Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, August 25, 2014

What to write about when it feels like everything has already been written

This unnerving moment happens to every writer:

You finally get the nerve to tell someone your idea for a book. You describe your idea, you brace yourself for whether they think it's good or bad, but instead they say, "Oh yeah, that sounds like [X book]."

You blink a few times as your face flushes. Someone already had the same idea??? And the book is already published??

Are you now completely, colossally screwed?

No! You're not. Deep breaths.

There are hundreds of thousands of books out there. The odds that you will come up with completely original book that does not remind anyone of another book is pretty much zero. At the end of the day, originality is somewhat overrated.

Still, it can be disheartening to feel like you're simply retracing someone else's footsteps, and it may leave you bewildered. What do you do?

Here are some scenarios and what to do about them:

When all of your ideas for novels feel like books you have already read:

Keep thinking. Keep brainstorming.

If you're not feeling impressed or excited by your own idea there's no way you're going to sustain enough momentum to write a whole novel. When the writing gets hard it's only your belief in your idea that will sustain you.

Don't settle for an idea that you feel is vaguely uninspiring. Keep pushing yourself to find something better.

When it feels like you are imitating someone else's voice:

When you are just starting out, you may annoy yourself to death because you know you sound exactly like your favorite writer or the most recent book you read. You can't stop yourself from imitating.

This is totally, perfectly okay. Just go with it. Get the words out there. Don't stop writing.

What will happen over time is that you will gradually start to find your own voice. You'll start sounding less like your favorite writer and more like you.

And when you do, you can go back and rewrite the opening part where you were imitating. It will be much easier to go back and revise the voice than it would have been if you had obsessed over your voice from the start.

When you're writing a novel and then find out someone else already had a similar idea:

This is somewhat inevitable. There are tons of books already out there, we've been telling stories for thousands of years, and there are only so many combinations of events that can be shoehorned into a story.

The important thing to focus on is what makes your story unique. You need a unique setting, unique characters, and a unique style.

If the world of your novel feels very different than the previous similar book, chances are people won't even make the connection.

When you look at your unfinished novel and think, "Why in the world is anyone going to care about this with all the other stories out there?"

Have faith!

If every writer who experienced this feeling stopped writing there wouldn't be any books out there at all.

Everyone wonders why anyone would care about their book. Everyone has moments of self-doubt and feeling of futility.

Don't give into these feelings. If you power through and finish your novel you'll be immensely glad you gave your dreams a shot.

Do you ever have these moments of doubt? How did you get through?

Art: View of the Salon Carré at the Louvre by Alexandre Brun


Heather Button said...

I feel like this all the time. Especially with all the stories out there. I guess I just have to make it better.

Anonymous said...

I think more writers should realize that whatever they do is going to be different from what other writers do because we all have a different voice. I have never once met two writers with the same's like handwriting, or fingerprints.

I personally don't believe there are any new storylines left. I think people who do think there are are fooling themselves...(at least in the sense that readers will like it. There are new storylines but those books rarely sell many copies.) And I think people who slam writers for taking old tropes and reinventing them are amateurs. It's really about how it's done.

Matthew MacNish said...

This is why I don't read.

Julia Munroe Martin said...

Yes, I had this happen to me (and I'd already started to query): same historical person, same-ish time period. It was hard, but as you suggested, I focused on what made my story unique. And when I did, I realized the stories were really quite different. I agree that it's pretty inevitable.

TP Hogan said...

Solomon once said, "There's nothing new under the sun."
If he said that so long ago, then I'd imagine there is even less "new under the sun" these days.
I completely agree with the suggestion to focus on what makes your story unique. If you don't do that, it is so easy to be discouraged. Thanks for putting it so succinctly.

Bryan Russell said...

Plus, lots of readers want something that is "similar but different." They don't want a cliché or a sham rip-off, but something that reconnects them with the love for their favorite books can be beneficial.

Anonymous said...

What Bryan Russell said. It's better for your idea to remind someone of other books rather than nothing. The latter typically means one of two things: A) they don't read your genre (bye-bye potential reader) or B) your book is so out-there, it's unpublishable. Unfortunately, I think I'm in the latter category...

