Your story, written by someone else

Man with his face in his hands
Credit: Scott Liddell/sxc.hu

It’s every unpublished writer’s worst nightmare—browsing the bookstore shelves and discovering that someone else has written the same story you’ve sweated over for a year. Only they’ve written it faster. And—that obnoxious little voice tells you—they’ve probably written it better.

You have two options. One: pretend you never saw it, then let the questions eat away at you. Or two: buy the book and satisfy yourself that it’s different enough to yours.

I know a lot of people avoid reading stories from their genre while they’re writing because they don’t want to be inadvertently influenced, but I’d go for option two.

For one thing, the blurb on the back of a book could never give you a sense of all the nuances of a story, and it’s those nuances that will distinguish your book from another’s. Your voice, your secondary conflicts, your characters—there’s no way they’ll be exactly the same as someone else’s. While it may be difficult for you to assess your own nuances impartially, seeing the many ways your story is different can be reassuring. Why let the unknown eat away at your confidence and motivation?

For another, you may discover ways to work out problems with your own manuscript. If someone else dealt with the same set-up, they probably encountered some of the same plot problems. Clearly you don’t want to copy what they’ve done, but you may be inspired to find different solutions. Maybe your main character needs to make a decision—you’ve seen how another author approaches it, so what would happen if your character chose a different route? Your story could spin off into an entirely new direction and end up so different that no one will ever know you once feared it was the same story.

Have you ever found a story that sounds like yours? What did you do? Do you avoid reading similar-sounding stories in order to avoid being influenced?

17 thoughts on “Your story, written by someone else

  1. This happened to me last year! I was whiling away some time in a bookstore, en route to a movie, when I turned around and there staring me in the face (well, at eye level — you know what I mean ;-)) was “my” book! It even had my working title! I think my heart missed a few beats. I read the blurb and it was 3 friends, Women of a Certain Age [check, check] going through life crises [check] and dating younger men [check].
    I did not buy the book. Not there, anyway. Damned if I was going to pay full price for something I didn’t want to exist, much less to read.
    But I’d been working for months on my novel, I had about 60K at that point, and a carefully-worked out structure. So of course I had to read it. If I had to change anything in my plot, the sooner the better.

    I ordered it on Amazon. While I waited for it to arrive, several calm and rational writer friends talked me down off the ledge 😉 and reminded me that many many many novels in this genre (in any genre, really) have similar basic plot points. Look at all those girls in love with vampires!

    So, the Evil Book arrived and I read it in a day. After the first few pages I thought “this isn’t very good” [I used a different expression, but I’ll be polite here ;-)] And to my VAST relief, the basic plot was quite different, despite the superficial similarities.
    So, I continued onward, with a little extra motivation — I really want to get my novel Out There before any more Evil Books appear on the shelves ;-D

    1. I can imagine how relieved you must’ve been to discover the Evil Book was nothing like your book, Deb. It’s amazing how the back of a book gives so little information about what a book’s really like. And I’m looking forward to seeing yours in bookstores (I’ll even pay full price for it!).

  2. On many occasions, I have found books that look or sound just like my own. Generally my reaction is the same. First, my heart stops and time seems to freeze. After all, this is the moment my life’s work falls apart. Second, I come to the same dilemma mentioned in this blog: To read, or not to read. I’ve done both options. Whenever I read the book, I end up feeling better. Quite often their story is completely different and in no way comparable to my own. In the early years of my book’s creation I would rush home and start making massive changes. I had to be different– original. It wasn’t until later that I came up with a phrase that has not only prevented me from rewriting my book every other year, but has also kept me sane. “There is no such thing as an original idea, only an idea made original.” So that’s what I try to remember when I think someone else has gotten to my story first. Then I go home and keep writing. I keep working at making that idea original.

    1. So glad I’m not the only one! I love the thought of making an idea original. Good for you, Lindsay, for refusing to let a similar-sounding story defeat you.

  3. There are, after all, only seven basic plots–
    1. The Quest (Lord of the Rings)
    2. Voyage and Return (Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver’s Travels)
    3. Rebirth (A Christmas Carol, Beauty and the Beast)
    4. Comedy (When Harry Met Sally)
    5. Tragedy (Hamlet, McBeth)
    6. Overcoming the Monster (Silence of the Lambs, Dracula)
    7. Rags to Riches (Cinderella, Great Expectations)
    So of course we’ll all see “our” books under other names. And in the romance genre, even more so. But Lindsay has it right–originality is the key. That’s why voice is so important–YOUR voice–since no one will ever have it but you.

    What I hate is seeing “my” titles and character names already on the shelf. That sucks.

    1. Kaki, how cool would bookstores be if they shelved books based on that list instead of genre? Of course, as a writer you’d probably stumble across loads more books that sounded like yours, but as a reader you could discover so many different voices telling one story with incredible variety.

      Hmm, something to think about for my eventual retirement.

    1. You’re right, Terry. It’s definitely frustrating, and I’ve found the only way I can reassure myself that my voice and my take on the story are truly different is by reading the other book. As much as a writer’s brain will tell her that every story will sound different, it’s hard to convince her heart of that.

  4. I definitely avoid reading it. Like you said, I’m afraid of subconsciously going the same route. Besides, when Oprah asks me if I got my idea from that novel, I want to be able to honestly say, “I’ve never read it in my life.”

    1. Ahh, Oprah would never be that mean! She’d tell you how brilliant your novel is, Mallory, and then you’d become a kajillionaire.

  5. I’m just going through a particularly bad case of this. I was given a book to review only to find, to my horror, that the first third or so is extremely similar to something I’ve been writing, on and off, for years. One of the main characters is also unbelievably similar to one of my own, and will certainly need drastic change. I’ve got a horrible feeling that I’ll have to set aside quite a lot of my work.

  6. This happened to me today. A friend was describing a book she just read and it was very, very similar to the one I’ve been working on for over a year now. I’ll probably read it.

  7. Happened to me also last night, except… Mine is non-fiction – a specific system for parents and kids for order and structure in the home. There are a couple books like it and I don’t want to read them because I am scared that it’s the same system. I also found a website that was very similar but not the same. I put so much of mine and my children’s life into this. So many people I know are anxiously awaiting it to be published. I would hate to see it all be a waste. It makes me nauseous.

    1. Oh, don’t feel nauseous, Angela. I’m sure you’ll get there! Your voice and your experience are your own – no one can replicate that. Just figure out how your book is different and how you can communicate that to publishers. Best of luck!

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