Has this happened to you? "Your story"—written by someone else

How many of you has this happened to? And what did you do or not do about it? What is “this”?
Read on:

I’ve had a particular story in my head for years. At first it was just a concept, then a premise, then it started taking shape and form. The characters started becoming real and so did their problems. But everything was in my head.

I signed up for Daniel’s Plotting & Planning course hoping it would give me the structure I needed. Excellent as it is, I still didn’t start writing, but the story continued to develop in my head with his guidance. So I finally took the bull by the proverbial horns and signed up for the PPN+ course thinking (quite rightly so far as it turns out) that it would push me to start getting things out of my head and down into the written word. All good so far, I hear you say.

Two weeks into the course and me working feverishly on the plotting and writing. I’ve been told by a friend who was listening to a podcast today (Writing Excuses), that a recently published book was discussed which sounded exactly like the one I’m trying to write. My friend said that there were differences, but that the basic premise is the same. So I have several questions for all you writers, novices and experienced alike:

  1. Should I read the other book to see if it’s the same? I’m nervous about being swayed by it.
  2. Should I carry on writing? Or try to start fresh with something new (try to forget about several years of plotting and planning in my head)?
  3. If I carry on writing, should I read the other book before I publish/attempt to publish - to determine how different or similar they are (I don’t want to be accused of plagiarism)?
  4. Carry on writing it; the experience is good and publishing the first book you ever write may not be such a good idea anyway.
  5. OR - does this happen all the time and ultimately no two books will be the same?

I’d love to hear everyone’s views, especially if this is a regular event in a “writer’s life”.

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Carry on, for sure! No two books are the same, even with a similar plot. And you’ll be surprised at how things change as you write, especially endings.
The other thing I wanted to say is that the opposite happened to me. I wrote a two-book series (not yet published) loosely based on a historical person from the 19thC. Another writer was horribly offended because she had intended writing about the husband of my protagonist. To give her due credit, she was the one who told me about the strange couple in the first place, although she did not say she wanted to write anything about them. We had differing ideas about motivations etc. The husband is a minor (albeit important) character in the first of the two books I have written. I did suggest we collaborate, but her anger was such that she never did consider it. Nevertheless,the disagreement has held me back on publication.
I feel that every story can be interpreted uniquely, even when based on history - and even when based on memory (have you ever had family arguments about what really happened that Christmas?)! Certainly stories are unique when a fiction story is told and retold by someone else, even when the same author retells a similar tale - look at Lee Child. He has written the same story dozens of times with enough small differences in details that he has a world wide audience for every book!
I say, carry on and enjoy what you’re doing. Also, probably do not read the other book.

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Thanks Tannis, you’ve immediately made me feel better.

What a fascinating experience you’ve had, in reverse to mine. It reminds me of the story of Mrs. Einstein (I can’t remember if that was the name of the book, but it was about her - I’m not even sure there was a Mrs. Einstein or if any of it was even remotely true, but the story was so well written that I became really angry at Einstein, lol). Anyway, the point being that it’s about an historical character, but from a completely different perspective, so it resonates with your own experience.

I also appreciate your sharing the perspective of not reading the other book; at least for now.

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I honestly believe that if you have a strong interest in this story you should definitely continue with it and ultimately publish it if you were planning on doing so. There is absolutely room for multiple versions of a story or retellings wouldn’t be so popular. You will be telling it from different points of view, perspectives and in a different voice and style.

I’d even encourage you to read the reviews of the already published work and improve upon it! There is SO MUCH that goes into storytelling that even though you are working from similar premises and ideas and hit similar beats you’d have to get so many things the same for it to be the same reading experience.

I understand your struggle, though. I’m currently dealing with whether or not to still use a character in a fantasy story that I developed over 10 years ago for roleplay. A character with a very similar talent appears in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series and I’m concerned readers and critics will think I ripped off the idea from him.

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Little suggestion, Argent - give your character some distinctive qualities that may have little to do with the story but make the character memorable and different from Sanderson’s (age, ethnicity, height, physical characteristics, background - anything that doesn’t affect the talents of your character).

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Oh, there is no problem with all of that being different. The specific combination of abilities that the two characters share is the equivalent of a photographic memory and the extraordinary artistic talent to portray those images for others in drawing.

The characters are otherwise very different and the worldbuilding won’t even be close to similar.

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I’m not worried that it isn’t an entirely original idea. I think I probably was inspired by the title character in the TV series Kyle XY. A really geeky thing I loved about the ability in Kyle XY was that he would draw the pictures by making dots with crayons so that he was essentially creating the photo realistic image pixel by pixel instead of the way a normal human typically draws. I didn’t go that far with my character. He draws the more traditional way.

Kyle XY is a different enough genre and medium and distant enough in time that I don’t think people will fuss but Sanderson is an extremely popular and recent author in the same, or closely enough related, genre that people are more likely to make comparisons.

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Thank you, Argent. I’m feeling better and better about this the more I hear from other, more experienced, writers. I guess I was already thinking that I can’t let this story go (it’s been in my head for far too long) and that ultimately, we all tell a story differently – just as both you and Tannnis said. But it does feel better to hear others say it.

For now, I’m itching to read the other book, but I will not permit myself to do so (although I might peek at the reviews as you suggest) until I’ve at least written the first full draft and perhaps not even then. Maybe I’ll tempt myself to write faster if I hold the carrot of having to be ready to publish first before I read the other one. :rofl: :joy: :rofl:

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More than once, have I had a similar experience. I think this is more common than we’d like to believe. I’ve heard well-published - meaning folks with several to many books on the shelf - say they’ve found (unwanted) comps during the writing process, too. As mentioned, if I were invested I’d see no reason to stop. I’d also find it nigh impossible to NOT read the other work. Who knows, perceptions by their very nature are quite subjective.

