Have You Written Ten Books, or Just Written the Same Book Ten Times?
January 16, 2016
Of the Italian Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi, someone said ‘he did not write four hundred concertos; he wrote the same concerto four hundred times’. As a fan of the great Venetian composer, I certainly dispute that – there is a great interest and variety to be found in his music, despite there being a very recognisable style and feel that pervades all his music.
So what does all that have to do with writing, you may be beginning to wonder. Well, some novelists return to the same themes, settings, moods and character types again and again, sometimes as part of a series, sometimes not. Usually there are changes in the details; the plot is slightly different, the heroine is a redhead instead of a blonde, she is from a slightly different background, has a different job perhaps. There are a different range of minor characters too, although they usually encompass the same types as the first book. What does not change is the basic plot, the outlook, values and personality of the main protagonist, and often certain scenes/scenarios appear again and again in slightly different forms.
Many authors do this, including best-selling ones. People make major writing careers out of essentially only ever writing one book, and then rehashing it over and over. Oftentimes this is what readers want too. There are legions of readers who avidly devour the same type of Regency Mills and Boon story over and over or watch endless episodes of the same television drama.
Should you be worried if all your books are essentially the same? First and foremost, I think it is important to identify whether or not this is what you tend to do. Sometimes we don’t recognise patterns in our own work or behaviour, because we don’t stand back enough to get an overview. Are all six of your romance heroines slight and slim with long hair, easy-going personalities and fun banter? Or perhaps you see them as all being distinct individuals, but fail to convey that through your writing (this is where beta readers can really help – they only have your words).
Repetition in writers comes in two varieties. One is the writer who is fixated on the same narrow range of characters and/or plot scenario. The other is the writer who lacks skill, often reusing the same words and phrases over and over, and having a narrow, unimaginative range of metaphors and descriptive words and phrases. For both of these problems, the answer is: expose yourself to a greater range and variety of words, stories, writing styles, things, and ideas, and think and explore more. Analyse both your own writing more closely, and that of great writers. Think about what you are saying with your writing, and what you want to say – and if you at this point are thinking ‘my writing says nothing; it is just entertainment’, let me say that I do not agree. All art and literature coveys certain values, ideas, attitudes, feelings and moods, whether it intends to or not.
If your narrow, repetitive writing style stems from a lack of skill and imagination, it is very beneficial to read the great poets – see my blog post Why Novalists Should Read Poetry for more on this. Read, too, books famed for their style and skill – my post Read to Write Better goes into more detail on this, and has some reading suggestions. Not reading certain things is just as important. We imitate others far more than most of us care to admit, or are even aware of. If you read an endless stream of trashy, poorly written books, this is likely to affect your own writing style.
The trouble with the fixated writer, who endlessly rinses and repeats, is that often this is what they want to do. It may even be the only thing they have any interest in writing. Often, if the main character/s are simply variations on a theme, this character is some ideal or favourite fantasy of the author’s. Usually it is either themselves as the wish they were, or their ideal romantic partner. If you just want write down your favourite daydreams, that is fine. However, a great work of literature always says something meaningful about life, our world, the human condition. If you want to write something that is more than a daydream, then you need to find the courage to look deeper and wider.