it’s all been done before

July 28th, 2009

So, you’ll forgive the silence but in addition to the whole new-kid, maternity-leave thing, I’ve been kind of obsessed with this new thing that everyone else has been into for ages. Yes, I’m late to the party again, but such is me. But now I’m deeply addicted to this love story. It’s about a girl who’s a mortal and she’s entangled with this guy, who’s hot, mysterious brooding, and well, you know a vampire. And they’re in love, but there are many forces to keep them apart. And now, it turns out, there is a rival for the girl’s affections—and that rival turns out to be part human and part canine. This romance is sexy and addictive and I cannot get enough of it.

And, oh, I read Twilight like two years ago. I’m talking about the TV show True Blood on HBO (or on Netflix if you’re cable-averse like me). The series is based upon The Southern Vampire Mysteries series by Charlaine Harris, which I have not read, much less heard of (even though they were NYT Bestsellers) until I started watching the show.

As I’m watching True Blood (I’m on Season 1, so no spoilers, please), I’m not just noticing similarities with Twilight, but also other YA books. Like the vampires in True Blood cast glamours on mortals—sort of like Jedi mind melds—and that reminded me of the faeries in Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely series, who wear glamours so as to fit in as mortals among mortals.

So, am I suggesting that writers cheat or steal from other writers?


My point is exactly the opposite. If you look at these basic plot points I gave you of True Blood and Twilight, you might see big similarities,  but the truth is the two stories could not be more different—and not just because in True Blood, the vampires can and do have sex and have lots and lots of it (apparently vamps are amazing in the sack, so long as you carry some cover up or a scarf with you to hide the bite marks. These vamps, unlike Edward, have the self control to snack on your blood and stop. You just need to take some vitamin B-12. Also, where Twilight is a while abstinence tale, set in the gray murky Pacific Northwest, True Blood is set in sultry Louisiana and has this whole great allegory going on about vampire acceptance that mirrors gay rights, with bigots shouting stuff like “God hates fangs” and the Vampire Rights League or some such going on talk shows to argue its case.) Anyhow, the little details and the feel of the books and everything about them make them entirely different works—well, I assume they are, not having read the actual source material for True Blood—which makes sense because they came out of the minds of entirely different people.

Increasingly, I’m beginning to buy that whole idea that there are only like three stories in the world and it’s the job of writers to rewrite them in fresh ways. When I was writing If I Stay, I was aware that there might be comparisons to Alice Sebold’s  The Lovely Bones (I hadn’t even heard of Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin at that point, nor did I know there was a whole sub-genre of Dead Girl Lit), because Mia, like Susie from TLB tells her story from out of her body and observes the reactions of those around her. The thing is,  I didn’t sit down and think: Hey, I sure enjoyed reading The Lovely Bones five years ago, and it was a big hit, so I think I’ll copy it. I set out to write If I Stay as an answer a question that had haunted me for years: What would you do if something catastrophic had happened to your family and you yourself were hovering between life and death and were aware of what was going on? If you could choose, would you go with your family or stay? When Mia popped into my head to answer that question for me, the only possible way she could do it—to be aware of what had happened  to her family and to mull her awful decision—was to be in that hazy no-man’s land between life and death and watching it all.

But that was a similarity I knew about. There were other things, stuff in other books that I didn’t read until after I finished writing If I Stay. Images or lines of dialogue that were similar to ones I’d used. I suddenly got all paranoid: Would people think I copied? Nobody did (or nobody said they did). But it is weird to me how certain images and motifs just show up in novelists’ works. Maybe certain things are archetypes we revisit. Or clichés we overly rely on. Or maybe the English language is not limitless (unless you’re Junot Diaz, and he makes up his own language anyhow of awesome Dominican Spanglish slang so no one’s copying him by mistake).

It turns out, I sometimes even cannibalize off myself. I read a critique of my first novel Sisters in Sanity that said it and If I Stay were too similar. I definitely cop to the Oregon/music/indie-rock dreamy boy motifs, but then the person said something about drunk drivers being mentioned in both books, and I was like “huh?” It took me a couple hours to realize that drunk driving is ruled out as the cause of the crash in If I Stay and that—Sisters Spoiler Alert—one character’s father is killed by a drunk driver in Sisters and that this is a kind of big revelation late in the book.

Is the world so small? Are writers that unimaginative? Am I?  I could make up some excuse about how car crashes are the second leading cause of death and bla bla bla, and initially I had that father die from something else that I had thought was overkill so I changed it to something more mundane. But the truth is,  in my world, when people I have known have died, it has most often been in a car. You write what you know.

