Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Should I, or Shouldn’t I?

A few weeks back, I asked the question do you Need to Know? in regards to what sure looks like my new WiP. There was some back and forth on this, over how much you needed to know, compared to how much my characters would know. To summarize, Some Great Event was going to plunge my characters into a world without technology. No lights! No cars! No motor cars! Not a single luxury.* It would be like going back 150 years in time. The debate in my head at the time was whether the reader needed to know the cause of this event or not.

Well, I knew. I had the Big Idea in my head, and I knew enough about it to know what to look for on line, to see if it would have the effects I thought. The event in question was along the lines of an Electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. It’s conceivable that an EMP event could result from high-altitude nuclear detonation or from a ‘natural’ occurrence, such as geomagnetic storms. These events could knock out the nation’s power grid, disrupt communication, and render useless almost any electronic device we have. Cheery stuff!

The idea popped into my brain back during Hurricane Irene. When we woke up on hurricane day, one daughter was at a friend’s house, the other had a friend who had spent the night with us. We lost power. Now, I keep an old-style analog phone handy so that I can call the electric company when the power goes out. Within five minutes I’m on the line listening to that irritating mechano-voice telling me they have no idea when power will be restored (probably because I’m the first one reporting it). Anyway, I had one girl to drop off, and one to pick up. By a miracle, I reached my daughter when the power at her friend’s house came back on for about ten minutes. I said, “I’m on my way,” dropped one off and picked up the , and everything was good, but it was one of those seeds, one of those ideas….what if the power never came back on? What if the phones didn’t work at all? Or the cars? What then? What happens next?

Photo by Roy Higson

Anyway, while poking around for EMP information I came across a work of fiction that made me feel like someone had crawled into my head, pulled the idea out of it, jumped back into their TARDIS and went back a couple of years to get the jump on me. The book in question is William R. Forstchen’s (New York Times bestselling author!) One Second After. Small-town setting? Check. Event that knocks us back to the stone age? Check. Society trying to hang on? Check.

I considered buying it, but didn’t. Considered requesting it one inter-library loan, but didn’t. Instead I dug back into my own work and plunged ahead a little, and then stalled out on it, having decided that I really, really want to get the other thing out on query. Then on Tuesday I stopped at the library, and it was there on the shelf. I picked it up, read the jacket (which focuses more on the forward by Newt Gingrich and how the book ‘has been discussed in the corridors of the Pentagon), and wavered: Should I, or Shouldn’t I? If I read it, it might save me time. I might decided my idea is too similar to his, and I should either stop writing or change my story. Or it might confirm that they’re different enough, that there’s plenty of room on the shelves for my story and his. What would you do? Would you read it, or wouldn’t you?

I wavered on that one for a few minutes, then checked it out. I’m about halfway through now, and it’s reassuring. I think the stories are different enough (at least so far). I think the bookshelves are big enough for another book on the topic — I just need to figure out what comes next, and how it all ends. And I need to finish off that other thing. Have a great weekend, all.

*Surely you know where this line came from?

11 Responses

  1. I love the concept! And it's broad enough where the story could be completely different. I had that same problem too, though, with my first WiP. I had the idea, and then I read a description of a book that sounded similar. I did end up reading the book, and realized that though there were some similarities, the main story line was drastically different. I think it's good to read it just to give yourself peace of mind 🙂

  2. I would have waited until I was halfway through my first draft before I read it. I know that is completely arbitrary. No idea why I'd wait till then but I know that is what I'd do. I'm sure yours will turn out fabulously. You know what they say: there really are no new ideas or premises, no new stories. There are only different ways of telling them. It is all in the execution!

  3. Wow. I was about to type my comment, when I realized Lisa had already said what I was thinking. (Fitting, given the subject matter…) Anyway, I'm sure they're different enough that it won't matter. 🙂

  4. I think I would wait, just to make sure everything was solid in my head before I was influenced by it. But give two different people the exact same idea, and they will come up with vastly different stories. So I think it'll be just fine!

  5. I think, like Peggy, I'd wait until I was sure the idea was very solid before I read a book on a similar premise. Or I'd take a break from writing to read that and several other books to give myself a buffer of mixed influences. But to each their own. Good luck with the story.

  6. Everyone has made great comments. In the end, trust your head. You have to own your story.

    Fricking loved the Tardis image by the way. I saw that and knew I had to click on your post to comment!

  7. Thanks for the comments and advice, all. Glad you like the TARDIS, Donna.

    I flip-flopped on checking it out for a bit, and then decided I might as well, just to make sure I wasn't writing the same exact book. I finished it last night, and I'm reassured, though we both envision some things unfolding in a very similar vein.

  8. I've come across books that sounded similar to one I was working on or had written; I usually just go ahead and read the other novel, since I don't want to put a lot of time and energy into something that will come out too close to another person's work.

  9. I've found books and movies similar to my work, after the fact. It's scary, isn't it? But I find that in most cases, the two stories, while they may have similar elements, always end up being completely different. What's frustrating though is when you come across a book written by a bestseller. Then you have to ask yourself, will people feel it's just a rip off of their well known book? More frustrating still is if you happened to write yours first!

    Ah well, such is life. 🙂 All we can do is our best!

    I think there's lots of fertile ground in an idea where the power never comes back on. We have grown soft relying on our heat and electric and gas, on our fast food and canned goods and access to medicine. Take it all away…and you find out what a person is really made of. 🙂


  10. I wouldn't read it… any odd similarities you can then put down to the tardis not your subconcious mind re-telling. I wouldn't worry too much – your voice will be unique to you, and only you can tell your tale just like you will tell it.
    Laura x

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