This topic was suggested by Jon Gawne.
Writers, by and large, are simple creatures who live their lives according to a collection of old wives’ tales and myths, including a firm belief that you can turn magical thinking into a paying career and a firm belief that writing is a paying career. Ah, such innocence!
Another cherished belief many writers have is that their ideas are somehow wholly unique and original. I am reminded, ironically, of Paul McCartney’s story about writing the famous song Yesterday. He says the melody came to him and he was convinced he must have heard it somewhere else and nicked it unconsciously (something that would bite bandmate George Harrison in the ass years later) because it was too good. Only after spending months humming it to people and asking if they could identify it did he finally accept that he’d come up with it.
Writers should never do that with novel ideas, because if you’re looking for prior work that has more or less the same idea, you will almost certainly find it. Because there are no new ideas.
The President’s Dead!
A few years ago I wrote a novel about the designated survivor during the State of the Union Address—the member of the cabinet who is secured someplace just in case the entire line of succession is murdered in a terrorist attack or something. It was called Designated Survivor, which is also the title—and premise—of a TV show. To be fair, it wasn’t exactly a new idea when I wrote the novel, and my treatment of the premise went in a weirdo SF direction.
Still, the TV show kind of kills any hope I might have had of publishing the novel. This stuff happens, though, because ideas are constantly being recycled, and half the battle in publishing is timing. What do you do if you’ve been working on a novel and suddenly someone else publishes something with a similar premise? Here are your steps to work through:
- DON’T imagine they somehow stole your idea. Put down your phone and step away from the lawyers, because your idea just isn’t that unique. Trust me on this.
- DO keep working on the story if you’re still excited about it. You might find ways to twist things and set it apart from your new competition, and even if you don’t, you’ll enjoy finishing the story and maybe learn something.
- DON’T start pestering the other party on social media about stealing your ideas. Also, don’t mention how you had the same idea years earlier at every goddamn party and gathering, because trust me: No one cares.
- DO chalk it up to the fundamental perversion of the universe, hit control-N, and start writing something new.
That’s it. This shit happens, there’s no defense, and you can’t do anything about it. Well, that’s not 100% true—if you write a version of that idea that is so wildly better done than any other version, you might yet sell it. Accept that challenge or move on to your next idea. It’s that simple.