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You’re braver than me. I think I’d be swayed too easily if I thought that some aspect of the way they’ve built their world works better than the way I’d envisioned it. Then, once read, difficult to unread or forget. (Actually, I have a chronic memory these days, but if it pertained to my story, I think I would remember it for all time).

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I’d say to definitely NOT read the other book until yours is done and you’re happy with it. It’s way too easy to let a thought creep in from the other that would like them. That was probably a lot more critical during the days of publishers and big contracts and dozens of plagiarism lawsuits running around. But, truly, there are few completely original ideas in fantasy. Sci-fi, yes. Where fantasy has moved into “urban fantasy” and “urban horror,” the concepts have morphed, but I’d bet that most of us could find a spark of any “new” idea in a book out long ago.

And yeah – Plotting and Planning turned/is turning (I’m finishing it after a hiatus to actually write on another book) my life around, too. [thanks, Daniel]

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Thanks, Barbara, for sharing your views too. I agree – definitely shouldn’t read it before I’ve finished writing mine. I’m just a little wary about publishing it once I’ve finished. Particularly after the shennanigans (details are a little hazy, but red flag has been raised about this sort of thing) of the two romance books published in 2019, I think, where one tried to sue the other and it led to the RWA committee imploding. I could easily have some of the details mixed up there, but suffice to say that it has become so litigious in some sectors, that I’d hate to be accused of plagiarism (a topic within my plotline, though in an entirely different walk of life :wink:).

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Maybe you should read the other book just to reassure yourself that your treatment of the idea will be different enough because it will be in your own voice and style and have your own variations on many details. I really think, because you don’t know enough about the other work, you are overworrying this and assuming somehow you are going to write the same book.

People are going to make comparisons between the two works if they happen to read both. No big deal. Don’t worry too much about what happens in the Romance or YA worlds. There are a few crazies in there that cause problems because it is so competitive. They usually don’t have much merit to their cases and just stir up a lot of drama for a period of time before it passes.

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Thanks, Argent. When I first heard about the other book it was from a writing colleague, who mentioned the other book was discussed in reasonable detail on a writing podcast. Since the writing colleague knows my book quite well, she was in a good position to say that it did sound quite similar.

So, yes, at first, I did panic and feel a little overwhelmed. But from comments here and elsewhere I’ve come to the conclusion that I still want to write my book. It’s the one that’s been floating around my head for years and it’s screaming to get down on paper. However, I’m a novice at writing my own book, so I think it will be a good exercise to write it - regardless of whether it ever gets published or not. I’ve edited enough novice writers’ books to know that it’s highly unlikely to get much notice even if/when I do publish it. But it’s the act of writing that’s important.

However, I won’t read it for now as I will get swayed. But I will also ensure I read the other one before I publish … just in case it’s too close (also highly unlikely).

I’m no longer worrying about it. Not the least because I can’t do anything about it anyway, but I thank you for your words to help settle me.

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Oh wow, Barbara. Thank you.

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My feeling is that you should just keep writing. This is, as other people have said, more common than we might think. Elizabeth Gilbert has a whole chapter about it in her book Big Magic. And until you have finished a full, complete draft, you don’t actually know what your book will look like. Maybe you’ll discover a twist that sends you in a new direction. Maybe you won’t, but when you show your finished book to other people, no one will notice the similarity.

Now, I personally might not read the book. I might advise you to wait until you have finished a draft. Get your own story clear before encountering this other one…?

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If I were you, I’d write it. When I had a book in my head for a couple of years, then wrote it, I was surprised how it changed when I actually put the words down. After you write your manuscript, then I think you could read the similar premised book to decide if you need to make changes for yours to be exclusively yours, but I doubt they will be that similar when you finish.

The most important part is to get writing. There are exceptions where someone has their first novel published in the traditional market, and if that was yours, wouldn’t it be a shame that you never wrote it?

Good luck!

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Thanks everyone for sharing your views and experiences. These have definitely helped me to plan my course of action.

And, yes, I am still writing it via Daniel’s PPN+ course (thanks Daniel); and yes, again, it is twisting and turning from my original plot with Daniel and Allison’s input. :crazy_face:

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Press on. The book won’t write itself. And who knows what it will be when it’s finished.

I have a three-book fantasy cycle in mind; part one has very similar beats and a protagonist familiar to a certain favourite Western. Second protagonist who takes over central POV for part two and three came out of nowhere and is nothing like anyone in the Western. A third character also appeared from nowhere and gets a major supporting role in parts two and three. Part Three goes a bit Ocean’s Eleven in an urban setting. It completes a plot cycle, taking the characters into a completely different and challenging environment.

I’ve only discovered these things in the process of writing the three in parallel; part one was plotted in 24 chapters using Derek Murphy’s cheat-sheet. Even then, a second antagonist appeared out of nowhere.

Part two has only two thirds outlined; the gaps are being filled as the what-if and what-next questions come up in writing the plotted chapters.

Part Three has only a third of the book plotted and the supporting cast is appearing out of nowhere as I’m adding the beats to the outline.

Starting a story that’s ‘similar to’ is almost inevitable if you acknowledge the ‘hero’s journey’ structure or Mckee’s seventeen universal plots theory. It’s what you make of it.

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