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Writing Books (that have already been written…)

It happened again.

I know I’m not alone. You come up with a thrilling idea, write a short story or even a novel, giddily tell all your friends, enter it to contests, give it to early readers…

…and someone has already written it.

And it’s fabulous! And it’s popular! And everyone loves it! And it’s not yours!

I’m not talking about plagiarism. I’m talking about William Pène du Bois saying someone else had almost the same plot as his lovely The Twenty-One Balloons, when they’d never shared their work with each other. About the increasing number of times that I have a great idea and readers say, “Oh, like xyz fantasy thing. That was great.”

It’s been happening since I started writing. One of the first characters salvaged from my early days of bundling up fantasy clichés that survives in the 1,000+ page draft of my epic is, point for point, Strider from The Lord of the Rings. Same table in the inn, too. And I only discovered this on my first reading of The Fellowship. I didn’t know anything about him before then. He’s never mentioned in the Hobbit (contrary to Peter Jackson’s interpretation).

The next remarkable occasion was more recent–I wrote a fantasy/supernatural/coming of age/ghost story thing with train stations and flowering trees and lots of feels set in Japan–and ta-da! Apparently the name of my main character was remarkably similar to that of the one in Spirited Away, the fabulous Ghibli Studio movie, which, please note, I had yet to see.

I did watch it shortly after that stressful workshop. It was a wonderful film, but rather like watching a candle melt into a pile of goo as I recognized the similarities between my story (which, frankly, is creepier and a lot less whimsical) and the film. How does this keep happening? Off I rush to change my main character’s name–and ultimately trade the happy ending for a heartbreaking one.

The most recent incident? Yesterday. Understand–I don’t read a lot of YA. I like either a fuzzy-sweater, feel-good middle-grade fantasy or I’ll go straight to the adult section for some Tolkien or those-who-wish-they-were-he. So I’d only heard the vaguest rumors about The Mortal Instruments.

Stumbled across the trailer for the 2013 movie yesterday.

Black hoodie? Check. Dark monsters that disappear when you stab ’em? Check. Grumpy supernatural side character keeping the hopeless protagonist alive? Check again.

(cue BookmarkedOne caught between an emergency library trip to read all The Mortal Instruments books and smashing her head repeatedly against her keyboard with a strangled wolf howl)

Seriously! It has the same plot and mood as a story I entered to the WOTF contest a few months ago. And mine won a Silver Honorable Mention! So what’s going on here? I really hadn’t heard about the books–I didn’t know The Mortal Instruments and Mortal Engines were two different things until yesterday. How could I possibly know that someone had already written my invisible monster-world?

On the bright side, I’m not alone. And if the immense fandom for Strider and my silver mention are any indicator, I’ve stumbled upon characters and stories that could be perfectly successful–anything that I’ve accidentally rewritten already has a major fandom.

I know. I’m still a little disappointed the things I came up with aren’t entirely mine. That someone else has a claim on them too, however strange it is that we both arrived at the same place. I like the idea of pulling stories out of the air, never before seen in the world.

But they say that every story has been told at least once. That nothing is completely new, just…rearranged in a different way. After all, Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin is drawn from Finnish and Norse epics–the plot almost exactly the same. And if the Master of All Fantasy did it…should I really be so worried?

Anyway, it’s impossible for me to write something in exactly the same way. I’m far too obstinate and kooky for that.

Thoughts? Feelings? Regrets? Love the books? Written something that’s already been done by someone else? Want to chat? Comment away; I’m always listening.

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2 responses to “Writing Books (that have already been written…)”

  1. Ack, it’s so hard. I’ve heard the saying, “There’s nothing new under the sun” a million times, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to bang my head against the wall when I realize I’m inadvertently copying something. *sigh*
    A friend, upon hearing about one of the books I’ve written, recommended one of their old favorites and…it was weirdly similar. It wasn’t so much the same that it felt like I had copied it, but it definitely felt like something I could have read and been inspired by–maybe my book could even have been a retelling–but I’d never even HEARD of this book before.
    I also recently realized the alarming similarity between two of my own books. How did I end up with two books where there’s an older brother whose names starts with the letters Ja and a younger brother whose names starts with Ph that makes an F sound, and the younger brother is super anxious and the older brother is fiercely protective of the younger one and has serious anger issues???

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, yes, rewriting my own novels is something I struggle with too! I accidentally wrote the same scene on a train/streetcar in two totally different stories. It was definitely a head-smack moment when I realized. Apparently I was in the mood for some trains?

      Liked by 1 person

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