Wrong path, wrong focus – what’s your novel really about?

Sometimes, we get stuck. Stuck with flat tires, stuck in muddy ruts, stuck in dead-end jobs we hate, stuck with that last cold slice of sausage and mushroom pizza with the congealed grease on top. Stuck, stuck, stuck.

We get stuck when we write, too. We get stuck on a scene we can’t quite finish, or sometimes even on a sentence we can’t let go of. Sometimes we get stuck because we’re not quite sure where the novel is going – or because we didn’t know, when we started, just what the story would be.

I’m going to make a confession here, one that will make some of you question my sanity, and some of you question my right to talk about writing, and some of you jump up in the air and scream ‘YES, SOMEONE ELSE GETS IT, I’M NOT ALONE!’ and the confession is this:

I’ve been working on the same novel for nine years. 

Yeah. I have to let that one soak in, too. But it’s true. About nine years ago, this novel idea came to me, with the characters, and it was in part based on some research I was doing at the time. At first, I thought it was a one-off, a single novel. Unfortunately, secondary characters sort of moved in and demanded rooms of their own. That, I realized, meant that the original idea was expanded and this was likely going to become a series. Then, my MC, Erin, demanded to speak in first person. That called for rewrites. Then, about two years ago, after already submitting to an agent and having my friends DEMAND that I quit and just publish the damn thing already, it occurred to me that there was a scene early in the book that made little sense and really should be its own book.

And so. The entire first quarter of the book got cut. I had to feel my way through the rest of it. This one little scene, that could just as easily have been cut, turned into an 81,000-word standalone work.

That’s the book I’m working on now. Scenes were cut. Rearranged. Rewritten. Added back in. Characters milled around backstage, thumbs in pockets, waiting for their cues. Rebecca – who may or may not have been a 17th-century witch – made an unwilling foray to the foreground, to become the focus of the novel, insisting the entire time that this was not her job and would I please figure that out already? 

And about three weeks ago – I did.

I’d struggled with the rewrites all summer. I’d done everything I knew to do – I’d printed a hard copy. gone through it with pens and Post-It Notes, made a to-do list . . . and nothing was turning out the way it should. In short, I was stuck.

Then, blessedly, a revelation hit. As I sat amongst the ruins of my ink-spattered manuscript, wondering how the hell it had all gone so wrong and what I was supposed to do with it all now, a little random thought bubbled up from my subconscious:  Wrong focus. 

Huh? Nope. Right focus. Rebecca. Witch hunter. Got it.

Wrong freaking focus, idiot! 

And suddenly – I glanced down at the first page, and realized that the novel didn’t even start in the right place. We didn’t know Erin or Kai. We had no idea what Erin’s life had been like in the US. I needed a scene that I’d cut, and that scene had to be my opener. I sat down and spent about two hours totally rewriting that scene – and once it was done, I knew what I had to do.

Wrong freaking focus, indeed. I’d been so tightly honed in on Rebecca that I’d forgotten where my true focus was supposed to be – on my main characters, Erin and Kai. Their relationship. Their internal problems.  My focus wasn’t Rebecca. Rebecca was a catalyst, a way for Erin and Kai to work together while trying to iron out their own inner demons.

Not that I regret the wrong paths I took. Every single thing I know about Rebecca is necessary, and that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t told her story first.

And since that night, the rewrites have been going smoothly. It’s like my novel finally woke up and said, “Hey! Glad you figured it out, dillweed! Let’s go.” Now that the focus has changed, I see all the other small problems with the novel. Scenes are changing. Tension can be added. Transitions are smoother. Every time I sit down at the keyboard, I know precisely what needs to be done toward that end goal, and I walk away from the keyboard feeling good. I think this time, the novel may actually get done. I may be – for the time being, anyway – unstuck.

So if you’re stuck and aren’t sure why – I know this is a HUGE issue, and one I should have seen earlier, but if you’re stuck, take a look at your focus. Are you focusing on the right characters? Are you engaging readers in the true conflict? Are you telling the real story?

I wasn’t.

But – nine years on – I think I’m finally getting it.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Outlining for Pantsers – or How to be Organized When You’re Not.

