I just finished Barbara Delinsky’s latest, THE SECRET BETWEEN US (Isn’t that a great title?). I thoroughly enjoyed it. But I had a weird spooky deja vu feeling as I started reading it. Having recently finished reading the galleys for my June release, BEFORE THE STORM, the plot similarities between Delinksy’s book and mine jumped out at me.
There are only so many plots in the world, and Delinsky and I must have been drinking the same water as we came up with our ideas. In THE SECRET BETWEEN US, the three central characters are a mother, Deborah, her teenaged daughter Grace, and her somewhat handicapped (vision loss) ten-year-old son, Dylan. After a car accident in which a man is killed, Deborah lies about who was driving in order to protect Grace. The novel then focuses on the relationships between the characters and the toll the accident and the subsequent lie have on all concerned.
In BEFORE THE STORM, the central characters are a mother, Laurel, her teenaged daughter Maggie, and her somewhat handicapped (fetal alcohol syndrome) fifteen-year-old son, Andy. In the first chapter, a fire takes the lives of three people. Laurel goes into supermom mode to protect her son from blame.
But that’s where the similarities end. You can give two writers the exact same storyline and characters, and they will turn out two completely different books. To me, that’s the excitement in writing. The plot is like the foundation of a house. Then the writer decides the layout of the rooms, adds color to the walls and texture to the furnishings, creates the view from the windows and fills every corner with the characters’ emotions. The result is an entirely unique book, unrecognizable from any other.
Years (and years) ago, when I was working on SECRET LIVES, I had lunch with an author friend, Kathy Gilles Seidel. Our conversation went something like this.
Kathy: So, what are you working on now?
Me: A book set in the Shenandoah Valley.
Kathy: So am I!
Me: Really! Mine is about a woman who lives in California but returns to her childhood home in the Valley to–
Kathy: So is mine!
Me: You’re kidding! Well, this woman’s mother was a famous author–
Kathy: My character’s father was a famous film maker!
Me: And this woman has to unearth the true story about her mother to learn the truth about herself.
Kathy: And mine has to unearth the true story about her father to learn the truth about herself.
Kathy and I were both a little spooked by this revelation, but we knew each other’s writing well enough to know our books would be entirely different. And they were. Thank goodness.
So, back to THE SECRET BETWEEN US and BEFORE THE STORM. Here is where our different writing styles (Delinsky’s and mine) play a significant role. The major differences:
-I make a lot of use of backstory (what happened in the past). I’m a sucker for backstory and often know more of the backstory than the current-day story when I start a book. I believe this comes from being a therapist. How did my characters get to this point in their lives? What happened to them before that makes them the way they are now? In BEFORE THE STORM, the backstory is significant and important to understanding what is going on in the present. . . and it’s filled with surprises.  
-BEFORE THE STORM has, like many of my books, a large mystery component of the who-done-it variety.
-BEFORE THE STORM has many subplots that arc away from, then tie back into, the main storyline.
-BEFORE THE STORM has a somewhat darker, mystical and ethereal thread running through it.
-THE SECRET BETWEEN US has a stronger romantic element.
-Delinsky and I have distinctly different voices in our writing. Voice is that hard-to-describe “style of writing” that is unique to each author. If you are very familiar with the books of, say, three different authors, you should be able to read a paragraph or two of something one of them wrote and know which one wrote it because of his or her distinct voice.  It’s something a writer can not easily work at creating. Rather, voice tends to evolve naturally until one day you read something you wrote and realize, Wow! I think I’ve found my voice!
All this is to say, I enjoyed THE SECRET BETWEEN US very much, but I had trouble separating the “reader” in me from the “writer” as I dissected, studied, compared, and contrasted, marvelling once again at how two authors can turn out entirely different books from similar plots.

9 Comments

  1. brenda on February 13, 2008 at 4:39 pm

    Ahah!! That’s why the two of you are my very favorites.
    Teaching voice is difficult. My students have such a trying time when I explain to them that they must use their own voice in writing-then they wonder why I can tell ASAP if they plagiarized…

  2. Julie on February 13, 2008 at 11:39 pm

    I’m seriously in the twilight zone at the moment. I spent about thirty minutes last night on Amazon and then on her website reading about the Secret Between Us, and I have never read a book by Barbara Delinsky that I know of. (I noticed she has a fun blog, too, by the way.)
    BTW, Diane, I sent you an email I hope makes it through your spam filter.

  3. Julie on February 14, 2008 at 12:31 am

    Ok, now that I’ve come back from the Twilight Zone, I have a writing question. You talk about that “Wow, I’ve found my voice!” experience. I’m curious–Did it happen for you before you published, or after a few books?

