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.