When Your Original Idea Ain't So Original



There are about 50,000 fiction books published in the U.S. each year.


No, really. 50,000. That's 1000 books per state. Other sources say the number is much higher. It seems that it can reach well past 150,000 when you consider self-published fiction. And the number of non-fiction books published easily eclipses fiction. Now, I already lost track of how many books that is, but it's a lot. Hundreds of thousands. Every year.


This begs the question: how can you and your novel stand out? Answer: you probably can't. But, in a way, you already have.


An even crazier statistic is that 90% of books written will never see daylight. Thus, you could estimate that over 1,000,000 books are written in the U.S. each year. This includes Grandpa's WWII diaries and droves of novels written each November for nanowrimo that will get shelved on December 1. (That's a lot of books -- 20,000 per state! -- and I think it's awesome that so many people choose to spend their time creating.)


Looking at all these statistics, paired with the widely-held belief that there are only a handful of stories to be told, it's obvious that there is going to be another book out there that shares more than a few similarities with yours.


An article in The Guardian discusses how Kurt Vonnegut's "story shapes" theory has been tested:

"...researchers found there are “six core trajectories which form the building blocks of complex narratives”. These are: “rags to riches” (a story that follows a rise in happiness), “tragedy”, or “riches to rags” (one that follows a fall in happiness), “man in a hole” (fall–rise), “Icarus” (rise–fall), “Cinderella” (rise–fall–rise), and “Oedipus” (fall–rise–fall). "

There are dozens of theories on how many story structures there are. I've heard it said that there are only two tales: a hero goes on an adventure ("The Hobbit") or a stranger comes to town ("Pride and Prejudice"). You could spend many, many hours digging through all these theories. The gist of it is that there are very few, and that all those 50,000 novels published each year will follow tried and true plot structures. And why shouldn't they? Of course, a writer can place their adventure story in outer space or their version of "Cinderalla" in ancient Egypt, but the basic stories remain the same because they work.


While writing Camper Girl, I read a few other YA novels that centered around road trips, but I didn't truly consider how my story fit into that category or what similarities and differences there were. It wasn't until recently, when I began to query agents and editors, that I looked more deeply into the issue. Some agents ask prospective writers to list comparative books, which is extra work on our end, but it's a useful practice (even if no one does ask for a list of comps, it's a good idea to do it yourself).


So, I researched YA road trip books. I was surprised at the numbers, and as I learned more, my heart sank a little. I realized Camper Girl, while unique, wasn't that unique. One novel in particular was so similar to mine that I considered myself a big fake. I considered going back to the drawing board and making sweeping changes to ensure that my story truly stood out and that I wouldn't be accused of literary shoplifting.


Thankfully, those concerns only lasted a few days. As I looked more closely at this particular comparative story, I realized the similarities it had with Shannon's adventure were only skin deep. I never read the entire book, but I read pieces of it and looked at a lot of reviews and summaries. I learned enough to know that readers would see that these were very different novels, despite a few key features being similar.


Romance, science fiction, even contemporary literary fiction -- books in these categories all have similarities, and yet they all stand apart from one another. The same is surely true for YA novels, where coming-of-age themes are required. How many times can that story be told? Apparently, thousands of times.


Looking at this in a different light, I'm proud to add my story to the category of YA novels about road trips. There is a sort of magic inherent in the new-found freedoms of driving the open road. Those ribbons of asphalt become symbols of a character's path through adolescence. It is an adventure rife with euphoria and road-side breakdowns. Familiar, right?


And I know that my book is unique...enough. After all my research and reading, I found no other books like mine. And, that, too, I'm proud of.


All this leads to my next YA novel project. It's a story of a boy sent to a juvenile detention center. Familiar, right?


The story is based on my own experiences of working with at-risk youth, in and out of detention. Still, I know that anything I write about will be compared to other "juvie" books. That's okay. I still want it to be unique. So, since completing a rough draft and planning out revisions, I've been doing a lot of research on comparative titles.


What I've found is that "juvie" stories are a lot like "road trip" stories. They're another form of adventure, albeit much darker. Going back to Vonnegut's thesis, "juvie" stories are examples of the “man in a hole” (fall–rise) shape. Titles explore the juvenile criminal system, poverty, peer pressure, and coming-of-age experiences that are anything but sweet and comfortable. Protagonists are forced to navigate a violent world, surviving on instinct and hard-won insight. They may try to fly under the radar (denial), but are called on to act bravely and lead by example (acceptance). There are a lot of evil people in these tales, along with a few kind-hearted mentors. (In several books, the mentor is an old man.) At the end of the story, the protagonist emerges from the adventure with changed perspectives: what was once a dark world-view now contains a small glimmer of hope.


Basically, that's every "juvie" YA novel in a nutshell. (You could argue that's every YA novel, period.)


So, how does a writer make their work stand out from the crowd? It starts with switching up the setting and a few other key elements. For example:


Some juvie stories are set in fortress-like prisons. Others take place in group homes. Some settings require children to work ("Holes") while others offer rehab opportunities ("Lockdown"). There are escapes ("We Were Here") and tales of extreme survival ("Scar Island"). A few enter the realm of supernatural powers ("The Twelve-Fingered Boy"). And let's not forget that juvenile detention isn't just for boys. "Something Like Hope," "Juvie," and "Until You Make the Shore" all feature female protagonists. (Check out "Girls Incarcerated" on Netflix and the brilliant but heartbreaking "Juvie Talk".)


Each of these books share similarities, some more than others. But each is singular and adds its unique voice to the conversation.


In other words, there's always a way to make your novel stand out while still remaining in the relative comfort of a sub-genre. Place your juvie story on the moon (no, wait, don't -- that's my idea now). Set your romance in a unique era where the political and social backdrop enhance the plot. (A teen love story that takes place at the beginning of the stock market crash? Great!) Give your protagonist a physical hurdle -- super-short, super-tall, big ears, a big scar, overactive sweat glands, a lisp. Some might say that a love story is a love story is a love story. There's nothing new to say.... maybe so, but there IS always a new way to say it.


So, how am I going to make my new project stand out from all the other YA novels about juvenile detention? I've got a few ideas...