On Writing: Should I sue myself for plagiarism?

i can do better

I’m working on a new novel. It’s an idea I’ve had for a while, but I just recently started writing it down. (I’ve hinted about it a few times already on Twitter.)

I’m about 19,000 words in, and I recently wrote a scene that bothered me a little because it reminded me of a passage in my novella The Start of the Majestic World.

There’s a scene in Majestic World where Agent Maynard has a verbal confrontation with the main villain, Colonel Preston, a handsome army colonel who tries to intimidate her into following his orders even though she’s not under his command.

Here’s a bit of it:

The Colonel stood up, and walked around the desk so that he was very close to Maynard—so close, and in such a posture, that Maynard felt he was trying to brush aside the barriers of rank and agency, and underscore primarily the difference in sex between them. 

I don’t want to give away too much about the new book, but the scene in it has some very similar elements. The female protagonist is in a meeting with a handsome male colonel, and he is trying to get her to do something that may violate protocol. (It’s deliberately ambiguous in the scene, but she feels uneasy about it.) And there’s some uncomfortable sexual tension–it’s less overt than in the above, but there’s some suggestion he might be trying to seduce her.

Now, there are also some big differences, involving both the setting and the characters. But as I was sketching out the scene in my mind, I was thinking, Gosh that’s awfully similar to the Maynard/Preston scene.

So, right now you’re thinking: “Well, dummy; you’re the writer–don’t write it that way, then!”

True, that’s one option. But there are a couple reasons I hate to remove or alter the scene. First, it’s a very natural way for things to play out in the story–it works well in context, both in terms of plot pacing and characterization. I hate to lose scenes like that.

And second, it’s a much better execution of the concept than in Majestic World. The dialogue is more natural, the characters are more nuanced and less caricatured. This is encouraging to me–it’s good to know I’ve improved as a writer since writing the Maynard/Preston scene over three years ago.

The great film director John Huston once said about movie remakes: “There is a wilful, lemming-like persistence in remaking past successes time after time… Why don’t we remake some of our bad pictures… and make them good?” That’s sort of how I feel about this–sure, I tried this basic concept once, but now that I’ve improved as a writer, why not prove that I can do it better?

At the same time, I could see somebody who read Majestic World reading the new book and saying “Yawn! Another Colonel behaving inappropriately towards the protagonist. Give us something new, Berthold!”

But I can guarantee it won’t be the same thing over again. Trust me.

What do you think? Should an author revisit a concept similar to one they’ve written before, if they feel like they can write it better this time, or is it best to try to break new ground?


  1. Hmm, great question and insightful attempt to answer it! I like the Huston quote. I think us writers should take advantage of the fact that we can literally rewrite the past. If the context is different enough and it makes sense in the story like you say, no one will care if it has a similar feel to some other scene in some other book (what bit of writing doesn’t?) and you may end up doing more good than naught if you try to insert something more artificial.

    All one writer’s opinion, of course!

    1. Thanks very much! Glad to hear your take on it. One thing that has impressed me about your short stories is how different they are from one another, especially given that they’ve been written in such short order. I would have probably ended up doing different “riffs” on the same idea if I tried that.

      1. Appreciate the kind words! I think you’d be surprised if you were to take on the challenge. I know I had the same feelings when I started, and I still do…worried that I’ll eventually hit a repeat. I’m only six down, but so far, so good! I think reading as widely and as diversely as possible has also helped in this respect.

  2. I think you can do whatever you feel makes sense for the story. If that’s a similar scene, then so be it. On the other hand, if it’s nagging at you enough, that might be a sign you’re not completely comfortable with it. I’ve learned that if something nags at me in one of my books, it will continue to nag at me, even after it’s published. So now I try to change it before the story gets too involved where change becomes difficult.

    In that event, is there a way you could modify the confrontation a bit? Maybe have their power struggle not be sexual but instead be because of some other connection the two have? Maybe they have a shared interest or a shared acquaintance or something else that he could present to her that would violate protocol were she to go along with his request or suggestion. Not sure if that would apply here, but it’s just a thought.

    Either way, good luck!

    1. Hmm, that’s a good idea… And may fit nicely with another, unrelated plot issue I’ve been trying to resolve. Thanks very much for the suggestion!

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