You may have heard the old “plotters vs. pantsers” thing. Plotters outline. They have detailed notes on chapters and characters before they ever start to write. They have notes on their bulletin boards and when they’re done with a novel, it’s done. They don’t take random road trips; they take their car to the shop for an oil change and new tires first, and not only do they have AAA maps, they’ve also got a GPS and fully charged cell phones, and an itinerary planned down to the hour.

Pantsers, on the other hand, say screw that! Let’s take this road, it looks interesting. Hope there’s a gas station soon, because we’re sitting on a quarter of a tank, but hey! If not, we should have cell service. Wait. Where’d the signal go? Oh well! Keep going! They have a character, or even a scene, in mind, and they just write until they either finish the novel or the novel finishes them.

Guess which I am? 🙂

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been involved in edits and rewrites to a manuscript. It’s changed considerably in the past months, and I’m having trouble keeping up with it all! My friends think I’m so organized. I haven’t got the heart to tell them it’s all a ruse, a clever illusion so complete that even Penn and Teller would be fooled.

There’s a saying among writers:  “You can either plot it before you start, or after you finish.” Pantsers often end up with a novel that’s a bit of a hot mess – the characters are often fantastic, and a lot of the scenes are engaging and surprising because pantsers have this ability to let the characters do whatever the hell they want to do. But they may not flow well, and some scenes may be extraneous. Some plot ideas are just dead ends. So when they finish that first draft, they have to put the work back into it to turn that hot mess into something coherent and cohesive. Been there, done that. Want my spare T-shirt? 🙂

Last year at the Rose State Writers’ Conference, I attended a workshop on “Outlining Your Novel.” I took those notes out this morning to see if there was anything in there that I could use for my current predicament.

  • The presenter argued that you should outline ahead of time, even if you don’t follow it. This is because when you start, you should at least have an idea of where you think you’re going. And if you get stuck, or start to go down one of those scary roads, you’ve got that outline there to maybe bring you back.
  • For her own novels, she makes a list of 10 key scenes she wants to see in the story, scenes that she’s really looking forward to writing. Three or four of them are what she terms “money shots” – scenes she really wants to get on paper, scenes she’s dying to write. The others are going to be good too, but not quite as gripping. These are jotted down in no particular order.
  • As we all know from reading and writing, stories often fall apart in the middle. She suggested looking at the three-act storyline (which I admit, I’ve never truly understood and still don’t). For me, the best way to do it is to think about it this way:  what does your character want? What are they going to do to get it? And what can do you do to stop them from getting it?
  • Every scene should lead to the next one. Your character has a setback? Let her rebound in the next scene. Your character’s in trouble? Leave that chapter on a cliffhanger and continue that scene to the next instead. Keep the reader reading! Likewise, each ‘act’ must build towards something. (Truthfully, I think this is where pantsers sometimes have an advantage:  we just follow the characters, so when they get in trouble, we follow them to see how they get out of it.)

HOWEVER. This presenter admitted that outlines change. You may start out knowing precisely where you want this novel to go – let’s say you’ve got a heroine who is fighting against her evil older sister, a queen. But then you get into the novel more. You start to figure out who these characters are. You realize that the queen’s not evil at all – she’s just frightened and misunderstood. And that love interest you created for the heroine? He’s not as nice as you thought he was. Voila! You’ve just written Frozen. Congratulations. As you spend time with  your characters and get to know them, they’ll start to do things you didn’t imagine. And when they do that, your story takes on a life of its own. That’s one of the reasons why outlines can be tricky – if you get too attached to them, refuse to follow that interesting dirt road your characters insist on going down, you could stall out.

Another way to keep stories moving – and another good reason for outlines – is that there’s never just one plot. There’s your Main Plot, the Big Picture if you will. Take Harry Potter #1, for example. The Big Picture is Harry finding out who he really is, and preparing to go against Voldemort. But how many smaller plotlines are there? His friendships with Ron and Hermione. The Quidditch team. His rivalry with Draco Malfoy. The classes he’s taking. Do they all tie into the Big Picture? Yes. They all help to create that Big Picture, don’t they? But the smaller plots can get lost. Outlining can help you plug them in.

