Writing, mean gossip, and the internet

Worth reading:

From “How dishing got dirty” by Joseph Epstein in The Week, January 20, 2012:

“Stendhal said that to write a book is to risk being shot at in public. But until the Internet, one didn’t know all the tender places in which one could be shot. And there is no redress, not really, not likely, not ever, not so long as the Internet remains the playground of the too often pathological and the Valhalla of the unvalorous.”

The things we did to get to where we are

So last night, after a frustrating day at my desk, I slump onto the sofa with my husband to channel surf, and we come across a silly 1995 movie called A Kid in King Arthur’s Court.

I know nothing about this movie, except for the brief description that pops up via the info button: “An earthquake transports a California teenager to King Arthur’s Camelot.” Ho-kay. I like movies about King Arthur, so I continue watching. And a character called Princess Sarah pops up who looks an awful lot like Kate Winslet. Of course, it can’t be. Then there’s a character called Master Kane who looks like a blond beach boy. I think he also looks a lot like actor Daniel Craig. My husband says that’s crazy, of course it can’t be Daniel Craig.

So we go onto IMDB, my online source for everything Hollywood, and holy cow. That ridiculous movie had BOTH Kate Winslet and Daniel Craig in the cast! The movie was made before either actor had made their marks as Major Movie Stars.

Do they look back on that film now and wince with embarrassment? Do they harbor fantasies of sneaking into the film vaults and burning every copy? Or do they, like every other Major Movie Star, just count those early duds as the dues they had to pay to make it to the top?

It made me think about writers, and how many of us now look back at our early work and wince. How many of us wish we could destroy every copy of our first novels? How many of us wrote porn to pay the bills? Or churned out articles for iffy magazines?

In my case, I started my career writing romantic thrillers. While I’m not embarrassed by any of those books (and they were not easy to write — no genre is easy!), there are times when I wish I could hide my early romance novels from my current thriller audience because of all the flak I get. Many mystery readers hate romance, any hint of romance, and they make damn sure I know it. But I look back on that period of my career as something I had to do to make it as a writer.

Are any of you embarrassed by something you wrote way back in the years when you were first trying to get a toehold in the industry? Share!

“You stole my story!”, Part 2

Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about how another author and I had our books published the same year, and both stories were eerily similar, with identical details right down to the crucifixion of the victims. Some readers told me I should sue because obviously she stole my idea. Or was I the one who stole hers? I pointed out that it would be physically impossible for either one of us to have stolen the others’ story, because we were writing simultaneously, and these things happen. Stories bear striking similarities that can only be explained as coincidence.

So now there’s a reader review of SILENT GIRL on Amazon accusing me of ripping off GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, and he says that Stieg Larsson’s estate should sue me. He says it’s exactly the same story. I’ve just seen the movie, so I’ll start off exploring this issue with plot summaries.

GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is about a sexually traumatized computer hacker who teams up with a disgraced journalist to solve the mystery of a missing girl. There’s also a lot about Swedish business corruption, Nazis, and men’s abuse of women in Swedish society.

THE SILENT GIRL is about a series of murders in Boston’s Chinatown that may be linked to a decades-old massacre in a Chinese restaurant. Rizzoli and Isles investigate. There’s stuff about a female Chinese martial arts master, the ancient legend of the Monkey King, and the Asian immigrant experience.

So far, these stories are really close, right? Except for their plots and characters.

Where, then, are the similarities between these books? They’re definitely there — in the form of mystery tropes that have been used by just about every mystery writer who’s ever lived. They’re part of every writer’s plot toolbox, and I’ve been using them for years. (Maybe I should be sued for copying from my own books). There are spoilers below, so I apologize in advance if I give away clues to books of mine that you haven’t yet read.

Literary tropes in mysteries:

Dead or missing female victim(s)
Yep, both DRAGON TATTOO and SILENT GIRL have them. Dead girls. The mystery genre loves dead girls. TV loves them too, especially if they’ve been sexually abused (anyone watch Law & Order SVU?) I’ve used this trope repeatedly in THE SURGEON (2001), THE APPRENTICE (2002), VANISH (2005), and THE KEEPSAKE (2008). I was writing about dead girls long before DRAGON TATTOO. And like DRAGON TATTOO, my victims were sometimes confined in basements (THE SURGEON.)

