you haven’t read the books, you are probably familiar with the movies. We’re all inspired by the things around us. Everything we see, read, watch, and learn becomes part of us, and probably, in some way or another, will make it into our novels. We may not be aware of it, but it’s true.

There have always been hero quests. There always will be. A young boy finds out he is the only one who can save the world. Let’s see. Lord of the Rings. The Sword of Shannara. Harry Potter. Star Wars. In fact, look at the plots of Harry Potter and Star Wars for a second. As Melissa Donovan points out in her blog, their plots are uncannily similar:

A young orphan who is being raised by his aunt and uncle receives a mysterious message from a stranger (a non-human character), which leads him on a series of great adventures. Early on, he must receive training to learn skills that are seemingly superhuman. Along the way he befriends loyal helpers, specifically a guy and a gal who end up falling for each other. His adventures lead him to a dark and evil villain who is terrorizing everyone and everything that our hero knows and loves — the same villain who killed his parents.

So if you’ve got that in mind – it’s okay! What can YOU bring to the idea to make it fresh and yours?

Or this one:  a girl falls in love with a boy who isn’t what he seems to be. Twlight. The Vampire Diaries. The Mortal Instruments. Beauty and the Beast. Even Cinderella (if, of course, you flip the genders). Make it yours (though I will tell you, shape-shifters seem WAY overdone at the moment, and for the love of God, do NOT put  a menage-a-trois in your shape-shifter novel thinking that will make it fresh – it won’t. Just. Won’t.).

It even happens to the big authors. In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about just this:  her husband told her a story about an effort to build a highway through the Brazilian jungles, but when the project had to be abandoned, the jungle swallowed the entire thing – the road, the machinery, all of it. She loved the idea. She adored it. She had a love affair with it. And then she got sidetracked by life and the idea left her – but then, months later, she discovered that Ann Patchett was writing a book about the exact same thing. There were differences, but the plots were eerily similar. As she puts it:  “. . . we each counted backwards on our fingers, trying to determine when I had lost the idea and when she had found it. Turns out, those events had occurred around the same time.”

See, fantastic ideas are just that – and if it occurred to you, there’s no doubt it occurred to someone else, too. The key is to make sure you bring enough of yourself to the novel to make it yours. 

And just to prove that there are no new ideas under the sun, here’s a sample of blog posts and forums about this exact topic:

http://www.bryndonovan.com/2016/04/26/someones-already-written-a-story-like-the-one-youre-writing-and-thats-okay/

https://www.writingforward.com/writing-ideas/are-there-any-original-writing-ideas-left

http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?112580-Writing-a-novel-and-then-realize-another-book-has-a-similar-plot

https://theawl.com/this-witch-wrote-my-book-bb480ee9d264#.z77xha56w

And here’s a previous post I wrote about seeing Liz Gilbert in person:  An Evening with Elizabeth Gilbert and An Evening With Elizabeth Gilbert, part 2

A Love Letter to my Novel

Last night, I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about a million things (how should I refinish the vintage end table I just bought? Do I have to go back to work? So stressed . . .) But one of the things going through my mind was the problems I’m having with Nicky.

Nicky is the protagonist of my young adult novel. I’ve been writing this for about three years now, and while sometimes I think I’m getting closer to finishing – sometimes it also seems that the end is further away than it was three years ago. I’ve been struggling with the plot (there isn’t one), the secondary characters (they’re not doing enough) and a ‘middle’ that has zero forward momentum. It’s become a nightmare, a quagmire of doubt.

But once – once I loved this novel.

So while I was awake anyway, I started reading Author in Progress, a collection of essays by authors on how to get past some of the major issues we all face as writers. And then this little scrap of advice leaped out at me:

Write a love letter to your story and characters. Capture the feeling so you can use it later for fuel. You’ll need it!

I’ve been thinking about that all day. A love letter to your novel. 

