True story: I wrote the blog post you'll see below, called "The Sweet Spot." It wasn't my best, but hey, it's the holidays, I'm busy, you're busy, I can't hit every post out of the park, etc., etc.
Then I went looking for a photo. I found one that looked familiar...because I'd already used it.
Yup. I wrote the same blog post twice. Here's the original.
And doesn't that just prove the point: at some point, a lot of writers run out of steam and, unaware they're even doing it, recycle their own work.
Wow. I'm not even published yet, and already my work is on its downward trajectory.
Having admitted already that my first full romance (well, written in this century -- and the less said the better about books I wrote in the last century!) is never going to be my best effort, I've been thinking recently about the evolution of an author's work.
I realize the "sophomore slump" is more prevalent in other artistic endeavors, particularly music -- where a band's or singer's first album has lots of great songs and the second may not be so wonderful. But I don't find that to be true in romance novels. I can think of precisely one instance where an author's sophomore effort seemed less crisp and skillful than the debut novel. Mostly, I think, romance writers get better and better...
... Until they don't.
I see this a lot on Twitter: "Oh, I loved her books, but the recent ones just didn't do it for me..." "I've stopped buying her books..." "The last one was just meh..."
So if the first few books aren't an author's best and the most recent aren't her best but still we love her as a writer, that means there has to be a sweet spot -- that range of books when a writer's craft has developed and her creativity and passion for the genre is at its peak.
How does a writer know when she's no longer got it, when her books aren't hitting the sweet spot anymore? Presumably not from sales, because those undoubtedly increase *after* the sweet spot is achieved. We know this because people are constantly discovering some writer and then scurrying around to scoop up her backlist. Part of that is just the time shift, like not even knowing about Eva Ibbotson until more than 25 years after she was originally published. But sometimes it's the case that you try an author late in her sweet spot and think, "Oh, wow -- she's great," and glom all her previous books.
I distinctly remember reading a Mary Balogh back when she wrote for Signet Regencies. I didn't like it and so didn't buy her other books. (Oh, stupid, stupid me -- those old single-title Regencies are worth a packet!) Decades later, of course I see what I was missing, so I've got a tidy pile of her back list waiting for me. But there are rumblings that she's already past her best, or her most recent books aren't as good.
Of course, people can disagree about which books are good and which not, but I suspect most discerning readers can tell the difference between a good book and one that was just so-so.
Some authors avoid the sweet spot problem by stopping writing while still in their prime; LaVyrle Spencer comes to mind. Others, like Pat Gaffney and Barbara Delinsky, change genres -- does anyone know their "women's fiction" books well enough to say if they're enjoying a renaissance in their writing? It would be nice to think that changing genres re-energizes a writer and starts the cycle over.
How does a writer avoid the decline in their writing? Sorry -- it's a rhetorical question; if someone had the answer, it would be worth more than those early Balogh romances! Maybe they don't know it's happening, the way I'm not convinced I'm getting deaf. (My husband mumbles...)
I hope writers are writing because they want to be, not because they're obligated by multi-volume contracts or (worse) the mortgage payments. But then I like to believe writers actually make a living wage from their efforts, and we know that's not often true.
Writers presumably keep writing because they want to keep writing and they're still thinking of characters and backstories and plots and HEAs. And as long as people want to read their books, who can blame them? It's not like there's an objective way to see that your books aren't as good as they used to be.