If Similar Words Show Up, Don’t Freak Out

It doesn’t take much when it comes to writing to set my nerves on fire with worry.  If I allow myself to get really worked up, you can envision how this might look.  All you have to do is picture the young girl in the movie CAPE FEAR, called, “Dani,” who squirted lighter fluid all over the antagonist, called, Max Kady (played extraordinarily well by Robert DeNiro), as he lit one of those fat cigars.   Whoosh!  And you got yourself a fire – or more like, he was on fire.

The constant worry is normal, because after all, writers are full of fear, trepidation, worry, jitters, angst, apprehension, and all the other words listed in the thesaurus when it comes to a current work in progress.  We spend an unbelievable amount of time nit picking over everything we’ve written – much like that guy down in Florida made famous by having his bug-eyed mug plastered all over TV as he tried to accurately count voting cards while looking for those “hanging chads.”  Remember him?  Remember that look?  That’s the very same look a writer gets when studying the words on their page.  (Not really, but it’s an effective visual – no?)

So, with my current work in progress, I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to build the world of my story.  I staked a claim (???) on some of the words in the English language, a way of using them I saw as unique and an enhancement to this “world,” of my characters.    The other night I was watching the show that is my new addiction, TRUE DETECTIVE.   Two words spoken by one of the character’s  in this segment made me pause the scene, back it up, and replay it again.  I turned to my husband and said “Did you hear that?”  Of course he didn’t, not in the way I had because his ears aren’t tuned in to dialogue, his eyes are busy studying character development, scene setting, and the like.  We never stop writing – even when watching TV, right?

But sure enough, two words chosen by the script writers turned out to be the same two words I chose as part of the “lingo” for the world I’m trying to create.   Well, I had a bit of a freak out moment, being as that’s how I get when it comes to writing.  Which meant I contacted the “Magician,” to share this tragic news.   With the right sprinkling of humor…”OMG! Donna! You need to go back RIGHT NOW and CHANGE EVERYTHING! THIS IS HORRIBLE.   Just kidding…,” she went on to say this is actually a good thing if I was writing similarly to one of my fave shows.  She reminded me there are only so many words in the English language and sooner or later, writers will use them in the same way.  It can’t be avoided.  It’s weird how we know this and still refuse to see it when we get so close to something like a work in progress, but I digress.

The email exchange then brought to  mind another tidbit I read a few months earlier.  This came from one of the agent’s blogs I follow, and she said that even if two writers come up with the very same idea for a book, the stories would be uniquely different, because the way we choose our words is as individual as our voices and our fingerprints.  If someone else uses “your” unique words, or what you perceived as a brand new idea, they will still write the story differently than you.  And it happens all the time.  Over and over again.

Have you had this happen to you?  An idea, or a word choice you thought of as uniquely yours, only to find out it wasn’t?


COMMENTS

  • Paul Lamb

    February 17, 2014

    Reply

    This reminds me of the Borges story of the man (Pierre Menard?) who set out to write Don Quixote exactly as Cervantes had written it, and his word-for-word version was far superior to the original. (Something to do with the latter man’s own experiences being brought to the effort. I have a hard time with the subtleties of Borges most of the time.)

  • donnaeve

    February 17, 2014

    Reply

    Yes, Pierre Menard, titled “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” out of Borges collection, FICCIONES. It sounds like a unique concept for a story, Did you read it?

    • Paul Lamb

      February 18, 2014

      Reply

      Oh sure. I have FICCIONES on the shelf beside me. I’ve read that story a couple of times. The clever thought in just one of Borges’ stories exceeds all of the cleverness I’ll achieve in my lifetime.

      • donnaeve

        February 18, 2014

        Reply

        That cleverness came through – at least for me – with Ann Patchett’s story THE PATRON SAINT OF LIARS, and would with any story taking a simple concept, and morphing it into a page turner. I’d be a one hit wonder if I came up with any remotely “Borges’esque idea.

  • Jennine G.

    February 17, 2014

    Reply

    I’ve tried to convince a coworker of mine of this very thing. That an idea doesn’t have to be wholly original (whether you know it or not) in order to be different. Writing style and nuances will make it what it is.

    I can see why the freak out! I’d hate for people to say I was “copying” someone’s style, etc, when I’d come up with it all on my own (I don’t have the confidence to consider that I might have had the thought first)! Rest assured though, because of all languages, I think English is the most limited, so there are definitely only so many words to go around.

    • donnaeve

      February 18, 2014

      Reply

      Exactly! And I was wanting to be the “first” to use the words in this way, except I suppose I sort of realize that’s impossible – because even if I hadn’t heard them used in TD, I’m sure they have been in some story, in some show, in the past and I was just blind to that fact. Oh well!

  • Carolynnwith2Ns

    February 18, 2014

    Reply

    Recently when the movie “Enough Said” came out I felt a bit uneasy because that’s the name of my column; I had a momentary freak-out. My editor thought it was funny and that the title of the movie would make a great subject for one of my columns. I haven’t seen the flick yet.

    Years ago in one of my first published pieces I wrote about an incident when I was a little girl. I was the youngest at our Thanksgiving table so I was asked to say grace. We bowed our heads and I recited ‘The Pledge of Allegiance”. We all said amen at the end. The piece was about how the ‘pledge’ is sort of like a prayer. When “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” came out there was Aunt Bethany doing exactly the same thing; I thought people would think I copied the whole idea, even though my article predated the movie.
    I did some research; wouldn’t it have been a kick if one of the writers read my little piece and got the idea from me? But, if you think about all the little kids, or ladies of a certain age with issues like Aunt Bethany, who do the same thing over the course of a year, well, my little incident really wasn’t that unique…until they put it in a damn movie.

    • donnaeve

      February 19, 2014

      Reply

      Those are interesting comparisons and tangible evidence of it happening. But like the “Magician” said, and Jennine…there are only so many words in the English language, and we can only bend and twist them so many ways. I think this is why when writers come up with a unique analogy, or different way of saying something that’s been said many times over (those pesky cliches) that publishers swoon and go crazy over them. They truly are creative geniuses to take the ordinary and turn it into extraordinary with the very same tools we all have at our disposal.

      • Carolynnwith2Ns

        February 20, 2014

        Reply

        I am constantly amazed by how malleable words are. I love how nouns and verbs are interchangeable and how we can take trite and make it new.


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