You see a summary of the new book (or movie, or TV show) that everyone is talking about. And it looks pretty good… but wait. Wait a minute. That sounds like… But it can’t be…
Yep. It sounds exactly like what you’re working on, or thinking about working on, or just finished working on.
Your stomach twists, your heart sinks, and your dreams die. How can you go on working on something that’s familiar and cliche before you even start? Should you read or watch this eerie doppelganger to see how close it actually is? But what if it’s identical? What if it’s doing what you want to do better than you ever could? What if it gets into your ideas and influences you even more?
The danger of creating in a world that, I think, has never seen a greater age of prolific creation and entertainment is that you’re never going to be alone in what you do. Unless you have a singular vision and voice that is so strange and unique that there’s nothing like it, you’re going to be treading familiar ground (and if it’s not familiar yet, it probably soon will be). For those of us who prefer more commercial fiction, we’re doomed from the start.
Many times, I’ve had ideas that I think are original until I look around for five seconds and see seven other people who’ve done the same thing. Or I’ve come up with an idea and then a day later remembered where I’d seen it before. Or, as I’ve said before, often I’ll come across something and then have an idea… and we know that’s not going to be original.
The accusations of unoriginality that are hurled with hissing vehemence at even the slightest violations are often unfair. In all entertainment industries, the time lapse between creation and release are such that something identical to your own work could be on its way out long after you start, but well before you’re done.
Originality is something that everyone wants, but it’s difficult to force. Some say to just write something that “only you could write,” whatever that means. Others say to trust your own unique voice to shape the idea. I think that ultimately every writer, even given the same idea, will create different things–but not necessarily that different. Similar scenes, characters, plot twists, or settings will abound, even as style and dialogue and pacing may differ.
Can we accept unoriginality in the creative market? People talk about the era of Shakespeare in which you could see what someone else was doing, write your own version of it, and send it out into the world. Today, you can theoretically (and questionably legally) do the same, as re-worked fanfiction can attest–but you’ll get a lot of dirty looks. Depending on how close you stay to the source, or how openly you admit your “inspiration,” you may get a lot more than dirty looks.
I guess a lot of my insecurities towards writing could be solved if I could just ignore everyone else. Forget an audience, forget readers, forget everyone but me. And even then, forget a lot of what I think, too. And just write.
Unoriginality is an inevitable part of the writing process. I think we all need to be a little more accepting and forgiving of each other.
And if you see something that looks like it came out of your notes behind your back? Well, just keep writing anyway. You never know what only you can write. 🙂