Killers who work as a team or as a family
I’ve used it already in THE APPRENTICE (2001) and THE KEEPSAKE (2008). And yep, I even had a book where the killers are part of the same family, in BODY DOUBLE (2004.) I also dealt with the theme of multi-generational evil in THE MEPHISTO CLUB (2006).

The “dead” character who turns out to be alive.
I love this trope. In fact, I used it in my very first romantic suspense novel, CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT (1987). I used it again in HARVEST (1996), THE MEPHISTO CLUB (2006), and THE KEEPSAKE (2008).

These are literary tropes because they are endlessly useful plot devices that writers have used since the beginning of storytelling. Throughout my writing career, I’ve fallen back on them to inject surprise, suspense, or that one last plot twist. Tropes are not copyrighted. They do not belong to Stieg Larsson. In fact, I’m willing to bet that Stieg Larsson borrowed them from someone else. (Hey Jo Nesbo, did Stieg take something of yours?)

DRAGON TATTOO has become stratospherically popular. Even readers who hardly ever read novels have picked this one up, or watched the movie, and they think this must be the first serial killer story ever written that has a duo of killers. They think that no one else has ever before written about survivors of sexual trauma (I did in THE SURGEON) or abusive fathers (I did in THE SINNER) or kick-ass heroines (um… Jane Rizzoli?) They think this because they haven’t been reading deeply in the genre. They think that anyone else who uses these tropes must be a plagiarist, because of course, Stieg Larsson invented them.

No, he didn’t. Neither did I.

My favorite movies about writers

Even though I’m a doctor, I’ve never enjoyed watching movies about doctors. Maybe it’s because the subject matter can be so serious and grim, or because I feel like I’m back at work, frantically trying to come up with the mystery diagnosis before the characters do.

But I’m a sucker for movies about writers. Writing is a strange career. We’re often misunderstood by spouses and family. Many of us struggle to pay the bills. And the creative mind isn’t always the most stable mind, leading to mental crack-ups, imaginary friends, and fatal desperation. In short: terrific fodder for a story!

Here are my favorite writer films. Not all of them earned critical acclaim, but each one gave a glimpse of what it’s really like to be a writer.

TAMARA DREWE

I watched this seldom-seen film during an airline flight and laughed my way halfway across the Atlantic. It’s billed as a romantic comedy about a young woman who returns to her hometown village, but there’s also a subplot about an obnoxiously successful thriller writer who hosts writing workshops at his English country estate. It’s the subplot that steals the film, with snarky dinner conversations about literary vs. commercial fiction, disastrous booksignings, and a cautionary tale about how commercial success can create monsters.

THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN

Billy Crystal plays Larry, a bitterly divorced novelist and writing instructor who’s suffering from terminal writer’s block. When one of his writing students, Owen, (Danny DeVito) offers to murder Larry’s ex-wife if Larry will, in turn, murder Owen’s obnoxious mother, Larry thinks it’s a joke. Or is it? A mad-cap comedy about how rage can destroy creativity — and how friendships can restore it.

THE GHOST WRITER

While this film isn’t about a novelist, it paints a realistic picture of how celebrity “autobiographies” are actually produced. A talented young ghost-writer (whose name, significantly enough, is never given) has been hired to write the autobiography of a former Prime Minister. The ghost uncovers unsavory secrets that were never meant to be revealed — and which may threaten his life.

ADAPTATION

A screenwriter (Nicholas Cage) struggles to write a film adaptation of the book THE ORCHID THIEF, which turns out to be unadaptable — unless he takes outrageous liberties with the plot. The result is a zany look at how far writers will go to deliver the goods.

THE SHINING

How could I not mention this creepy, crawly tale of a writer who slowly goes totally bonkers in a deserted hotel, as his family watches in horror?

And finally, my favorite:

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE

Young Shakespeare writes “Romeo and Juliet”, falls in love, and tries to stay one step ahead of the Queen’s guard. The scene that had me laughing hardest? When a ferryman finds out that Shakespeare’s a writer and asks him, “Will you read my manuscript?”