Outlines needn’t be great big things with Roman numerals and huge chapter synopses. Where’s the fun in that? But let’s say you’re like me, and you’re a pantser who’s rewriting a novel. Where can that take you?

What I’m doing is creating a to-do list for the novel (which I discussed earlier this month). I know what scenes need to stay and which are going to have to go; I know what scenes I need to write. My job now is to figure out where they go, and then tie them together. I can’t worry about tying them together at the moment; we’ll get to the flow and confluence of the scenes later. Since I’m adding a character, I have to weave in his story line to the original manuscript. And along the way, figure out where scenes go for maximum buildup to the end.

So my outline is, I guess, a work in progress. I know it will help immensely once I get it done. And there’s no right or wrong way to do it. Like I said – Roman numerals are not necessary! For examples of this, see the links below.

 

http://www.betternovelproject.com/blog/series-outline/ – Deconstructing J.K. Rowling’s Series Grids.

http://michelleboydwaters.com/handwritten-outlines-of-famous-authors/ – Some great images of ‘plot outlines’ by famous authors, including Joseph Heller and Sylvia Plath.

Writers Who Write Things Down: Making To-Do Lists for Novels

Writing is a lonely, frustrating thing.

Wow. Big surprise there. I hear you. (I can also hear you rolling your eyes, thanks.) But it’s true. No one ‘gets’ what you’re doing, sitting at your laptop day after day. People see you sitting at the coffee shop and think you’re not doing anything, so they sit down to chat with you – and unless you want to be really rude, you feel like you kind of have to let them. Which kills whatever momentum you’d gotten going.

It’s hard to stay motivated. It’s hard to stay on task. It’s hard to pound the keyboard, not knowing if what’s going to come out today is pure gold, a dribble of cold pudding, or something in between. Generally, it’s something in between. If you’re lucky.

So how can we stay motivated?

A few years ago, an agent requested the full of one of my novels. It had a ton of issues, and I was frantic, unsure how long I could put her off, or how long it would take to fix the problems. Because there were a lot of problems! It was my first query, my first submission, and I was petrified I’d screw it up.

So I printed a fresh copy of the manuscript, sat down with a pen and a fresh stack of Post-It Notes, and started. I was overwhelmed and had no starting place – so I had to create one. I wasn’t revising at that point. I was making a to-do list. 

It’s pretty simple. I’m a very visual person, and I tend to forget things if I don’t write them down because I’m also a little scatter-brained. So every single page of that manuscript was gone over. Notes on everything were made. Then I typed up all those notes into a master to-do list for completing the revisions. These notes ran the gamut from character development and motivation, to dialogue, to scenes that could be cut or needed to be moved. This process took about a weekend.

Then, it was time to get to work. As I completed one item on the list, I crossed it off. And in far less time than I thought – just about two weeks – I was done with all the changes I wanted to make.

6124050I think this is reflected in one of my favorite self-help books, Write It Down, Make It Happen by Henriette Anne Klauser. The gist of this little book is that if we want to make things happen in our lives, the best way to do it is to announce our intentions – by writing them down. The act of writing our goals, dreams, and plans sends a signal to the subconscious that this is something to Pay Attention To. She has several examples in the book of people who did precisely this – whether it’s writing letters to as-yet unborn children to attract the kind of soul they want in their child, to writing and burning things we want to forget about, to Jim Carrey’s famous $10 million check he wrote to himself as an out-of-work entertainer.

Obviously, the act of writing them down doesn’t actually make them happen. I want to win the lottery, and I can write that as much as I want, but if I don’t actually go buy the ticket, it’s not going to happen. It’s the same thing with my to-do lists. I want to finish this novel or that one. What is it I need to do? 

The answer is a to-do list.

Lists keep me focused and grounded. I may not have all the answers right now, but that’s okay; my subconscious will be working on it. (Haven’t you ever had that moment where suddenly, all the problems you were having with a manuscript evaporate and the answer Reveals Itself Magically? It’s awwwe-some!)