So here goes:

Dear Nicky and the novel you’ve helped create: 

I remember the first time I ‘saw’ you. It was late October, 2014. I was on a walk, on a crisp, sunny fall day. I was taking that Young Adult Fiction class from Oxford and that week, our tutor had asked us what we would never want to write about, and I’d answered “History and racism – because I spend all day teaching history, and racism is so emotionally draining for me. I need the escape of magical realism and urban fantasy, so that’s what I want to do.” 

And then you arrived. That houndstooth driving cap and the matching coat that just about dragged the ground, with your pants legs rolled up and held in place by suspenders that had holes stabbed in them – I knew those weren’t your clothes! That spattering of freckles across your nose and those green eyes – but I barely noticed they were green. What I saw was the challenge. The certainty. The dare. And I heard you, loud and clear “Hey you. Lady! Yeah. You. Write my story.” 

Five minutes later, I knew enough to run home and get started. I knew what drove you – love of family, a need to take care of them and to make your dad proud, and an intense fear of losing it all and being sent to the poor farm, of being separated from your twin siblings and of having your mother locked away. I knew you’d do whatever it took to keep up the facade that everything was all right – even something illegal. I knew you’d take it as a challenge. 

And paired with what I knew of the 1920s and race relations and Prohibition . . . 

This novel has challenged me in ways I never thought possible. The research has been intense, and if I’m honest, it’s not done yet. That could be part of the reason why I’m not able to see the way out of the woods yet. But I know the bigger problem is this:  I want to protect you. I want to keep you safe, because I know the beginning and the ending of your story and I hate it. You’re too damn smart, and at the same time, not smart enough. You can’t turn away, and  you can’t keep your mouth shut, and I adore that about you. You are the me I wish I was. 

But you’ve got your own problems and relationships to deal with, and I’m not trusting you to navigate them on your terms. And this novel can only be written on your terms. I know that. I knew it from the moment you came to me. I have to let go. I have to trust you. I have to let you be yourself. Whatever comes – I have to let it happen. 

As for Hargrove – I know I’m not being fair to him either. Not letting him do what he should be doing. Simon, too, and Bobby. Simon’s conflicted. He doesn’t tell me about that, but he is. Letting you go running all over, risking your life week after week – he knows, Nicky. He knows, more than you, what the dangers are. He lived through Tulsa. To you, it’s just a story. To him, it’s the thing that wakes him up in a cold sweat night after night, his throat raw from screaming. How can he do this? He asks himself that night after night. How can he let the son of his best friend risk his life for money? He’s gotten you into this. He asked you to run for him. He helped you build Abby. He makes the whiskey and the deals. If he quit that, you’d have no choice but to quit, too. Pastor John asks you once, how much money is enough. Simon asks himself that, too. 

But for both of you, it’s not just about the money. It’s about the freedom. Independence. Simon’s his own man; no white man can tell him what to do in his own house, or with his own business. And you, Nicky – all you’ve ever wanted was to be able to save your family, to be seen as the adult you think you are. Running gives you that. And there’s nowhere on earth you’re happier than when you’re behind the wheel, outrunning whoever thinks they can catch you this time. 

I do love this novel. I know it has issues, but the issues are mine. I need to give you all – ALL – more freedom. I need to have more trust that you all – ALL! – know what you’re doing. I have to get back to why I started this to begin with – which was simply to tell the story. Your story. Crashing a Klan rally. I haven’t written that yet, because you already crashed one Klan lecture and frankly, I’m not sure how many you can get away with. But this seems important to you, so all right. We’ll do it. I have to tell this story on your terms, not mine. 

Even if it breaks my heart. 

 

Here’s a link to Barnes and Noble’s site for Author in Progress:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/author-in-progress-therese-walsh/1123233497?ean=9781440346712

The Obligatory NaNoWriMo Post . . .

As I reel – still – from the events of November 8 (and pin my hopes on the vote recount so heroically organized and paid for by Jill Stein!), I find my writing more important than ever. And my cats. Cats = Very Important.

But November is NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month, though it’s international now! – and for the first time in three years, I think I’m going to ‘win’!

