If you think that you’ve found a great idea for a novel, worked on a suspenseful plot, developed likeable characters, a unique setting, chances are that someone somewhere is writing a similar story.
It has happened to every writer. You submit a picture book manuscript to hear that the editor has just accepted a story just like yours, so she has to decline. You have the perfect topic for a biography and boom another writer has just been offered a contract for the same bio.
Until it happens to you, you feel for your writer friend who tell you how disappointed she is and you comfort her the best you can.
But when you read the brief synopsis of a YA fiction novel that sounds so familiar that you think this is my synopsis, you respond with your guts and clichés.
First you gasp. You have been hit in the stomach.
Then your heart starts pounding. Adrenaline rushes through your body.
Finally you start your grieving journey.
Impossible. It can’t be. It’s a bad dream.
You blame the writer who got your idea. Then you blame yourself. You’ve been lazy. Someone else has reached the final line while you plowed your way through your first draft.
Have you lost your capacity to write anything original? Is your work useless? Are you done with writing?
Ideas are in the air, related to your period of time. Millions share your concerns. Millions think like you. So it makes perfect sense that for each idea you have someone else has the same.
The joy and suffering, the doubt and elation that you experienced and sustained you, day after day, while you wrote, why wouldn’t they come back? It is only up to you to make it happen. Again.
Of course it is easier to write about these strong emotions than it is to act.
On Wednesday as I was trying to figure out what to do with my story, I attended an author event.
Tim Egan, the author of seven books, came to the valley to talk about one of them: The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.
The Dust Bowl has deep resonance here in Central California where thousands of Oklahoma people settled after leaving despair behind.
In addition to the historical importance of his book, Egan interested me as a writer. He said that he knew there was a story to write when he realized that American textbooks were covering the Dust Bowl tragedy in a short paragraph and always from the perspective of the people who fled.
So unlike Steinbeck who wrote about the ones who left, Egan chose to write about the ones who stayed behind and survived through the Dust Bowl.
There are at least two sides to the same story, he insisted, and it is necessary to tell the side less traveled. There are also different ways to tell the same story.
My novel idea was obviously not unique. Does it mean that there is only one story for one idea? I’m still saddened and undecided, but I have moved beyond my initial visceral reaction and I am contemplating the future of my draft.
Like roses come in different colors and shapes, offering a palette of fragances, stories based on the same idea have more than one side.
And there are also more than one way to tell them.