Not too long ago I blogged about how authors can waste a lot of time speculating about the market. When we sit down to write a book we’re making such a big investment of our time that we want to make sure, from the very beginning, that the concept is as bulletproof as possible. There are few things so disheartening as to work on a story for months only to discover that someone else is writing something with a similar premise–and theirs was finished first! Now yours will never sell, or worse: you’ll look like a plagiarist!
We authors tend to be neurotic anyway, and things like this only make our mental problems worse.
I recently read two novels with a very similar concept. The first was Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer. The story follows a teenage girl as the world around her is falling apart; a massive asteroid hits the moon, knocking it closer to earth. The change in the gravitational pull causes all sorts of problems: tsunamis, volcanoes, earthquakes. Civilization begins to crumble, and the main character and her family hole up in their house to ride out the devastation and try to survive.
The other book was In a Perfect World, by Laura Kasischke. This one was adult fiction, not YA, but the premise was similar: the main character (a flight attendant) has to hole up in her house as civilization collapses around her. The catastrophe this time was a worldwide epidemic–the Phoenix Flu–rather than earthquakes and volcanoes, but the results are the same: massive depopulation, disintegration of government and infrastructure, and the resulting survival scenario.
Both books have a similar setting: they both take place almost entirely in their homes, and we very seldom see the outside world or hear the news (since the power is out and the radios run out of batteries quickly). So they’re both very insular and claustrophobic, dealing with day-to-day survival rather than the typical flashy Hollywood disaster scenarios.
But here’s the cool part: the books are completely different. The writing styles are wildly unique. In Life as We Knew it, the book is written in first person as a diary, in simple teenspeak. In A Perfect World is third person and beautiful and literary (the author is a poet). The former is straightforward and stark, while the latter is non-linear and intricate. The conflicts are different, one being all about character issues while the other being mostly plot. And both books are good.
Several months ago, when I finished reading James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, I emailed him to assure him that I hadn’t plagiarized him in my upcoming novel, Variant. On the face of it, the premise of mine is very similar to his: both are Lord-of-the-Flies situations where the characters are captured but don’t know why (though they know they’re being observed). Sure, reading that synopsis makes the two books sound extremely similar. However, the stories, characters, setting, writing styles and themes are completely different. As James pointed out in his reply: “Neither one of us came up with the premise; we were just smart enough to create really awesome versions of it.”
There’s a great line in the musical Sunday In The Park With George (about the painter George Seurat). George is discouraged about his accomplishments as an artist:
Are you working on something new?
That is not like you, George.
I’ve nothing to say.
You have many things.
Well, nothing that’s not been said.
Said by you, though, George?
I think that a lot of us writers can get so discouraged or worried about whether we’re truly original and new that we limit our opportunities to create. In the two books I mentioned above, the premises are basically the same, but the authors each created a unique, enjoyable book.
Dot’s advice later in her song applies just as well to writers as it does to painters:
Stop worrying if your vision is new.
Let others make that decision–
They usually do.
You keep moving on.