The idea behind NaNoWriMo, if you don’t know, is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s an average of 1,667 words per day. For some, that’s about an hour’s worth of work; for others, it’s several hours. It just depends on how fast you type and write, and how easily the words are coming that day. But more than that, it’s about getting into the habit of writing. If you can do something for 30 days straight, you have a much better chance of continuing that habit. At least, that’s what I’ve heard. I don’t know. Ask gyms in February about that.

I didn’t really have a goal going into it this year, except to reach 50,000 words. I’d hoped to finish my YA  historical, but though I did work on it a bit, it’s at this stage where I don’t know where to go with it. I got about 17,000 words into a new romance novel, but I got down most of the things that were running through my mind and now I need time to let the story simmer on the back burner so all the good plot points and scenes can bubble up to the surface.

Some NaNoWriMo’s (people who participate in NaNoWriMo) spend all year, or at least a few months, getting ready for the event. They do research. They jot down notes. They make scene cards so they can pull one at random and write a scene per day. They intend to work on one novel. Maybe a new one, maybe finishing an old one. I know people who save up their vacation so they can take a week or more off during November just to do NaNo, trying to cram as many words into that time as possible.

But sometimes, not having a goal is okay. Not being tethered to just one novel allowed me to go back to an old romance novel and work on it, which I’ve been doing for the last few days. It let me do revisions to my YA novel – 35 words  here, 78 there – and rewrite things that weren’t right. I did some research into an old urban fantasy and typed up my notes, which generated ideas for new scenes and revised scenes.

Sometimes, I found myself struggling to reach those required 1,667 words per day; I’d get to about 700 words, check the word count – are you KIDDING ME?!!! That’s IT? I’ll NEVER get done! – and then, suddenly, it would take off and by the time I stopped, I’d written more than 2,000 words.

And it was just an escape.

I could write during commercial breaks while watching Lucifer and Supernatural. I learned to type with a kitty in my lap (which is okay until he slides forward into the keyboard and hits the space bar and the mouse and a bunch of keys and you have to spend fifteen minutes figuring out precisely what he did). I hate Daylight Savings’ Time, but I do get more writing done on these long dark winter nights when there’s nothing else to do.

I do want to point out one thing:  writing a novel during NaNoWriMo doesn’t mean it’s done. First of all, 50,000 words does not make a novel. It makes a novella. If you completed an entire story arc in 50,000 words, well, like I said. Not a true novel. No. It’s far more likely that you completed the first part of a novel. Or a draft. A good draft, a draft that might eventually get you to a real novel, but a draft nonetheless. It won’t be your best work, since you’ve been intent on the word count and not the quality (probably). Characters won’t be full formed. Plot holes will abound. There may be several places where you type “Stuff Happens” to fill a place where you’re not quite sure what happens to bridge two scenes.

Don’t think for a second that your work is done, in other words. It’s not. It’s just starting, in fact – which is why it’s great that you’ve developed the habit of writing every day! Time to finish that novel now. Time to get those characters complete, figure out all their motivations, fill in those gaping plot holes, get the setting right. Time to revise, edit, rewrite. (For more on this, see the links to the two blog posts below:  Sarah Gruen and Erin Morgenstern, among others, are two published authors whose bestsellers started as NaNo projects – but then took years to get to a point where they were publishable.) Heck, even my own YA novel started as a NaNo project – and it’s still not done.

So here we are, November 27. And I think, this year, I’m on schedule to hit 50,000 words.

I have three days, after all.

 

http://nanowrimo.org/dashboard – the official site for National Novel Writing Month

And previous blog posts about NaNo:

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/11/08/what-do-you-want-from-nanowrimo-this-year-for-me/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/11/02/nanowrimo-a-journey-back/

 

 

Reading Books ‘On Writing’

How many of you read books on writing? I do. All the time. I know there’s a lot of writers out there who don’t, and honestly, I don’t get it. If you want to become better at something, you study it, right? So why is writing any different?

