Multiple discovery: or, why you should write your novel now before somebody else does

A couple of years ago I was having a drink with a friend, and we were talking about how few novels there were about the suffragettes. She said she thought their story would make a really great film … and we got enthused about researching their stories and writing a screenplay together. It was one of those great ideas you have over a drink and then forget about, like inflatable gym equipment or an app that chooses your outfit for you.

Sadly, the acclaimed 2015 film Suffragette was not written by us. But, given the slow pace of film production, it’s very probable that someone else was having the exact same idea at the same time as us. Maybe even in the same area; almost certainly in the same city. Except they took their idea a bit further than we did.

A similar thing happened when my second book If I Could Turn Back Time came out in 2013. A few weeks after it came out, I heard about a new book by Ali McNamara called Step Back in Time. And then Richard Curtis’s film About Time came out. These stories are all totally different, and none of us could have known anything about each others’ ideas – yet there they were. You wait years for one time-travelling romantic comedy and three come along at once.

This is just one of the many examples I’ve come across of multiple discovery – people having the same ideas at the same time. The term comes from science but it definitely happens creatively as well. In her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert posits an intriguing idea about this. She imagines ideas as being animate – in other words, they’re around in the ether and are essentially looking for hosts. It sounds trippy, but it’s not dissimilar to Richard Dawkins’s theory of the cultural meme:

‘Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain’ The Selfish Gene

Of course Dawkins was talking about existing ideas which are out being shared in the world, whereas Gilbert is dealing with ideas that haven’t yet materialised but are looking for a way to do so. This does sound a little crazy – but how else do you explain the independent invention of calculus by Newton and Liebniz? Or the time-travelling rom-com pile-up of 2013?

The most persuasive part of Gilbert’s theory, I think – whether you take it literally or figuratively – is that ideas are looking for receptive hosts. If you just think, ‘that would make a great story’ and then forget about it, the idea will go and find someone else who will work with it. (Gilbert has a totally fascinating example of this in Big Magic, relating to State of Wonder by Ann Patchett which is one of my favourite books). Whichever way you want to explain it – whether you see it as downright telepathy, or just something in the cultural water – it definitely happens.

All of which is to say … If you’ve got an idea for a book, or a play or a film, which has caught your imagination, especially if it seems a little different or quirky: write it. Write it now. Don’t worry about making it perfect, or even good – that can come later. Just get it down on paper – because if you don’t somebody else will …