I received an email about a week ago from a writer I don't know. This writer had the idea of writing a novel set in the world of rock 'n' roll, and when she came across my novels, which are set in the world of rock 'n' roll, she was upset because she wanted to be the first to come up with the idea. "You broke my heart," this writer said.
First of all, we can all relate to having an idea and wishing to be the first person to think of it. Whether we're actually first or not is up for debate, but it feels like we're first, and that's enough to make us a little possessive of the idea.
Still, I'm hardly the first novelist to tackle the world of rock 'n' roll through the novel form. How about Perrotta, or Hornby, or Doyle, or Delillo? Each of these novelists wrote novels centered around rock 'n' roll. Not contemporary enough? How about Powder by Kevin Sampson, or The Carpet Frogs by Alan Arlt? Each of these novelists got to the genre before me, and they write about roughly the same era that my novels are set in (1990s).
But here's the funny part about being first: If you want to write fiction in some kind of subgenre, what you really need are writers who have had some success in that subgenre before your query letter passes over an agent's desk.
"No way," you say. "That would blow the whole point. I want to be first."
Well, to be the first is great, but in 2010 a commercially published novel needs to be more than just the first to render a specific subject matter. It needs to be done very, very well.
Everyone knows I like baseball metaphors, so here's another one. If you're going to be the first to succeed with a novel in a certain subject matter, your book needs to not just be a home run but a grand slam. Either it is, or agents and editors are going to find your novel's flaws, and with no track record of that kind of novel succeeding, they have a reason to look elsewhere for something that might have a more built-in audience ("I vant to suck your blood").
Any idea, in and of itself, is worth almost nothing in the novel world. A rendering of an idea can be a masterpiece. If you're upset because a writer got to your idea first, then do it better, and no one will remember you weren't first. They'll be too busy calling you the best.
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