Yesterday, I had a late lunch/early dinner with Denise Jaden, author of the forthcoming YA novel LOSING FAITH. It was very fun! Denise and I talked for two hours straight. I don't know about her, but I probably could have done another two hours easily!
One of the topics that came up is something to which I think most writers can relate on some level: the experience of learning that another book out there has major similarities to yours. I'm not talking about plagiarism or people stealing ideas. I just mean those times when, by sheer coincidence, you write something with that turns out to have elements similar to something someone else is also writing/has already written.
It used to happen to me all the time when I first started writing novels. I was pretty out of control about it. Like, "Laurie Halse Anderson has an art class figured prominently in SPEAK? My book has an art class, too! I'm doooooomed!" And " Carolyn Mackler mentioned the song 'Me and Bobby McGee' in LOVE AND OTHER FOUR-LETTER WORDS??? My book mentions 'Me and Bobby McGee,' too! Nooooooo! Everyone is going to think I copied her!" Or, "How could Deb Caletti mention Snoqualmie River? I was going to mention Snoqualmie River!"
I've calmed down a lot over the years. I do understand that there are only so many things in the world that people can write about, and that everyone puts their own spin on an old thing -- even when they don't yet realize the old thing exists. That's the way it is. And just because someone's book contains some particular thing, it doesn't mean that no one else's can or should.
Still, I will admit that there are times when my sensible and logical side are mowed right over by my paranoia. Since my book sold, I've learned of three characters in existence (one from a television show and two from other novels) whose backstories are uncomfortably similar to some of my characters. I try not to think about them too often, because when I do, my stomach gets all fluttery in a bad way and I have difficulty breathing.
But why do I feel like this? Really, honestly, why do I care? I love my characters the way they are. Even though the other books came out before mine, I was already writing my characters before those were published. And even if that weren't the case, I know that I created everything in my book independently of those writers creating theirs. THE SIMILARITIES ARE JUST A COINCIDENCE.
The anxiety I'm having isn't about myself because I already know all of the above to be true. No, the part that causes these physical reactions when I think about the other stories/characters, is worrying what other people are going to think. As a writer who agonizes over everything single thing that goes into my books, I can think of fewer things more insulting than having my integrity challenged and being accused of ripping off someone else's work.
For my sanity, I really need to get over this Fear of What Other People Will Think and have complete confidence in what I know to be true: I (and every author I know is the same) do this writing thing in order to tell my unique stories, to see my own imaginings come to life. I need to learn to let go and accept that the conclusions that others draw might be wrong, and are completely out of my control.