Monday 7 December 2015

Am I Repeating Myself? Am I Repeating Myself?

By Nick Cross

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.

Not everyone feels this way - I have a family member who cheerfully repeats the same anecdotes again and again, and doesn’t seem to notice (or care) that you’ve heard them already. But personally, I want the feeling that I’m always pushing forwards, expanding my skills and giving my audience something new. As Anthony McGowan memorably said in a 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?

In 2004, Philip Roth – the grand old man of American literature – stated that he “could not conceive of a life without writing.” But last year, at the age of 81, he decided to retire. He gave one final interview, in which he refuted his earlier statement:

”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:
  1. Have some ideas for a book
  2. Look at each idea in turn, realising that they are all either Too Hot or Too Cold
  3. Have an idea that’s Just Right
  4. Write the book
  5. Rewrite the book several times
  6. Send the book out
  7. Worry that I will never have a good idea again
  8. Get rejected by everyone
  9. Return to stage 1
Right now, I’m at stage 7. It’s entirely possible that I might skip stage 8 and wake up in a land of golden book contracts, flying unicorns and magical kittens. But what scares me is the likelihood that I’ll loop back for another cycle, and in two years time I’ll be right back here writing this same blog post again.

"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.


  1. I'm in the same loop Nick!!! Mine has slightly different markers though - am currently at "this book is terrible, even if I finish it, it's so awful and mad no one will want to read it..."

    1. EVERY book I've ever written goes through that same stage - sometimes more than once (twice, three times...)

    2. I wonder how much the doubt helps us to make a better product, and how much it just undermines us?

  2. Not just therapeutic for you, Nick. It helps us all to have common ground aired so well. That loop of doubt and confidence and pretending not to care because we love doing this anyway, is so bloody familiar. I think it's worth going ahead with 'the plan' because it makes for less emotional investment in traditional acceptance, it gives you a sense of control, and it makes you more desirable to agents and publishers who will google you and see a ready made platform as a big plus.

    1. Thanks, Ana. It can feel hard to balance the agents' and editors' desire to see a "new and fresh" product that hasn't been touted around to everyone. On the other hand, I know authors who've succeeded with projects that they've worked, reworked and resubmitted over many years.

  3. This year I had to endure a long wait that had the effect of creative paralysis even though I have plenty of projects on the go. It made me ask myself: is there really any point? Wouldn't it be better to do something that is more rewarding? I really considered giving it all up. And then the waiting ended ... and I carried on as before.

    1. Oh! I'm glad it ended for you, anyway, though the bit in-between is horrible.

  4. I love this post, Nick - surely it speaks to most everybody? Writing is a faith which I've often found testing. Recently, I've done something new and had a book published independently and had so much joyful direct feedback. It has been a sustaining tonic and boost to my creativity.I talked to my readers and it was a blast.

    1. That sounds awesome, Addy. I think it's good to step away from the norm because you come back refreshed.

  5. Speaks to me and I'm really only starting out and gradually realising how much work is needed just to get something to a level that I feel is good enough to submit to an agent which probably means it still needs more work. The work never ends until it gets published, if it gets published, but gotta enjoy the process. And I do enjoy it. Most of the time. Thanks bud.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Oran. If I didn't scare you away then you must be made of THE RIGHT STUFF!

  6. How honest, Nick. I have similar concerns too. One thing I would say about the downturn in your word production is that it's likely that the more recent words are placed in the right order. Less is more.

    1. Yes, I think that is true - I like to be brief and to the point. *Comment ends*

  7. Perhaps stage 7 is a fallow rest period and the shoots of a new project will appear at 9. Enjoy the process, perhaps it is a spiral rather than a circle. Each time you get to 7, think of it as a higher level, more skilled and experienced 7. Make 8 a byproduct, incidental to the learning

    1. Thanks for the spiral analogy, Linda - that's very useful. Onwards and upwards!

  8. This was very interesting, Nick. You might be at 7 now, but you will get back to 3 again (maybe the best stage of all, whether published or not).

    1. Yes, there's nothing like the rush of being seized by an idea :-)


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