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Should You Continue Writing Your Novel if it's Similar to Others? | Advice from a UK Book Editor



Professional book editor in the UK delves into a common question amongst the writing community: should you keep writing your novel if it's similar to another?


It happens to all of us sometimes. We’re excited about a new project, working on it as much as we can and thinking about it nonstop when we’re not working on it.


Then, all this thinking results in a dreaded epiphany: “Am I just copying X novel by Y author?” Or maybe you’re excitedly telling your friend about the story, and they say, “Sounds like the book Z,” and your bubble of joy bursts.

What do you do when this happens? I mean, besides sitting in bed and eating ice cream by the scoopful out of complete despair? Do you scrap it all and try to find something new? Or can you keep going knowing your novel isn’t original?


Let’s explore this together.

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Is there such a thing as true originality?

Let’s dive right in and start with the most complicated question (and one of the most discussed questions in the book world).


Is there such a thing as true originality?


Sometimes, it doesn’t feel that way. There are so many people in the world, and so many books that already exist, that sometimes it feels impossible for you to come up with anything new.


Surely anything you think of, someone else already will have thought of. Surely any sentence you say, someone else has already said. Even this sentence. And this one!


These thought patterns can be pretty dangerous for aspiring authors. It’s a slippery slope from thinking nothing you do could possibly be original, to thinking there’s no point at all in writing if you can’t create anything completely new.


So, before you fall down this slope, let me cut right to the end. There is no such thing as true originality. And that’s okay.


The nature of ideas is that they stem from a source, sometimes hundreds of sources. This is what brainstorming is, what thinking is. You’re connecting hundreds of thoughts in hundreds of ways until you reach an idea. Is that idea original? No, it’s an amalgam of all those different thoughts. But is it unique? Yes!


Originality isn’t what’s important to creativity. What’s important is creating something unique from those same, already-thought-of ideas.


As an example, let’s look at Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Is it original? Nope! It’s based off of a fairy tale of the same name by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. But it’s unique, because the writers and animators at Walt Disney Studios put their own spin on it.


There’s another movie called Ponyo from Studio Ghibli. This movie is also based on the fairy tale of “The Little Mermaid,” and it is vastly different from the Disney version. Both movies are not original, since they were directly inspired from an existing work. But to say that neither is unique, or that neither has value as its own creation, would be simply untrue.


Even the “original” fairy tale probably wasn’t all that original. Andersen was allegedly inspired by a German novella called Undine, which was in turn inspired by someone else’s work and so on and so forth. The concept of mermaids themselves has been around since at least 1000 BCE! And if you’ll indulge me for a moment while we go even deeper in the weeds, is a mermaid not just a creature inspired from the existence of both humans and fish? Mermaids aren’t original either; they’re just two already-existing animals mixed together!


All of this is to say that you cannot create something completely out of nothing. What you can do is put your own spin onto it, combine it with other ideas, and create something unique.

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How do you create something unique?

Creativity is simply the process of taking what already exists and combining it in different ways to create something slightly different. Whoever dreamed up the mermaid took two existing concepts (human and fish) and blended them together to create a new creature. Hans Christian Andersen took the existing concept of a mermaid and wrote his own story. Someone at Disney read that story and put their own spin on it to create a movie, and someone at Studio Ghibli did the same.


Need more examples? Star Wars was inspired by The Odyssey, and so was O Brother, Where Art Thou? Here are two movies that could not be more different from each other, and from their source material. But they’re technically not original stories.


To steer things back to the world of literature, Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan is a whole series inspired by Greek mythology. You know what else is inspired by Greek mythology? A whole lot of things! The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, Lovely War by Julie Berry… just to name a tiny few.


Maybe you like Greek myths, too. Maybe you’ve imagined the characters from Greek mythology in a new setting or wondered whether two heroes ever met each other on their respective adventures. What would happen if the three-headed dog Cerberus ran into a three-headed cat? Suddenly a unique story idea is born.


As a writer, you likely already know how to come up with unique ideas. If nothing else, it’s simply a matter of saying “what if?” over and over until you get an idea you can’t let go of (or an idea that won’t let go of you).


What if you gave a three-headed dog a mermaid’s tail? What if the story of The Little Mermaid was inverted, and a mermaid wished to be a complete fish to fit in better with her fishy friends? What if a mermaid, upon becoming human, became a world-renowned sushi chef and began killing and plating up all of her former fishy friends? The Little Mermaid but as a horror story, now there’s an idea.

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What counts as plagiarism?

We know that no idea is truly original, and it’s not a bad thing to put a new spin on a story that’s already been told before. But where is the line between inspiration and plagiarism?


