What Makes Ideas Unique?

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

Here’s the ugly truth:  No writer exists in a void.  All writing is influenced by what has come before.  There is no such thing as being utterly, completely unique because all writing exists within a context.  In a world that’s always screaming for the Next New Thing, how do we writers reconcile that with the scary truth that there’s really no such thing as new?  Here are a few things to consider when trying to make your writing ideas unique.

1) Write what you love, not what the market “wants.”

I used to work in the toy industry and it always boggled my mind that we had to predict what kids would “want” not now but a year from now.  We could spend a whole year developing a product only to discover at the end of it all that the trend was over.  The same is true for writing.  If you’re working on your project because the genre or topic are a big hit now and you want to jump on the bandwagon, chances are you’ll be disappointed.  But if you’re working on this book because you love the subject and the characters, then no matter what happens, it’s win-win.

2) Context isn’t something to be afraid of.  Think of it as a “safety net.”

In the product development world, companies love to create extensions of popular product lines.  After all, a good chunk of the development legwork has already been done in the first version, customers recognize the brand and there’s already a built-in market for it.

Think of books that came before yours as a similar “safety net” to your project.  Study the books–both the successful ones and the ones that are less so–and think about what made them work or not work.  Think about what you can do to differentiate your project from what has come before, but still keep it within the existing context.

3) Find partners in crime.

One of my favorite things to do is go to conferences.  I love meeting other writers, learning about the craft and hearing new information about the business.  The way I see it, you never know who you’ll meet at one of these events.  It could be a new critique partner or beta reader, it could be someone you’ll collaborate with some day, it could be a future mentor or someone you might mentor yourself.  The key is to be open to possibilities.  These partners in crime may prove to be invaluable in helping you develop an idea from a vague, amorphous blob into a successful project.

4) Ideas are not books.  Books are books.

In his memoir, Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, David Morrell talks about the distinction between the idea and execution.  Every time I start getting down about how un-unique my ideas are, I reread his chapter on plot where he discusses this subject.  His main point is this: sure, an idea might be shiny and new, but an idea does not make a book unique.  What makes a book unique is how the writer implements the idea.  An example:

Take the Harry Potter series–many people marvel at J.K. Rowling’s originality. “How did she come up with such a unique idea?” they wonder.  As if all it takes to create a fantastic book (or series of books) is one extraordinary idea.  Because when you have the fun flashy idea then the book just writes itself.  Yeah right.

I don’t know about you, but I find this outlook to be rather belittling to the writer.  When people give the idea all the credit, it’s as if the writing doesn’t matter.  But as we all know, Harry Potter is about much more than just one sparkly idea.  These books are what they are because the author wrote them.  That same concept in the hands of any other writer would have turned out to be completely different.  It might still have been great, but it would never have been the Harry Potter books we know and love.

5) Ideas are like subways: any minute now there will be another one.

When I worked in toy development, our department had a attitude that boiled down to this: “If competitors want to steal our idea, let them.  We’ll have an even better idea in five minutes anyway.”  The minute you think of your idea as one link in a long chain of great ideas, then that one idea doesn’t seem all that ground-breaking anymore.

Oftentimes we coddle and protect our ideas, like Gollum whispering “my precioussss.”  But if we treat our ideas like something priceless, we run the risk of getting too attached and taking the project too seriously.  Have confidence that another better idea is always just a brainstorm away and that even if someone does “borrow” your concept, they’ll never be able to execute it like you will.

Take-home message:

As you’ll learn in the next post, it’s not the idea that matters anyway.  What matters is the expression of the idea.  Copyright won’t help protect your idea, it protects your artistic expression.  So your best bet is not to get too attached to any one idea but remember that it’s the way you write the idea that counts.

Now go out there and do something wild and crazy and unique!

  • Rin

    I feel like #1 should have a clause in there somewhere, though. It’s good to write what you want, but you still need to keep an eye out on what’s coming out in the YA market, too. You might want to write a traditional paranormal romance involving two girls and a vampire, but that ship has probably sailed a couple of years ago, and it might take some time for the market to be desaturated enough to welcome it back with open arms.

