Writers, does this scenario strike fear in your heart? You’re working on a project, you’re invested in it, excited, feeling confident that finally, finally, FINALLY you’ve hit on an idea that’s really clicking for you. And then *screeeeeching brakes*: A book is published with a too-similar premise.
If you relate to this, or worry about it happening, then I have a story you might like to hear:
I started writing Book Scavenger in 2003. The beginning seed of my idea was this image of kids finding a mysterious book in a BART station, but I wasn’t sure where to go from there. I thought maybe the book they found would be special because the characters could come out into the real world. Yes! I got really excited about this idea. It seemed cool and original–and then I read Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. If you’re not familiar with Inkheart, read it, it’s fantastic, but it has a similar premise to my initial idea and I lost all confidence in myself being able to do something similar.
But I was still stuck on this image of kids finding a book in a BART station and having an adventure in San Francisco. I switched gears and latched onto a new puzzle mystery direction, and came up with the idea for this website/real world bookhunting game . . . In 2004, there was still a big divide between the internet and publishing. Terms like “multiplatform storytelling” and “transmedia” weren’t being thrown around for books back then. I was sure I had latched onto something original and fresh–and then I heard about a new series Scholastic would be launching the following year called 39 Clues with Rick Riordan heading the first book. There would be ELEVEN books, each written by a big name author, with the characters on a worldwide scavenger hunt for clues, and there was also a website/game tie in.
I was crushed. While it wasn’t my exact idea, it shared enough similarities that I no longer felt confident mine would stand out.
My grand vision deflated like a balloon, and the only thing that kept me moving forward with this now floppy idea of a book was a one-on-one session I had with an editor at a SCBWI conference. She had read the first ten pages of my draft and her written feedback was a short paragraph that began “This is really cool,” and ended with, “Would you send me the whole manuscript? I’d love to read it!”
Wonderful, right? It was, absolutely, but the problem was that I had less than 40 pages written. Not only that, but the idea I had in mind for this book felt too ambitious for my writing skills at the time. I wasn’t sure I could execute it, and definitely didn’t think I could execute it quickly. What if I invested all this time writing this book only to find out I couldn’t pull it off? Or what if I invested all this time and did pull it off, only to have editors and agents point to 39 Clues and say, “Too late. Been done.”
What it boiled down to was this: If I turned down the dial on all the noise–the industry gossip, what else is being published, what do editors want/not want–if I just thought about my characters and my story, I was still incredibly passionate about my idea. I still wanted to understand the mystery behind the book these kids had found in the BART station. I still wanted to see if I could create a Goonies-esque story set in San Francisco. The personal challenge was worth it to me, even if one of my worst-case scenarios came true.
So I kept going with my book. I’d be lying if I said from that moment on I was a fiery ball of confidence that could not be extinguished. But I kept going. I think I was on my third re-write when The Mysterious Benedict Society was published and became a bestseller. There was also The Gollywhopper Games series and the Winston Breen puzzle mysteries, and too many more similar-sounding middle grade mysteries to keep track of.
The summer I sold Book Scavenger in a three-book deal, ALL eleven of the 39 Clues books had been published as well as the first few books of a second 39 Clues series. Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library was published and has gone on to be a long-running NY Times bestseller.
Fast forward to today, my publisher is including Book Scavenger on a read-alike poster for libraries which says “If you liked The Mysterious Benedict Society, try Book Scavenger.” (They were going to use Mr. Lemoncello, but that title was included on their poster the year before.) And Jody Feldman, who writes the Gollywhopper Games series, was kind enough to blurb my book. I’m friendly with Eric Berlin, who writes the Winston Breen series, and we share the same agent.
In short, I think a lot of the early success Book Scavenger is now finding could be partly attributed to the path paved by these similar books that came before. I didn’t have to fear the familiar. Every title I mentioned here would likely appeal to the same reader, but they are each unique stories. There is room on the bookshelf for us all.
It can be hard to find that balance between looking to what others are doing for inspiration, but then not letting what others are doing deter you from something. It’s important to remember that it is your spin that will set something apart. Don’t let news of a comparable book knock the wind out of your sails. Just look at it as a challenge to make sure you’re digging deep and tapping into the YOU essence of the story. And keep going.
Jennifer Chambliss Bertman is the author of the forthcoming middle-grade mystery, Book Scavenger (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt/Macmillan, 2015). Book Scavenger launches a contemporary mystery series that involves cipher-cracking, book-hunting, and a search for treasure through the streets of San Francisco. Jennifer earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College, Moraga, CA, and is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette.
You can find Jennifer online at http://writerjenn.blogspot.com where she runs an interview series with children’s book authors and illustrators called “Creative Spaces.”