Blogger: Rachel Zurakowski
Location: Books & Such Main Office, Santa Rosa, Calif.
A multi-published writer mentioned in conversation with another author that she always makes the heroes in her books look like actor Harrison Ford. You know, the ruggedly handsome, Indiana Jones-type. She claimed that her readers never noticed the look-alike heroes. She chose to continue in this “rut” purposefully because Harrison’s a good-looking guy and none of her readers had ever written to her to complain.
I believe this is a dangerous way to write. By intentionally reusing a “rut,” believing that nobody will notice, she’s underestimating her readers’ intelligence and that’s not a good idea. Plus, Harrison might not be everyone’s choice for a handsome hero. Variety is a good thing!
Reusing a “look” is probably not a huge mistake, but it’s the tip of the “rut-iceberg” for multi-published authors. When an author has written more than one book, he or she needs to be careful about what is being reused.
Have you ever read two books by the same author and after you finish the second book you realize that the two plots are essentially the same? The same thing can happen with nonfiction. A nonfiction author is usually an expert on one subject, and it’s easy for the author to accidentally write practically the same book twice. I’m sure you’ve heard it said that every author only has one good book in them; I know for a fact that that’s not true, but I’m pretty sure that the saying is around because of these seemingly mass-produced books. Change the character names and title or reorder the chapters, and you have a “new” book.
Are authors in too much of a hurry to produce books or is it laziness? Do editors want authors to write practically the same book again if the story sold well? Are readers too nice to point out to the author the strong similarities between plots?
I finished my first draft of my first novel-length story in months and thought, “Wow, that was easy.” Then I got involved with critique groups and contests where people pointed out weaknesses, such as characters lacking depth, using the same action repeatedly, and so on. It has taken me much longer (two years so far) to revise the story that has only taken few months to create because coming up with different ideas to replace those tired repetitions take time.
From what I hear, the authors who write under contract deadlines do not have the luxury of time, which I think explains the “writing ruts” in some books.
“Do editors want authors to write practically the same book again if the story sold well?”
This seems to be the case more often than not–or they want another author to do a similar book as a different author because it sold well. Or at least what often appears to be the case.
A J Hawke
Your post today gave me several things to think about. I’m toward the end of writing my sixth novel and have caught myself a couple of time repeating a description or type of event. Now I know to call them ‘ruts in the road’ to a good story. Trying to make it fresh is harder on the old brain but doable with a little extra effort. Taking that extra time and not being in such a rush is the key for me.
So thanks for the post. I found it helpful.
A J Hawke
Great post. When I was young (and read voraciously), I quickly realized that most of my series began to sound the same. Anything by VC Andrews, the Pen Pal series, the Christian Mandy series… there were usually who phrases that got recycled. It annoyed me to no end and eventually I concluded that these people were too elementary. And that’s me as a KID. Let’s not underestimate people.
Like most girls, Nancy Drew mysteries were among my first chapter books. In Chapter 1, we always meet titian-haired Nancy, her lawyer father, their wise and motherly housekeeper, her boyish friend George, and her plump friend Beth. Always an improbable crisis is followed by an even less probable letter inviting the teenaged sleuth to…yada, yada. After a few such stories, kids know exactly what point in the book Nancy will be ambushed or run off the road, precisely when she will confront the villain, etc. Always the same formula.
And they DID sell! For three generations, they have sold well, but they’re a little like blue jeans–sturdy, serviceable, comfortable and familiar, but fairly unremarkable.
I know there are formulas that work well, but when does the standard advice become a recipe for variations on a common theme? Must the heroine always be beautiful? Must the hero always appear in the first chapter? Must we know everyone’s story objective by the bottom of page 1?
I’m really asking, because some of the most memorable books I’ve read broke the mold.
Harlequin and Silhouette have made a mint off of this to some extent. If you’ve read series romance long enough, you notice an overabundance of cowboy heroes. About 8 years ago, they had a million sheikh titles out. Marriages of convenience, small towns, Texas, alpha male heroes…in the past 15+ years I’ve been reading series romance, they’ve been mainstays of the genre.
Which leads to a legitimate question I’ve wondered over the years: is series romance in a rut, or are Harlequin and Silhouette finely-tuned marketing machines that give the people what they want? Are they both?
Lynn, I agree with you! Some of the best books out there are completely unique and they don’t follow the rules. Personally, I think the rule-breaker books are often difficult to read. They tend to challenge ideals, beliefs, etc. and this makes the book uncomfortable, in a way. I find with these books I end up more satisfied at the end.
The books written to a formula could be compared to comfort food or a romantic comedy. The formulaic books are easy to read and predictable. They tug at the emotions just enough to be considered “good,” but you never finish one and want to start it all over again because it was so satisfying. The wonderful, rule-breaking books are few and far between but they’re always a joy to discover.
Gina, you bring up a great point about writing on a deadline. I think we’ll have to discuss this in more depth tomorrow.
I’m not sure your question has a “right” answer. The publishers are producing books that sell and readers are buying the books the publisher produces.
I think this question could spark a lot of conversation! Anybody have anything to offer?
Rachel, your point about nonfiction writers and the tendency to make their subsequent books basically rewrites is relevant to me at this point. I am almost finished writing my book on my blog, and I have been thinking about a possible second book. But, I don’t want to write the same thing over, so I am brainstorming to come up with an idea. This series of posts on writing ruts is timely, to say the least. You’re giving me a lot to think about, so thank you for your insight.
What a great post!
Maybe it’s my preference, but as a writer, I am always hyper-sensitive to making my leads as different as possible from book to book. Certainly, I want the reader to have variety, but as the author, I want to feel as if I’m getting to know someone new too.
If anything I find my female leads lack as much variety as my male leads. For whatever reason I think I prefer to write (and possibly read) female characters who are free-spirited and unconventional, passionate and a little wild, and it is a challenge for me to deviate from that “type” when writing. By contrast, I am always able to explore different personalities in my male leads…
Along these lines, having recently sold my debut novel and now at work on the follow-up, I was just thinking that the female lead in my new WIP was seeming a little TOO familiar–a lot of fun, but TOO similar to one of the characters in the first novel, and that has me thinking I need to flesh her out in other ways.
As far as what the reading public demands, I have to believe we all like variety in our characters, but it is remarkable to me how quickly a certain “type” can become a fixture in fiction.
Your response to Kristen’s comment touches a frustration of many writers, I suspect. Especially in tough economic times, publishers are understandably reluctant to take risks. That can cause them to stick with what’s sold before, and because that’s what they’ll buy, that’s what writers who want contracts write. If that’s all that’s available on shelves, then that’s what sells, which seems to confirm the “rightness” of it all.
But even a casual review of the last dozen or so runaway bestsellers makes me think that what set them apart was that they were NOT just like every other book on the shelves. So maybe the finely-tuned marketing machine works, but also tends to encourage a rather safe-but-bland mediocrity? Of course, every now and then there’s the writer who can take the tried and true, give it a unique twist, and come up with something delightful.
Stephen Roxburgh, who has edited many people, from Roald Dahl to Isaac Bashevis Singer, said that it’s common for writers to write the same book over and over. He was talking about theme, though. It is common for writers to have some childhood wound they are dealing with.
That’s a whole lot different from the cookie-cutter books crammed on the shelves, but I think it’s something to be aware of all the same. I always gravitate to the orphans–to the characters that are looking for love or a place of belonging. So I’m trying to be careful to make my characters different in each book.
This is a great post with lots of info to think about. So far, my manuscripts are very different in theme, and each have their own unique story.
However, I always find myself with at least one red head in my juvenile lit. Time to rethink some descriptive ruts!