A year ago, I started a middle grade story about a girl who will eventually discover her special talent is bossiness. Or rather, that she has executive potential. I read other books about entrepreneurial girls to get a sense of where my story fit, and I was disheartened when I ran across that one that was really similar to what I wanted to do. I wrote my grad school advisor a letter expressing my discouragement saying, essentially, “I’m not sure there’s a point to my book.” His response was a story:
There once was a magician who became so good at his craft that he decided the word “magician” no longer applied to him, and that he would like to be addressed as a god from that moment forward.
The God of that particular world happened to be walking by, and overheard.
“Interesting,” He said. “Let’s see what you’ve got, then. I challenge you to a contest of miracles.”
“I accept,” said the unfazed former magician.
“Then we’ll start small.” God scooped up a handful of dirt, spit in it to make clay, and shaped the clay into a bird. The bird stretched, sang, and flew away. “Can you do that?”
“No problem.” The former magician reached down, scooped up some dirt, and was just about to spit when God interrupted him.
“Hey, now. Use your own dirt.”
The point, he explained, was not to let the published story rock my confidence just because we’re sharing the same dirt.
On a recent thread in a writer’s forum, someone did some similar freaking out and I pasted in this anecdote with an air of calm, like, “Here, let this story soothe your soul,” then drifted off in a haze of benevolence. “I should do a blog post on this,” I thought.
Fast forward about two weeks and I was reading one of those lists of anticipated new releases. And to my stunned horror, there on the list was a forthcoming YA novel that shared some disheartening similarities to a story I’d been about to start. “How many stories about Deaf teenage artists does the world need?” I wondered.
And I went into the tailspin so many of us experience: it’s too similar to mine. No editor is going to want to buy my (unwritten) book with this other one already out in the world. And on and on and on.
But I re-grounded myself in the story my advisor told me and I began to think about it. What is similar: a Deaf girl protagonist who expresses herself through art. And those are two big things to have in common. BUT. I thought about what was different. This book is YA, mine is middle grade. This book is written about a person of color. Me: definitely not. This book’s protagonist expresses her art through beautiful, subversive graffiti. Mine does it in the safety of her art class.
Then I thought about how many books I’ve read where paupers become princes, lowly peasant girls rise to royalty, a band of scrappy rebels overthrows an oppressive government, a lone wolf fights through a bleak post-apocalyptic hellscape.
The et cetera is important. Lots of different versions of the same story are told, have been told, will be told. The magic is in the details, in the character, the voice, the setting.
This other story and I, we’re playing with the same dirt. But I plan to mold mine into a bird of an altogether different feather.
Let yours fly too.
Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and shoe addict. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Her seventh novel, Southern Charmed, released in October. Melanie is pursuing a Masters degree in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.