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 find your own unique ideas.
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.
And unlike other recourses, ideas are not consumed when shared. In fact they multiply. If you share your idea with a friend and they share an idea with you, now you both have two ideas. Plus, the combination of your two ideas may be another ideas in itself.
4) The idea is not the book.
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.
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. If you boil down Harry Potter to it’s basic idea, it’s: Normal boy goes to a magic school. Technically that is the same basic idea for The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.
And how about Dracula vs. Twilight: Boy meets girl. Boy obsesses over girl. Turns out boy’s a vampire.
Or Antz vs. A Bug’s Life: Computer-animated ants go on a mission to save their ant community from bad-guy bugs. The wimpiest ant of them all becomes the unlikely hero in the story.
These stories are what they are because the author wrote them. Your same concept in the hands of any other writer would turn out to be completely different.
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.
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.