Before You Write The First Word

Tuesday, March 05, 2013
Has this ever happened to you?

You pick up a book, one of those books that everyone’s buzzing about, and ten pages in, your jaw drops. Not because it’s such an awesomely written book (although it may well be) but because you've had an eerily similar idea.

Or maybe you pick up a magazine and scan the articles, nodding. Until you stop in mid-scan, your eyes riveted to a title that’s exactly like the article you were thinking of pitching.

Writers hit on similar concepts all the time, and I’m sure we all have a similar response when we see our great idea published. The pulling-the-hair-out, screeching, “You have got to be kidding me,” and throwing the offending book (or magazine) across the room reaction.

Or maybe that’s just me. Anyway, after my little hissy fit, I heave a huge sigh and thank my lucky stars.

Yep, I’m grateful. Grateful that I found that novel or article before I invested my time and effort into all that writing. Maybe I’d only scribbled a few notes about plot and characters, or just a “What if?” question for a pitch. But after reading what’s been published, I know that my idea is not different enough to pursue any further. Time to move on to the next idea.

Researching ideas before you write about them is an important part of the writing process. I know it’s hard when you think you have the best idea ever. You want to pound out that manuscript while you’re super excited. You want to put together that piece for a major market that’s going to make you famous in the freelance world.

Except. Except that your time is valuable. You simply can’t afford not to do your homework. Besides, editors and agents won’t waste their time on something they've already seen.

So before you pound out that first chapter or even that first paragraph, do a little investigating. If you have an idea for a novel, check comparable titles. Consider the broad concept as well as the specific concept. Take, for example, a story about purple people eaters. It may be hard to believe that some other writer has penned a novel about purple people eaters (And P.S. They have.). But there are a ton of zombie books. And if you take away the purple part, you've basically got a people eater, right? Is your story different enough from not only the purple people eater books out there, but also the zombie books on the shelves?

As for articles, an Internet search will let you know very quickly if your idea has a unique angle or the same old, same old stuff that editors get every day.

But take heart. Publishing success can happen for you—if your great idea has an original spin. So do your research before you write the first word. (And cross your fingers that your idea will get out there first!)

~Cathy C. Hall


Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--Being grateful--that you found the article BEFORE you invested the time in writing your article--is a great way to put a positive spin on what could otherwise be the chance to throw a mini pity party.

Unknown said...

I rarely write a complete article before I pitch an idea, because my time is valuable. It is certainly easy enough to do a little research, although finding a similar article may not necessarily stop me either-- we each give it our own, unique spin, like fingerprints.

Lisa Ricard Claro said...

So true. One of my first submissions was to a horror site and they opted out of my story because it was too similar to one written by another author, and which I know I never read and never heard about (I'd never heard of the author, either, until I went Googling for him). I went out and found the story specifically to read it, just to be sure I'd never read it. Nope. It was all new to me . . . except the plot, which mirrored my own. *sigh*

Cathy C. Hall said...

Sioux, yes, indeed. I haven't got time for whining (throwing stuff just takes a second!) ;-)

And Julie, I agree. Everything may have been said before, but there are thousands of different ways to say it. You just have to make sure your way is creatively different!

Lisa, I think it's WAY harder to research short stories (or flash). Titles don't help much, or Googling either. Often, we don't know we've written a re-hashed story till a (kindly) editor lets us know. *sigh*

Linda O'Connell said...

Congratulations Cathy, here you go again. Great advice to research the market first.

Donna Volkenannt said...

Researching before investing time is very wise advice, Cathy. My problem is sometimes I get lost in the research and don't want to leave.

Suzanne Lilly said...

Excellent advice. The same goes for titles of articles and books. Make sure you aren't using a title that's already been done. I'm in the same boat as Donna. I get lost in the research sometimes.

Margo Dill said...

I agree about taking the idea and trying to find an original spin on it. I REALLY wanted to write a historical fiction book for kids about either pioneer times or the Civil War. WOW! You would never imagine how many of those there are and by some pretty great authors like say, Laura Ingalls Wilder. . .so I settled on the Civil War and decided to give it a southern spin--many books for kids are set in the north and from the POV of a soldier. So it all worked out in the end, but it took some thinking. I don't know if I threw anything, but next time I think I will. . .

Cathy C. Hall said...

Yes, researching is very "Give a Mouse a Cookie" for me--one thing leads to another and another and another till I can't remember what I was even researching!

P.S. Margo, throw something lightweight. (I learned that lesson the hard way. pun intended.) :-)

Angela Mackintosh said...

I can't tell you how many times this has happened to me with story ideas. I was just looking through one of my high school diaries, and I had a novel idea that was a cross between Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. LOL. I think it's because we're all connected somehow. It makes me want to start writing fan fic! At least you know it's a derivative from the start. But even then, you still have to put an original spin on it. Great advice, Cathy!

Anonymous said...

So true...last week, I stumbled on a newly published novel that's similar to a plot I started working on about two months back...and I was grateful I found out early enough before I was neck-deep!

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