When I started writing this post, it was because I was in the dreaded state of being BETWEEN BOOKS. I waffled on for 500 words about how terrible it was to be BETWEEN BOOKS, but not as terrible as being homeless or liking Donald Trump, but still, it was a real pain not being able to settle to writing something, and isn’t it annoying all those people who always seem to have a hundred projects on the go and can’t resist rubbing your nose in it on social media?
But then I stopped, because I checked out my own blog and discovered that I’d already posted about this at least twice (here and here). And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s the thought that I’m repeating myself.
recent interview for Words & Pictures:
”Literature is a conversation, and it’s bad manners to be boring”
But, it’s sometimes hard to know that you’re being boring or repetitious. In a face-to-face situation, you can study the person you’re talking to and look for the social cues that indicate you’ve wandered into YawnYawnLand. But when you’re emailing a manuscript or posting a blog, it’s much harder to gauge reader involvement. Do zero comments on a blog post indicate that no-one is interested? Or is it more that the blog post made such a persuasive argument that no further comment is required? (FYI – I totally encourage as many comments as possible on this post)
We all have repeating patterns in our own writing, whether they be particular phrasings, character types, plot structures, dialogue choices or use of imagery. These linguistic tics are not a failure of imagination on the writer’s part, they are in fact the essential building blocks of voice. But when does voice become formula? And can a writer go on forever, or will they eventually exhaust the subjects they can competently write about and lapse into repetition?
”I had reached the end. There was nothing more for me to write about.”
I have always (somewhat romantically) viewed writing as a career that carries on past normal retirement age, an activity that defies social convention or physical infirmity. But perhaps the truth is that because writing is – for most – poorly rewarded, many writers have to keep going in lieu of a decent pension. And there are other writers who don’t get going properly until they retire. I’ve been writing seriously for a good ten years now, but I’m not yet clear if this has simply been a writing apprenticeship or if this is actually as good as I get!
|Possibly not the kind of writing apprenticeship I meant|
When we become aware of repeating patterns in our lives, it can be instructive to study them. In my experience, there is a very fine line between having a regular routine and being stuck in a rut. I have a habit of sticking with things – jobs, books, friends – for far longer than is comfortable, simply because I’m too bloody-minded and/or scared to quit. I think about the repeating patterns of my writing career so far, and the key one looks like this:
- Have some ideas for a book
- Look at each idea in turn, realising that they are all either Too Hot or Too Cold
- Have an idea that’s Just Right
- Write the book
- Rewrite the book several times
- Send the book out
- Worry that I will never have a good idea again
- Get rejected by everyone
- Return to stage 1
|"Say, is that a book deal down there?"|
I can’t be the only writer living out this pattern, or at least a version of it. In some ways, I could view it as constructive, in that it’s the path to reaching my once and future dream of having a book published. But it’s also quite destructive, in that the more times I go round the loop, the worse I feel about myself. I’ve noticed a corresponding effect on my productivity, as evidenced by this graph that shows the word count of my five books to date:
I know that this is a reductive sample, which doesn’t take into account blogging, short stories, agent letters or even the amount of words that were rewritten over that period. But as a general trend it’s pretty depressing.
So, it seems that I am repeating myself – not so much in my content but definitely in my behaviour. What could I do about it?
- Write more – it doesn’t matter if it’s good, bad or hopelessly derivative. Writing more will lead to a greater sense of fulfilment and give me less headspace to devote to worrying about stuff. Plus, it will make me less wedded emotionally to any one project.
- Research and evaluate alternative routes to market – instead of treating non-traditional publishing as a consolation prize, I should actively plan what I’m going to do instead to get my work to readers. I’ve almost superstitiously avoided this kind of detailed planning in the past, worried about jinxing the process or doing a lot of work that would be wasted if a publisher said “yes”. I need to accept these risks and also embrace the aspects of the self-publishing that are better than traditional publishing.
- Stay positive – this is easy to say but harder to put into practice. There are, however, mental tools and processes I can use to help me with this (and I already own several books full of them)
- Don’t be so hung up on getting a book published – much as I try, I can’t seem to shake the idea that having a traditionally published book out there makes you SOMEONE, in a way that other measures of creative success don’t. In some ways, SCBWI as an organisation doesn’t help this, with the Mass Book Launches and general expressions of adulation for conventionally published authors. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised – the B in SCBWI does stand for “book” after all.
- Do something new – hell, do LOTS of new stuff and see what works, what doesn’t work and why. Perhaps there are no more books in me, but does that actually matter?
If there’s a repeating pattern in my blogs, it’s that they often turn into an impromptu therapy session for myself! But I hope that has been a useful thought experiment for any of you going through something similar.
Do you worry about repetition, either in your life, your relationships or your creative work? Let me know about it in the comments. And also, let me know about it in the comments.
Nick Cross is a children's writer, Undiscovered Voices winner and Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures Magazine.
Nick's writing appears in Stew Magazine, and this year received the SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.