Ever had this happen? You’re working on a project, or thinking about a project, or you’ve just sent something off to a publisher. And it’s so distinctive. It’s an idea that’s specific to you, emerging from your own personal history, and you’ve attached to it all the other little bits and pieces that accumulate during the writing process, bits and pieces which, again, are idiosyncratic, part of your own subjective experience.
And then all of a sudden you see something similar in Bookseller+Publisher, hey, I’m working on this thing and they look at you oddly and say but *I’m* working on that thing or oh, you mean like that book by suchandsuch.
It happens all the time. More than you would believe. Sometimes the reasons can be traced easily enough. Maybe there was a quirky story in the news last year. We all heard it. It lodged somewhere in our imaginations. It grew into a story, multiple stories, about the same topic. Or maybe, as was the case for Julia Lawrinson and me, your daughters are at the same school, on the same chess team and you both at some point go hmmm, chess? Chess vs sport? Sporty kids who end up playing chess? and you start fiddling around with ideas. Then one day you realise you’re both doing the same thing and the person who isn’t actually married to the chess coach from whom she was stealing many useful anecdotes decides that perhaps she’d better bow out and find herself a new project. And the other one goes on to write a fabulous book.
But sometimes the reasons are less obvious. Sometimes they’re downright inexplicable. Sometimes you write a picture book called There are No Ducks in this Story! You write it because you’ve found yourself obsessed with ducks and they keep insisting their way into everything and one day you find yourself typing that very sentence just to make them back off.
You send the manuscript to your publisher and then a few days later you’re idly thumbing through picture books at your local library and you come across Barbara Kanninen’s A Story With Pictures, which contains the line There are no ducks in this story. And you freak out, and wonder if quickly marrying a duck would somehow give you a stronger claim to the story. But Kanninen’s book is already published, and in any case, when you stop freaking out long enough to read it, it’s thankfully quite different.
This is the party line, always, when writers worry about this kind of thing. We say Oh, write your book. You’ll make it your own. There are no new ideas, anyway.
And yes, this is true, to some extent, and it certainly applied in this case, where, as odd as it was, the similarity really was just that one line. But there are limits, too. When I was working on a picture book entitled Let Me Sleep, Sheep! about a boy counting sheep who is faced with their inconvenient appearance in his bedroom, and The 108th Sheep came out, I shelved the project. When, the next year, The Eleventh Sheep came out, I thought, hmm, maybe there’s room for more materialising sheep books after all and picked it up again. When the following month, I saw a review of It’s Time To Sleep, You Crazy Sheep, I put my head down very firmly on the desk. I suspect we’ve reached critical mass for “materialising sheep” books in our rather small picture book market, at least for now.
Reading members of the public might wonder why all these writers are copying each other. But people who know how publishing works know that each of these projects has been in the pipeline, in the various stages of production, for several years. And sometimes there’s no good explanation for why so many people should hit upon the same thing at more or less the same time.
It’s mysterious. And a little crazy-making. And it’s happened to me many, many times, to greater or lesser degrees, sometimes in ways so specific that I’ve felt compelled to abandon an idea or a character trait or a sub-plot simply out of anxiety that it would have the appearance of copying. I’d love to know if it’s happened to you.
You might be wondering why I’ve titled this post Imaginary Connections. There’s a reason for it and it has to do with my latest novel, Surface Tension. But as usual, I’ve overwritten already, finding my way towards the point. So consider this a prologue. And tomorrow I’ll tell you about Surface Tension and the recent moment when I stopped in my tracks and said oh, no – not again!
Yes! Yes, I have had this happen! Sometimes I've wondered if these mysteriously shared ideas could somehow be the product of a particular point in history at which, say, an element of film that people are seeing collides with an advertising campaign we've all been exposed to and a political event we're all thinking about, so that all the different fragments come into a kind of alignment for people who think in a particular way and suddenly a little outbreak of…There Are No Ducks in This Story. Well, it sounded a lot less far-fetched in my head…
Yes, Anna! You expressed that so well. That's exactly how I feel about it. Perfect.
There's an odd sort of example of how disparate fragments can align in a particular way for creative people given the right set of conditions, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f29kF1vZ62o
Ignore the “Mind Control” moniker. It's actually more interesting and less schlocky than that makes it sound.
Coming across the no ducks line must have been such a shock! Glad the story turned out to be so different.
I'm working on something new right now and I live in fear that I will see the same idea in the pages of Publisher's Marketplace any day now. It's a strange phenomenon and I've seen it happen before–not to me though, so far, touch wood.
I loved the subliminal advertising link. That was amazing!
Oh I love Derren Brown (in a creepy, roundabout sort of way) and what an amazing experiment that is! Exactly the kind of thing I was trying to express.
Oh, yes… it's so weird and disconcerting when that happens! It's like it's in the zeitgeist somehow, and you've both plugged into it. I've noticed that on the comics page of the newspaper, there will occasionally be two or three comics that mention the same random thing. Not something seasonal, or related to current events in any way–just some oddball thing. Happens so often I have wondered if there's an “Idea Newsletter” all the cartoonists subscribe to. But I think it's just another example of what you're talking about.
Lena, yes it was. My heart really started racing. And I share your fear. I'm starting to work on something now that's been in the queue for a few years. Last year there were a couple of world events that might push the ideas I'm writing about to the fore, in the way Anna talked about. So I'm a little worried, but trying to put that out of my mind as I write.
Ruth, I like the “Idea Newsletter”. I guess that's what the zeitgeist is, in a way…?