Yesterday, I received an email from a student whom I shall call Bebe. The subject line was, "Can you talk me off the ledge?!!" I often tell people that art is an emergency, and this is what I mean by that. There are moments in the writing life that punch you in the gut, knock the breath out of you, and stop you cold. For Bebe, this was one of them.
Bebe has been working on a novel for some time now. I don't want to say a lot about it because Bebe feels very private about her story, and I wish to honor her right to keep it private, and it doesn't actually matter in terms of the point I want to share with you. Suffice it to say that Bebe's book is a complex, multi-layered, envision-a-whole-world kind of novel that has the potential for serious commercial success (it's one of those high concept ideas that makes you instantly go, "Oh COOL!") and she has been diligently plotting out the plot, figuring out her character motivations, and deciding upon a narrator, a timeframe, and every last detail of the imagined world. She'd even brainstormed the perfect title. Yesterday Bebe was reading a publishing blog and stumbled upon an announcement for a Big Juicy New Debut Novel that was eerily similar to her book. I mean, the title was nearly identical. The concept was right there in the same ballpark. The main character's name even sounded very much like Bebe's. At first glance it seemed EXACTLY LIKE HER BOOK. And this other author had managed to position herself as the next hot new thing. It was an "oh sh**" moment for sure.
"I am seriously freaking out," Bebe wrote, "I can’t help but believe if I had my book out after this one, it would be seen as derivative, no matter the truth. Have I missed my window of opportunity? Should I keep going and just do my thing, regardless? Could use the unvarnished truth, please, even if it’s painful."
Ha! Well, the unvarnished truth usually IS painful, of course. Bebe is a wise woman to lean into that pain rather than away from it. That trait will serve her just as well as her fabulous imagination and skill at putting a sentence on the page. Here is what I wrote to her:
I did a big of poking around, and that is indeed a BIG book. The author is English. She sold the book over there and got a big pre-empt offer over here -- which means that a publisher (Ecco, a division of Harper-Collins) wanted it so much that they offered enough money to keep everyone else out of the running. So there is going to be a lot of marketing money and marketing muscle around it (which is, by the way, what getting a big advance from a publisher is really all about; it's not just that YOU get money in your pocket so you can take a long-awaited scuba vacation to Aruba. It's that the publisher now has skin in the game. They need to earn the advance money back and then some. So they're going to promote the book like there's no tomorrow.). And it appears that she has also sold the movie rights.
From everything I can see, it is indeed uncannily similar to your story in a number of ways. This is bad. I mean it just IS. It's bad luck, bad timing. It will make it harder for you to sell your novel for sure. You may always get the vibe from people that your story is derivative even though it's so absolutely not, and that stinks.
So does this mean you give up? Throw in the towel and write something entirely new? Or throw in the towel and take up basket weaving instead? I don't think so, for the following reasons:
1.) Writing anything else doesn't make SENSE. It takes too long to write a good book. It takes too much of your soul. You have to write the book you have to write and you don't really have much other choice in the matter. "So this is always the key: you have to write the book you love, the book that's alive in your heart. That's the one you have to write." ― Lurleen McDaniel
2.) From time immemorial authors have written about very similar topics and themes and storylines. I mean, Romeo and Juliet, you know? My understanding is that J.R.R. Tolkein wrote The Lord of the Rings series in response to C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. He probably thought, "THAT'S your Christian allegory? I'll show you a Christian allegory..." And speaking of Shakespeare, remember how there were two movies about Shakespeare that one year? It just worked out that way. And after the success of the Twilight series, people didn't just stop writing (or reading) vampire books. Indeed the thirst (pun totally intended) for them just increased. So the existence of this other book isn't a death knell for yours. It could potentially be a good thing for yours. You never know! So I say, lean into your story. Dig hard into how yours is different -- who it's for, what its message is, how the plot resolves. And then go hard in that direction.
3.) Use the anger/jealous/bitterness/unfairness that you might feel. These emotions are not fun, but they're useful. They show you what you want. Let them fuel you to keep writing.
4.) Remember that the satisfaction comes in writing the book you want to write, and in writing it to the best of your ability. I know it's easy for me to say because I've published seven books, but it's really true. The day you finish the book and write "the end" is the best day in the life of a book, in my mind. How the world responds is not something you can control. So control what you can control. Write the best book you can and be proud of it and try as hard as you can to sell it far and wide, but always remember that the true joy lies in doing good work.
What happened to you today is one of the worst things that can happen to a writer. It's a horrible feeling and I know this was a bad day. I am so sorry you had to experience it, but I don't want you to stay out on the ledge too long. Writing is such hard soul-level work. It's best to do it inside with a cup of tea.
I THINK IN BOOKS
My friend and client Lorrie Tom suggested that I read Kirsten Lamb's Rise of the Machines: Human Writers in a Digital World. (Thanks, Lorrie!) It's a book about social media for writers but it's really a book about the new writing paradigm -- how to be a writer in a world of 500,000 self published books. I had never heard of Kirsten, but she's the guru of a wildly popular writing movement called WANA writers, which stands for We Are Not Alone. I am halfway through the book and I am pretty much turning down every page. Kirsten is lucid, realistic, passionate, opinionated, well-informed, well-connected and just plain smart. What she says is also somewhat jarring. (Like "Stop poo poo-ing Facebook, Jennie." She didn't actually say that but she might as well have....) I will be posting some of what I learn from Kristen over the next few weeks. (I think in books but I'm a slow reader when it comes to "leisure" reading. I literally read all day, thousands and thousands of words, and usually work until late into the night so I'm not super speedy with books I read for fun...)
And I have an idea! If you want to get the book and read along with me, I'll do something fun to gather all the readers together in community -- perhaps later in February or March. Let me know if that appeals to you by leaving a comment. Thanks! And happy reading.