Monday, 16 March 2015

Romance Writing and reinventing the wheel

The recent case against Harlequin for plagiarism has brought up the subject of originality in writing romance. In that case, a wannabe writer accused Mills and Boon novelist, Kate Walker of plagiarising the wannabe writer’s romance in Walker’s own work, The Proud Wife.  The case was thrown out of court, with prejudice, and quite rightly so. The court document makes very interesting reading on the subject of the tropes using in romance, and I suggest you take some time to read it. It is long, but quite accessible for a court document.

As a friend said, when I mentioned the case in a private forum, the problem is that so many new writers believe they are reinventing the wheel and that every idea that comes from their head is brand new and brilliant. Well it is to them, but perhaps not to readers. One thing that occurred to me was that the writer does not appear to have researched the market, and she clearly had not read a lot (if any) of Kate Walker’s books. One of Kate’s gifts as a writer is in dissecting a marriage in crisis and then putting it back together again in an emotionally charged story. She has also dealt with the pain of child loss in her books before. Yet each book is different, because she is able to bring something different to each character and situation.

I’m deliberately not naming the wannabe writer here as I don’t want a witch hunt against her. She was na├»ve, that’s all. All new writers think that if they send their work off anywhere, the publisher will reject it then steal their fantastic and original ideas. I was the same when I started out.

The wannabe writer was also badly advised by her legal team, who did not know much about writing romance. Would it have hurt them to read a few more Mills and Boon books before bringing a case that not only brought untold stress to a lovely woman (Kate Walker) but also will leave the plaintiff seriously out of pocket? 

The fact is that if you write any genre, whether it be romance or crime, you are going to struggle to ever be entirely original. The TV Tropes page is a fantastic resource for all the tropes used in films, television and books, and it points up the universal tropes that many genres use.

The heroes in romance novels is always tall dark and handsome (and it was Kate Walker herself who told us in a workshop that this is because in South America they don’t like blonde heroes). I’ve lost count of how many of my heroines have red hair and green eyes. Or how many of my heroes were ridiculously rich with, if not a private jet, then a private helicopter. They are the trappings one expects of a rich man, and of the world into which the heroine is taken from her relatively normal life. Because that’s what you’re selling in a romance. It’s the fantasy of an ordinary girl next door who finds a man who is not only handsome and great in bed, but who can jet her off all over the world for rip-roaring sex. If Cinderella were told today, Prince Charming would have his own jet to go all over the world satisfying his foot fetish, and the shoes she wore to the ball would be Jimmy Choos (or whatever shoes are the in thing at the moment).

Bridget Jones was championed for being original, when really it isn’t original at all. It’s Pride and Prejudice for a modern audience. Only the voice and situation are original.

This post on another blog talks about the story of an orphan who finds out he has magical powers, and a male and female friend who fall in love with each other. 

Even in the crime genre, you’re never going to be truly original. There will be a dead body. There will be a murderer. The murderer will probably be the person you suspect the least. Sometimes the tropes are subverted, but in general they’ll be the same.

Horror also has its own tropes. There’s the ghost story, the haunted house story, the Lovecraftian monster story.

Because that’s what the fans of the different genres expect. They expect a dead body and a murderer in crime, a ghost or a demented creature in a horror story and, for the most part, they expect a rich man and ordinary girl paring in romance.

New writers need to stop trying to reinvent the wheel, and they should certainly stop thinking they’ve reinvented the wheel. Such a thing is not possible. If you write about a zombie apocalypse, you will be influenced by every zombie film or television show you’ve ever seen. Even if you think you’re doing it differently. What is Twilight if it isn’t Buffy and Angel with Buffy’s superpowers stripped away to turn her into a rather useless teenage girl? Admittedly no one saw the sparkly vampires coming, but otherwise it’s just the same ‘ordinary girl in love with an immortal’ fare that’s been around for years.

My own success in novels came when I stopped trying to be original and fell back on my love of Hitchcockian type romantic intrigues. I don’t pretend to be original, but I hope my stories are fun to read.

The best advice I’ve seen recently came from Kate Walker herself in an interview for my Love Notes column.

“Another piece of advice,” said Kate, “is to write as yourself. Don’t try to imitate any established romance writers.” She accepts that it’s hard ‘if not impossible’ to be completely original. However, “You can be authentic.”

So strive to be authentic instead or original and that way you might even fool people into thinking you’re original.


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