Nothing new under the sun

I’m often asked by writing students about copyright and plagiarism, and the best ways to make sure no one steals your ideas. It’s something that beginners seem unduly concerned about. I’m not saying it can’t happen but I’ve never really worried. I know a lot of writers and I understand the mindset; the very last thing most creative people want to do is steal ideas from someone else. In fact, I hear authors complain loudly and often about the moments at book events when non writers try to feed them their great idea for a novel that they can’t be bothered to write themselves. ‘As if I don’t have enough of my own to deal with!’ And if other writers were to be influenced by things that I’d written and published? Well, they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and you can’t really argue with that. Besides, in my experience, ideas often occur at the same time, arising out of the zeitgeist like strange, ungainly creatures for each of us to fight our own, very personal battles with. You could give the same idea to a hundred different authors and get a hundred different novels. I mean, at core, that’s what happens anyway. Some theories claim there are as few as seven basic storylines and, even if we can identify a few more than that, it’s unlikely that the pesky Mr Shakespeare didn’t get there before us.

I’ve noticed all kinds of coincidences with my work over the years. I wrote about a creepy Doll’s House in a short story for Sphere. A few years’ later, Jessie Burton’s wonderful The Miniaturist, with a similar premise, was a huge smash hit. As much as I’d love to believe that Burton read my book before writing hers, I’d be very surprised if that were the case. In fact, I suspect if she had known about the existence of my story, it would have put her off writing her novel at all. What’s more, not long after my book came out, I watched the film The Awakening, horrified to find that Stephen Volk had written a scene that could have come straight out of my story, at least a year before I wrote it. It’s an absolutely wonderful and terrifying scene in a film that is full of such things.

One of the kinder American trade reviews of my second novel Starfishing suggested I had taken Bright Lights, Big City as my model, a book I had not actually read. I went straight out and bought it, obvs, and was extremely flattered by the comparison. (Although I was left wondering if he’d read past the (second person) prologue of my book and into the main body of what is a (mostly first person) novel). Perhaps one of the weirdest writerly coincidences I’ve ever experienced, though, was to do with my late, lamented friend and tutor Graham Joyce (interestingly, also a good friend of said Stephen Volk). We found we were both writing stories that had big, pivotal joyriding scenes in our novels TWOC and The Killing Jar. A friend who was a literary scout had read both, and alerted us to the fact that we had independently managed to write an almost identical sentence. We laughed, until another writer pointed out that this was probably because the metaphor we’d picked was a bit of a cliche. She was right, of course. These people usually are, goddamn them!

I posed a question on plot similarities to my facebook folks a few months’ back, and another writer friend pointed out to me that I’m always likely to have this kind of weirdness around my fiction, because it’s quite zeitgeisty. It was not something I had ever thought about myself but, when he said it, I realised there was something to his theory. I mean, take 2015’s big trend, the unlikeable female protagonist. My brittle, psychotic or criminal women have been at the heart of almost every bad review I’ve had in my entire career. One of the taglines Sphere used when promoting my 2010 novel The Haunted was ‘How well do we ever know the person we marry?’ a full two years before Gillian Flynn started the ‘domestic noir’ genre properly, with her smash hit Gone Girl (one of my books of the decade, so far, were I to make that kind of list). What’s more, the similarities in plot between the horror novel inspired by my honeymoon and a film called The Honeymoon are so bizarre and seemingly unlikely that I even considered contacting the scriptwriters to ask if they had been up in Scotland with me and the Good Husband when we got lost in the dark and, if so, why they didn’t lend us their torch. So here’s the thing; despite the difficulty of writing even small, fairly likely coincidences into the plot of your fiction and pulling it off, huge ones happen all the time. Those writers who contact the BBC after submitting to Script Room and threaten to sue because their idea turned up in Sherlock two weeks later are wasting everybody’s time. It was a good enough idea that someone else was thinking it too, that’s all. Be happy, and write it better yourself next time. And be quicker off the mark, too; it takes a tad more than two weeks to bring an idea to screen.

And so to Follow Me, by Angela Clarke, one of the social media thrillers I mentioned in my previous post. I came across this intriguing little book thanks to friends on facebook; I followed the author on twitter and bought the book straight away. Reading the blurb was a strange experience. The novel is really very different in style, tone and even a different subgenre to my own social media trilogy THE TROLL. My books have straight thriller narratives, whereas Clarke’s is a rather original and quirky take on the police procedural. But it has in common that the story revolves around a sick and twisted tweeter. I won’t say too much because, spoilers, but if one plot element in common wasn’t enough, the dual protagonists of Clarke’s book also have a secret from their past, from when they were at school together. As do my three main characters. When the secret is revealed it turns out to have some strange parallels with the same plot element in my book too. What’s more, whereas I have used phrases based on internet memes as my chapter titles, Clarke uses internet newsgroup abbreviations in a very similar way. One of my characters thinks in hashtags, Clarke’s in Buzzfeed style headlines.

Of course, there are bound to be lots of similarities in two books that have a similar idea at the core of them. BOOK ABOUT THE INTERNET CONTAINS REFERENCES TO MEMES SHOCKER. As is apparent from my writing career, I really do like spooky and it doesn’t stop there. I guess that I’ve met my writing doppelganger because even a part of Clarke’s website shows a similar approach to mine. In my ‘about’ section, I decided to do a top five interesting facts about me, rather than the usual boring bio. Angela’s has a top ten, and they even broach some similar subjects, including maths, where our similarities end.  The being late and getting lost thing, though, I am totally there with, as my family and friends will attest. I suspect that Ms Clarke and I will end up randomly lost in the same place one of these days, and then smile in recognition as we try to talk without finishing each other’s sentences.

Hey, I’ve got this great idea for a book; two thriller writers write similar novels, both becoming convinced that the other has stolen their idea, or somehow got hold of their manuscript ahead of its publication. Things get dark, very dark. Someone should write it. Better get in quick, though, because that kind of idea could have come straight out of a Nicola Monaghan novel 🙂

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About nicolamon

novelist and all that
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5 Responses to Nothing new under the sun

  1. David Humphries says:

    Hello Nicola. Happy New Year darling. I do like reading your articles I will e/mail to you with a verse if you want. Happy New Year.

  2. Really enjoyed reading this post, Nicola and you’re so right – first up, best dressed. No good whining after the event.
    Good stuff.

    PS – I loved The Killing Jar 🙂

  3. This post is so on the money. We all think we have the latest and greatest idea, only to find that someone has already thought of it. It is an incredible phenomenon really! Love the way that it really doesn’t bother you.

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