For Nicky, my to-do list is all over the place – here’s a sample of what it includes:

  • p. 10 – move up about the post office from page 46.
  • p. 5 – do we need to explain that bodies weren’t shipped home during World War I?
  • p 27 – Simon teaches him to fight – need to put that scene here.
  • How much were property taxes in the 1920s? Need to know.
  • p. 35 – there’s no tension here! No questions being asked. What can we do about that?
  • Research court-martial procedures. Maybe change it so that Daniel isn’t a CO, but part of the mechanics’ corps?
  • What the bleep happened to the Model T’s top, and why don’t they fix it???? ?
  • p. 105 – um, why is the Sheriff at Sally’s? It’s a great scene, but what do we learn from it? How does it further the story? Make in integral, or ditch it.

It has also included things like:  finding maps of the area c. 1924, how fast a Cadillac V-8 can really go and could you build a turbo charger in the 1920s (the answer is yes, by the way), and many others. As something gets accomplished, it gets crossed off the list.

To-do lists are great for several reasons. The most obvious is that it gives you something concrete to work on. If you’re not feeling at all creative or energized today, work on those mechanical issues. Move that scene over there. Maybe write a new intro so it flows better. And you know what? It might just be that you start to get energized at that point. And then you can move on and maybe tackle something else, like dialogue that needs fixed or a question of motivation on page 81.

But another reason is that it keeps the novel in the forefront of your mind – or at least, in your subconscious. The very act of writing that list means you’re focused and serious. It sends a signal to the universe that you want to finish this. Badly! And it sends a signal to your characters that I’m here and I’m not giving up on you. And – maybe most importantly – it sends a signal to yourself. You’ll find yourself mulling over small things. In the middle of an afternoon meeting, you’ll find yourself jotting down a new transition for between scenes, one that’s brilliant and perfect. On your morning walk, you’ll suddenly have the solution to a character’s problem pop into your mind. You’ll find that tackling the mechanical issues pave the way for you to focus on the ones that require your creativity and focus.

Writing can be lonely, yes. And frustrating. But if you’re like me, the list can help it be a little less frustrating.

 

A link to Barnes & Nobel, where you can get Write It Down, Make It Happen:  https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/write-it-down-make-it-happen-klauser-henriette-anne/1121692444?ean=9780684850023

Here’s a link to a similar post from 2015:  https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/03/22/falling-back-in-love-with-your-manuscript/

And a clip from Oprah, where Jim Carrey tells the story of the check: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXwVD2ncqfE

“Learn to Love the Pauses” – Poetry for Prose Writers

“Read your work aloud.” How many times have we all heard that? Raise your hands. Yeah, you in the back, too. I see you!

Now. How many of us actually practice it? Ah. I see the hands going down. I see you looking at your desk. Some of you silently shaking your heads.

And why is that? Truly, I don’t know, because I do it all the time.

At the OWFI conference this year, there was a workshop on “Prose and Poetry,” which frankly, I hadn’t thought I’d go to because another session looked better. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your point of view – that session was cancelled and the stand-in presenter was . . . yeah. No. So I snuck out and went to the poetry workshop instead.

Truthfully, I don’t read much poetry. Too many flashbacks to “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” and “The Wreck of the Hesperus” and “The Wasteland.” Poetry, I was given to understand in middle school and high school, had rules. First, it had to rhyme. It had to have a deeper meaning. It had to Be About Something Very Important. When we wrote poetry in Literature, we had to follow these rules. Do you know how bloody hard that is? Let me tell you. It’s bloody hard!

And when I started taking creative writing classes in college, my poems were always trashed because they weren’t About Something, and they didn’t Rhyme, and – OMG – sometimes they even told a story. Try as I might to write something that the teacher and other students considered Poetry with a capital P, I just couldn’t do it.

Which is why I hadn’t wanted to attend this workshop to begin with. Poetry is not fun for me.

But the session was fantastic.