Same goes for indie-rock boys. I married one. They will probably always show up in my fiction in one guise or another, even when I’m not actually writing musician characters. And I guess that there are other writers out there with similar obsessions so when my obsession dovetails with their obsession, you’ll get similarity. But, I suppose what keeps all the books from feeling the same, is—one hopes—the fact that the writers have different sensibilities, different experiences, and different frames of reference. Though I’m clearly obsessed with music and David Levithan and Rachel Cohn are obsessed with music, If I Stay and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist are probably not two books you’d ever call similar.

So, it’s all been done. Everything is derivative. I just read a review of the new Harry Potter movie in the New Yorker in which Anthony Lane complains that the movie gets too Lord of the Ringsy at one point. So now Harry’s dipping his wand (the film version anyway) into Frodo’s pond. Sigh. Can anyone be expected to be fresh then?

Maybe not. Now that I’ve brought up Harry Potter, J.K Rowling’s amazing series proves my point.  The Harry Potter series melded a bunch of different genres together, from the classic English boarding school tale to old folklore myths to a powerful statement about freedom during times of terror and war.  And Rowling made it all fresh by setting it in a world of  Quiddich and Owl Post and newspapers with talking photos and a million other tiny details that she made so real that you just took them for granted.

We all should be as good as JKR. Though, maybe there’s a reason she hasn’t written anything un-Potter. Maybe she’s afraid she’ll cannibalize herself. Or maybe she can’t stop.

UPDATE: I’m further along in True Blood and it turns out the canine love rival, is in fact, a shape shifter. Definitively not a werewolf, but werewolves do exist, as he told Sookie. Anyhow, not sure if this proves my post or renders the whole thing irrelevant but too late now.

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p.s.: This is my 100th blog post! I feel like sirens and bells should go off and someone should get a free car wash or something! Instead, I think I’m going to hold a contest to give away some of the ARCs I’ve been collecting. But that means a trip to the post office. With the child. Must psych myself up for that. Stay tuned.

  1. I agree; you write what you know. Thing is, critics expect it to be something new they have never heard/seen. Well all the cats have mostly been let out of the bag. Most everything at one point has something that can relate to something other then their own story. Its the details that give it something different, which most critics over look. In return they say it is the same as everything else. What can one do? Write your story, screw the rest. I mean you can’t please everyone all the time right? Anyway YAY for the 100TH BLOG POST! Also the moments of any serenity you get!

    All the Best!

  2. oh my goodness, elsewhere. did you read it? i love it so much. and, of course, loved the lovely bones. maybe i’m a sucker for this whole dead girl lit trend? you learn something new every day.

    but seriously, gayle, you’re great. and this blog post came at the exact right time for me! the more i go over what i’ve written, the more i start to second guess myself and feel like it’s all been done and why would anyone want to read something that i wrote when they could read something that someone else might have written better? but your positive attitude is contagious and i can’t thank you enough :)

    i’m curious about what images or lines of dialogue from other books were similar to if i stay? it kinda makes me want to read those books, too, haha. and happy 100th blog post, my car could actually use a free washing!

  3. Don’t be discouraged, Lindsay. You do what you gotta do and then let the universe (ahem, the publishing industry and then, lovely readers like you) decide.
    And I read (and adored) Elsewhere right after I finished If I Stay (I purposely waited). And there was a whole motif of a charm bracelet and that’s how the character knowing she had died, and I was like, OK then. (Later, I remembered there was a charm bracelet in Lovely Bones, too; it’s on the cover; charm bracelet not a big thing in IIS but it’s there). And I read some Meg Wolitzer and there were some lines that rang familiar even though the books were nothing alike. It’s sort of how when someone you know gets a disease or goes to an exotic locale and suddenly you hear about it everywhere? If you’re paying attention to certain images ideas, you see them everywhere.

  4. oh right, the whole pocket watch/charm bracelet thing!

    and as always, thank you for all the advice and encouragement! if getting into the writing world is my julliard, then i’m just going to consider you the nice judge who claps for me :)

  5. Oh Gayle I miss 2 or 3 post on your blog. I will try to read them but I’m very busy because I work (with children ;) ) and I had a throat infection.
    I love Twilight and True Blood. At the beginning I didn’t understand the similarities but after the season 1 I understand a little.

    take of you and also of Dembele and Willa.

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