when your idea was already someone else’s

I’ve had this book idea about a near future where there is no electricity (or, no electrical grid) for a while now.  I finally decided to do something about it and write this novel for Nanowrimo.  I made a cover, I started researching and prewriting, and while I haven’t outlined, exactly, but I had this great idea for giving my characters some high stakes: they needed to find insulin for their diabetic father.

And then I started reading a book with the same ideas.

In One Second After by William R. Forstchen, a nuclear EMP wipes out all electricity in the United States.  The main character, a military man, has a daughter with diabetes that requires insulin.

Damn, I thought.  My novel is completely unoriginal. And I haven’t even written it yet.

But lots of novels have the same plot!

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has a lot in common with Biagent and Leigh’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail, though Brown claims he never read it.  One could argue that The Hunger Games is eerily similar to the manga Battle Royale.  And yet Suzanne Collins probably never read it.  She just also happened to come up with a story about a large group of teens being forced to fight to the death.

In fact, Christopher Booker claims that there are only 7 plots to choose from, which makes it amazing that more books aren’t complete rip-offs.

And people come up with the same idea at the same time all the time!

According to this article, many well-known inventions were developed right around the same time: the film projector was invented by two different people in the same year.  Two people developed ATMs only a year apart, same with the microchip.  Just because these inventors were working on similar projects doesn’t mean anyone stole anyone else’s idea.

But plagiarism…

Most of the time, similar ideas do not a plagiarism case make.  Sherrilyn Kenyon, for example, sued Cassandra Clare for copyright and trademark infringement, because Clare’s Shadowhunter series is very similar to Kenyon’s Dark-Hunter series.  Despite pages and pages outlining the similarities between the two series, the claims were dropped.  The same with the lawsuit against Dan Brown.

Why did I even decide to read a book so similar to my own?

To be fair, while I knew One Second After was a post-apocalyptic novel, I didn’t know much else about it.  It was only after I started reading that these similarities hit me.

But I do like to read novels similar to those I am writing.  If I’m writing historical fiction, I read other books set in that time period, listen to music of the era, and watch historical movies and documentaries.  The immersion keeps my brain suffused with thoughts of my story.

In the past I’ve googled story ideas I’ve had.  Like my idea for a children’s book about potty training called “The Princess and the Pee” (it’s been done, more than once).

In my opinion, if you’re writing in a certain genre, you should know what else has been published in that genre so you know that you’re not being derivative.

So what should I do?

While my unwritten novel might have a few of the same elements, the actual plot of my story is quite different.  And since my story takes place five years after the blackout, it will be a different sort of story than One Second After, which is about the immediate response to the event.

However, knowing that there’s another post-apocalyptic novel with a diabetic character makes me think that my idea isn’t so unique.  I’m already brainstorming other high stakes situations my characters can find themselves in.  I think my novel will be better for it.

6 thoughts on “when your idea was already someone else’s

  1. viviankirkfield says:

    Fabulous post, Kate~ And yes, this happens so often in the picture book writing world also.It’s happened to me and to many of my friends.

    I’ve researched a topic for a nonfiction pb bio…checked Amazon and WorldCat.org to make sure there aren’t others out there about the same person…or, if there are, that they are about a different incident in that person’s life. And I start writing. And sometimes, it gets as far as becoming a polished manuscript. And once it even got to the contract stage! But wait! While my agent and I were negotiating a couple of the clauses with the publishing house (one of the big 5), another imprint of that same parent company announced on PW with a similar title on the same person. YIKES! Had it been a different publishing house, it might have been okay. But because both were imprints of the same parent company and shared the same sales and marketing team, it was a no go. *sigh*

    Hopefully, another publishing house will fall in love with that particular manuscript. But it definitely wasn’t plagiarism on either my part or the other author…we don’t even know each other. As you mentioned, there are a finite number of plots/story ideas out there. And we each bring our own unique voice to the story that we are telling. And then we hope for the best. 🙂

    • Kate says:

      Crazy to think that it can get so far in the publishing process only to discover the synchronicity of ideas!! There is definitely a huge difference in author voices, point of view, and tone that can make two books on the same topic very different. Good luck in finding a place for your story!

    • mona861 says:

      Vivian, As you well know, this happened to me! It hurt for awhile, but reading this will make me think again about digging the story out of the drawer it’s stuffed in! Great article-thank you.

  2. willowspring says:

    This is especially difficult when you write biography. If it’s a similar plot with different twists, names, time period, etc, you may be able to keep writing. Not so if you’re writing about one single person! I have a few I’m working on now, and fingers and toes are crossed that no one else is writing about these amazing people right now. 🙂

    • Kate says:

      That is true, although I feel like there are a lot of times when multiple biographies of a person are published around the same time. There are tons of bios on each president. You can definitely have a point of view about the person you’re writing about, and that can make your book different. For example, I’ve read two different books about Elizabeth of Bathory: one proposed that she was the basis for Stoker’s Dracula, and the other proposed that she was set up and her reputation smeared. Then again, if someone just published a book about your person, you might have to wait a few years so that the market isn’t saturated. But I feel your pain, Vivian’s comment is about this exact problem!

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