Thursday 4 March 2010


You might call this a horror story: The Terrifying Spectre of Someone Getting There First.
One of the heart-stopping moments in any writer's life - for unpublished as well as published bods - is when one hears that another author is about to produce a book which sounds horribly, terrifyingly, teeth-gnashingly similar to the one we are writing or planning or dreaming of. Our instinct is to believe that this is The End, and that we must now ditch the fabulous idea.

No. Calm down. This is real life. It happens and it doesn't matter, because your story will be different (unless you are actually going to read it and steal from  it). To understand fully, read the inimitable Editorial Ass explaining why it's no cause for concern.

I have my own story of extraordinary coincidence which I have written about before. Rather than send you away to that blog post, I'll copy the relevant bit below. (Note: I was writing from the perspective of the issue of plagiarism, but my point about not worrying if you discover in advance that someone is writing something that sounds similar, is equally relevant.)

In October 2002, my first novel, Mondays are Red, was published. I'd been writing it during 2000/2001. Being unpublished, and not knowing any published author at all, let alone a stellar one like Tim Bowler, I had no way of knowing what any other author was writing in the privacy of his/her own garret.

Mondays are Red is a Young Adult novel about a 14 year-old boy called Luke who has synaesthesia.

A month later, in November 2002, Tim Bowler's umpteenth novel, Starseeker, was published. He had also been writing it during 2000/2001. (For those of you who don't know the business, any book published in November would already have been printed by October. Unless it's the biog of Michael Jackson.)

Starseeker is a Young Adult novel about a 14-year-old boy called Luke who has synaesthesia.

Because they were published in consecutive months, we had some joint reviews (hooray for me, debut author being reviewed and interviewed alongside TB!) but no one accused the other of plagiarism, because it obviously wasn't, because a) it couldn't have been, time-wise, and b) despite the identical descriptions above, they are two utterly different stories. Couldn't be more different. (Unless mine had been about a fifteen-year-old girl called Lucy with synaesthesia.)

But it's worth considering the following:
  • if Tim's novel had come out while I was still writing mine, I'd have changed the name and probably the age of the protagonist because the last thing I'd want is to appear to plagiarise - and I'd have panicked, horribly; I might even have cried;
  • next time you hear that two stories have the same motif / theme / premise, don't leap to the conclusion either that one is plagiarising or that they will actually be the same - unless they are;
  • similarly with the horrible word "derivative" - nothing stands entirely on its own. No author is an island. Yes, some are unduly influenced, sometimes conconsciously, and occasionally some actually steal, which is disgraceful. But some influence is legitimate, inevitable and right. Writing and ideas are contagious, but they will mutate in the environment of a different mind.
There's a funny ending to this story
Tim and I became good friends and discovered we thought in many ways alike. "That's not very funny," I hear you say. No, but when I became friends with him I was writing another book, which had the provisional title of Apocalypse.

Luckily, authory friends tend to tell each other what they're writing.
"What you writing at the moment, Tim?" I asked.

"It's called Apocalypse," he replied. "It's about ..."
And since his Apocalypse was coming out before mine, guess who decided to change her title, even though there's no copyright on titles? It became The Passionflower Massacre. Much better. Who'd want to call a book Apocalypse anyway? Silly man.

So, the fact that the concept sounds the same says nothing about whether the story is going to be in any way the same. It's most unlikely to be the same in any important way if you simply happen to have had the same-sounding idea without reading it.

My next novel, Wasted, has a concept which makes it sound like the film Sliding Doors and the book Dice Man. I haven't read Dice Man yet - though I will, after Wasted is published. I did see Sliding Doors years ago, mainly because I first started writing this book about 15 years ago and people kept saying, "You should see Sliding Doors". In much trepidation, I did. I needn't have worried. Yes, the underlying concept sounds similar, until you read the book and see the film and then you realise that nothing apart from the underlying concept is similar at all. Sliding Doors follows two possibilities, each equally "true", Wasted looks at one "true world", with many what ifs disappearing into nothingness.