The presenter, Nathan Brown, is a poet. In fact, he was the 2013/14 Oklahoma Poet Laureate. He started to use poetry as a coping mechanism for dealing with personal tragedies, then got into the habit of writing a poem a day. Yes. I said a poem a day. Sometimes his friends give him challenges – write a poem a day for a month about X or Y, or use this word in all your poems for the next year, etc. He also takes things from his daily life – sometimes entire conversations – and uses them as inspiration.

What Nathan wanted to do in this workshop was show us prose writers that poetry can have a place in our repertoire. Doesn’t mean we have to try to become the next Poet Laureate of the United States (yeah, like that’s going to get funded next year), it just means that we can learn to use it to our advantage.

I know. I hear you. I occasionally write short little funny poems from the viewpoints of my cats (and once, my Mini Cooper), and if it takes me more than 3 minutes to write one, it’s taking too long. Here’s an example:

I tell Mum
that the penalty for waking me up
is to rub my tummy.
And to watch me stretch,
shut my eyes
smile
purr.
Curl my paws around her hand
Rub my head against her arm
And fall asleep again.

At the start of the workshop, Nathan looked at us – we all looked equally afraid and befuddled – and said, “Okay. How many of you write poetry?”

A few hands went up.

“How many of you write free verse poetry?”

Most of the hands went down.

He smiled. “Everyone thinks poetry has to rhyme. But free verse poetry lets us explore and play. Take, for example, the sentence ‘You are not going to believe what he did next!’ What words do you want to emphasize? How do you hear it in your head? Can you write it like that?”

And then, he typed it out:

You

are not 

going to be-

lieve 

what he did

next! 

Maybe you didn’t think about it that way. Maybe yours was more like

You are 

not

going to 

BELIEVE 

what he 

did next! 

Can you see and – more importantly – hear the difference? Read it out loud. Go on. Don’t just read it silently. Read it out loud! There! Now do you hear the difference? Does one sound better than the other? Line breaks become hesitations and pauses (“Learn to love the pauses!” Nathan told us). Capitalized words become shouted.

Why is that? Because we read it out loud. One of the reasons I so hated poetry when in middle school and high school is because we read it silently. It’s not meant for that! Here’s an example. The first link is to the poem “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou. And then there’s a short video of her reading her poem.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/46446

Listen to it. Hear the power of her voice, the emphases on certain words, the line breaks. Does it make you stop and reread the poem? Will you ever see those words the same way again, having heard them?

And this, Nathan argued, is why prose writers should write poetry.

But there’s another reason, going back to my opening paragraphs:  the fact that as writers, we need to be reading our work aloud. He asked if any of us did that, and only a few of us raised our hands.

A recent study found that when we read silently – whether it’s a book, a poem, whatever – the muscles and ligaments in our throat and jaw try to ‘speak’ microscopically. We’re not even aware of it. But this is in part why awkward prose tends to trip us up, why we notice it – even when we’re reading silently. So, we really do need to read our work aloud!

Poetry can help with that. I’m not saying you need to dust off your old Lit book. Poetry, as I’ve discovered in the last few years, doesn’t need to rhyme. It doesn’t need to be about Big Issues. It can be inspired by everyday things. I mean, my kitties write them, for crying out loud! How literary can they be? 🙂

And since poetry should be read aloud . . . it will get you in the habit of doing that, too. 🙂

https://www.brownlines.com/

https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2012/september/karma-crisis-nathan-brown

http://publishingperspectives.com/2015/01/nathan-l-brown-self-publishing-poet-laureate/

Trusting the Reader

The other day, I was talking with a friend (who is not a writer, but IS an avid reader) about the problems I’m having with one of the novels I’m working on. He’d asked me about my goals for the summer, and I told him I wanted to finish at least one novel draft.

“Your rumrunner?” he asked.

“No. It’s got too many problems,” I said. “I don’t know where it’s going or what to do with it anymore.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

So I told him that one of the main issues I’m having is trying to figure out why my antagonist – who has already killed three people in cold blood – doesn’t just shoot my 14-year old rumrunner one night. Or burn down his house while he’s out on a run. “It makes no sense,” I said.

“Maybe he’s not as bad as you think he is,” my friend said.

