What's the Big Idea?

Wednesday, July 03, 2019
Let’s say you are looking for the next big idea for a novel. And one day, you’re perusing the paper, or walking around in a museum, or channel surfing, and bam! You come across someone or something pretty darn unusual. Immediately, the wheels turn, the story idea forms… but wait. It’s so different that you think a little research is in order. It wouldn’t do at all for there to be two books on this same unusual topic so you look and look and look and find nothing. Your heart skips a merry little beat as you sit down to write, write, write.

The day comes when it is finished. You type “The End” on the umpteenth revision and you sing a happy ditty as the email wings its way to an editor. And you can hardly believe it when just a week later, you hear back. The editor loves the idea but alas! Another editor down the hall is working on a novel WITH THE SAME UNUSUAL TOPIC.

What will you do? Or as Karl Malden said in that commercial years ago, “WHAT. WILL. YOU. DO?”

If you are Cathy C. Hall, you rant and rave, using language that no refined Southern Lady (or anyone, for that matter) should ever use. Then you decide that the universe is clearly sending a message and so you toast the years you’ve invested in your writing career and as you toss the wine glass into the fireplace, you throw in a couple of not-so-fond farewells: “So long, waking up in the middle of the night to jot down an idea! Au revoir to querying and never hearing back! Adios to endless mind-numbing revisions!” And you stroll into the sunset, older but not necessarily wiser.

Because after a few weeks, I remembered Big Magic, the book by Elizabeth Gilbert wherein she writes about this. This being the creative ideas swirling around all the time in the great ether and that sometimes more than one of us will pull out the same idea and go with it. Which sort of explains how writers or inventors or anyone with a creative thought comes up with what he or she thinks is truly original to find that it’s already been done.

It happens more often than one would think. But when you are a writer and it happens, you, like old Karl, must ask yourself what you will do. And maybe, you’ll answer this question in a more rational manner than I did.

Still, what it comes down to is really rather simple: do you continue or have you had enough? There are options.

You can shelve the manuscript in question and start something new. While you’re waiting to see if your idea and the book that comes out are the same, you’re working. Always a good thing.

OR you can go ahead and send your manuscript out into the world and see what happens. Because if you believe in this idea, and it’s a really good idea, then maybe there’s room in the universe for more than one book on the same idea.

Of course, you can throw in the towel, too. Perhaps this is the straw that broke the camel’s back and enough really is enough. But don’t be surprised one fine midnight (or later) when you wake up and scramble around in the dark to find pen and paper. Because you’ve just had the best big idea ever for your next book.

~Cathy C. Hall


Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--I'd love to hear the language that a southern lady lets loose--when she's unleashed. :)

I'm sorry, but aren't there lots of different books on the same subject? Different writers go at a topic in different ways. I think there's room for your book as well, but don't trust me. I keep beating my head against a wall of rejection.

Cathy C. Hall said...

Ah, Sioux, I'm pretty sure Libby hid under the couch that day! :-)

And yes, there are tons of books on the same subject. Not a big deal that there are a dozen or more books on Jackie Robinson but it gets a little trickier when it's a unique subject. Or what you THINK is a unique subject! We shall see what happens...

Pat Wahler said...

Years ago when I started work on my first novel, I piddled with it off and on. No one else had written about the historical figure I'd chosen, but I took my time with it. Then someone beat me to the punch and published a novel about it. I shelved my stuff, figuring I was finished.

Then I got to thinking how many novels have been written about Abraham Lincoln. About his wife. About many other people in our past. That's when I decided to move forward with my book. After it was published, I broke down and read the "other" book, and felt immense relief. We'd taken completely different approaches. I'm so glad I didn't give up!

Plunge in and tell the story the way you see it.

Renee Roberson said...

Poor Libby! Just kidding. Sort of. My dogs also know to run and hide (usually under my desk) when I go off on one of my Julia Sugarbaker rants. I'm sorry this happened to you but we've all been there! It makes it so much harder when you write about a specific topic and then you see someone else publish it to a flurry of publicity about the unique topic. Ugh! I'll have to check out that Liz Gilbert book. Maybe it will make me feel better about always seeming to be behind the 8 ball . . .

Linda O'Connell said...

Long ago I sent an article to Parents Mag and saw the same topic in the next month's issue. I was a newby then and thought they stole my work. Nope, just another freelance writer who beat me to the punch. I can also rant like a trucker, but I try to present a calmer public image.
Don't shelve your ms or give up. There is hope for those orphans yet.

Lisa Ricard Claro said...

It's tough when we don't know whether to press on or move on, never an easy decision to make. The one sure thing is that this business is exhausting. But we never know what the next tide will bring...

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