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.

 

 

 

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“Are you done with the book yet?”

In Eat Pray Love, Liz Gilbert talks about the nature of the Balinese people. They must know where they are, and where you, are at all times – physically and spiritually. Most important, she says, is the question, “Are you married yet?” In America, this is considered a rude question. In Bali, however. . . well, as Liz puts it, “They really want you to say yes. It’s such a relief to them when you say yes.” And if you’re not married, the correct answer is “not yet.” “This is a polite way of saying, ‘No,’ while indicating your optimistic intentions to get that taken care of just as soon as you can.”

I was reminded of this yesterday when I was at the coffee shop writing, and a friend stopped by. Her first question was, “Are you done with the book yet?”

Any number of thoughts immediately went through my mind, the first one being why did I tell her I was writing a book? I knew she wanted me to say yes. I knew this. And yet, being me, I had to be truthful “Not yet!” I said, smiling. (See? A polite way of saying NO, while indicating that I am working on getting that done just as soon as I can.)

“Well, how much longer?” In her eyes, I could see the question bordering on accusation. You’ve been working on this all summer! How long does it take to write a book? 

“I don’t know. Not long,” I said cheerfully, and she went back to the friends she’d come with, and I went back to my characters.

But it left me pondering a few things. Number one:  books, my friend, are never done. Ask any author. You just sort of reach a point where you stare at it and say, “Screw it.” And then you start sending out the query letters. (And even then, as we all know, it’s STILL not done. Edits and rewrites shall abound.)

Number two:  How long do people think it takes us to write a book? Yes, there are prolific writers like Barbara Cartland and Stephen King who can put fingers to keyboard and type nonstop for hours, until it’s done. The rest of us mere mortals, not so much. The phrase “we’ll get there when we get there!” comes to mind.

And number three:  why must people ask it precisely like that?! Bloody hell, we just don’t know how long it’s going to take!

If you’ve ever encountered a scene like this, with friends, coworkers, family, or complete strangers (yes, those people who think nothing of putting their hands on the stomachs of pregnant women also feel no shame in asking about your deadlines), I feel for you. Been there, done that! I think most writers have been. In fact, I’ve been biting my tongue the last week or so, because a local author’s been at the same coffee shop typing away madly. I know she’s trying to get some writing done before school starts, and I keep wanting to stop by and just commiserate with her – but being a fellow writer, I can’t make myself interrupt her flow. I know she has small children and like me, those are her precious stolen moments with her characters.

The truth is this:  I don’t know how long these rewrites will take. I know what I set out to do daily. I hope I get it done. I’m working in small chunks of writing, stuffed into small windows of time. Those long stretches of uninterrupted writing time are a MYTH, people. A MYTH! Most writers, like me, steal away to a local haunt, order a latte, and if we get a solid hour or two of work done before Real Life comes knocking, we’re lucky. I have to walk in there knowing exactly what I want to accomplish in that time frame, and do my best to make it happen. Even during summers, my life is complicated – running a business, dealing with umpteen animals, errands to run, and, you know, I’d also like to sort of enjoy my summer, too – so I have to squeeze my writing into small bites.

But you know what? Those small chunks of time are working well for me. For starters, they work well with my inability to sit still and do one thing for hours on end. If I can focus for just an hour or so on this one scene, or this transitional between scenes, or these changes, I can get them done and it feels good. I have my to-do list of items, and some days I cross things off and some days I add to it, and some days I do both. Some days, when I go for my walk in the morning, I have an epiphany that makes me sit right down and draft out something; other days, I struggle to put three paragraphs on a page.

In short – I’m writing.

So to answer my friend – No. The book isn’t done yet. But it is getting there. It gets closer every day.

And it feels good, this round of rewrites. Not perfect, not yet; but good.

 

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

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

. . . and here’s the pitch! Pitching at writing conferences.

This weekend, I’ll be at the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation (OWFI) conference, and I’m supposed to pitch at least one of my novels.

Here’s the thing:  I can’t! 

How many of us can walk into a room and immediately start to talk about ourselves? Some can. Some of us can’t. I can’t. Give me someone else’s book to pitch, and I’d be great. Give me my own novel to pitch, and I sort of dissolve into a dribble of incoherent pudding. You know, like Donald Trump trying to talk about – well, anything.

See, I’ve done this before. Four years ago, to be precise, I pitched at this same conference. And I was lucky enough to not only get a request for the partial, but also (later) for the full. The agent was serious about the book, but . . . I realized it needed far more work than I’d realized when I pitched it, and so I bowed out. It was a hard choice, but I think I made the right one for me at the time.

This time, I’ve got two novels that I could pitch, and agents there who seem like decent fits. It’s just hard because a.) neither novel is really ‘done’ yet, and b.) I HATE TALKING ABOUT MY OWN WORK!

