“Accidental Plagiarism”

Yesterday I talked about how great the NaNoWriMo Forums have been to me. And today’s post has once again been inspired there.

As I’ve said, I’m on the NaNoWriMo forums nearly every day. It’s a great community. And in the couple of years I’ve been hanging around there, I’ve seem more than one post like this one (posted this morning in the All Ages Coffee House):

“I’m watching a wonderful, wonderful BBC show called Being Human.  The story they’re telling is different from mine, but the bones of it … it’s like they read my mind and stuck it on the screen.  It’s so beautiful and amazing and I love it, but it’s also heartbreaking because now I’m not sure if there’s a point in telling my story.  They already said it.”

Or this:

“So all of November I was writing in speed racer mode, getting as many words down as possible. Come December first I had a week of major writer’s block. Finally I went back and began writing. I started with rewriting my first chapter. I was so proud of my work that I had to show my friend. My friend read it, and immediately accused me of plagiarizing L.J. Smith’s Vampire Diaries. She lent me her copy of the novel, and she was right. My first chapter looks as if I changed a few key details of L.J’s first chapter.”

While it is never fun to find out that our ideas aren’t quite as unique as we might think they are, truthfully the anguish man writers feel when they find these similarities seems to come from the thought that ideas are what make novels great. This thought is also what leads many new writers to ask how to copyright an idea (which you can’t do) just so someone won’t come across somewhere they’ve mentioned their story and all of a sudden swoop in and take it, as is summed up in this post:

“I’d be gut wrenched to wake up one day and see my plot silently taken and on top of the NY Times Best Seller list – for instance written and published off my synopsis – by another person without my ever knowing. As such I’ve never given a synopsis of it on any kind of forum before. It’s just too risky to me.“

I admit, I fully understand this fear. I was definitely someone who was scared of being scooped, so to speak, back when I first began writing. Scared that someone would tell my story first and all of a sudden I wouldn’t be able to do anything with my baby since it was already out there. And that is the reason finding out something you’ve written seems dangerously close to something already published is devastating. It isn’t so much the idea that people are going to sue you for plagiarism (which they couldn’t do, since it is not possible “accidentally” plagiarize someone) it’s that the idea that has been so precious to you, that you’ve been working with, tweaking, rewriting, and polishing isn’t as unique and special as you thought it was.

In a recent interview I did, I was asked for the top five things I’d tell aspiring novelists. For Number Five, I said, “Trust People.” The longer you write, spend time with writers, or deal with anything in publishing, the more you realize that nothing is truly original. Something can be an interesting idea that hasn’t been overdone, but if you can’t find one part of your book that is like any one of the millions of books out there, you more than likely just haven’t looked around enough. Furthermore, even if two people came up with the same idea right now, the actual writing would be nothing alike. It’s why you don’t get thirty of the same story in a creative writing class when everyone is given the same prompt.

It’s no fun when you have someone accusing you of taking someone else’s ideas. It’s no fun when you find out that your amazing idea isn’t quite as original as you thought it was. But ideas are only one very small part of what makes a good novel good. The writing, the characters, the actual plot…they are all more important than the premise.

So keep writing, trust others, and trust yourself. Your novel is going to be good or bad based on what you do. There are always going to be other people who come up with something that seems eerily similar to your book, but that doesn’t mean yours is any less (or any more) worth reading. Just keep writing, and see what you end up with.


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