There’s usually a point in a writer’s career when they have an amazing idea and flesh it out—only to find that it’s been done before. Now, I’m not talking about a word-for-word “they stole my idea before I even wrote it” kind of plagiarism here. I’m talking about the raw concept being similar enough as to draw easy comparisons. These are the ideas that authors tell their friends about and receive the feedback, “Oh, it’s like [FILL IN THE BLANK].” This devastates inexperienced writers. However, those who have been writing for a while welcome the comparison. Why?

Contextual originality.

If you gave two writers the same prompt (like for an anthology), they’d likely come up with two completely different ways of handling it. Similarly, even if someone already wrote your idea, that doesn’t mean they wrote it how you’d write it. We all have different inspirations and worldviews that make what we write contextually original. It’s been said that all stories have already been written. If you accept this, then you can free yourself from the burden of being “original.” There’s likely no way you’ll be completely original. Yes, truly original works stand out—but how easy is it to get someone to read something that original?

When querying agents or talking to potential customers, it’s beneficial to make comparisons between your manuscript and existing works. This is known as a “comp title” and it can help instantly give someone an idea of what your story is about. With shorter attention spans, it’s helpful to describe your book as (for example) a “sci-fi Arthurian Legend retelling” so that people quickly understand its premise. Many authors will mix two or three different comp titles together to obtain that lofty “original” designator—but even just one comp title is enough.

Adapt and remix.

About a decade ago, there was a huge craze for fairy tale retellings. Working with known stories, these authors adapted fairy tales in the public domain and remixed them for modern audiences. Most of these books were romantic, but Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles stood out for its sci-fi take on fantasy. By using known stories, much of the heavy lifting of character development, setting, and plot can be lifted wholesale from the source material. The “Quirk Classics” series mixed traditional romances with monsters (such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). These “monster romances” lifted a large majority, word-for-word, from the original stories they were based on. Similarly, the “William Shakespeare’s Pop Culture” books head in the opposite direction by adapting modern movies in Shakespeare’s style.

Earlier this year, I endeavored to adapt Jules Verne’s Michael Strogoff into a sci-fi version of the Russian adventure novel. Courier to the Stars used the format of the Quirk Classics by replicating most of the original text unchanged. However, it was not easy to adapt to sci-fi as one would think. I couldn’t just do a find-and-replace on the source document, as the sci-fi additions would change depending on the context surrounding them. There were still places where I could make original additions to fit the story I wanted to tell while not deviating from the one Jules Verne already wrote. Was this book original? Probably not, but I know Jules Verne didn’t write about intergalactic wormholes, hover-bikes, or plasma swords while he was alive. I tried to remedy that. Genre shifting is a perfectly acceptable way to adapt stories that already exist.

“Isn’t this plagiarism?”

When adapting and remixing existing stories, you must be careful to not stray too far into plagiarism. There are fair use rules that allow the Quirk Classics (and Courier to the Stars) to change just enough to not be plagiarism. It also helps that the stories being adapted are already in the public domain. While it’s easier to use a comp title with a more recent book, you don’t want to go too far in replicating the book that inspired you, lest your work be labeled as “derivative.” Yes, I realize this goes against my advice to ignore originality, but you have to at least put your own fingerprints on what you create.

Ultimately, think about the stories you love to read. Don’t you wish you had more stories like that? Being original is a lofty aspiration, but satiating the need to read more of something we love is much more fulfilling. After all, there wouldn’t be a ton of fanfiction out there if this wasn’t the case. If you’re being hung up on finding the most original idea, perhaps you need to take a step back and find inspiration in something that already exists.


What’s a story you wish you had more of?
Have you read an adaptation you really liked?
What’s the most obscure public domain work you’ve ever read?

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