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What To Do When Your Story Has Already Been Done Before

Fiction is a big place. Between all the genres and sub-genres filling the libraries and bookstores, there’s also movies and television to consider. And thanks to the Internet, it’s only going to get bigger. Either way, that’s a lot of ground to cover for writers. So what happens when you discover the idea you’ve been working on for months has been done before by someone else?

Step One: Don’t Panic.

While you should make every effort to read widely both in and outside of your genre, it’s very easy for something to slip through the cracks. When and if this happens, remember what you as the writer bring to the table is more important than the idea itself, no matter how original it sounds. Your story might still work, even if it is similar to another work. Take a deep breath. Keep an open mind, and prepare to takes things one step at a time.

Step Two: Don’t Read or Watch It (Yet).

Maybe you were told your young adult novel sounds like a lot like “Labyrinth”. Or you worried your zombie thriller reads a lot like “World War Z” (the book, not the movie). What do you do next? Your first instinct is probably to read or watch the similar work, but this isn’t always the best call. If you aren’t careful, you could end up self-consciously censoring yourself trying to eliminate the similarities – and cutting yourself off at the knees in the process. Instead, try to wait until you are at least done with an outline, or if you’re more of a pantser, the first draft, before you sit down and read or watch the material.

Step Three: Don’t Rewrite

As you have watched the work in question, your next thought might be to strip away all of the identical elements. Instead, give yourself time to dwell on and fully digest the story. Are you really doing the same thing? What are you trying to say? Try to look beneath the surface. Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” books are often compared to Koushun Takami’s “Battle Royale”, but ultimately, the two works have wildly different themes despite their extremely similar premises. In fact, the two works exist in almost completely different genres: “Hunger Games” is a YA dystopian science fiction, while “Battle Royale” is a brutal horror-thriller. There are certainly major similarities, and while people will make their comparisons and draw their own conclusions, but the two works ultimately stand on their own.

Ultimately, only you can decide if you want to continue your work or go back to the drawing board. Maybe what you are trying to say has been said before, in much of the same way, and it’s best to cut your losses. But more often than not, I think it’s best to see where this rabbit hole goes, even if the scenery starts to look familiar. Do you really need another reason not to write? Whether this is your breakout hit or just another learning experience, writing is more about finding your individual voice rather than telling a familiar tale.

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There’s No Thing as Just Another Story

I know plenty of would-be writers held back by one missing element – originality. They insist originality is what will make their story stand out. Without it, they fear, their work will be just another story lost in the sea of voices in an already-crowded market. Originality is certainly important. You don’t want to have your name dragged through the mud over plagiarism allegations. You don’t want to put your energy into a concept that is already a tired old hat (for example, I once had someone pitch me a story where superheroes would be handled “seriously”. He’d never heard of Vertigo. Or “Watchmen”. Or the “Dark Knight Returns”.) But originality isn’t what makes a story worth telling, nor is it necessarily what makes a story stand out. It’s not about originality – it’s about authenticity.

Ultimately, the most important element of a story is you.

This is harder than it sounds. The only way to find your voice is write more stories, which you cannot do if you are constantly worried about originality. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up in a Catch-22. Ultimately, the only way to break the cycle is to write. This is why many authors actually encourage newbies to emulate their favorite writers, or at least put their own spin on their favorite myths and legends. While the frame work might be familiar, it’s the choices you make and the voice you use to tell the story which ultimately matters.

Stories can share many of the same elements and still be successful and effective in their own right. Both Larry Niven’s seminal “Ring World” and Microsoft’s bestselling Halo game series share the setting of a ring-shaped planet, yet both go in wildly different directions – with Niven’s work based on interstellar exploration and Halo the set-piece of an epic intergalactic war. The setting is the same. The genre is the same. But the voice and direction of the stories are ultimately very different, yet very successful.

Don’t underestimate what you bring to the table. Many times we spend so much energy on a work that we forget that it is the writer, not the story, that actually matters. Without the writer, the work cannot exist – because ultimately no one else can write the story like you will write it. Other writers might use similar settings, similar tropes or even identical settings – but no one can see the world exactly as you see it.

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Reading: The Writer’s Best Tool

It’s the most underestimated asset in a writer’s toolbox, primarily because it’s so darn obvious. But obvious or not, if you are serious about being a writer, you need to read for a variety of reasons. Reading exists as an exercise in both industry and imagination, craft and creativity.

That said, there are plenty of reasons why we don’t read enough, and the biggest is time. On second shift, I can average about a book a week if I stay focused. That goes down to a book a month on first shift. I know plenty of serious writers who only get to flip through a couple pages of a book before they go to bed.

The good news is that reading a couple pages is ultimately all you need. As a infamous skimmer of books, I’ve long since learned it’s quality of reading, not quantity. Reading “War and Peace” in a day isn’t going to make you a better writer, but it does bring up another question: what should you reading?

The answer is simple: whatever you feel like writing. Be it science fiction and fantasy, romance, memoir, self-help, all or none of the above. There’s a few reasons for this. First, it shows you how it’s done (hopefully well, but writers can learn just as much if not more from a poorly-written book as they can be brilliantly executed one). Secondly, it gives readers a view of what’s been done in their chosen genre. Don’t make the potentially fatal mistake of thinking you know what’s out there simply by what’s been adapted to TV or movies – if you aren’t careful that story you’re working on might not be original at all (tune in next week for how to handle these implications).

Let’s say this all sounds great, but you are still convinced you can’t read. Maybe it’s a short attention span , a condition such as dyslexia or a general lack of interest in what’s out there. It still doesn’t matter, because there are plenty of options out there. Try reading short stories – from collections to literary magazines, there’s a wide variety of available. There’s also flash fiction – short short stories written with minimal word count for maximum effect. Daily Science Fiction is a great example of this.

Imagine a form of exercise which required consuming delicious morsels. That is what reading is – consuming and enjoying information for the benefit of your mind and imagination (unfortunately, we don’t have a physical equivalent yet.) If inspiration is the gasoline for our writing, reading is the motor oil – a little can go a long way, and ultimately, our imaginations runs a lot better as a result.