You know how sometimes you have dreams that make absolute sense at the time, and then when you start trying to describe them to someone else, you can’t explain why the polka-dot dog/unicorn things were at a meeting between you and Caligula, or why the Japanese businessmen were all wearing alien suits? Yeah. That’s what I sound like when I try to explain my urban fantasy novel. “There’s ghosts,” is about as coherent as I get.  Nicky’s easier – somehow “My protagonist is a 14-year old rumrunner in the 1920s, trying to save his family and avoid the Klan” rolls off the tongue a bit more easily than “My protagonist sees ghosts and moves to England and then has all these ghosts she has to sort out there, and oh by the way it’s the first in a series.” Right. Who’s going to want to read that? 

In fact, I’ve always had an aversion to pitch sessions. It’s not the end-all, be-all of publishing, in my mind. (Of course, I’m neither an agent nor a published author, so take that as you will.) I think I communicate better in writing. Makes sense. We’re writers. Why wouldn’t we be better in writing than in person?

I also want to point out that in the brief amount of research I did for this post, I ran across some blogs from agents in which they decry the whole pitching process. Yes. That’s right. Some agents don’t like pitch sessions. For various reasons. Andy Ross sums it up like this:

When I get pitched at conferences, too often I find that the attendees have been so over-coached that by the time they get in front of the agent, they act like their heads are going to explode. They read from note cards, they recite  from memory in a sing-songy way, they stare at me with an intensity that spooks me out. A lot of times they are taught that the 10 minutes they get to spend in front of an agent will determine whether their book will get published. AND EVERY SINGLE WORD THEY SAY DURING THE PITCH MUST BE PERFECTLY CRAFTED AND CALIBRATED.

Oh, puh – lease!

And I’ve listed those blogs at the bottom of the page for your enjoyment later.

But if you’re hell-bent on it anyway, here’s a few tips I’ve picked up:

1.) KNOW YOUR BOOK INSIDE AND OUT. And I don’t just mean the plot – know your characters, too, including your antagonist. What do they want? Who’s trying to stop them from getting it, and why? What motivates them? What’s their main problem?

2.) WRITE YOUR PITCH. You will not read from this, unless you are so nervous that reading your script is better than bolting from the room. But this helps you solidify what you want to say. You get only a few minutes – anywhere from 5-10 minutes – to get an agent interested enough to say “send me the first 50 pages.” So your pitch needs to be . . .

3.) BOLD, CONCISE, INTERESTING, ENGAGING.  I KNOW. That’s a huge order! I hear your gears grinding in agony already. Don’t start with your setting. Start with your main character and his/her main problem. Why is it interesting enough that this agent should spend time reading about it – and then, hopefully, spend time selling it? Remember, your time is short. Your pitch should be, too. Why? Because . . .

4.) THE AGENT WILL WANT TO ASK QUESTIONS. If they’re interested, they’re going to ask questions. Mine did. It might be about the setting, the plot, the characters. They might ask if the novel is complete. Maybe they’re curious about you – what led you to write this, what research you’ve done. Take deep breaths. Answer them. Remember that the more questions they ask, the more interested they are. As ‘Miss Snark,’ Literary Agent, says, the well-prepared author will win the day if they have the following answers ready:

  • genre
  • word count
  • plot line
  • hook
  • who would read this?
  • is it like any books I’ve sold?
  • what’s interesting to you about the characters and story ?

In fact, one of the questions they might ask is “Why did you choose me? Why do you think I’m a good fit for this project?” You’d better be ready with a killer answer, based on . . .

5.) YOUR RESEARCH INTO THE AGENT. Never, ever, unless it’s one of those last-minute, hey-we’ve-got-a-free-agent things, go into a pitch session without researching the agent first. Why do you want them to represent your book? What makes them a good fit? It can’t be their resemblance to George Clooney, sorry. It needs to be a real answer. They represent your genre, for one thing, They’re looking for X fiction or X nonfiction projects. They recently sold X, which is similar to your book because __. One thing that caught the eye of the agent that requested my manuscript was that I knew she’d graduated from Harvard with a degree in Early American History; that gave us common ground and since my book dealt in part with history, she knew chances were good that my research was sound.

I still don’t know if I’ll pitch. I know there are a couple of agents at OWFI that would be a good fit for Nicky, but he’s nowhere near done. And I do not want a repeat of the last time – a whirlwind of rewrites that ultimately left me feeling hollow and browbeaten. (Not by the agent:  by myself!) But at least if I decide to, I can walk in there knowing a bit more about what agents want.