You already know that you cannot write a story about a boy wizard named Harry Potter who has a scar on his forehead, goes to a magical school, and defeats an evil wizard who looks like a snake. This is obvious.


You probably also know that you cannot write a story about a girl wizard named Harriet Porter who has a scar on her cheek, goes to a magical school, and defeats an evil warlock who looks like a crocodile. This is clearly plagiarism, too. The names and some of the concepts might have been changed slightly, but this is still pretty much an exact copy of a very famous already-existing story.


What if you write a story about a boy wizard named Henry who goes to a magical school, flunks out, and has to go back to a non-magical public school and try to forget about magic? Well, there’s something new there.


As long as your characters, plot, and style are your own, there’s no rule against writing about child wizards or magical schools. You can take inspiration from existing works without crossing the line into plagiarism.

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Learn from the greats – without copying them

There’s nothing wrong with studying other authors or their works to try and learn from them. You can even imitate them—as long as you are not trying to publish or make money off of this work.


This is how artists have learned for generations: they imitated the styles of the people who came before them, then applied what they learned to their own craft to make something new.


For writing, this could mean imitating a certain writing style or voice, or borrowing a character trope or a plot device. In doing this, you learn how these things work, and why they work to make a story successful. But when it comes time to write your own story, make sure the work is all your own.


There are other ways to learn from successful authors, too. You can follow their advice, borrow their outlining methods, or try the writing habits that worked for them. Many authors gladly share these things with others, with the express purpose of helping budding authors hone their craft.


So, take advantage of this! There are many ways to learn from others that don’t involve stealing.

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Focus on the differences, not the similarities

Maybe you’re thinking, “This is great, but it doesn’t apply to me. I already know I’m not plagiarizing, but my novel is still pretty similar to the one this other person wrote.”


To you, dear reader, I would say take a step back and try to see the whole forest, not just the trees. Many of us are our own worst critics. You may be focusing on those trees that look exactly the same as the ones others have written, and you’re ignoring the trees that make your story unique.


Here’s a mental exercise for you: The next time you’re thinking, “My story is very similar to [this story],” reframe your thinking and brainstorm “In what ways is my story not like [this story]?”


Give yourself time to consider this question, and it’s very likely you’ll come up with dozens, even hundreds of things that make your story unique. Focus on these details rather than the ones that seem like they’re too similar to other works.


If you’re worried that you’re veering into plagiarism territory, go back to these details that make your story unique, and dial these details up. How can you add more of these details into the story, or bring more focus to these details rather than to the other ones?


You can go a step further, too. Examine the specific details that seem reminiscent of someone else’s work. How can you change these details to be your own? Can you erase these details entirely? How important are these details to the novel as a whole?


If you find that the details are all your own, and it’s only in broad strokes that your novel seems similar to someone else’s, then there’s nothing much to worry about. In broad terms, it’s easy to make one story sound like another. Need another example? Okay, what movie is this?


In the face of grave danger, a single father will stop at nothing to rescue his child, who was kidnapped and taken somewhere far away from him.

Did you guess Taken, starring Liam Neeson? You are correct! Did you guess Pixar’s Finding Nemo? That is also correct!


If your one-sentence summary—heck, if your one-paragraph summary—sounds like someone else’s novel, that’s not cause for concern. When it comes to your novel itself, it is likely a lot more unique than you think it is.

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Conclusion

So, should you keep writing your novel if it’s similar to others? The answer is… yes, absolutely. Everyone’s novel is similar to someone else’s, and that’s nothing new!


If you’re concerned that it’s very, very similar to another novel, take some time to look at your novel more closely. Make sure you aren’t crossing the lines into plagiarism. If everything is ship-shape, and your novel still reminds you of someone else’s work, go back to those details that make your story your own, and shine a brighter spotlight on them.


In the end, you can even embrace these similarities. Comparing your book to another one with the same target audience might attract more readers’ attention to your book. It’s pretty common to market a book by pitching, “It’s basically Pride and Prejudice but with zombies,” or “It’s The Odyssey set in space,” or “It’s like Harry Potter but darker.”


The key to these pitches is blending something your target audience already knows and likes with the unique elements that make your book something entirely different. So don’t stress. Remember, every book in the English-speaking world is technically a remix of the same old 26 letters.


Have fun, and happy writing!

Chelsea x

 

ABOUT CHELSEA

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Hey! I'm Chelsea and I'm a professional book editor at Stand Corrected Editing, my independent editorial business in the UK. If you would like to have your manuscript thoroughly edited by myself, please get in touch!


With my book editing and proofreading services, I hope to spread my knowledge and expertise on how to make your novel a success, and be a mentor to others who desperately want to pursue a fruitful career as an author!





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