  4. Margo on February 14, 2008 at 9:15 am

    Diane, your plots are very original & I’ve never noticed any comparisons to another author because of many reasons. You have a very unique style of writing and are a master at weaving the past with the present while casting a shadow of mystery throughout. Your characters are ‘alive’ with feelings of hope, passion and even despair, and the sense of place is authentic in each book you write. Is it any wonder that I truly get lost from reality when I’m reading your novels…(-:

  5. Liz on February 14, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    I haven’t been able to get the latest Delinsky book yet, but she was my favorite until I found you, Diane. I consider her more “romance” than you, and much prefer your stories, I think because of all the backstory you give. I’ve actually been disappointed in her later books because I don’t think the characters are real enough with their backgrounds. I still read everything she writes, hoping for some of the earlier “magic”, but after Three Wishes, with THAT ending, I am “gunshy”. I need to know that after conflict and struggle, there will be happiness – part of my stressful work life, in which there are really not happy endings because families are so fractured. So, contemporary women’s fiction – is that the right term, Diane? For what you write? The “romance genre” has seemed too trite, and the characters not well-developed. I have never thought you and Barbara were similar at all in your writing – even though some of the authors I like have similar settings and struggles. I agree that I can pick up a book by a favorite author and figure out the “voice”, for the most part. I just read The Beach House by Mary Alice Monroe – so I’m getting her a little mixed up with Dorthea Benton Frank, although the only similarities were in the setting. Wait – the last one I read by her, The Land of Mango Sunsets, dealt with a daughter going home to South Carolina to help her dying mother, as did The Beach House, but the stories were so, so different. Both enjoyable and compelling, but NOT the same voince at all. I will go on a search for more of Mary Alice Monroe, as I await Before the Storm. Hope your panic has subsided. Take care.

  6. Diane Chamberlain on February 14, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    Well. . . interesting reactions to this post, especially in my private email where I’ve heard from several writers who’d had the same “deja vu” experience when they discovered another writer had already written “their” plot. As I said, there are only so many stories out there. It’s all in the telling.
    Before I came up with BEFORE THE STORM, I had received the go-ahead from my editor on what I thought was a terrific story idea and happily began working on it. Then my dear friend and wonderful writer, Emilie Richards, and I exchanged a few “what we’re working on” emails. To both our horrors, we realized we were working on the same (well, way too similar) story. Emilie was ahead of me in hers–plus it was part of a series she was working on and she’d already laid the groundwork for the plotline. My editor, agent and I freaked out. (Okay, I freaked out and they sympathized). That was definitely a low for me. I had to regroup and come up with an entire new idea, which is how BEFORE THE STORM was born. I haven’t thought about this in a long time, and as I type it, I realize what a blessing in disguise the whole scenario was, because I adore BEFORE THE STORM and its characters. I wouldn’t have had the chance to get to know them if Emilie and I had not been on the same wavelength. (We’re still good friends, by the way. Painful as the experience was for both of us, our friendship was never in question!)

  7. Diane Chamberlain on February 14, 2008 at 4:07 pm

    Brenda–so funny about plagiarism!
    Julie–as for “finding my voice”: I think I actually found it while writing my first novel, PRIVATE RELATIONS, but not right away. It took me years to write that book, and my voice evolved over time. I was reading a lot of Alice Hoffman during that period, and I know her mystical, lyrical prose was an influence. There are certain paragraphs I can pick out of PRIVATE RELATIONS and KNOW I must have been reading Hoffman at the time! But gradually, my own voice did emerge. I don’t think it was until my third book, SECRET LIVES, that my actual storytelling style came into being, though. That’s the book where I really found myself in terms of structure, use of backstory, and character development. Everything seemed to fall together for me in that book.
    Liz, yes, I consider my books contemporary women’s fiction, though I always hate to leave out my male readers with that label. It takes a man secure in his masculinity to embrace women’s fiction! My earlier books had more of a romantic element to them. I seem to have gotten away from that as I age. LOL. When I include a love story, though, it’s got to feel real to me. That means full of problems and struggles and all that real people stuff. Excuse my jargon. I’m writing from three teenagers POVs in my AFTER THE STORM right now and can’t seem to find any adult words. LOL.

  8. Gloria Bernal on March 15, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    I enjoyed Delinsky’s Secret Between Us and in fact selected it for this months book club, which we will discuss this week at our meeting. It will be interesting to see what their views were – practically every one of the main characters has a secret, so the title was appropriate. I thought she wrapped it up well except that I found one thing to be unrealistic, and that is the victims intention at the scene of the accident, it didn’t seem a likely choice but we are led to believe that he was disturbed…so we have to accept thatl. I think you will give us a lot more substance in your STORM novel, with your similar plot line and can’t wait to read it. I love the backstory part of your writing, as the background helps the reader to better connect with the characters and we love the surprise or two thrown in.
    Thanks for sharing your opinions with us of current best-sellers, that is so cool!
    Gloria in sunny CA. 3/15/08

  9. Diane Chamberlain on March 15, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    Gloria, okay–here’s the bad thing–i can’t even remember the victim now! so i can’t comment on his (her) motivation. i keep getting it mixed up with the car accident at the start of another book i read recently TC Boyle’s TORTILLA CURTAIN. I remember that victim’s motivation perfectly because it was so central to the story.
    i think i’m reading too much!

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