Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Exactly the same, only different

By Julie

Every writer--aspiring or well published--seems to share a certain fear:

The fear of writing the story someone else already wrote. 

I know I've experienced that nearly heart-stopping sensation more than once when I've opened the daily installment of Publisher's Lunch to read a new deal that is too much like the story I'm working on, or when I scanned the latest BookReporter newsletter and realized someone else is already about to hit bookstore shelves with a story that's eerily close to the brilliant new idea I've been researching and outlining and growing extremely attached to.

Even worse is discovering the book you've already sold is publishing the same month as another with a theme so similar you can't imagine how the writer crawled into your heart and brain and channeled your idea. It's EXACTLY THE SAME.

That is, it's exactly the same, only different. 

Who was it that said there are no new stories, only new ways of telling them? That person was very, very wise. Isn't there something about there only being seven different plots? Or was it ten? Maybe 36.

We want a unique hook. Something that catches an agent's eye, an editor's attention, and the rapidly shifting focus of an audience of readers who have a nearly unlimited smorgasbord of choice these days. But rare and lucky is the author who manages to make it all the way from the glimmer of an idea to bookstore shelves with a concept that truly seems to stand out.

When it comes right down to it, novels explore the same themes, the same settings, the same kinds of characters and conflicts and conclusions all the time.

I was reminded of this in the last several weeks, when I've read not two, not three, but FOUR books in a row dealing with memory. This wasn't planned. In fact, I honestly didn't even make the connection until I hit the fourth book and thought, "Whoa. It's memory again!" Reading the cover copy didn't stop me from picking these books to read. In fact, I have to wonder if my subconscious was subtly orchestrating this, wanting to look at memory from every angle. The joy is, I haven't been bored at all. If anything, I've become fascinated with the various facets each author has explored and eagerly looked forward to my nighttime reading more than I have in a long while.

And the thing is, none of these books is alike at all. (Not even the covers, though each conjures up a sense of melancholy and the abstract, for me.)

First I read Before I Go to Sleep, by S. J. Watson, the story of a woman who wakes up every single morning with no memory of her life before a vicious attack. She starts from scratch, reading the same notebook every day that tells her who she is and what she knows up to the time she falls asleep the night before. In the meantime, she's trying to solve the mystery of what happened and fears she may be in danger.

Next, I dove into an advance reader's edition of Kathryn Craft's forthcoming The Art of Falling (Sourcebooks/January 7, 2014). This one's about a woman who remembers everything about her life before a 14-story fall that should have killed her--right up to the night the fall happened. There, her memory stops. She wakes in a hospital room, broken and confused, and the story flip flops between her memories before the fall and present day, where she tries to nudge the pieces together about what happened and why.

I moved on to Charlotte Rogan's The Lifeboat, where a woman who survives the sinking of a passenger liner in 1914 is on trial because of the events that played out in the lifeboat that saved her. She must examine her shifting memories and interpretation of what happened in that small boat, not only for the court, but to come to grips her past and her future.

Finally, I'll likely be reading the last page of Allison Winn Scotch's The Song Remains the Same when I hit the pillow tonight. You'd think after reading three other books about tragedy and memory, I'd be yawning and struggling to reach the end of this engaging story. Not so. In this one, Nell Slattery, one of only two survivors of an airplane crash, doesn't remember a thing about her life before or during the crash. She must sift through the pieces her family and friends hands her, and soon realizes that each is rewriting her history to a degree, in ways that meets their needs or in ways they think will protect her from heartbreak or additional devastation.

I wonder what I'll pick next. I'm more likely to look for something that sounds very different now that I've made the connection between my last four reads. But I won't regret a single one of them--all four engaging and fascinating looks at memory.

This experience has been comforting to me. It just goes to show that story isn't really about the high concept or the basic plot. It's about who tells it, how they tell it, and why they tell it.

And it also tells me that as writers, we probably worry way too much about what other people are writing.


  1. Julie, I recently read two about memory--What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty, about a woman who has an accident at her gym, and wakes up and believes it is ten years earlier, she is 29 and pregnant and happily married, when really she is 39 with three kids and getting a divorce; and Still Alice, by Lisa Genova, about a Harvard professor who develops Alzheimer's in her 50's. Both wonderful reads, very thought-provoking, and nothing alike other than memory and the names of the protagonists.

    1. Yes, I actually WANT to read both of these, too! Maybe I'll wait. Or maybe I won't. :)

    2. I read What Alice Forgot quite a while ago and really liked it. I'd definitely recommend it. Still Alice is on my shelf.

  2. Hey, thanks for the mention of THE ART OF FALLING, Julie! I am always heartened by this same thing when teaching writing workshops: ten writers, one topic, ten completely different treatments in style and genre. There really is room for our differing perspectives. I look forward to checking out these other titles!

    1. Thank you, Kathryn, and thank you for the opportunity to read your lovely novel!


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