    • Gabriela

      Interesting point, Rin. I guess it all depends on what the writer’s end goal is. If the main goal is to get published by a traditional publisher and sell lots of books, then I totally agree with you… Some of those trends are over and like it or not writers have to accept the fact that some ships have sailed.
      .
      On the other hand, if the writer just wants to write a story that he or she loves, why not? I often tell my students, it’s not just about publication, it’s about finding the right home for your work. If that home happens to be a publishing house, fantastic! But sometimes that home might be a small literary magazine. Or a college alumni bulletin. Or a blog. Or maybe just an impromptu poetry reading in your living room with friends. The important thing is that writers share their work with the world.
      .
      In the end it’s about finding a balance between being aware of what the market is doing, but also not shackling yourself to it. After all, trends can pass but eventually they can cycle back.

  • At a conference, I heard a woman say that she wanted to write a memoir but there were so many other memoirs “out there” that she didn’t really think hers would make a difference. I pointed out to her that even if her personal story were exactly like someone else’s (and I interjected that this would be impossible as no two people have exactly the same experiences let alone experience them in exactly the same way), her voice telling her story would make it unique. Encouraging words, yes?

    A year later I returned to the same conference and the same woman was there saying the same thing. I guess she either didn’t trust my words or trust her voice or maybe she simply wasn’t ready to actually do the writing, more enamored with the idea of being a writer than she was prepared to do the work that being a writer demanded. Or worse–she doesn’t have faith in her talent.

    I’ve had many ideas that I tried to make work on paper that refused to work. I don’t know if it is because I lacked talent or was trying too hard to make the idea work when it wasn’t strong enough to do so. Regardless, even my failed attempts are attempts, pages and pages of words that add up to actual writing and not merely ideas that hang in the void.

    • Gabriela

      Great point! And that was great advice that you gave, Satia. No amount of analyzing “the market” or trying to anticipate the next new trend can replace good old BIC (butt in chair). When you struggle with your ideas on the page, they go from being amorphous blogs out in the ether to being concrete words you can work with. As I often tell my students: you can do just about anything with writing, but you can’t revise a blank page. Getting those words on the page is the first step to uncovering a project that truly sings.

  • A story that is written can be “rewritten” if one wishes to adjust it to a particular market or audience (many freelancers do this all the time with articles, tweaking the same words over and over to highlight certain aspects, reusing research and valuable time to produce several pieces for different markets). It’s a longer process for novel-length fiction, but it can be done. And doing this comes with two major benefits. 1) you have written a story you truly love and enjoyed 2) you can take a second look at your work with a new and critical eye without feeling as if you are missing out (because you aren’t).

    I ca imagine other benefits as well. Write the story first.

  • Gabriela

    Good point Eden! I myself am a huge fan of repurposing material. Short stories can become novels (the first novel I wrote started out that way), articles or can be compiled into eBooks, lessons from the classes I teach live can become webinars or video tutorials. The possibilities are virtually endless and part of the fun is finding new and creative ways to reuse work you’ve already created without diluting the value of the original.
    .
    After all, if you’re going to borrow a writer’s material, best to borrow for yourself. Then you can avoid many of those pesky legal issues. 🙂

  • Hi Gabriela! I was glad to have met you this weekend at the conference. Hope all goes well as you submit stuff to the agents! 🙂

    I like what you said about Harry Potter being written by someone other than J.K. Rowling. You’re exactly right – the story would not have been the same without her! She is one of a kind. 🙂

  • Gabriela

    Hi Vicki — Great meeting you too at WDC!
    .
    I know what you mean about the Harry Potter books not being the same if written by another author. Personally I always get a bit peeved when people act like all it takes for a book to be great is for the writer to have one fantastic idea. It makes it seem like the writing–and the writer–don’t really matter at all. Like somehow great books just appear as if by magic when the writer has this phenomenal idea. Forget all the blood, sweat and tears that go into the writing and polishing of a great book.
    .
    Ideas don’t make books great. Writers make books great.

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