commentary by Jackie Friedman Mighdoll
You were just on Twitter and you saw someone’s happy news. A new book acquired by a great publisher! You liked the tweet—because a) you celebrate other writers and b) the book sounds super cool and you’d like to read it. But in the darkest pit of your stomach, something churns. Is it anxiety, envy, or ordinary bile?
In the acquisition blurb, the book-to-be-released stars a character who has Jewish heritage, but isn’t growing up religious. That’s the profile of the main character in your work in progress. The new book includes recipes. Sigh–yours has an emphasis on food, too. And, darn it, someone-else’s-great-book-in-contract is in verse. You’ve been studying poetry for the last year and a half and dreaming of combining your love of middle grade and your poetry ambitions. (Though to be fair, you’ve been drafting in prose.) You’re not quite done with your first draft–stuck somewhere at the end of the messy middle–and suddenly you’re scared the market for your book is now someone else’s.
Hang on just a minute. You read an article this week about treating yourself with kindness. Writers especially spend too much time with the editor voice in their heads growling at them. And mothers of teens get an additional dose of eye rolling and guttural sounds. So you promised yourself you’d try the kindness challenge. That is, you are supposed to say to yourself: What would you tell someone else, who wasn’t you, in these circumstances?
How about: Give up. Go take a bath. And bake pie. Everyone loves your pie.
Just kidding. Time to take a deep breath or two. Go re-read Grace Paley’s great poem about pie vs poetry. And plan to bake another day.
Remember that there are lots of ideas in this world. Sometimes very similar ideas happen at similar times. Think about Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate di Camillo and The Astonishing Maybe by Shaunta Grimes. You read those two books back to back. And what did you notice? A boatload of similarities . . .
- They both have a main character moving to an unfamiliar location.
- They start with a scene in a car.
- A guardian (with mental illness) endangers a child.
- A child feels responsible for an unstable adult.
- Food is a recurring motif, specifically desserts and baked goods.
- Some light/ambiguous magical realism.
- A kid breaks rules for the sake of a new friend.
- An older person is sympathetic, kind, and helpful.
- The endangered child ends up in a safer, happier position.
There are so many similarities, enough it might have made someone a little bit insecure about their craft want to close their laptop and sob. (Not that either Kate or Shaunta would have worried.) In the end, the two books are wildly different in style. And, more importantly, there was room on your bookshelf for both books and time in your life to read both.
So deep breath, writer-self. No excuse to give up tonight. You have a draft to finish, a story twist that needs sorting out, and a new character with a set of quirks to explore. The only way your book is going to make it out into the world is if you write it, and edit it, and rewrite it, and edit it, and query it and . . .
With kindness–and a gentle kick in the butt,
Jackie Friedman Mighdoll writes poetry, middle-grade novels, and far too many emails. She grew up with the Northern Lights and now lives in San Francisco near a rainbow crosswalk. She loves languages and does her best to express her appreciation of dessert wherever she is in the world.