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I’ve told the story on this blog previously about how a book I wrote eventually got turned into a movie … except it wasn’t actually my book and I didn’t get any credit whatsoever for my effort (or compensation, for that matter).
My draft and this movie just happened to have almost the exact same premise, neither aware of the other. The movie came out before I ever got the chance to send my manuscript to a publisher and it’s still sitting untouched on a hard drive somewhere in storage. Sad times.
To be clear, I was never ACTUALLY mad about this. I wrote the book during my junior year of high school, and finishing it was one of the proudest moments of my life up until that point. I didn’t spend hours researching whether or not my idea had already been done, or worrying about whether or not it was just generic enough for someone to make a movie out of it someday (three years later, to be exact).
Nope — I didn’t worry about these things as I worked. I just met and bonded with my idea, wrote the story, and am still more than grateful for that accomplishment more than 10 years later.
There are many writers out there who won’t even consider writing anything until they’re certain their story idea has “never been done before.”
And as a result, many aspiring writers either never write anything that earns them great success … or they never get around to writing anything at all. That’s sad. And also completely avoidable.
All ideas are pretty much ‘spin-offs’ of previous ideas. I don’t know why so many of us are obsessed with the notion that every new story idea we come up with has to be “revolutionary.” If you’re a big-time successful Hollywood director, yeah, I can see why you’d worry about that. But I’m assuming you’re very far off from that status if you’re reading this. So the rules, it turns out, are a little bit different for you.
If working in entertainment ‘news’ publishing has taught me anything, it’s that pretty much every article you see online published about a celebrity almost always originates from a single interview or “scoop.” If Kim Kardashian says one thing about how she’s never used her mansion’s pool, you’ll suddenly see 50 or more outlets writing about Kim’s house, Kim’s pool, other celebrities’ pools, if Kim knows how to swim, Kim’s swimsuit collection … you get the idea.
An editor once told me “you can’t technically plagiarize an idea.” By that, of course, she meant that as long as you’re always linking back to where your spin-off idea came from, nothing is off-limits.
The same rule applies for other kinds of writing. Pretty much every story you’ve ever written or read has at least one subtle thing in common with a story that came before it. Why? Because writers read and consume and pay attention. Every story they tell is somewhat based on a story they have heard before.
Finding that “totally original” idea isn’t the kind of thing you’re expected to embark on a month-long epic quest for. There’s no point. Especially not when you’re just starting out and have a lot more important things to do … like, you know. Writing.
Not having an ‘original’ idea is a poor excuse for not writing. It makes total sense that you don’t want to “waste” time writing something that someone else has already written and published. But at least the way I see it — and from, I suppose, a beginner’s perspective — this isn’t actually, technically, possible.
Two stories that have the same premise and similar frameworks won’t necessarily end up following the exact same path to the exact same finish line. Additionally, two people are pretty much incapable of writing the exact same story, because everyone writes differently, with different voices and from different backgrounds and perspectives.
No, you don’t want to write an exact replica of the original Star Wars movie. But even that was based on a much older story framework, and look what it’s led to. Every story that’s been “done before” can be made into something new and unique. All you have to do is keep working with it until you figure out the best way to do that.
Your best bet is always to ‘write first, worry later.’ I know this is extremely difficult for a lot of people, myself included. We all want everything we write to be worth something. We don’t want to spend dozens of hours working on a story only to realize someone has already made it into a movie or whatever.
But the advice I tend to give to beginning writers is always to “just write now.” Too many people are too worried about the future, too concerned with what may or may not happen later. So preoccupied that they don’t bother writing anything … which, as you can imagine, doesn’t serve them all too well in the end.
You have to write. If you don’t write, you’ll never have anything to work with or to improve upon. If you don’t have even a partial draft to work with, you’re never going to get anywhere. Making progress in writing is kind of like building a house. You have to start with something, or you’ll never be able to create something you can live in.
No writing time is wasted time. You might write an entire 400-page novel about a man whose wife loses her memory and they have to try navigating how to fall in love again, only to find yourself sitting in a theater three years later hate-watching “your” story play out on the screen in front of you.
But you’ll still feel so proud of all the work you put into that story. The things you learned while writing it are, you will one day realize, what shaped the work that came after it, which in turn shaped the work you would complete years down the line.
Don’t worry about being the “most” original that has ever been.
Just worry about getting your story out on paper.
What you do with it after that will be forever influenced by what you poured out onto those pages, no matter how much you worried you weren’t being “original” enough.
Just starting out as a writer or returning from an extended hiatus? Let me know how I can help. Just drop a comment below with your questions/concerns — I am here to serve.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor and writer, and a 12-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food, and Star Wars.