Am I worried that Dice Man may turn out to have some unpleasant similarities? Well, if you want me to be honest, I am a little. But if I follow my own advice, I shouldn't be, should I?? All I know is that I was writing the idea before Dice Man was published and have been fascinated by causal determinism and theories of chance since I studied philosophy at University. So, if there are any similarities, they will be interesting but nothing to worry about.

So, if you decide not to worry about similar ideas, I won't either. OK?

(NB: I'm away today and tomorrow, doing school talks and meeting a publisher. )


Karen Jones Gowen said...

What a strange coincidence. Maybe you and Tim are distant cousins or something! This post reminds me that it's all about voice and each writer's own distinct style. It's what we must work and strive to develop. Plot is secondary imho.

Catherine Hughes said...

Remember my 'very different I promise' vampires?? I am always alert for someone getting published with the same sort of idea. I know it wouldn't be the same story, but I dread it anyway. I would so much love to see that tale in print one day that anything that came close to it would still be a cloud on my hopeful horizon.

But I shall try to stay calm!

By the way - just looked at your shiny new 'Who Is This Woman' page. Very nice!

Thomas Taylor said...

Of course, it could also mean that a particular theme is becoming fashionable, and that you are (through either great cleverness or staggering flukitude) going to be in the first wave of 'teenage ninja schoolgirls in space' books. But there's a downside to being fashionable: as each publisher signs up its teenage ninja schoolgirls in space book, the slots get filled and there may be no room for yours, especially as the smaller publishing houses often shy away from direct competition with the big ones.

K M Kelly said...

That is really spooky.

But what interests me is how the same idea can generate completely different stories. I've even done it myself - rehashed an old story idea but what came out in the end was nothing like the original!

Tim Jones said...

I recently read David Lodge's book "The Year of Henry James", which starts with his discovery, after he'd written a novel called "Author, Author" based on Henry James' humiliation at the opening night of his play "Guy Domville", when James was called up on stage after the performance only to be jeered by the audience, that Colm Toibin had written a novel, "The Master", based on exactly the same incident, and that Toibin's novel was going to appear first.

Lodge tries to be generous in "The Year of Henry James", but it's clear that, from his point of view, the precedence of "The Master" reduced the sales, potential award recognition, and reviewers' enthusiasm for "Author, Author". So, even for well-known authors, someone getting there first can make life difficult.

At least David Lodge got another book out of it!

penandpaints said...

That's such a relief to hear, thank you! I've had a panic moment three times since I began my children's novel, only because the blurb on a book/ film aounds like mine! I'm always telling myself the stories are highly unlikely to be too similar, so stop worryng,its just that its taken me so damn long to finish it, I'd be surprised if there weren't similar novels out by now!

Go away google said...

I must admit, when I heard the title of Wasted I immediately thought "But there's other books called that!" I seem to remember a YA(?) novel of drugs and debauchery, and most famously there's Marya Hornbacher's anorexia memoir. But I don't suppose your book is much like those.

Kath McGurl said...

I've recently read two books, both written by friends and just published. Both are narrated from the POV of a newly dead person called Lucy. There are a few other points which could be described as similarities, but actually the books are very different. One's chick-lit, the other's YA for a start! I think there must have been something in the air while those two were writing their books. Maybe a newly dead woman called Lucy was influencing them...

CL Taylor said...

I'm one of the authors womag is talking about! Other strange co-incidences in the two books include: they both open with the heroine talking about urine (I know...) and they both feature an emo character. When I went to YA author's book launch recently and she asked me what the title of my second book is it turns out her third book has a very similar title! Luckily the similarities end there this time around.

All very strange but, actually, it's probably because we (and you and Tim) read about something in the news/saw something on TV at about the same time and it sparked similar ideas.

optional said...

