‘Someone Else Published My Idea. Now What?’

This situation reflects your hopes and fears.

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Dear Yanyi,

How do you deal with the fact that a work you’ve been working on for years has just been published...by someone else?

It’s not just that it deals with similar themes, or has a similar setting, or whatever, but genuinely has an almost exact copy of characters and setting and themes. Like it’s been plucked directly out of my mind by the author.

It’s not plagiarism, because they can’t possibly know what they’ve done, it’s just the incredible random chance of the universe, but it still feels awful. My work is now unpublishable because it will seem like plagiarism of THIS work.

I just feel so hopeless.

Yours sincerely,
I’ve Been Mind Hacked

Glasgow, Scotland

Dear IBMH,

Let me first sympathize with the fact that this has happened to you. As you say, you’ve spent years on this idea, and noticing a similarity, then this slew that you’ve described, must have been shocking and then devastating.

No doubt you’ve heard advice, perhaps even from yourself, that this chance occurrence in the universe is ultimately some sort of gift, a turn on the road you didn’t anticipate. As well-meaning as it is, these thoughts probably aren’t helping you right now.

We may tell ourselves that love poems have been written for millennia, that there are stories that never go out of fashion, but it’s harder to hear that argument after all the work you’ll likely done to get where you are now, from the books you read to figure out if your idea had been used elsewhere to the care you’ve taken to write your characters and plot points. It’s harder to make that argument to, say, the publishing house executive who smokes a cigar with a ruby ring on his little finger looking at your plot summary and drawling out, “Haven’t we got one like this already? Pass.”

Now, you know that this publishing executive is fictional, but even I have some version of him in my mind. I want my books to get that wide distribution—I want to help my editor make the case for my books as easily as possible. With a publishing industry still within a patriarchal white supremacist capitalist society, you might think each story must be completely unlike the stories that have come before it in order for it to sell. Intellectually, we know it’s more complex than that; we know these old tales are wrong. That doesn’t mean we aren’t haunted by them.

I often talk about the Celtic Cross tarot spread and the card placement that represents both hopes and fears. I’ve always been fascinated by this Janus-faced assignment. First, it forces you to confront the same idea as your hopes and fears. And then you must confront which one you can’t help believing.

One of the things you might have learned to do in your life is anticipating, and preemptively preparing for, the worst possible outcome. I myself built this into my psychological armor after many childhood moments of being left completely alone to my own devices, no matter what needs I had. My parents were not able to be there, whether it was because they were never taught how or because the structural impositions of class, race, and immigration were once again interrupting their abilities to care for me.

More often than not, the worst would come to pass, but at least I would have a plan when it did. It was repeatedly facing traumatizing situations that taught me to internalize impending doom not as a possibility but a prediction. That is, my life experience taught me that in certain areas, the future would always be bleak. If I had fears, they would always come true.

But there was also another part of my life—one that wasn’t connected to my traumas: reading and, eventually, writing. Through reading, other outcomes could occur. Through writing, these other things could even happen to me. Writing was in itself a blank slate, a pursuit I could control with no previous outcomes. In other words, writing held all the hopes of my life as I wanted to live it—it became one of the few places I could be free.

I say all this to you, IBMH, because it seems you’ve hit a setback in a part of your life where you’ve felt most hopeful. Perhaps you’re bereft from the loss of a secret dream, a secret hope, in a life where you’ve not allowed yourself hope. And now, as you say it, it seems this project will be unpublishable.

You’ve got every right to grieve in this moment. Take your time to do it. Take a month off, or a year. Pick up another activity that’s purely fun, like making miniatures or taking a vacation to read whatever you want. Let yourself cry; let yourself beat your fists into the proverbial air. But I also want you to write your fears down, one by one, and try to see them in another light. What would you say if you were honest with yourself on what you hope your book will do for you, too?

Because the great, terrible thing about fear, especially fear engendered by structural realities, is that it freezes you from trying for anything that you want again. Fear wants you to stay where you are: with the outcomes you already know and the odds you’ve absorbed into your intuition.

Your first fear, from your letter, is that your book will now never be published. You’re afraid, perhaps, that your book is just too similar to this other one. And then there’s the flip side to that too: you want your work to be published, and somehow that publication means something to you. What is it?

What would it take, for example, for you to believe that your work was still publishable? You likely have a different writing style than this other author. Are the characters you’ve written truly the same, or might there be some personality differences that make a big impact on the plot? There’s a way to know the truth, but it’s a scary one: to read the book you think has taken all your originality away from you.

It’s possible that you’ll say yes to all of the above. Depending on how similar the books are, it might be true that yours will seem derivative of this one, but being derivative doesn’t make your book any less likely to sell. Perhaps this is your other fear: you’re made a big effort to create something that feels wholly different because you want to feel different than everyone else. You need an assurance that you’re unique and therefore original, because if you are original then it means you’re irreplaceable. Because, perhaps, the bad outcome you’re fighting is the one in which you’re replaced.

Originality, however, has nothing to do with being different from everyone else. In fact, seeing originality as oppositional is to be trapped forever in relation to what you’re running from.

Part of being alive in a moment in history, in some shared context, is that many smart people are looking at the same things. And much of writing involves referencing writing that has come before us. Part of the pleasure of reading is figuring out how one author is talking to another—how Lolita and The Price of Salt are two very different American road novels, for example, or how there was a surge in vampire novels after Twilight. Remember, Fifty Shades of Grey started as Twilight fanfiction.

Instead of being an island, originality is knowing where your bridges are. No poem or novel can hold your intrinsic value, nor are they written alone. Your writing is a pale expression of the web that lives inside of you: where you come from, where you are, and where you’re going. What you’ve read and seen and believed. What you’ve loved enough to repeat in the world.

What is this story you’ve been writing not in the eyes of a publishing executive, but you? What of your life have you put into it—are there traces of the people you know, the places you’ve been? The thoughts you’ve wanted to contemplate, or even the exhilaration of creation you’ve had, that you are also capable of that?

We treat our writing like we treat ourselves. We enact on it the beliefs we have about our own value, like: your story becomes worthless if there exists a similar or better one. Maybe that’s the outcome you’ve been trained to predict. But the joy of imagination is the risk of attempting new paradigms—it’s running back into the burning room where you were once left behind.

It’s true that we may live in a time where it’s hard to find hope—many of those stories have long been exhausted by our new realities. But your novel is not the only story you’re rewriting. When we write, we also get the chance to rewrite the stories of our life. Look at this scenario as your hopes and fears. How could you act as if those hopes were the future? Help yourself prove that death is not the only navigating value. Stay with your art when no one will. Don’t leave yourself behind.

Postscript: In search of ‘a completely original moment’

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Yanyi is the author of Dream of the Divided Field (One World Random House, forthcoming 2022) and The Year of Blue Water (Yale University Press 2019). To find out more, go to yanyiii.com.