Has Your Book Already Been Written?

15 Nov

I’d be surprised if I’ve completed more than a thousand words of my current work-in-progress, so far this November. My NaNoWriMoustache, on the other hand, is a wonder to behold. I wish that I could share it with you… As I’ve bemoaned before, if you can’t afford to write full-time, it can take many years to bring a project to its conclusion. And among other potential problems, you may find that events overtake you.

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NoNa grows a moustache for Movember…

It’s the novelist’s worst nightmare. You work for years on a book only to find that another writer has written something very similar already. Part of the reason that I wrote my war novel was to commemorate a group of young men whom it seemed to me were mentioned infrequently in accounts of that war. I first considered writing something about the subject back in 2002. It remained on the back-burner until 2006 while other projects took precedence. A couple of years into writing it, I discovered that Len Deighton had published a novel back in 1970 with a similar split between England and Germany in its construction. Around the same time, A L Kennedy won the Costa Prize for a novel with a similar context. So much for my forgotten young men… For all that, the book that I wrote is a very different one from either of those novels. Theirs have been published for a start…

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my twin-pronged approach to writing. The idea is that I work on one project until it runs out of steam and then pick up the other, having had time to put distance between myself and the text. I’ve been working on the latter of these projects uninterrupted for the last year or so. Meanwhile, the former project, set during the Cold War and a very loosely related sequel to my war novel, has been gathering dust at the 15,000 word mark (a mere nine days’ work to a NaNoWriMo writer, of course). Now I find that I may have been beaten to the punch again…

There’s a chain of discount book stores in the UK called The Works. These shops are filled with remaindered junk, in amongst which are some excellent but unloved volumes (unless a book has been reviewed by a TV book club or written by a television celebrity, the English are generally uninterested in it). Over the years I’ve found some excellent books there for a pound or two, David Bellos’ masterful biography, Georges Perec: a Life in Words and Jan Morris’ Hav among them. They also sell some rather splendid toys that I buy my children from time to time (see photo). Amid the detritus of copycat vampire and S&M novels, I discovered to my horror, a pile of books with a cover scarily similar to the mock-up for my Cold War novel. I picked one up. I can’t even remember its title now – it was something about London and Moscow, I think. On the face of it, the premise looked scarily similar. Fortunately, it also looked to be an action novel featuring an improbable hero, so not exactly what I have in mind for my work-in-progress. And after all, it had been remaindered…

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A robot, a tank and a space alien found lurking in The Works

The other day, I overheard a radio interview with Donna Tartt, talking about the publication of her latest novel, only her third in thirty years. The interviewer mentioned that Stephen King was a fan but thought Tartt should write faster since time is in such short supply (as is life itself, by implication). Tartt rejected this suggestion out of hand. Good heavens. Hasn’t she ever heard of NaNoWriMo? I find myself torn. My inner Tartt says take your time while my inner King is exhorting, “write for all your worth, you never know how long you have left…”. And then, of course, someone else out there might be writing your book (this isn’t a problem for the NaNoWriMo writer who produces an entire novel in half the time it would take a lesser writer to complete a short story). My other work-in-progress is an oddity, though. Consequently, I’m willing to wager that nobody else anywhere in the world is writing a novel the same as that.

All text and images © PSR 2013

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8 Responses to “Has Your Book Already Been Written?”

  1. Mari Biella November 16, 2013 at 4:04 am #

    An interesting post as always, Paul. I’ve heard that it’s not at all uncommon for writers to find, to their horror, that the novel they thought entirely original and unique is, in fact, rather similar to another. It’s to be expected, perhaps: there are only so many basic stories out there. I think what is more interesting is how an individual writer deals with their material; it is this that truly makes them unique.

    I too experience dialogues between my inner King and my inner Tartt. After all, who knows how much time they have left? However, and whilst I’m very fond of King, I have to say that for my money Tartt is the better writer, and this may not be unrelated to the amount of time she spends crafting her novels.

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves November 16, 2013 at 9:22 am #

    Hi Mari and thanks for your comments. You’re right about the originality of stories. It’s long been established that there are only seven or nine or some number of stories to be told, depending upon how you categorise them. It’s when the context is the same that the alarm bells start ringing. For all that, it’s in the prose and imagery and characterisation that the real distinction between books lies.

    And there might just be a connection between the time spent on crafting a novel and its quality, Mari (a theme I’m always happy to discuss in November!). I don’t like King’s writing at all but I admire his imagination and I like him as a character. Tartt, on the other hand, represents the approach to writing that I believe to be right – careful thought and craft.

  3. jhuwevans November 18, 2013 at 9:15 pm #

    Well as you know I have some finished novels and they are all unique. Some are uniquely unique, as indeed are yours, especially the work in progress. I think I’ll ditch the trilogy written only with the letter z (zed for our US cousins); it limits the characters too much except when they’re sleeping.

    I’m an afficianado of THE WORKS. The Ipswich shop is the best in the whole world and I reccomend that it become a tourist attraction.

  4. Paul Sutton Reeves November 18, 2013 at 10:01 pm #

    Yes, Huw, my work-in-progress certainly seems unique. But who knows? Maybe I’ll wander into The Works and find its doppelgänger. Working on the fringes of fantasy/sf ought to allow for individuality, though the remaindered stock in said bookshop might suggest otherwise.

    Hmm, the trilogy written only with the letter ‘z’ reminds me of the short story that I wrote featuring words beginning with ‘x’ then ‘y’ and finally ‘z’. Such constraints are always fun. Yours sounds a little too challenging though.

  5. jenisindc December 5, 2013 at 8:04 pm #

    I am always terrified that someone is writing my novel, which i have no started yet.

    • Paul Sutton Reeves December 5, 2013 at 8:09 pm #

      Yup, it’s the ultimate horror, isn’t it?

      • jenisindc December 5, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

        Yes, yes it is. It makes you not want to write, due to the fact that your story has already been told. But this is why I write complex relationships for my characters to deal with. I hope that no one has thought about it but it is possible. If they get to it before me, I just wish them luck in navigating these relationships. I am still doing tons of research so it is possible that they are writing it why I research it.

      • Paul Sutton Reeves December 5, 2013 at 8:44 pm #

        Hmm, well, my books tend to be so off-the-wall that any book bearing a superficial resemblance to them is almost certain to prove entirely different on closer inspection!

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