I always find that having completely unique, original ideas about anything is practically impossible. It must be something about the collective experience of being a human being...or a writer. Great minds think alike ! But individual differences always seem to force similar ideas to diverge into totally different outcomes. Conversely a premise that sounds very different from another can produce two works with many parallels (1984 and The Handmaid's Tale for example)...

Marisa Birns said...

This is amazing. For two people to write similar theme/premise is one thing. But to have the exact same name (Luke) with the same condition (and not a run of the mill kind) is downright spooky!

So. Yes. Similar ideas = no worries!

Colette Martin said...

Perhaps you and Tim were separated at birth? That's kinda spooky that you would do that... twice.

Unknown said...

I blame all of it entirely on the powerful forces of the collective unconscious - which is inevitably way - other than pure derivation - one sees a slew of very similar novels appearing on editors and agents desks at the same time. The story gods play games, they want to make sure x story does actually get out there, a hundred times, in different guises, if necessary. It's extremely annoying!

Anonymous said...

Sage advice as always, Nicola. Good luck with the publisher!

Lucy Coats said...

It does happen. It happened to me. I was writing a 'different' novel about vampires and werewolves--had been on and off for years. And then Twilight came out. There are no similarities (mine's a very 'otherworld' fantasy). But the Great Vampire/Werewolf Bandwagon quickly got pretty damn full and as an ex-publisher I know the signs of overload. It was going to take a good long while to finish the book so I've taken the decision to put it in the bottom drawer for a rest, and moved onto something else in the meantime. Its day may come in the future. What a very helpful post, Nicola. Thank you.

jonathan pinnock said...

I wish I'd read this post about a year or so ago, because I did give up on a project for a while because something very similar happened to me. And by a curious coincidence, I've just written a guest post for another blog about it today:

Levi Montgomery said...

I'm going to go a slightly different direction here and address the strange ease with which people throw around that weighty word, "plagiarism."

I wrote a novella called "The Dinosaur and the Dragon Lady." (You can find it on my website." It has a man called Morry. It also has a woman called Tuesday ("Believe it or not," she adds, like he might have a problem with it.) I had someone wish me luck in the lawsuit.

"What lawsuit?"

"You think Mitch Albom won't sue for plagiarism?"

"What are you talking about?"

"'Tuesdays With Morrie,' duh!"

Um, no, I don't think he will. And, for the record, I haven't heard from him yet.


Vicky B said...

This totally happens to me all the time. People will send me emails who have read my books and say, "You need to pick up this book. It has a similar plot to yours." I read every book about the same topic I might be writing on. But I'm not going to change mine because it could have a similar plot but the characters are not the same, the voice is not the same, and the story is not the same. So yeah I have panic moments, but I get over it and move on.

Shelley Sly said...

Nicola, you have a way of taking a topic that makes me hold my breath with anxious anticipation and then smoothing it all out in the end. Cheesy as it sounds, I always click away from your blog feeling more confident. And you call yourself a crabbit old bat? ;) Thank you for this -- I've been worrying about "someone getting there first" for quite some time, but I know now that I need to let it go.

Melinda Szymanik said...

I love coincidences - its fun to try and work out what the universe is trying to tell us (when all the time its probably nothing). This is a very (coincidentally) timely post. Had a great idea (picture book) in the shower yesterday, started writing it up last night and thinking/worrying that someone else must have done/be doing this as well (its based on a common phrase) but decided not to worry about it and write the story anyway. If the time is right it won't matter...

catdownunder said...

Better than discovering the day before the viva for your doctorate that.... need I say more?

Rachael King said...

Sorry to be pedantic, but The Dice Man was published 40 years ago, not since you started writing yours 15 years ago. I remember in my university days playing a drinking game based on it (not that I've ever read it), and that was certainly more than 15 years ago, so I went and looked it up:

That Amazon page is a new edition. Not that any of it matters of course!

Rachael King said...

I confess that I abandoned a novel (my second) I was working on after someone came out with exactly the same premise AND title. I'm glad I did - the novel I wrote instead was much better then the other would have been I think.

