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Complementary plots: yes, no or maybe so

February 9, 2010

[Cross-posted over at The Spectacle:]

The other day I had a great idea for a new book. As I got more and more excited I thought, shoot – not just a book, maybe a series. Maybe a graphic novel. I stayed up way past my bedtime doing some preliminary research and getting my head around the world where the book(s) would take place.

Then, a few days later, I found out that a very successful author, with a huge marketing juggernaut behind him, is writing a series on possibly the same idea. At first I was really upset. MAN, you know? How in the world can I compete with a Big Name Author and His Unyielding Publicity Dirigibles, undoubtedly sponsored by Disney or some such behemoth of awesome?


But then, I started to think, Hey, wait a second. What are the chances my idea is the EXACT same idea of the Big Name Author? What if it’s just a similar concept? There are two ways to think about this. 1) Close up shop, forget about the idea, move on to something new. 2) Write the book(s) and see what happens.

Think about it: We have the Hunger Games and we have Maze Runner. Definitely not the same, but the conceits are kind of similar. We have the City of Ember and Gregor the Overlander. Not the same at all, but they share characteristics. And of course, there are eleventy million magic books and vampire books.

So is it really a terrible thing to have a similar idea to that of a Big Name Author? Do similar conceits compete with each other or complement each other? Can there be a serendipity that comes with authors having similar ideas? Not just because the less famous author can capitalize on the more famous author’s press, but also… if the instincts are there for several people to write about a similar idea, maybe it’s because the audience is craving this kind of story?

What do you guys think? When you’re chewing your nails waiting for the third Hunger Games book to come out, do you seek out other non-Suzanne Collins books, but with familiar overtones? Does your enjoyment for one book (say, The Forest of Hands and Teeth) make you antsy to find another book that shares a similar concept?

And yet – where do complementary titles end and rehashes begin? How similar is too similar?  Surely there is a fine line here. Maybe this is an area where you have to trust your agent and editor to know the pulse of the industry.

I am not so sure about shelving my idea anymore. Does it make my soul die a little to think I might be seen as a writer clinging to the coattails of another writer? You bet it does. But does that make the whole prospect even more challenging? Make me want to work harder to create something really outstanding so that it will stand on its own? It sure does.

And you never know, right? Maybe in some alternate universe – some parallel dimension, kids are revering a boy wizard who wears contacts and has an unmarred forehead, but an unfortunate robot hand.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. E. Kristin Anderson permalink
    February 9, 2010 5:04 am

    When I was a bookseller I used those best-sellers to sell other books. You liked Percy Jackson? Try The Night Tourist. You liked Hunger Games? Try Girl in the Arena! It works. There’s a reason it works.Honestly, I think you should pursue your idea. Everything has been done, it’s about attacking it from your own angle. Just don’t write about sparkling vampires, okay?

  2. Anonymous permalink
    February 9, 2010 8:16 pm

    I think you should go for it! I am totally one of those people who reads different books about the same thing – especially when the one I was looking for is checked out of the library already. I’ve come across so many gems that way.And, I love it when booksellers set up little tables with "if you liked [blank] then you should try [blank]."

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