Bruce Bonafede said...

This just happened to me! I've been writing a novel about men on a whaling ship serving under a crazy captain who's obsessed with finding and killing a white whale. I told my friend who's an English professor about it and he said, "Jeez, I don't know. It sounds familiar." I was like, "Oh no, what do I do?" But I figured it out. I'm going to tell the story from the whale's point of view.

wendy said...

From my own reading interests, I agree with Bryan Russell. I don't care how many people write about fantastical, beautiful otherworld places peopled with folk who are kind, sweet, noble, while being a little bit quirky. Although I don't think many have?

As far as getting sick of the current wip, I'm there now. I haven't worked on it all the time, as I've had years off to do other things, but the work was started around fifteen years ago, and I can't seem to get it properly edited for self-publishing. On this, what I swear will be the final read-through and edit, there are mistakes in nearly every paragraph. How can this be possible after so many years of fine-tuning? Plus, I'm starting to perceive the story concepts as too over-the-top with inconceivable plot twists, and with a lead male character who seems flat and lacking in anything engaging. I'm starting to hate the whole project. However, I put it out for a review from a book site, several months ago, and it was given four out of four stars, so perhaps it's not as bad as I've come to think.

I think anyone who completes a novel and manages to self-publish has achieved a Herculean accomplishment given what they've been up and against, externally and internally, and should feel like they've won a great victory over mind and circumstance regardless of how well it does on the market.

Linda S Taylor said...

There are two truths in writing:

1. There are no new ideas.

2. Give two writers the same instructions exactly, and you will have two very different books!

That should take care of your fears!

Petrea Burchard said...

Way to go, Bruce!

I started the same novel three times and got stuck. I was bored with it. There's no reason for anyone to read it if I don't even want to write it.

I have another idea that will be more work, but also more fun. I don't want to know how unoriginal it is.

K. L. Romo said...

Thanks for the post Nathan. It hit home.

Karen A. Chase said...

I had an agent reject my recent historical novel because she felt everyone already "knows what happened to the Constitution." First, my story is about the Declaration. Second, I really believed Americans didn't know this story and I had a unique way to tell it. I recently signed with a wonderful NY agent who thankfully felt the same way.

Karen A. Chase said...

Also, if screen writers felt this way, we would never have had the movies Titanic, Apollo 13, Lincoln, etc... Everyone knows the boat sank, the astronauts returned, and the amendment was passed, but there were moments you weren't certain. That's great writing.

Neil Larkins said...

Now that I've begun writing memoirs, which are mostly for the sake of my grandchildren, I'm getting that same realization: This really happened to me, but someone has already written a novel on it...or done a worn-out TV series/movie. But when I realize that life imitates art and vice versa, I go on. After all, when it comes to TV series, where do you find the most imitation? And yet we still get spades and occasionally a new idea shines through. In the final analysis, no one has lived your life and if this is where you are drawing your writing from, whether memoir or fiction, then it's going to have some aspect that no other work can long as it's honest.

Chris Bailey said...

How to get through the despair of self-doubt? Bookmark posts like this one! Thank you!

Writerly said...

There may very well still be original concepts left to explore, because our ability to imagine expands as the human experience continues to evolve in the modern age. That said, I personally am not more likely to be impressed or engaged by a story simply because it presents a novel idea. As a reader I am more interested in the implementation and follow-through of an idea from start to finish. Some of the best works I have ever read were quite ordinary in concept but in character development, narrative construction, and deftness of writing - they simply could not be beat. Those stories are some of the most vividly recollected in my mind because they left a lasting impression on me. I remind myself of this when I write.

SSteele said...

I had a dream six years ago that has stuck with me. I've googled my heart out trying to see if there's anything out there similar, and nothing. I'm almost done with my first novel, a beast of a romance, and when I say a sad farewell to my characters, (how do you experienced writers do that? I have tears in my eyes at the thought of not sharing my life with them everyday :-( ) and ship the off in a tidy little query letter, I will start working on the next MS.

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