When I was planning my upcoming book, I decided to use a premise I’d had banging around in my head for several years. It was one of those great story hooks that seem to take hold and won’t let go. I had originally conceived of it as a movie idea, but had never really fleshed it out as a screenplay.
When it came time to pitch a book to my publisher, the first thing that came to mind was this premise, so I wrote up a few paragraphs and sent it off. They liked it.
After getting the deal, I set about trying to figure out how to plot the thing. I had a lot of ideas in mind, including a solution to the “mystery”(although the story is more thriller than mystery), but I was still struggling to find the right path, and eventually, every writer’s foe — insecurity — set in.
Was I going to be able to write this thing?
Then one day I was tooling around the Internet and I happened across a description for a book written by one of my favorite authors. It was a book I didn’t know about, had somehow missed, and I was excited by the discovery.
But when I read the description, my jaw just about dropped. Oh, my god. The author had used a very similar hook to the one I was gearing up to write. Worse yet, it looked like the solution to the “mystery” was identical to mine.
Needless to say, I was filled with dismay. How could I write my book now? I might as well give it up.
This kind of thing has happened to me over and over again in my many years as a writer. I come up with what I think is a unique idea only to discover that someone else has come up with the very same or a similar idea.
As upsetting as this is, whenever it happens I just say to myself, at least your ideas are commercial.
Several months ago, Tess Gerritsen talked about this on her blog after readers had contacted her to ask if she had sold her book VANISH to the movies. An upcoming TV movie had a similar premise to Tess’s story, the tale of a ruthless U.S. crime syndicate that forces foreign women into sexual slavery.
Tess explained that, no, she hadn’t sold the rights, but that these things happen. And much more frequently than we’d like.
A few days later, she and I traded emails about the subject. I told her how, fifteen or so years ago, I had sold a script to Showtime about — guess what? — a ruthless U.S. crime syndicate that forces foreign women into slavery.
So, sometimes I just have to shake my head and ask: How many stories are there out there?
How often does this idea dopplegangbang happen to other writers?
Are there only so many ideas sitting in some universal collection box, waiting to be grabbed by people like us, first come first served?
It certainly seems so.
The good thing is that my dilemma with my own upcoming book has a happy ending. Reading the synopsis of that other writer’s story turned out to be the best thing that could ever happen, because it forced me to think on my feet and to take my idea in a completely different direction.
It forced me to stretch as a writer. While that basic hook remains, the new solution to the “mystery” has made the story much richer, deeper, more complex than before.
Once I came up with that new solution, the path seemed to open up for me, introducing me to new supporting characters and situations that I would never have thought of had I stuck to the original version.
The result is a book that both my US and UK editors think is even better than the previous one, and it certainly never hurts to please your editors.
And in the end, I’ve come to realize that the premise itself is only that — a premise.
It’s execution that’s key.
You’re right. Execution is everything. How we tell these tales is what makes what we write different. Great post, Rob.
Brett’s right. Although I remember a story from an Arizona writer — Betty Webb, perhaps? — who said that she discovered her book’s doppelganger as she was penning the final lines in her first draft. And those words, that final sentence, were the same for both books. Yikes!
Execution is the key, rob. there are dozens of police procedurals, PI novels, vampire tales, etc. out there and each is made different in the telling.
I certainly take your point over stretching yourself. If I want to tackle a famaliar theme, I’m always thinking how I can do it differently.
I’ll tell you, Rob, you’ve hit the nail on the head with YOUR last line. The execution of these stories makes all the difference. The more I read, the more familiar stories seem. It’s the voice that sets the stage for me, though I do love finding a new plotline.
This happens to me all the time. I once wrote an unpublished novel about a guy who gets caught between the FBI and the mob, ala “The Firm” about a year before the book came out. It happens. Around the same time Michael Connelly wrote “Blood Work” two or three or four other authors wrote crime novels involving heart transplant patients. Must be something in the air.
Jung’s theory of a collective unconscious and archetypes explains it for me.
It’s happened to me more times than I care to remember. I even ran into trouble with KISS HER GOODBYE when I discovered that a couple other writers (in both TV and books) were working on projects utilizing the same hook.
I considered abandoning it, then decided to move forward anyway, figuring that even if the hook IS the same, my solution to the setup would be unlike anything anyone else was doing.
This is a plague of Hollywood – I’ve had to abandon projects because similar movies were announced (and Billie’s right, it’s the collective unconscious).
I think in some cases execution will save the day, but if there’s a high profile movie or bestseller out there that’s too similar to your own premise, sometimes the only thing to do is shelve it and wait a few years. But the time will come again, eventually.
“it forced me to think on my feet and to take my idea in a completely different direction.”
Good for you! Alas, there are a few writers in the world who haven’t the same set of ethics. How do I know that? Ha! Just read yesterday’s DorothyL and you’ll get the drift right quick. Imitation may be the highest form of flatterey – but not when it resorts to what some are telling me is a rip-off. And silly me! I hadn’t a clue.
Thanks SO much for your post. I too have experienced the gut-twisting revelation of finding a book with a similar premise to mine. It was not long ago that I became nauseous when I read the summary of another book described as having a female protagonist with premonitions who falls in love with the local detective. I, of course, had to rush right out and buy the book. I was very relieved that it was completely different from mine (“In Her Dreams”), which was released in February!!!Cheers to Murderati for touching on such a great topic. I’m glad to know I am not alone. Thank you.
OT, sorry, but Billie, I’m trying to e mail you through your blog and it’s not working. Can you e mail me your direct address?
Glad to know others share this anguish.