Certain tropes resonate with readers. This is why certain ideas are continually cycled - star-crossed lovers, love triangles, etc. Are they original? Absolutely not. But they’re retold almost constantly in different guises.
The real question is, how do you tell if an idea is TOO similar to what’s already on the shelves? Like I did with my first novel, it might be time to ask yourself some honest questions. But the reason I shelved it was because I sent the book to a literary consultancy which told me the plot wasn’t sufficiently original, and that the voice wasn’t fully developed. I think the two are connected. I was eighteen at the time and it was my first novel, so I had a lot to learn. The bare bones of the novel were weak, and it showed. I hadn’t worked hard enough on creating an original and compelling fantasy world, and had stayed too close to the storylines of the books I loved reading.
What made my third novel (The Puppet Spell) work better was that I consciously pulled on a lot of influences, but deliberately gave them my own twist and paid attention to the VOICE. I think writing in first person helped, because using Lexa’s voice automatically gave the book more personality. And readers certainly seem to agree! It’s a whimsical adventure-fairytale-fantasy mashup with humour and magic, and although none of the agents I queried wanted to take on yet another portal fantasy (UK agents get a LOT of this kind of story), it found a home in the end.
For each of my books, I ask myself those honest questions before I even start writing, partly because I’m currently querying. What makes my book “the same but different”? (For example, the hook for the Darkworld series is that it’s a campus-set supernatural fantasy with a different take on demons; for the novel I’m currently querying, Beneath the Waves, it’s that it draws on some popular ideas, i.e. merpeople and zombies, but transplants them to a fully-realised alternative fantasy world with a unique magical system).
Which books can it be compared to? Agents like comparative titles, apparently – and marketing departments certainly do. So I recommend my Darkworld series to older fans of Cassandra Clare and Richelle Mead; I describe Beneath the Waves as like Sabriel but with merpeople; and my current WIP is a post-apocalyptic fantasy thriller which will hopefully appeal to fans of Angelfall and The Immortal Rules. (If anything, this proves that I’m completely incapable of sticking to one sub-genre…)
Things I think are important? Voice and character. They give a book personality, and are often the tipping point between an acceptance and a rejection. I think that’s a matter for another blog post, though…