When is Close, Too Close?

Last night, my critique group resumed its monthly meeting. Nerd that I am, I was excited to reconnect with my writing friends that I hadn’t seen since the middle of the summer. I sent out my work a week ahead of time and was looking forward to getting some feedback on the first chapter of one of my speculative fiction projects.

Then, buzzkill.

One of the group members got kinda twitchy about my story because they also had a project in the works with similar characters and issues, set in a similar futuristic world, that they were also planning to share with the group. At our meeting, that member talked about all the similarities and the fact they couldn’t even read my chapter without worrying about how such synchronicity would affect the development of our different projects.

I said I would be happy to not share this particular story with the group in the future to allay such concerns, but the person kept bringing the issue up until I had no other choice but to think that they were concerned about something more insidious: plagiarism. That they feared we’d unwittingly steal each other’s ideas if we went ahead and critiqued each other’s work. By the end of the night I was pissed off. I said in no uncertain terms that they didn’t have to worry about me stealing their ideas. I bid them a polite goodnight and left.

A flurry of emails later –– That’s not what I meant/Well, that’s how it sounded to You’re awesome/No, you’re awesome/No, we’re both awesome –– we’ve come to a tenuous accord, and are moving forward since the similarities are, after all, only surface ones and the intent of our work is very different. Crisis solved, right?

I’m still left scratching my head. This was a critique group with members writing in all sorts of genres, including literary fiction and poetry, so until now, having similar pieces crop up hasn’t been an issue. When I found out I was writing in the same area as this other critique group member, I thought it was a great opportunity to have someone well-versed in speculative fiction critique my stuff as opposed to just the casual readers who can provide valuable insights, but often get hung up on genre-specific aspects. I was swiftly disabused of that notion.

While my critique group disbanded for a few months, I toyed with the idea of joining the local chapter of Romance Writers of America to not only get involved with a group of professional writers I could count on, but to also receive feedback from qualified readers and writers of my genre. But now I’m left wondering how incestuous such organizations can be when everyone is working on a romance novel with similar elements. How much influence can we have on each other’s work? Where is the line?

People say you must be well-versed in your genre so you know how to stand out, so you know how to avoid tired takes on old plots. People also say the critique process is essential not only because of the feedback you get, but the feedback you provide to others. But both of these activities can be at cross-purposes if the subject matter strikes too close to home.

I’m curious if any of you have ever run into this issue before, especially in groups centered on a particular style or genre of writing. How do you protect your intellectual property? How do you contribute to another’s WIP without eroding the ideas and effort you put into your own work? I’d love to hear your comments.

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8 thoughts on “When is Close, Too Close?

  1. My biggest concern is that our voices will all end up the same. One of our best critics tends to find the same problems in everyone's writing. He has valid points, makes helpful suggestions, and is a terrific writer. It would be easy to get stuck emulating his writing.

    I think it helps to critique from a reader's point of view (as opposed to another writer's). Say what's not working for you, but don't tell them how to fix it. Sometimes that's not very helpful, especially when it's the mechanics of writing that are at issue. So, yeeeah. I guess I don't really know.

  2. I've found it useful to spend time with a writing group, critique and get critiques until it feels like I'm saying the same things over and over and hearing the same things over and over. Then I go solo until I have the itch for companionship or feel like some feedback would push me to the next level.

  3. It makes you think doesn't it. I've heard of a similar issue where someone had his work critiqued by his group, and a few months later one of the members started talking about a new book they had just started (which had a huge resemblence to the work originally submitted)!

    Rach

  4. I love your use of the word “incestuous.” OH, that's not the point. Sorry.

    Ummm … I have a critique partner right now and we both write YA Paranormal. Plus, we've both had a lot of the same paranormal experiences in real life. I find that we both write very differently and the fact that we have all that stuff in comment actually helps with the critiques.

    I'm sorry that happened to you. I think it would actually help to make both of your stories better. But … I guess things don't always work out the way you wish they could.

  5. Thanks for all the comments! As with everything in writing, it sounds like it all comes down to a case by case basis. We'll see how it goes. I think the writing group member in question was so flummoxed by the similarities, they had trouble expressing themselves – which led to the “p” word discussion. I'm hopeful we'll get past it. But it also means I'm still on the lookout for other CPs. My work is never finished 🙂

  6. I'd just like to add that there is an article in the January Writer's Digest you might find interesting. It talks about “simultaneous discovery,” the notion that the same idea can appear at the same time in different places. It sounds like what was happening in your group. The writers (who wrote strikingly similar books themselves) give some perspective and comforting thoughts on the topic. Hope everything will work out for you and your group.

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