Wednesday, February 8, 2012

RTW: Not So New Idea

Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question and answer it on our own blogs. This week's Road Trip Wednesday asks: 

What SNI (shiny new idea) were you psyched to work on, but discovered it was too close to something already done?

First I want to share my favorite secondhand story related to this topic. I remember (and hopefully I remember correctly, because unfortunately I can't find the entry now, so this could all be some crazy coinage of my brain) Neil Gaiman blogging that he once had the idea for a book about a school for wizards but didn’t pursue it at the time, and then a year or two later Harry Potter hit and it was too late. I've never met a Neil Gaiman book that I didn't love to the point of obsession, so I never thought I’d be glad about him not writing something, but can you imagine what might have happened? His wizarding school book comes out to Gaiman-sized acclaim, and then maybe Rowling can’t get a publisher because her story looks like a knockoff from some random amateur (there were of course some wizarding school books before HP, but none that were super famous and currently dominating the field), and suddenly there’s no Harry Potter in the world. I’m depressed just thinking about that alternate history.

My own Oh-no-someone-already-used-my-idea! story is less potentially dramatic, but it also worked out fine in the end, even though I actually wrote the thing before discovering that my shiny new idea and title weren't exactly shiny or new. 

2009 was my first NaNoWriMo. I had never written anything close to a full novel draft before, and I was afraid I would run out of plot ideas by the end of the first week. I decided it would be easiest to write some sort of bicycle saga since my husband and I had just finished a two month cross-country tandem bicycle trip that left us enough crazy stories for a lifetime. Working to make it YA and as NOT autobiographical as possible, I made the protagonist a teenage boy angry at the world for taking away his grandmother and mother and leaving him with a father who alternates between neglectful and controlling. After an especially nasty fight with his father, he leaves home, lies about staying with his aunt for the summer, and takes off on a bicycle trip/journey of self-discovery, traveling much of it with another guy who’s also trying to figure out his life before he leaves for college. 

I successfully finished it for NaNoWriMo, and while the draft wasn’t exactly great, I thought it was salvageable if I could figure out that extra something that it needed. I considered adding a dark supernatural angle (because it felt weird for me to be writing contemporary anyway) but that wasn’t it. At least I had a great title, one that connected to both bicycles and the characters’ changing lives: SHIFT. Then one day I found this:

On Amazon
I guess I wasn’t surprised to find a bicycle book called Shift. But this one also happens to be a YA novel about two teenage boys who go on a cross-country bicycle adventure/journey of self-discovery after high school graduation, and one of them has neglectful, domineering parents and lies about staying with an uncle. 

Crap.

And Jennifer Bradbury even found that extra edgy twist that I knew my story was missing: in her Shift, the friends fight and part ways, planning to finish their trips separately… Except one of them never makes it to the coast. A heated investigation begins, secrets are uncovered, lives are upended... it sounds like exciting stuff, and I’m actually eager to read it now that I’m over my disappointment that it, you know, exists.

And it wasn't too hard to get over that disappointment, honestly. If I was fully dedicated to getting my story published, I could have made some minor changes to make it work. But I quickly came to realize that this story wasn’t the one. It was a starter novel destined for the trunk, though I’ll always be glad I wrote it and maybe I’ll revisit parts of it in the future. I learned quite a bit from writing it, after all... including to check the popularity of my intended title and concept early in the game!

Have you ever come up with or written about an idea only to see it already published somewhere?

18 comments:

  1. I didn't know that about Neil Gaiman--interesting!

    "If I was fully dedicated to getting my story published, I could have made some minor changes to make it work. But I quickly came to realize that this story wasn’t the one. It was a starter novel destined for the trunk..."

    It sounds like, in the end, it wasn't the similarities to something else that sunk the story, but the story itself. Which only goes to underscore the point that it's your telling of the story that matters, not how much it resembles something else.

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    1. Exactly. I'm actually glad it happened to this story, which wasn't going places as it was anyway. Really my only gripe is that Shift has been my only manuscript to date where the perfect title came to me easily!

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  2. I actually read that book awhile ago... :)

    I once wrote a fantasy YA/MG book about a boy named Harry - many years before the Harry we all know and love appeared - but he never made it out into the world. But, no worries - JK had nothing to fear from my Harry anyway. It was a different story, different voice, etc but every once in awhile I think of my Harry and wonder... :)

    What about a different version of that bike trip - maybe from a girl's pov? Or a memoir/non-fiction version? A collection of short stories tied together by the road itself... (Okay, sorry, I'm done now...)

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    1. I've actually been planning on doing a travelogue/memoir, or at least some short nonfiction pieces about trip, ever since we got back from it two years ago. I even have the raw material since we kept a blog, so I really have no excuse!

      And thanks for sharing about your Harry. It's definitely interesting to think about the names that won't appear in fiction for a while because they have such strong associations from a famous work.

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  3. Well my story could be a distant relative from a novel I read after I finished the first draft. But it would not be a blood relative and they don´t really look alike, they just have some of the same people in their lives :D

    I have to say, it must take a lot of courage to take that first draft and put it aside because you simply know it´s not THE one...Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks, Elodie. And I love your relative analogy!

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  5. Umm, sorry, about the mistake-comment. I always copy and re-paste my comments before sending them (in case the internetz eat them up in the process, which has happened several times), and apparently I didn't copy the comment I wrote for you, but rather pasted a comment from another blog. Dur.
    Anyhow, I agree with you about Neil Gaiman not writing the wizarding school book. Because Harry Potter is, well, Harry Potter.

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    1. No problem, Kris. I copy and paste comments when Blogger is acting up too.

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  6. I agree-- that looks like a really interesting book, and I don't typically read a lot of contemporary. It kind of looks like something Caroline B. Cooney might right, y'know? Great post!

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    1. AGH write, not right. Curse you, late hours!

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  7. I'm SO glad Gaiman never wrote the wizard book! A world without Harry Potter is not a world I want to live in.

    And that totally sucks about your bike novel, but you were brave to shelf it. At least it was good practice :)

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  8. That does look interesting and you must have winced indeed. How sucky! I bet you learned heaps writing it!!

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  9. Hi Jillian! I'm a Neil Gaiman fan, and I'd never heard that story- very interesting! I wanted to let you know I gave you a Kreativ Blogger Award today over on my blog! unavoidableawkwardness.blogspot.com

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  10. This is a fabulous post! I loved reading it! I haven't had the same experience, exactly, but maybe it was just because I didn't look hard enough. :) There's one idea I shelved, but it was because my kids weren't very excited about it. They're my gauge.

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    1. Thanks, Peggy. I look forward to the day when when I have little beta readers in my house :-D

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