Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Plot Poaching

They say that there are only a handful of plots and that everything is in some way a variation of another, but did you ever worry while you were working on DEPARTMENT that someone would come out with a similiar plot? Have you ever been working on a story idea only to find that someone else is working on something very similiar? Is it the plot that sells the story or the writing?

Well, there are a couple of things to address in this question. This first is to define plot. To me, plot isn't the overall idea or theme behind the book, it's the actual action that takes place and the story that unfolds. So...while I do agree that there are only so many themes behind a book - reinvention, redemption, saving the world, finding yourself, etc - there are a gajillion different ways to go about spinning these themes.

To that end, yes, I guess in the back of my mind, I was slightly concerned that someone might write a "breast cancer book" before mine came out. BUT, I also knew that I how I told the story was pretty unique, and I wasn't so worried that someone was going to be able to mirror my plotting or how my heroine's situation unfolded.

Let's be honest: in the world of early chick lit, there were 1000 different (but not so different) books about women who were a) jilted at the altar, b) jilting someone at the altar or c) considering doing either a or b. And along the way, there was a lot of chat about shoes, shopping and various Prince Charmings. I read so many of them that I finally declared a moritorium on anything even remotely similar. One more pink or blue-colored cover, and I'd officially lose brain cells.

The industry caught on too - and now, it's no secret that it's much harder to sell a chick lit or women's fiction book. You have to bring something unique to the table. When my book was being shopped around to editors, we repeatedly heard that they'd never seen anything quite like it. Maybe it was because I broke the book up into chemo rounds, maybe it was because they'd read about 30-year olds who needed life makeovers but never read about one who needed a life makeover because she developed breast cancer...I don't know. The point is that someone could write another breast cancer book and it could completely tank, but it probably wouldn't tank because I've already written one. It would tank for a million other reasons.

Another example: Jennifer Weiner's Good In Bed, was, I think, the first chick lit book with a plus-sized heroine. Since then, plenty of others have come out: some have been successful, some haven't been. Johanna Edwards' The Next Big Thing took the plus-sized heroine idea and played with a totally different plot than GIB - and hers went on to be a bestseller, while dozens of others didn't. Now, I can't claim to have read the dozens that didn't, but it's probably not a huge stretch to think that they really didn't distinguish themselves from each other in any tangible way, whereas Edwards' book did.

To answer your question: have I ever worked on a story to find out that someone else was working on something similar? If you're talking about magazines, of course. There's such an overlap that it's nearly impossible NOT to find a similar story to yours. (Which is why newbie writers often assume that editors have "stolen" their idea, when, in fact, their idea simply wasn't anything unique and someone else came up with it. Happens 400 times a day at magazines.) In terms of fiction, my first book (my current WIP) was shot down at one imprint because it was too similar to one of their upcoming releases, which turned out to be The Myth of You and Me. After I read TMOYAM, I certainly did see the similarities. Shrug. What can I do? The other imprints who read it didn't mention anything like that and now that I'm revamping it, I think the plotting will speak for itself.

Is it the plot or the writing that sells the book? It has to be both. A book can be painfully beautifully written and go absolutely nowhere. You know what that is? A snooze-fest. (And not likely to draw me past about page 40.) Alternatively, a book can read like virtual crap but whiz along in a plot. That book might actually sell (or even become a best-seller, since The DaVinci Code comes to mind), but I think this is still a rarity. Editors and agents are inundated with books that are both well-written and well-plotted. Why should they settle for one or the other? As a reader, I don't.

But the bottom line is this: there are a MILLION things that you can worry about in the publishing process. Whether or not someone else will come out with a similar book really shouldn't be one of them. Why? Because it's absolutely nothing you can control. You can control how tight your writing is, how well you spin your plot, how effectively you target potential agents, how carefully you pour over your revisions, etc. But you simply cannot, cannot worry that somewhere out there, someone else is frantically trying to beat you to the punch. It's wasted energy. And to thrive in this business, you'll need to hone all of the energy you can.

Agree? Disagree? How does one book really stand out from the pack these days? Thoughts?


Amie Stuart said...

I gotta vote for voice. Matter of fact my CP just blogged about this and we're both real big on voice. If you have an outstanding voice, I can forgive a lot (and for me this can vary). If I can't see the story for the words you've written, you've lost me. If I consciously stop editing, stop analyzing characters and let myself be drawn in, you've got me.

I guess voice goes back to the writing.

Mike Vecchio said...

It's critical to have a new twist for the story you are developing. In fact, that new twist should be a key point in your query. What I do is after I tell the story the next paragraph discusses the unique aspects of this particular work. So this way I focus on the uniqueness of the story in the one paragraph summary, then actually delineate specifics that I've already shown in the plot summary.

I agree with Allison in that given the intense competitiveness of this industry it is much more frutiful to put your energies into making your work standout through plot specifics than worrying about story similarities. For me it is extremely important to think through both the story theme and plot specifics that you will execute. While your story will sell on both, the execution of your plot is far more important. And, of course there is the age old writing wisdom - never chase trends. My version of it is - run your own marathon. It is a good practice to survey what is being sold in a specific genre, then develop your story so that it is - *ahead of the curve*. My current WIP is exactly that. I didn't set out to do that by the way, but as the market has developed it is. I will certainly take advantage of that.

Larramie said...

I agree with Amie. Voice almost always draws me in because character-driven plots are my favorites. There's nothing like making a new friend while reading a book and there's nothing like having that friend linger long past The End.