“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

The Flawed and the Vulnerable: why characters need to be both

Have you ever read a book and about halfway through – for some reason you couldn’t quite put your finger on – you started to feel bored?

There’s a lot of reasons for this:  lack of forward momentum, too much backstory, poor writing, not enough tension, nothing big for the characters to do, no important stakes. But there’s another reason that could underlie all these things:  boring characters. I don’t mean characters that do nothing, or have boring dialogue. I mean characters that are too perfect.

In writing, there’s an axiom:  give your characters flaws. Or more accurately, give them vulnerabilities. No one wants a hero that can’t be stopped. Where’s the fun (and tension) in that?

Imagine if we’d known Harry couldn’t be defeated by Voldemort. Would anyone have bothered to read the last book, let alone 8.3 million of us in the first 24 hours? Nope. The tension lies in the not knowing. If the reader has doubt your hero can really pull it off – whatever ‘it’ is – then they’re invested. They’re rooting for your hero. They want to see him succeed – but it’s up to you to make sure the reader is on the edge of their seat, biting their fingernails, turning the pages long past the time they should have gone to bed.

I’ve been reminded of all of this in the past week through my new favorite TV show, Lucifer, as well as the latest installments of two of my favorite book series.

luciferIf you’re not familiar with Lucifer, it’s a fantastic show, and the main character, played by the devilishly handsome Tom Ellis, is Lucifer. In the flesh. Got bored with Hell and decided to go to Los Angeles and get a life. Though truthfully, it’s much more complicated than that, and the writers really should get Emmys for how well they’ve done with this material.

Lucifer is a tortured soul, mischievous and charming, the consummate bad boy – but beset by his own demons (both literally and figuratively). As an angel, he can’t be harmed, except by a heavenly weapon – but then he meets Detective Chloe Decker, and for some inexplicable reason, if she’s around . . . he’s mortal.

This instantly raises the stakes.

Add in the fact that he’s always with her on cases and in shootouts and the stakes are raised even higher. Let’s face it:  a hero who can fall off a ten-story building without a scratch is, well, a bit boring. Put him in proximity to Chloe, though, and suddenly there’s tension, because there’s real danger.

51gpkfudefl-_sx328_bo1204203200_Now. If you’re not familiar with Darynda Jones’ Charley Davidson series, you’re in for a treat. Charley is a private investigator, but she’s also the Grim Reaper. She’s shiny and bright and spirits from all over not only see her, but cross through her to the other side. She was born that way. She’s also smart, sarcastic, and funny as hell even when the situation doesn’t call for it. For instance, in this book she went to rescue a client, got caught, and now they’re both about to die:

“He must be returned to the earth,” she said. “He must learn from his mistakes and be allowed to grow again.”

“You’re going to replant him?” I asked.

“And you as well.”

“Can I come back as an azalea?”

I love Charley. But I admit, this book is slightly on the boring side for one reason:  Charley can’t die. We didn’t know that until a few books ago. The first few books in the series are fantastic because Charley can’t help but put herself in harm’s way; sometimes it’s to help someone, and sometimes it’s just because she’s That Kind of Person, but we’re always on the edge of our seats because we know something bad is coming. She can heal fast, but she’s not immune to pain, torture, or dying. But now we know she’s a god, and she can heal herself. There may be a few things that can kill her, but not many. So we no longer have the great tension we once did of ‘how will she get out of this?’, because we know she can.

But by this time, Jones has created an entire world of secondary characters that are almost as endearing and fun as Charley herself – and they’re almost all mortal. She’s fiercely loyal to her human family and friends, and will do anything to save them. So we do worry for them, and for her daughter Beep, who is in hiding. But as I was reading the ending of the most recent book tonight, I realized that I was a little disappointed – because I knew Charley could get out of it any time she wanted, really. The tension of that scene was gone.

bjfioefvegrhthtThe other book I’m reading is Feversong, the last book in the Fever series by Karen Marie Moning. I. Love. These. Books. In the world Moning has created, everything has limits and rules.

Basic premise:  MacKayla Lane can see the Fae. The walls between Fae and mankind have crashed, and Mac needs to put it back up. Not easy, but she has help from the other sidhe-seers, as well as Jericho Barrons and the rest of the Nine. We don’t know exactly what the Nine are, but we know they can’t die – well, there is one way, but let’s not go there. If they do die, they just magically go back to an original starting point, heal, and then come back to Dublin.

The rules:  Mac’s human. To defeat the Fae, she can use one of two weapons that can kill them. She can also snack on Fae in order to gain their capabilities, but if she does, she’s vulnerable to her own weapon. The Nine can regenerate, but it takes a while, and in the interim, they’re gone. Sure, they return eventually, but will it be in enough time? That’s the question. So there’s built-in tension with the rules, especially before Mac knows they come back. They are vulnerable. Plus, we really like them and don’t want bad things to happen to them, either. 🙂

This is why, when you’re writing a thriller, a mystery, or – well, anything – your hero must be flawed and vulnerable. Vulnerable is the key, though. Lucifer is flawed, but without Chloe, he’s not vulnerable on any level. She makes him that way, both physically and emotionally. Charley is flawed, but again, not very vulnerable. It’s the people in her life that are her Achilles’ heel. Mac – and the Nine – are both flawed and vulnerable in certain circumstances.

Flaws make us human. Flaws lead to downfalls. Flaws lead us to make irrational choices, to do things we’d normally not otherwise do. Flaws in your characters do the same thing – they become overconfident, overlook things, get hurt, cut people out of their lives, make mistakes. In a truly good, character-driven book, it’s the flaws that help drive the narrative.

