When Someone Has Already Written Your Book


‘There is no such thing as a new idea’, Mark Twain once wrote. Which is bad news for anyone trying to be original! But as he goes on to say, we can create new and endless numbers of new combinations. Still, what if you find that you keep coming up with ideas that have already been done? I’m reading a charming little book at the moment, ‘How To Fall In Love With A Man Who Lives In A Bush’, (quite easily, it seems, apparently Austrian men aren’t up to much) where the protagonist dreams of becoming an author. The only problem is that every story she comes up with has already been written …. by Charlotte Bronte or Stephen King!

It’s something of an occupational hazard for storytellers – even when it comes to choosing a title for your book. A quick search on Google will reveal that your unique, edgy and entirely original title has already been used by a handful of other authors, in some shape or fashion.  It’s happened to most of us, at some point or other in our writing lives, but thankfully it doesn’t always sound the death knell for your book.

On reading Graeme Simsion’s novel ‘The Rosie Project’, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling of deja vu.  Not surprising really, considering one of my favourite movies in recent years is ‘Adam‘, the story of a young man with Asperger Syndrome and his efforts to connect with a young woman who moves into his building.  It’s a really touching love story, as is The Rosie Project, because we can all see a piece of ourselves in these characters as they fumble unsuccessfully on the road to true love and self-determination.  Anyway, my point is that, as I was reading Simsion’s novel, I realised that while both stories had their similarities, they each had their own authentic voice. Imagine if either of them decided to give up on their project, because the story had already been done?

I believe that it is our job as writers to bring our unique viewpoint to these stories, regardless of whether the idea has already been explored.  Because nobody can truly write the same story in the way you’ve written it and that is your gift as a writer.  Original thought might be as rare as hen’s teeth, but it is the writer’s perspective which makes a story ‘new’, recycling old ideas and creating something different. I  found a great article by Melissa Donovan on Writing Forward.  She states that “Originality isn’t a matter of coming up with something new, it’s a matter of using your imagination to take old concepts and put them together in new ways.”  The following is a little test to prove her theory:

A young orphan who is being raised by his aunt and uncle receives a mysterious message from a stranger, which leads him on a series of great adventures. Early on, he must receive training to learn skills that are seemingly superhuman. Along the way he befriends loyal helpers, specifically a guy and a gal who end up falling for each other. Our young hero is also helped by a number of non-human creatures. His adventures lead him to a dark and evil villain who is terrorizing everyone and everything that our hero knows and loves — the same villain who killed his parents.

If you guessed that this synopsis outlines Harry Potter, then you guessed right. But if you guessed that it was Star Wars, you’re also right.

So it’s not unusual for people to independently come up with the same ideas in the creative sphere, or any sphere for that matter.  We all share the same collective unconscious.  Plagiarism, however, is another issue entirely. Plagiarism is the intentional copying or lifting of another person’s work and passing it off as your own. When I hear stories like this, it makes my blood run cold. I was in a chat group recently where a writer lamented the fact that a novel she had written a few years previous was now a major hit for someone else. Obviously, I have no proof as to whether or not this was true, but I could feel their helplessness.  What can you do if you see a book that shares more than a passing resemblance to your own (even the twist that ‘you’ll never see coming’?)

The most recent high profile copyright lawsuit involved the 2012 novel ‘The Light Between Oceans’ by M.L. Stedman (author Margot Louise Watts) which screenplay writer Joseph Nobile alleged was based on his 2004 screenplay, A Tale of Two Humans. The case, which was taken after Dreamworks adapted the novel for screen, was eventually dismissed, despite the plaintiff arguing that there were striking similarities between the work of the two authors, (the story’s setting on a remote storm-swept island, the central couple and specific scenes in chronology and specific passages of dialogue).

Equally being accused of plagiarism, based on mere coincidence, must be an unsettling experience. Unless you’re Daphne du Maurier, whose much beloved ‘Rebecca’ bore many similarities to A Sucessora (The Successor), a 1934 book by writer Carolina Nabuco. Nabuco and her editor alleged du Maurier had stolen the plot and much of the dialogue, but Du Maurier scoffed at the claims, arguing that the plot itself was too common to have been plagiarized. Although sued for plagiarism in 1947, du Maurier won the lawsuit.

