When Your Novel Idea Has Already Been Published...

Wednesday, November 03, 2021
orangeacid (photo on Flickr.com)
What happens when you read the synopsis of a novel, and it's eerily similar to what you've beeen working on for years? This recently happened between two of my students in the WOW! class I'm teaching about writing for middle grade and young adult readers. I gave them an assignment to write a tagline describing their novels and a paragraph introducing their protagonists. After they shared with one another, one student wrote me in a panic.

"XXXXXX's novel (that is already published) is almost exactly like mine. My fiance says that this happens all the time. There are no unique stories. But I'm wondering if all this work I've been doing for years is wasted now. He says it's about my characters more than my plot, but I don't know. What do you think?"

Her distress is completely understandable, but her fiance was exactly correct, and that's what I said. I'm not sure if it's true that there are NO unique stories. But there are a lot of similar story types and tropes, and as I've said on here before, readers love tropes. For example, readers of romance novels want a happy ending. If they like "opposites attract" romance books, then they'll want to see a lot of conflict between the two opposite love interests and then a spark that ignites a love story eventually.

In fantasy, there's often a "chosen one" (CO) and a mentor who sends this chosen one on a quest because the CO is the only one who can fight the antagonist and save the world. Right, Harry Potter?

Some people make it this simple. Stories will fit into types, such as:
  • Man vs. Man
  • Man vs. Nature
  • Man vs. Himself
  • Man vs. God
The literary world asks for comps--titles that are similar to the novel you're working on, so agents/editors/booksellers know how your book will fit in the market. You've probably heard writers say something like, "My book is a cross between A Wrinkle in Time and The Series of Unfortunate Events.

So, if you ever find yourself in the same position as my student was in--never fear. This is normal. If you know you aren't copying or plagiarizing or stealing someone's idea, then you aren't. You just probably love the genre as much as this fellow author did, and you probably read some of the same books at some point for inspiration. But your writing--your voice, your word choice,  your character development--that will make the story your own! 

Has this ever happened to you? 

Margo L. Dill is a writing teacher and coach. Her next novel writing course for WOW! starts on Friday, November 5. There's still room left. Check it out here. 


Sioux Roslawski said...

Your student has a fiance who likes to read? Who listens to her writing woes? Who knows something about the publishing world?

I didn't know there were any out there like that. ;)

Angela Mackintosh said...

I'm kind of amazed that your student's fiance is so writerly! I actually agree with him that most everything has been done before, and I don't think you can steal an idea and be successful because it's not coming from the heart. Many writers get their inspiration from literature, so we're all building work on another writer's work, like we're having a collective conversation, and I think that's pretty great. :)

Yes, it happened to me. Years ago when I was writing fiction, I wrote something similar to Hunger Games (HR) or Battle Royale (BR), which was out long before HR. But even though BR existed that didn't stop Collins from creating a similar plot. The outcome will be totally different and nuanced in each writer's hands.

Margo Dill said...

Ha! I think it's funny and Ang and Sioux picked up on the supportive fiance! :) They do exist.

So true, Ang, about HR and BR. Thanks for pointing that out.

Renee Roberson said...

Margo--Thanks for this encouragement to all of us writers with imposter syndrome. The book I'm working on right now is a mystery/thriller, and the main protagonist is a podcaster. But I also read a book last summer about a true crime podcaster covering a controversial rape trial in a small town and trying to solve the murder of her sister. My story is a podcaster whose older sister disappeared, and she's trying to solve that mystery along with dealing with uncovered trauma from their childhood. The dynamics are the same, but the characters are all different and the "B" story is not the same. So I guess I needed to read this, ha ha!

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