 

Here’s a few articles and blogs about pitching to agents at conferences:

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/7-tips-for-pitching-to-an-agent-or-editor-at-a-conference

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/how-to-pitch-agents-at-a-writers-conference

https://www.thebalance.com/how-to-pitch-your-novel-at-a-pitch-conference-1277304

http://www.writing-world.com/publish/pitch.shtml

http://www.writing-world.com/publish/pitch2.shtml

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/4-questions-agents-ask-at-pitch-sessions

http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/2014/01/rant-pitch-sessions-are-spawn-of-satan.html (From an agent who actually despises pitches – and wants to revamp the entire process.)

https://andyrossagency.wordpress.com/2012/10/23/how-to-pitch-to-an-agent/ (Tips from an agent on what he’s looking for in a good pitch.)

http://misssnark.blogspot.com/2007/02/pitch-sessions-at-writing-conferences.html (THIS one is fantastic – both funny and insightful.)

http://nelsonagency.com/category/query-letters/pitch-sessions/

https://carlywatters.com/2013/05/06/how-to-pitch-an-agent/

“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

Getting to know you . . . Research and Characters

Have you ever had one of those ideas for a novel – or even a character – that sort of teases at the edges of your mind? There one second, gone the next. Coming just close enough for you to get a glimpse of it. To get an idea of what it might be about. But it never does more than that, and it’s frustrating as hell.

Please tell me I’m not the only one who’s had that happen . . . !

A few years ago, when I was taking my course on Young Adult Fiction from Oxford, I had an idea in my mind about a book. I thought it might end up being a series, in fact – maybe not open-ended, but maybe a trilogy. I’d written about it in our discussions, in fact, but I never got a good solid sense of who this character was and what he was about. His name was Chase; he was about fourteen; he was living in the 1930s; and he had an interesting side gig. But every time I tried to write about him, it was like trying to get a stray cat to come close enough to be petted – he just stood there and stared at me, with this sense of Really? I’m not that easy. 

But then Nicky came along in all his full-fledged, hotheaded glory, and Chase tipped me a nod and said, “We’ll meet again when you’re ready for me.”

Well, hell’s bells, I wasn’t ready for Nicky! But I’m beginning to understand why, although Chase and I have danced around each other a bit over the past few years, we’ve never connected.

It’s because I need to know more about how and what he is. And about his world.

Nicky, I knew. Nicky was easy to get to know. Not only did he come with a full set of operating instructions and a mouth bigger than Texas, but I got him. I knew all about the 1920s and rumrunning, and what I didn’t know, I could easily find out. But Chase was different. His story was different, and the things he knew were different.

Sometimes characters come to us, and because they’re like us, or because they’re already part of something we know, it’s easier to relate to them. Maybe they have the same outlook on life, or hate or like the same things we do, or grew up in the same town – or at least, the same kind of town. But those characters who come knocking, nodding shyly, holding everything back until they’re absolutely 100% sure you’re The One? Those are the ones that elude us sometimes, that make us worker harder than we’ve ever worked before.

So last year, I ordered books. Lots of them. I do this a lot. Most historical writers do. We need to know something specific, so we go buy everything we can. I’ve got books on 17th century witch hunts, bootlegging, the KKK, every ghost legend in England, and more. But I realized I had nothing about Chase and his life. So I bought books.

I’m reading one now, in fact, and not five pages into it, I started to get ideas. Started to hear Chase talk to me, just a bit. Not a lot, but enough. He knows I’m here. I know he’s listening.

Yes, I can hear some of you now – But I don’t believe characters talk to us! So what does this have to do with me? 

Glad you asked!

If you’re researching a historical novel – or any novel for that matter – you have to remember that personality only goes so far. Environment shapes character. It shapes you and me and the cat in the tree, and it shapes your fictional characters, too. It’s just a fact of life. Take the 1930s, for example. A farmer fighting to keep his land in the Dust Bowl is going to be a far cry from Joe Kennedy, ex-bootlegger and now Ambassador to England. They had different upbringings, took different paths, made different choices. Knowing about the Dust Bowl will help you see how your farmer should behave. You know he keeps plowing his fields, even when all common sense says not to – why? Research into the farmers of the era will tell you why. And while your farmer may have other reasons, I’m guessing he shares a lot in common with the others.

Or let’s take a common trope:  a historical novel with a woman fighting for her rights in any era – let’s say the 14th century. That’s grand, but she doesn’t exist in a vacuum; she exists in a real world, full of real laws and real consequences. She resists an arranged marriage? Then what are her legal, realistic options? And is she ready to face them? (Now, if you want to put this young heroine in the midst of the Black Death and its aftermath, this might work – lots of opportunities opened up in Europe once 1/3 of the population was dead. But before that time? No.) So your research would naturally need to include all the jobs available to women in the time period, any women who were like your heroine, the laws pertaining to women, etc. This will help you get a better sense of who this character really is and make her much more three-dimensional and believable.

That’s what I needed with Chase. He resisted every attempt I’d mentally made to put him into a cubbyhole, a place I thought he should go. I had to go to him. I had to get into his world, see things through his eyes, first.

No, we’re still not quite talking – but the researching is really opening my eyes to all the possibilities. And I know that when the time’s right and I’m ready, he’ll be there.

Just like Nicky. 🙂