As Oscar Wilde once said, as only he could, ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.’ Although I wouldn’t say that to anyone’s face!

While the majority of us don’t set out to write novels that have already been written, it’s almost impossible not to end up treading on the toes of stories that have already been told.  Having said that, publishers and readers alike don’t want the same old tropes churned out year after year. The trick is to tell a tale as old as time, but in a new way. Mix up genres and avoid the predictable cliches. The real challenge is to find your own unique voice as a writer and tell a story as only you can tell it.  That is what will make your work original.

How To Tell When Your Novel Is Finished



Art is never finished, only abandoned.

Leonardo da Vinci

Creativity is something that refuses to be measured by calendars; laughs at deadlines and always begs the question, ‘Could I make this better?’  Leonardo is right, at some point you just have to walk away, but how do you know when that is?

As many of you will know, because I keep harping on about it, my new novel The Story Collector will be published next year by Urbane Publications (woohoo!)  Yes, I’m still woohooing and plan to woohoo for some time to come.  Anyway, I’ve been working on this book, on and off, for about 18 months.  In my eyes, it was ready.  It’s been alpha read, beta read, edited and all that remained was a final proof read.  Or so I thought.

I joked with my publisher that, bar any new characters coming along and upsetting things, I should have the final draft in by our agreed deadline.  Well guess what?  A new character came along!  Well, not entirely new, but she was minor at best.  All of a sudden, she has loads to say and to my amazement, lifts the whole story an extra notch.  How did this happen?!  I often find myself writing about the creative process and how so much of what we do is fumbling in the dark, while equally holding on to the belief that we are being guided.  The original idea takes a perilous journey through countless drafts and rewrites, and much of the final touches are finding your way back to where you started.

I also paint and the process is exactly the same.  You have an idea in your head and from the moment you start putting that idea on the canvas/page, you are on a voyage to get back to that original idea.  You get led astray, fall down rabbit holes, become distracted by plots, deceived by characters.  The only way you can see the work clearly is to stand back from the canvas.  That is when you realise that you’re lacking depth, or that you need more highlighting, or perhaps the balance of the piece is leading the eye in the wrong direction.  So you get back in there; darken here, lighten there, until it’s time to step back again and repeat the process all over again.

When I first heard the phrase ‘Kill your darlings’, I thought I was going to have to bump off one of my favourite characters.  Then I realised that it was those lines, paragraphs, or entire chapters that you have an irrational attachment to and can’t bear to cut, no matter how much they are dragging the rest of the story down.  I’ve been revising the first three chapters (which are really crucial for capturing your reader’s attention) and paring back anything unnecessary.  With each sweep, I’m losing more and more of the writing I thought was important, but turned out to be superfluous.  My job at this point is to make it easy for the reader to slip into the story and want to continue reading.

So how do you know when you’re at the end?  When you’ve given your novel all that you can?  Is it when you can’t bear looking at it anymore?  Or is it when you’ve pushed past that point and begun to see your novel as your future readers will?

George Saunders, author of Lincoln In The Bardo, wrote about this process in a recent article for The Guardian

You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.”

And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up too.

I wholeheartedly subscribe to Saunders’ idea of revising yourself up and never underestimating your audience or your ability.  As Leonardo points out, there is never really complete satisfaction, but when you can walk away knowing that you’ve given more than you thought you could, that’s a good day’s work.

The Story Collector – Coming June 2018

Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas?

When writers are asked, ‘Where do you get your inspiration from?’ and they reply with a vague, ‘Oh everywhere and anywhere really’, they’re actually telling the truth. You never know where your next idea will come from and more often than not, it finds its roots in some throw-away comment or idea that just manages to cling onto your imagination. A newspaper headline; a passing remark on a TV show; or a piece of gossip you heard on the bus, can lodge itself in your subconscious and present itself as a story begging to be told, just when you least expect it.

medium_307745952  This was exactly the case for The Mysterious Bakery On Rue De Paris. A few years ago, I stumbled across a cookery show by Trish Deseine, an Irish woman who moved to Paris and embraced French food and culture wholeheartedly. Being a huge fan of both food and France I figured, what’s not to like?! Anyway, during one of her shows, she saunters around Paris sharing her favourite spots for shopping and eating. Then she points out a bakery, famed for its secrecy and delicious breads, whose patrons include the A-list of Parisien society. I can’t remember the story entirely, but apparently no-one was seen either entering or leaving. It was an old stone building with a basement entrance and there was something very mysterious about its clandestine operations.

