Title | Teen Ink_TipsFromJessicaVitalis

Tips from an Author — Jessica Vitalis

A Writer's Guide to Stealing

I freely admit that I stole the idea for my debut novel from an already published book. I loved Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief,” and the idea of writing Death as a narrator was too good to pass up. Once the idea hit me, I couldn’t wait to explore what that might look like for a middle-grade reader. Although my story turned out to feature an invisible Great White Wolf that may or may not steal souls, there’s no denying that I borrowed the idea (that sounds so much nicer than stealing, doesn’t it?) from Mr. Zusak.

Imagine my surprise when my agent pitched my manuscript to publishers as a twist on “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” How was it possible that I’d written an entire manuscript without realizing that it echoed such a famous story? But my thieving apparently didn’t end there; my press kit for “The Wolf’s Curse” focuses heavily on a Grim Reaper reimagining. I’m not the only one who does this: a recent debut, “The Gilded Girl” by Alyssa Coleman, is a retelling of “A Little Princess,” and another recent debut, “Last Shadow Warrior” by Sam Subity, is a twist on “Beowulf.” Indeed, the market is flooded with twists on classic stories and favorite fairy tales.

In mulling all of these connections over, my mind kept wandering back to the old adage about how there aren’t any new ideas, only different ways of exploring them. That’s when I realized that part of becoming a writer is learning to steal. 

As a mentor, I occasionally encounter (usually new) writers who claim they don’t read because they are afraid it will influence their work; what they apparently don’t realize is that as writers, our stories are shaped by the narratives we grew up with, whether we realize it or not. In fact, it’s often those connections that make stories so very satisfying for readers. As humans, our brains are wired for stories. More specifically, we’re wired to look for connections between what we already know and what we’re experiencing. It’s this process that helps us figure out how to interpret new stories and (I suspect) where to store them in our brain.

These connections extend beyond the reading process; they are essential to the creative process as well. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been stuck on a writing project and picked up a book (usually of a completely different topic and/or genre) and began reading, only to find that the answer to my original problem suddenly jumped out at me. Indeed, it’s only because of other stories that I’m a children’s writer at all: I remember so clearly the moment I finished reading David Almond’s book, “Kit’s Wilderness.” After turning the final page, a single thought crossed my mind: This is what I want to do.

The trick, of course, is to figure out how to bring something new to the table; there may not be any new ideas, but we all see the world through different lenses depending on our life experiences. So go ahead — steal from other writers with abandon. Just make sure you bring your own unique voice to whatever concepts you decide to explore.

Jessica Vitalis is a Columbia MBA-wielding writer. After leaving home at 16, Vitalis explored several careers before turning her talents to middle-grade literature. She brings her experience growing up in a nontraditional childhood to her stories, exploring themes such as death and grief, domestic violence, and socioeconomic disparities. With a mission to write thought-provoking and entertaining literature, she often includes magic and fantastical settings. As an active volunteer in the kid-lit community, she’s also passionate about using her privilege to lift up other voices. In addition to volunteering with We Need Diverse Books and Pitch Wars, she founded Magic in the Middle, a series of free monthly recorded book talks, to help educators introduce young readers to new stories. An American ex-pat, she now lives in Canada with her husband and two precocious daughters. She loves traveling, sailing, and scuba diving, but when she’s at home, she can usually be found reading a book or changing the batteries in her heated socks.