In December of 1993, Buena Vista Productions released the movie Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer. The film told the story of the life and times of the legendary Western lawman, Wyatt Earp. In June 1994, Warner Brothers released Wyatt Earp, starring Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid. The film told the story of the life and times of the legendary Western lawman, Wyatt Earp.
In May 1998, Universal Studios released Deep Impact, starring Robert Duvall, Tea Leoni, and a small, hairy-footed actor named Elijah Wood. It was a science fiction film in which people on earth discover that an enormous comet is on a collision course with our planet, threatening all of life as we know it. In July 1998, Touchstone Pictures released Armageddon, starring Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, and Liv Tyler (minus the pointy ears she wore when saving the life of the previously mentioned small, hairy-footed actor). It was a science fiction film in which people on earth discover that an enormous asteroid is on a collision course with our planet, threatening all of life as we know it.
A couple of weeks ago, I began a series of posts about ideas (the first two installments can be found here and here), and in the second post I talked about the fears that sometimes come with new ideas. I touched upon several that I have encountered, but ignored one that apparently has troubled many of you: Namely, the fear of having someone else write and publish your idea before you have a chance to get your own book out there.
I think I ignored this particular fear because I had an adviser in graduate school who cured me of it before I ever started writing fiction. As a grad student I was afraid of having my dissertation idea “scooped.” In other words, I was afraid that some other grad student, or, worse, some established scholar, would write about the same topic and render my work irrelevant. When I said something about this to my editor, he said, “If you’re worried about being scooped, you’re thinking too narrowly about your topic.”
What he meant — what connects his comment about historical scholarship with our discussion of writing fiction — is that every scholar and every author brings to his or her work idiosyncrasies of thought, of logic, of creativity, of emotion, of humor, etc. that will turn similar or even identical ideas into completely different finished works.
Let’s return to those movies for a moment. The two movies about Wyatt Earp could not have been more similar in their conception, and they do share certain qualities — among them the fact that both actors who played Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer in Tombstone and Dennis Quaid in Wyatt Earp) turned in magnificent performances. Apparently, Holliday is a pretty cool character to portray. But the movies are also significantly different. Tombstone focuses primarily on the gunfight at OK Corral and its aftermath. The Costner production is more of a biopic, documenting most of Earp’s adult life. Deep Impact and Armageddon were also quite different despite their similar premises. Deep Impact is more drama, less thriller. Its ending is more ambiguous, darker in a way. The point: Very similar ideas; substantially different films.
“But, David,” some of you are saying by now, “this isn’t just about the ideas, it’s also about being pre-empted and having our ideas used up by someone else.”
All right, let’s look at that. It is certainly true that Tombstone, the first of the two Westerns to be released, did far better commercially than did Wyatt Earp, the movie that was “scooped.” But that’s partially because it also did better critically. With the singular exception of Quaid’s performance, Wyatt Earp kind of sucked. That can be bad for box office performance, particularly when a better version remains fresh in the minds of audiences. In the case of the twin science fiction films, the effect was exactly the opposite. Armageddon came out second — it was, or at least seemed to be, the movie that got “scooped” — but it got better reviews and did substantially better at the box office than its rival. The point: Write a good book (or make a good movie) and being “scooped” doesn’t matter so much.
How does this translate to books? In my opinion, one book being scooped by another is far less damaging than one movie being scooped by another. Movies are marketed across a broad swath of popular culture. Most books are not. The fact that a book or series from one publisher is similar in conception to a book or series from another is far less likely to draw the attention of reading audiences, unless those books happen to be popular on the order of Harry Potter or Game of Thrones. Sadly, most book marketing simply does not penetrate the cultural consciousness as deeply as does most movie marketing.
But more to the point, and perhaps the most important thing I can say, “scooping” happens all the time in movies, TV shows, and, yes, in books as well. And it doesn’t seem to matter. I’ve already looked at movies (and I didn’t even mention this spring’s twin “Snow White” releases). Television shows replicate each other all the time. Stroll through the shelves of your local Barnes and Noble (and while you’re there, feel free to buy a copy of Thieftaker) and check out the young adult paranormal section. There are a ton of vampire romances out right now. Or look at the spate of post-apocalyptic YA fantasies published in recent years. Rather than shunning similar stories, young readers are gobbling up all of them. The early Shannara books were a lot like Lord of the Rings. The Artemis Fowl books, which are actually not all that similar to Harry Potter, were originally packaged in a way that would make people think that they were!
It comes down to this: Writing and publishing books is not a zero-sum game. If you were planning to write a book about a conjuring thieftaker in Colonial North America, the sales of Thieftaker will not mean fewer sales for you. On the contrary — if Thieftaker continues to do well, that should help your book. There is a reason why agents and editors pitch new books by saying “It’s really similar to [insert title of bestseller here]!”
So relax. Your book is going to be entirely yours. You bring to your creative work a lifetime of unique experiences, passions, and observations, as does every other author. Your work cannot help but be unique as well, even if your starting point is similar to someone else’s. And the market is broad enough, diverse enough, flexible enough to accommodate more than one series about demon-fighting geckos or zombie-killing kangaroos or vampire orthodontist erotica. To paraphrase my grad school advisor, if your book idea is so specialized that it can accommodate only one creative interpretation, it might not be as good an idea as you think.
So, your assignment for today is to tell us all something about your WIP that makes it entirely your own, that another writer could never, ever “scoop” you on. I’ll start: I have a UF that I hope to sell soon. The concept is great. But the best part of it, by far, is the mix of characters: the protagonist, his “sidekick,” his romantic interest, his best friend. The dynamic among them all just works, and it is unlike anything another writer would write. Now, how about you?David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net
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