I hit a huge snag this weekend with the revisions to my novel. As I explained it to the cashier at Barnes & Noble yesterday, “‘Well, last night I realized that my plot . . . well . . . um . . . my plot sort of needs to exist.”  And it’s true! I have huge issues with the plot. So that’s why I made the 1 hour, 15 minute trip to my nearest favorite bookstore. To find a book specific to my genre that would give me a kick in the head and make me look at things a little differently, so I can hopefully get it sorted. (Starbucks had nothing to do with it. I swear.)

Which made me think about all the books about writing I’ve read over the years, and which are my favorites. (I own at least two dozen; I know I own 2 copies of at least 3 different books.) I thought I’d share with you some of my favorites today.

9781439156810_p0_v1_s260x4201.) On Writing, Stephen King — This goes without saying. If you don’t have a copy of this on your bookshelf, well-thumbed, with scribbled notes in the margins and highlights everywhere, then you SHOULD. I don’t care if you don’t read Stephen King. I don’t. But this man is a best-seller for a reason. Everything you need to know as a beginning author, you’ll find here. Everything you need to remember as an experienced author, you’ll find here. But I think the most important thing you will take away is this:  perseverance. http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/on-writing-stephen-king/1120113549?ean=9781439156810

9781599631677_p0_v2_s260x4202.) The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide:  How To Give and Receive Feedback, Self-Edit, and Make Revisions, Becky Levine — LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this book. I read it cover to cover when I first got it. Not only does she share with you how to choose the right critique group for you, she teaches you how to give constructive feedback to your fellow writers, and provides (glaring and funny) examples of Really Bad Writing. Not only that, but she gives you pointers on how to critique for different genres. A must-have. Even if you don’t belong to a critique group, this will help you revise and edit your own works. http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-writing-critique-group-survival-guide-becky-levine/1113517421?ean=9781599631677

9780061965616_p0_v1_s260x4203.) Unless It Moves the Human Heart:  The Craft and Art of Writing, Roger Rosenblatt — This isn’t a book about writing per se, but it is a short memoir of Rosenblatt’s experiences with teaching an MFA course on creative writing at Stony Brook University. The exercises he leads his students through – and the insights they glean from each other – make this a must-read. If you teach anything at all, but especially writing or composition, then you will love this. http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/unless-it-moves-the-human-heart-roger-rosenblatt/1103373250?ean=9780061965616

9780684857435_p0_v1_s260x4204.) The First Five Pages:  A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, Noah Lukeman — This was one of the first books on writing I ever bought, and it’s still one I turn to. I used it extensively when I taught creative writing last year. Although my copy is out-of-date in some things, like querying agents, most of the material is still SO valuable. For instance:  “Agents and editors don’t read manuscripts to enjoy them; they read solely with the goal of getting through the pile, solely with an eye to dismiss a manuscript . . .” Lukeman’s goal (and he’s been an editor himself) is to show you the pitfalls, and ensure that your manuscript can’t be dismissed. http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/first-five-pages-noah-lukeman/1103851764?ean=9780684857435

9781599631349_p0_v1_s260x4205.) Writing the Paranormal Novel, Stephen Harper — I re-read this about once a year on average. I own two copies. If you write paranormal or urban fantasy, you need this book! Harper has an engaging and funny writing style, the work is up-to-date with recent examples, and he covers everything, from developing characters and setting to avoiding cliches, to making sure your magic systems really work. http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/writing-the-paranormal-novel-steven-harper/1100389663?ean=9781599631349

9781402293528_p0_v2_s260x4206.) Writing Great Books for Young Adults, Regina Brooks — Brooks is a founder of Serendipity Literary Agency, and this book was THE textbook for the Writing Young Adult Fiction course I took at Oxford University last year. If it’s good enough for Oxford, it’s good enough for you, yes? If you write young adult fiction, you need this book on your shelf. Brooks focuses on how to find the “voice” of a young adult protagonist, how to find characters to fit your story and vice versa, how to pitch to agents, and what you can and cannot do within the genre. This is the newest version, published in October 2014. http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/writing-great-books-for-young-adults-regina-brooks/1118620185?ean=9781402293528

Do you have a favorite writing book (or two or three)? If so, share them! Feel free to post them in the comments.