Let me tell you a story. I recently took a copy of my latest novel to a journalist, asking for a review. She agreed. Two days later she sent me a text. She’d finished the novel; would I meet her for coffee later in the day?
Would I? You bet your buns I would meet her—anywhere, anytime. She’d just read my novel in less than forty-eight hours. Reviews don’t come any better than that.
Visions of sugarplums danced in my head. She couldn’t wait to discuss my book. She wanted to recommend it to another reviewer working on a bigger paper. She foresaw a cult cross-over into the mainstream. And so on…and on… until the appointed hour arrived.
I rushed to our meeting. She bought me coffee (lovely woman). We sat down. She looked worried…
Turns out she had read my book in my less than forty-eight hours. She really liked it, too. But what was bothering her, and prompted the urgency of our meeting, was this: she is writing her own novel and, reading mine, discovered to her horror that we have touched on the same, rather obscure subject matter. I simply happen to have published first.
‘Next year, or ten years from now, you might walk into a bookshop and pick up my book and you’ll think I copied from you,’ she said. ‘That’s why I had to tell you straight away.’
You should know that this journalist is a really nice person of impeccable integrity. There is no question of her dissembling. And the truth is, you often hear writers fretting over their wonderful ideas being stolen, but it doesn’t happen that much, not least because most wonderful ideas aren’t really that wonderful once the initial excitement is over. Besides which, a good idea is just the start; it’s the execution of the idea that makes a good novel. I’ll come back to that thought in a minute.
So there we were, lovely journalist and I having coffee, she bravely hiding both her distress that I’d already published her great idea and her concern that one day I might think she’d pinched my idea; me bravely hiding my disappointment that she hadn’t called me over to cover me in plaudits.
Just your average meeting of writerly minds…
One day this scene will seem pretty funny. At the moment I just feel vaguely depressed. She likes my book. Quite a lot, actually. She will be writing me a review and it will appear in a regional newspaper and hopefully win me some new readers. But for a moment I had glimpsed the possibility of really setting someone else’s mind on fire with my creation, and suddenly nothing else will do.
As regards the synchronicity of our thinking: that’s surprisingly common. Who knows where these seeds come from, or what causes them to implant and come to fruition in several minds at once? A random phrase that sticks; a careless allusion that resonates… There is, it seems, a finite number of ideas out there, anyway.
And that’s where execution comes in.
We’ve all read stories that don’t deliver on a truly fabulous idea. On the other hand, every love story in the world is based on the oldest inciting idea in the world—boy meets girl—and still writers manage to deliver up love stories that engage and entertain us. It’s all in the delivery.
Which is why writing isn’t a competitive sport. Take one juicy idea or theme, throw it into a pit of ravenous writers and guess what happens? Each writer comes up with a completely different story.
Which is exactly what we’ve recently done here at Firedance. We challenged ourselves to come up with an anthology of stories about firedancing. I’ve just read it, and what strikes me is the extraordinary originality of each story, notwithstanding the shared central idea.
See what I’ve done there? I’ve turned a general point in a (somewhat rambling) blog into a nice marketing plug for the next Firedance anthology. And I’ve almost written myself out of my vague depression about the incident with the lovely journalist—who, by the way, has agreed to share her manuscript with me, so I’m looking forward to a good read some time very soon.
Not such a bad day after all.
The Firedance anthology Words That Burn was published by Firedance Books, Spring 2013.