“No, he is,” I said. “Every time I try to write from his POV, all I get is how much he hates Nicky and wants him dead. So why doesn’t he just shoot him one night? I can’t answer that question, and I feel like it’s a big plot hole.”

“Why do you have to answer it?”

“Because! It’s  . . . I can’t just leave this hole there. Hargrove is bad. Really, really bad. He was a soldier in World War I. He kills people. He doesn’t blink an eye. So why not Nicky? I know he hates Nicky. Why doesn’t he just get him out of the way?”

“Well, maybe that’s something you need to let your readers decide for themselves.”

There was about a fifteen-second pause while my brain attempted to process this information. “WHAT?!”

“Let them decide that reason for themselves,” my friend said. “Every time your antagonist has a chance to kill Nicky, he doesn’t. Let the readers wonder why. Let them draw their own conclusions about it.”

“But . . . it’s a plot hole!” 

He laughed. “Does the antagonist have a reason not to kill Nicky?”

“Well  . . . he does have PTSD from the war. Shell shock. So he doesn’t carry a gun; he carries a knife, because he can’t take loud noises.” (There’s a couple of others, too, that we didn’t get into.)

“So that could be a reason. Remember, antagonists aren’t all bad. Maybe it’s just that Nicky IS fourteen, and he can’t bring himself to kill a kid.”

I had my doubts about that. I know Hargrove, and I know he wants Nicky dead. But my friend’s thoughts have made me think about things a bit differently. Because honestly, this was one of the things holding me back from continuing with Nicky – I could not figure out how to get around the fact that Hargrove should just kill Nicky and get him out of the way. And no matter how I tried to move forward with the story, that was the thought standing in my way.

Or . . . Is it possible that I’ve been standing in my own way here? I’m still not quite convinced of this, but . . . if I can make myself trust the readers, if I can make myself ignore the voices in my head that tell me I have to sew up what I still consider a giant plot hole, could this be the answer to my problem? Could it be that I don’t need to explain absolutely everything?

Trusting the reader is something that we kind of skirt around as writers. We’re not really sure that we’re getting our point across, so we tend to beat it to death. We tend to not let our descriptions, or our characters’ actions, speak for themselves. We tend to feel we have to explain everything. But do we?

Last year, on a message forum, some of were discussing favorite authors. Several of us chose Diana Gabaldon, and I’ll never forget what one person – who disagreed – said:  “I know there are sex scenes, but she never describes what’s going on! I don’t KNOW what’s happening!” And I remember thinking, WHAT?! Diana’s sex scenes are some of the hottest around – in large part because she doesn’t do that annoying A-tab-into-B-slot stuff. She lets the reader figure out what’s going on for themselves. She lets our imaginations take over. She lets us become involved in the story.

And as writers, shouldn’t that be our end goal? To let the readers become part of the story? 

In a blog post, writer Michael J. Sullivan gives us another example:

In the novel “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” David Sedaris provides a simple example of this technique where he speaks of a young boy thinking of all the things he did that he might be in trouble for and one of those items listed is: “…altering the word hit on a list of rules posted on the gymnasium door…” Mr. Sedaris never says how he altered it. He leaves this for the reader to figure out. The result is like a perfectly delivered punch line.

So the question becomes . . . how far can we, as writers, trust our readers? And maybe more importantly, can our readers trust us? This is the hallmark of every good mystery novel – the writer needs to leave the breadcrumbs of clues that a savvy reader will pick up on. This makes the reader invested. They’ll read on to the end to see if they’ve come to the same conclusion as the detective.

But even if we’re not writing a mystery novel, doesn’t the same hold true? Don’t we have to trust our readers to get our descriptions, understand our characters’ actions, figure out what’s going on?  

That is, if we give them the means to do so.

A tricky balancing act, that.

So this week, as I mull over my friend’s words and wonder if I can pull this off, I encourage you to pick up some books and see how – or if – the authors have been able to make it work.

Trust me. You’ll know it when you read it.

 

Michael J. Sullivan’s blog post on trusting the reader:  http://riyria.blogspot.com/2011/09/writing-advice-12-trusting-reader.html

“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