A half-forgotten story about a mysterious bakery waited patiently at the back of my mind for years. Finally, I decided to write a short story about it, but it just didn’t seem to work. Then along came NaNo (National Novel Writing Month) and I seized the opportunity to breathe new life into the story. Writing a novel in thirty days is a daunting task, but it certainly focuses the mind! My bakery took on a life of its own, and lots of new characters to tell the tale. I decided to set my novel in a town that lies one hour north of Paris – the town of Compiègne, which is full of history and has very strong connections with World War II. Even though this book is not in the ‘Time-Slip’ genre like my first novel, there are still a lot of historical elements in the book and Compiègne seemed like the perfect location for the story to unfold. I really enjoy tracing the influence of the past through my stories and exploring its effects on my characters, and so the bakery’s story really begins during Nazi Germany’s occupation of France.

I also wanted this book to retain a light-hearted quality and I relished being able to describe the culture shock that is ‘la vie en France’. Having lived in Toulouse for a year in my twenties, I had a lot of personal experience to draw from. My protagonist, Edith, also brings a lot of warmth and humour to the story. A woman in her thirties, who is trying desperately to recapture her ‘student years’ by flitting off to a job in Paris, but needless to say, nothing goes according to plan (which is usually when you have the most fun!)

The Mysterious Bakery On Rue De Paris is a blend of all my pleasures in life: Pastries, travel, history and a good old fashioned story about finding yourself, your bliss and hopefully, some romance. Where do you find your ideas and how do you translate them into your writing? I’d love to know 🙂


The Mysterious Bakery On Rue de Paris (7) - Copy  The Mysterious Bakery On Rue De Paris Amazon ~ Kennys.ie ~ iTunes 

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How books can change your life

I’ve often heard interviewers ask this question of authors, “Name a book that changed your life”, and they inevitably list off the kind of high brow, literary titles that make you feel a bit unsure of your own choice.  I could say it was Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’ that changed my life, but I would never have dared to read Kafka if it hadn’t been for the two authors that brought me back to reading and consequently, changed the course of my life.

Allow me to set the scene.  The year was 2002 and I was living in Montreal, Canada – doing the whole working abroad thing that is the typical Irish experience.  Well after three years, the gloss had worn off my Canadian dream and I was really starting to miss home, my family and just being able to have a conversation with someone who understood me (literally and metaphorically!)  I grew weary of bridging the cultural divides with my Canadian friends and no matter how hard I tried, I always felt like the outsider.

Then one day I took myself off to my local library on Sherbrooke Street (money was tight – I couldn’t afford to buy much at Chapters) and found two of the most important catalysts in my life – Maeve Binchy and Marian Keyes.  Reading stories written about Ireland by Irish women was just the kind of connection with home that I needed at that time.  Tara Road and Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married became my new best friends.  I felt so lucky that a library on the other side of world stocked so many books by Irish writers and so I continued.  Watermelon, Rachel’s Holiday, The Glass Lake, Evening Class – I was hooked!

In time I realised that it wasn’t just the link to home that made these books so precious to me, but something in the back of my mind was beginning to stir: a long lost dream of becoming a storyteller myself.  As a child, I was known for being the one who made up long, rambling stories that probably didn’t make any since, but engrossed me in a way that little else did (apart from drawing – but that’s another story!)

Before I knew it, I was rushing home from my job in the evenings to start work on my very first novel.  I was writing.  Something I would never have dared attempt before borrowing those books from the library.  Not only that, over time I found everything in my life changing – I quit my job, moved back to Ireland and I haven’t looked back.  It was bye-bye corporate world, hello creativity 🙂  So, to Marian Keyes and the late, great Maeve Binchy, thank you for your stories because they were companions when I badly needed them and provided the spark to inspire me to follow my dreams.  And to all my fellow emerging authors – that’s how powerful stories can be, so keep going, it’s worth it!