Flaws  and vulnerabilities are what we identify with as readers. Who wants a perfect main character?

That’s just boring. 🙂

Can We Make Writing Conferences Better?

There are two writing conferences I try to attend each year:  the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation Conference in May, and the Rose State Writing Conference in September. Both usually have fantastic lectures, workshops, meet-and-greets, and it’s a great excuse to hang out with other crazy people who have invisible friends in their heads all the time. 🙂

But there’s something that’s been lurking in the back of my mind for a while:  how much can you really ‘get’ from a writing conference?

I truly believe you can learn something in almost any situation. But take this year’s Rose State conference as an example. As I looked around at the other attendees, I saw one of two things:  they were either much younger than me or much older than me. But they were all beginning writers.

In one session, a YA discussion, the presenter mentioned that her first novel had gone through nearly two years of overhaul between her agent and editors. TWO YEARS. I really couldn’t wrap my mind around that, even though I’ve seen it firsthand! I’ve seen the slaughtered pages, dripping red ink, returned from the editor in a FedEx box. Heck, I do it to myself for fun. 🙂 But I could see the other audience members . . . and that number wasn’t sinking in. Maybe because I’m a teacher, I could see that they weren’t ‘getting it.’ In fact, you could almost see them thinking Wow, well, that won’t happen to me. 

So I raised my hand and asked the presenter to explain just what kinds of rewrites were required of her. She noted that her agent had requested some, and then her first editor had read it and said, “Look, there’s too much supernatural stuff in here. Cut all that.” And when she did . . . it gutted her book completely. She had to start over and restructure her entire plot. And you know what? I still walked out of there with the sinking feeling that most of the writers still had that it won’t happen to me mentality.

Which makes me wonder . . . is there a better way or a different way to approach this idea of writing conferences?

Lots of conferences have 1 or 2 people giving the equivalent of an hour-long lecture. Some have panel discussions, where audience members ask questions and the 3-5 people on the panel answer them. That limits how many questions you can have.

For some people, a writing conference might be their only chance to interact with other writers and talk about their craft. Maybe they belong to online writing communities; maybe not. Maybe they have a local writing group; maybe they don’t, or maybe it’s rubbish. So should writing conferences do things differently? Rather than two days of lectures, should we have more workshops instead?

Rose State does this a little – they have the fabulous First Page Panel during lunch on Saturdays – but this year, I think we only read 12-15 of the 55 submitted first pages.

I understand that workshops would, by their very nature, require more time and fewer participants.  I also know that there’s a lot of people who would be very reluctant to submit their work – and conversely, those would submit their work and reject any and all criticisms. That’s just the nature of the workshops. Plus, how would you run them? Have everyone read some of their work aloud? Provide ten minutes to read a page or so?

Well, that’s if you workshop items. But what if you did it the other way around?

I attended a writing workshop many, many years ago (don’t ask how many), in which we were required to do things like “give synonyms for ‘said'” and write a first paragraph based on a few items. It was great because it gave us something to do. We weren’t passively receiving the information; we were being guided in our learning.Think about it:

  • First Page panels could give way in the afternoons to First Sentence and First Paragraph workshops. Now that we’ve seen the need for attention-grabbing openers, how can we tweak yours to make it better?
  • ‘Creating Character’ lectures could give rise to ‘here’s ten minutes, and here’s your scenario:  create a character that doesn’t belong here, and then explain why he/she does.’ Or working on attendees’ own characters. What works, and what doesn’t?
  • Explaining why dialogue needs to actually work could give way to a page or two of published examples – and then attendees could bring along their own manuscripts and start to look the over with partners, figuring out where their own dialogue needs tweaked, rewritten – or scrapped altogether.
  • Or, attendees could be given the same page from a manuscript (real or not) and asked to identify why X and Y (dialogue, let’s say) does’t work – and then have them rewrite it so that it does work.
  • Research – why not? Everywhere has wi-fi these days. Have attendees bring laptops and tablets, and put them to work researching. Have everyone bring a list of things they need to know, and then work with them as a small group to figure out how to research it.

Workshops could be easily ‘ramped up’ and ‘ramped down’ to adjust for experience and expertise. You could even have two tracks – one for beginner writers, and one for experienced writers who have a manuscript they’re polishing. Maybe the same workshops could be offered both days – so let’s say the mornings could be the basic lecture-type sessions, and then the afternoons would give way to the workshops. Allow attendees to do two workshops a day, at 1 1/2 hours each, and voila! You’ve given them something to do. 

And before you ask:  NO. I don’t for one second think that conferences should charge more for those workshops. Writing conference are, frankly, too expensive as it is.

If most writing conferences are attended by beginning writers, then it stands to reason that this sort of workshop would work best for them – a solid block of time for guided exercises, giving them a toolkit they can take home and put to work.

Would it be easy? No, of course not. For one thing, most presenters at writing conferences are agents, editors, and – of course – published authors, and for good reason:  they’re the ones in the know. And I don’t for one second think they should be scrapped from the program. Not at all. We love picking their brains and hearing their experiences. We need that. But not all of these presenters would necessarily make good teachers for the workshops. They’d have to be chosen carefully, to ensure that they have the ability to lead those sessions. But can it be done? Of course it can.

Anyway, these are my thoughts. I’d love to hear from writers who’ve attended conferences and see what you think about them. Do you have further suggestions? Other ideas? Let me know!