It’s happened again.
Must be the fourth or fifth time in the last ten years, and it doesn’t get any easier to deal with, the kick in your gut any less painful.
I was watching The Number 23, the psychological chiller starring Jim Carrey, when the twist was revealed towards the end – I hadn’t seen it coming – and I experienced that awful sensation when you realise the pivotal deceit is one that you’ve been working on, that same twist upon which one of your works in progress hinges.
It’s a feeling of utter deflation, a sense that no matter how much you know that there are only a certain number of plots (depends on who you listen to), and only so many truly original storylines out there, you thought that, this time, you were on to a winner. Again.
The first time it happened, I was three pages into a film script for a ‘big concept’. I opened my TV Times one night, and there it was, a two-part drama starting on ITV, and it even had the exact same title. The setting and storyline were poles apart, but the core idea and the main character (the actual person...) were exactly the same.
Still, I was a mere whippersnapper back then, and in hindsight I should have realised that particular storyline was whizzing around the minds of numerous writers. No great loss.
I had two similar kicks to the gut within a few weeks of each other a couple of years back. The first was a crime story I’d been playing with, and had knocked off about 10,000 words. On this occasion, it wasn’t the plot – but the main character, or rather the character’s background. I picked a book up in Waterstones, the debut novel of a British author, and read the blurb, felt sick to the stomach and nearly dropped the hardback on my foot. I held on to it, though, and lined up to hand over my cash. A damn fine read it was too.
It hasn’t reduced my idea to a train wreck, as the setting and plots are different enough, but there are several similarities in the main characters and what they set out to do. Again, looking at it with hindsight, the character’s background isn’t as original as I’d first thought – it’s incredible how precious you can be about something that doesn’t warrant it.
The second of these quick fire incidents was a jaw-dropping moment; a really hideous event during which I somehow managed not to make a complete halfwit out of myself.
I had to step in at the last minute to interview an up-and-coming children’s writer, and I had no idea what kind of books she wrote. It’s an awful situation to be in – imagine interviewing a musician and never having heard one of their songs.
It’s always best to be up front about such things, so as soon as we’d shaken hands and were enjoying a brew in Waterstones – one floor up from the previous kick to the gut – I came clean and explained that I’d not read any of her stuff. I had done a bit of swotting on the internet, but obviously not that much. She was fine about it, and we chatted about what got her started in books and she quickly proved to be a fantastic subject, easy to talk to, funny and very self –effacing.
“So,” I said. “Can you tell me about your latest book?” And she did. And I hated her. With an absolute passion.
At that time, I’d been working on a young adult novel for about two months. I was about 15,000 words in, and had the whole thing plotted out. Hell, I even had the outlines for books two and three in a trilogy lined up. The basic premise, I believed, was stunning. I used to smile when I considered how clever it was. I won’t do that again in a hurry.
As she told me about her book, which was to be one of a series of four, I’m not sure what my face looked like. I like to believe that I was professional enough to keep up the pretence and not let my horror (and hatred) show through. I like to think so, but chances are she went back to her friends and family and told them about the strange journo with the manically weird expression who had interviewed her that day. “Nice bloke and all, even bought me a coffee, but man, what a freakishly contorted face he had...” It was another ‘big concept’, and this seemed to be exactly the same as the idea I was working on.
I went home that night, utterly dejected. My better half, as always, soon knocked me into shape. We looked on the internet, read a bit about the book, and she insisted that, while the basic idea may have been similar, the stories and characters, even the target age group, were substantially different to matter not a jot.
The next day, I returned to the store and bought a copy of the book. To this day, I’ve not read it through, but I have skimmed parts to get a general idea. I don’t want to read it, because I know I will return to this project, within the next year or so, and complete it. And I don’t want to compromise my writing by reading her book. I will do so afterwards, to check there are no glaring similarities, but I believe there’s room for both stories.
I’ve not gone into the details of which authors and books have been involved in causing me such grief, pain and misery, as there is nothing to gain by mentioning them. This is more to do with the process of realising that if you think you have THE NEXT GREAT IDEA, think again. Because the chances are, someone out there is busy scribbling away on the same concept.
As for We Walk In Shadows, the project which has been Jim Carrey-fied, I’m not sure what to do. The characters, the setting, the storyline all still work and have nothing in common with The Number 23. It’s just the fundamental twist that the whole thing hinges on, or at least does so in its present format.
There’s no reason why I can’t alter the ending, or not even the ending, just the deceit which affects the reader. For now, though, it’s firmly on hold. There’s the Manx Giant to finish, and camping to be done this bank holiday weekend. It will, of course, rain. This being the Isle of Man, we’ll most likely get a blizzard thrown in for good measure.
But we’ll be barbecuing whatever the weather. Come on, God, do your worst.
Being read by torchlight this week:
The Sweet Forever, George Pelecanos