You’ve got an amazing idea for a book. It feels fresh and original, so you start writing. Then you mention it to a friend, or in a writer’s group. ’Hey, that sounds a lot like Existing Book Film Thing!’ they say. You look it up and, sure enough, there are some striking similarities. Is it time to scrap your hard work and start over?
You can write about pretty much anything that’s been done before, and still make it undeniably yours. Your characters will be your own, and their decisions will be different from those in another book.
In 1968, Ursula K. Le Guin published A Wizard of Earthsea. It’s about a boy called Ged who goes to a school for wizards. I’ve read it, and it’s nothing at all like Harry Potter. The Scholomance Series by Naomi Novik also does something completely different.
You might think there’s no more room to write something in that subgenre. What could there possibly be left for a new author to say? Well, let’s find out. Here’s a scene set in a magic school, which I wrote for this post.
Fears of the Forested
I was the first to notice the branch.
It began as a lump on Susan’s shoulder, barely visible beneath her robe. I abandoned my usual furtive glances at her, watched it pierce the fabric and slither upwards next to me. She ignored its progress at first; she was underlining every word in her French Hexes textbook, muttering softly. The ink gave off a faint gold glow, only visible when I squinted.
‘Susan,’ I whispered. She glared up at me and shook her head as the memory charm broke, but followed my gaze. Murmurs spread around us. She placed her pen on the table, ever so gently, and reached slowly to touch the wood. Her fingers brushed the bark; a jolt went through her, and suddenly she was sweeping her books into her bag. Professor Harvey turned and stepped away from the blackboard. Susan was already out of her chair. She backed towards the exit and howled an incantation before he got a word out. Thick smoke billowed from her. The acrid stench made me gag, even though it only lasted a moment.
Then the door banged and she was gone.
‘I’ll see how she is,’ I managed, despite my burning throat. Harvey didn’t stop me.
* * *
I followed the hushed conversations and grimaces through the corridors until they led me out to the arboretum. Gentle harp music played amongst the trees, which seemed to sway in time. Susan was only a short way inside, gazing up at a sycamore. Her branch had stopped growing. Still thin, with no offshoots or leaves yet. I gave a small sigh of relief.
‘Go away,’ she said.
‘Is that what you want?’
She turned and shook her head, blinking rapidly. ‘Just don’t look at it, okay?’
‘Look, Susan, it’s nothing to—’
‘To what? Be ashamed of? Be scared of?’ She tapped the sycamore’s trunk. ‘Do you think this one thought the same? What about that oak over there? Look, let’s just talk about something else. I need distracting, not platitudes.’
‘Yeah, of course.’ I swallowed to clear my throat, which just made me cough. ‘That was quite a smoke spell,’ I said when I found my voice.
‘For all the good it’ll do me now.’ She walked towards a clearing. I trailed behind, trying to ignore her altered silhouette. ‘Is this far enough away? I don’t want to block sunlight from the others when I turn.’
‘Look, it’s just one branch. That doesn’t mean anything.’
‘Not to you maybe. My mum’s going to lose it when she finds out.’ She slumped to the floor and absently picked a blade of grass. ‘She always expects me to be so special. Just cos she casts whatever she wants and never ends up with so much as a twig.’
I sat nearby, willing myself to shuffle closer, to place my hand on her good shoulder. I found my arm was suddenly too heavy though. The moment trickled away, into my collection of regrets.
‘My aunt’s in here somewhere,’ she continued, tossing the blade aside. ‘Mum told me once, during an argument.’
’Were you close?’
’Never met her, did I? She got forested right before finals, apparently. Mum always said I was like her. I guess she’s got proof now.’
‘Did she mean to turn?’ I asked, and realised it was a mistake as soon as the words left my mouth.
‘You think someone in my family’s that weak?’ Susan gestured around. ’Choosing this?’
My right arm tensed, and the absence of sensation grated like a missing tooth. ‘Don’t call it weakness.’
‘Why not? Everyone thinks it anyway. Don’t lecture me. You know what, screw you. And screw this damned thing.’ She grabbed the branch and yanked, pulling away when I reached to stop her.
‘You don’t want to do that. Really. Let it fade on its own. Trust me.’
Susan just pulled harder. ‘How the hell would you know?’
I dragged my robe over my head and threw it down. Her eyes swept over my t-shirt, and then found the knots on my arm. She went still. A weird tingle travelled down my spine while she studied them.
‘How many?’ she murmured.
‘Seven. They were smaller than yours, but they all came at once.’ She shuffled closer, fixated. Not horrified though.
‘Can I touch them?’
I held my arm out, not trusting my voice. She placed one hand on a knot near my wrist and traced its outline with her thumb. I couldn’t feel it, but I felt like I could. It was like some sort of good electricity, and I shuddered at the pleasant pseudo-sensation.
‘I thought I wanted it, that it would be peaceful at first,’ I mumbled. ‘Some sort of escape, you know? Don’t even remember what from now. I acted like you did when it actually happened. I just wanted them gone so I ripped them out. The nerves never healed.’
‘How long ago?’
‘About a year. I’d just turned seventeen.’
‘I’m sorry. I had no idea.’
We clasped hands, and I could feel that. ‘That was the plan. I felt so stupid, ’specially as I planned it at first. I guess it’s not all bad though.’ I tightened my grip. She gave me a small smile. It wasn’t the kiss I’d hoped for, but it wasn’t her pushing me away either. We sat there for a bit and I rehearsed all the things I wanted to tell her, or do, without getting that far.
‘I’d better get back to my room,’ she said, just as the silence between us was starting to get awkward. ‘I s’pose I’ve got some notes to actually revise without magic now.’
‘I s’pose,’ I replied. ‘I mean yeah, that’s a good idea.’
‘Maybe we could meet in the library tomorrow though? You must be pretty good at rationing mana by now. Can you teach me?’
‘It’s a date,’ I said, and then looked for a hole to crawl into.
‘Not exactly,’ Susan said with a bigger smirk. ‘It’s not exactly not a date either though.’
I was saved from another awkward reply by heavy footsteps nearby. I whipped round but couldn’t see anyone. I could no longer hear the harp music either. When did it stop? It’s never meant to stop.
‘Boo,’ a man’s voice said next to my ear. A strong gust of wind sent us both flying backwards. Susan was on her feet first, and helped me up. I heard a jagged scratching, and my good arm tingled as an area-effect spell rippled out across the arboretum.
‘Look,’ she said as the footsteps receded. Four glowing red words had been carved messily in one go, on every trunk I could see: The forested will burn.
The door to the college slammed, and then I smelled smoke.
It might not be the best scene ever written, but hopefully you can see that it’s different from the books I mentioned above. So if you’re desperate to write about a student who goes to a school for wizards, go for it! There are still plenty of ways for you to make your writing original.
Are you working on something that’s ’been done before’? How are you going to tread a different path with it? Get in touch and let me know!