Elizabeth West said...

I'm terrified this will happen to me. I have a great idea and I've already started on it, but I just can't find the right angle for the story. I've begged the Universe not to let anyone else think of it until I figure it out. Please let me have this!

Anonymous said...

A few years ago I was about to start work on this idea that had been bugging me for years. It was a novel, the life story of a boy who writes letters to David Bowie. He writes them all his life, but never gets a reply. It's the story of his life, reflected in his letters.
When I'd worked myself up to the point of starting to map out the book, I did an idle bit of googling and found a book called To Major Tom: The David Bowie Letters. As Amazon puts it, "Synopsis: To Major Tom is a novelisation of one man's increasing obsession with pop icon David Bowie, presented as a collection of letters written to the singer over the course of 20 years."
Gave that idea up, bought the book and read it instead. Silly idea :-)

Lydia Kang said...

I confess I blogged about this recently, specifically how to do searches to see if your unique idea has already been done, or about to be published. It's true, two people with similar ideas WILL NOT write identical books. But if you're interested in looking for similar novels to see what you're up against, feel free to read.

David John Griffin said...

I don't know when the concept of a novel happened; must be the middle of the 18th century, maybe? Probably earlier; what I'm trying to say is with perhaps almost 200 years of writing, there's not many things that haven't been duplicated as novel themes or aspects.

I could mention several sci-fi novels as well as a couple of films with the same theme as the novel Time Riders, which you highlighted a couple of posts ago, for instance. "There's nothing new under the sun" as they say ("they" say quite a bit, whoever they are!).

But as has been said by one and all, it's not what you write about but how you write it. There's bound to be different characters, settings and situations, for certain.


Glynis Peters said...

I came across a book recently, it was a heart stopping moment...phew no, it was not the same story as mine.
What an incredible post, amazing story thanks for sharing.

Joanne Young Elliott said...

Great post! I love stories about synchronicities. It's also good to know that these things happen and for the most part the books are not exactly the same...we humans just surf on the same wavelengths sometimes.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks to so many of you for your comments. Sorry i didn't join in - when I'm away, reading comments on my iphone is easy, but replying is very very fiddly and infuriating, at least if i want to reply at length.

I can't reply to everyone now either, but will say thank you to all of you and just pick up a very few points.

Catherine - weirdly, I only discovered the "page" feature recently. Wish I'd known about it before - it wasd what I wanted AGES ago!

Anne - but there's no issue with titles, as no copyright, as I'm sure you know! The plot of Wasted bears zero resemblance to those books you mentioned. I hadn't heard of them, but I foudn 3 books on amazon called Wasted, noone of them YA, and only one of them a novel, and none of them about chance and risk!

Rachael - thanks for pointing that out about the Dice Man! The fact that I was so ignorant about it probably illustrates how little thought I've given to the knowledge that there's another book out there with a similar part-premise!

Ivan, Rachael, Levi - well, your stories show some more huge real-life coincidences, and prove that my "don't worry" advice doesn't always work.

Levy - I know, we do tend to use that word over-freely, but the definition is not always clear-cut, or even when the definition is, whether it has actually happened or been an unconnected incident can be less clear. Accusations of it are made often without knowing the facts (eg whether the accused actually read the original), but nevertheless it does sometimes happen. I think that your story and mine both prove the same point: that something that could look like plagiarism may well not be, and can't be if the person hadn't read the original.

Lydia - sounds interesting - will go and read!

Elizabeth - fingers crossed! Yesterday I had an idea for a high-concept series which could only be done once, I think. I too am praying that a) I AM the first and b) no one gets there before me!

Shelley - that's a lovely thiing to say! thank you!

Nicola Morgan said...

Womag and Calistro - that's really interesting. Another example!

Jonathan - off to read your blog post now...

Theresa Milstein said...

Amazing story about similar stories, and then similar titles! I'm glad your first book worked out, and that his book even boosted yours.