Tuesday, December 14, 2010

This Post is Just Meh: Recycling My Own Ideas

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.


  1. I think you should just write this post once a week or so. *ducks*

    Now I'm worrying if I comment, will I say something I already said?

  2. I find rehashed phrases in mine all the time, but then, I've been writing novels since I was 18 and I've got a truckload in my hard drive. I read and re-read my own stuff while I'm writing the new stuff to try to avoid that. Above all, I hate the idea that I'm just getting lazy.

    That said... Book 1 is rough and raw. It needs re-editing. But it's garnered award nominations and gotten me fans and so I'm hesitant to re-edit it. It is, as one fan put it, "as rough as the people in it."

    Book 2 is a far superior book, but...it doesn't evoke the passion that book 1 does. No award noms, no nothing. Better sales, but... It's a quiet love story. It's polished and damn near perfect, as far as I'm concerned. It puts book 1 to shame for technique. But *I* don't love it as much and most readers don't love it as much and my copyeditor said to me, "You know, it's like these people aren't real to you the way the people in book 1 are."

    So now I have to think that "getting better" is subjective. Book 1's technically an inferior book to book 2, but it gets the storytelling job done better. On the other hand, I was TRYING to write a different type of book with book 2, and I accomplished exactly what I set out to do, so maybe it's not fair of me to compare. Continuing...I'm trying something completely different with book 3.

    Every book, I try to do something different--to keep myself from getting bored, to alter tone and mood, to challenge myself, to not get lazy, to not repeat myself.

    Then I find stock phrases I use and I cringe. I swear--well, I hope--that I stop just after I crest that hill creatively because I HATE it when people keep going even though they've clearly lost their heart (and thus, skill). I'd rather mourn the books-that-were-never-written by my favorite authors than watch them on a downhill slide.

    *I'm looking at you, SEP*

  3. But don't you think it's difficult to separate the business aspects of romance fiction from the--what?--artistry? Someone once opined that writing is 95% craft and 5% inspiration. If that dictum is accurate then for those authors who have written more than one book successfully, a great part of writing probably becomes a process which gets easier each time. Second and third books may lack some of the fire of the first book, but in my opinion anyway, second and third books are usually better because the craft has been honed. At that point the commercial aspects of romance fiction--contracts for series, etc.--makes craft become even more important.


  4. It's tricky. I can imagine an author's first book being more passionate, but so flawed I can't get through it. Later books may be better written but lack that first book's fire. But if I disliked book one so much, I may never try books 2 & 3.

    But then I think of authors who wrote perfectly serviceable books until lightning struck and they wrote something other worldly and wonderful. Pat Gaffney, for example -- I read her early historical romances. I liked them. But nothing of hers prepared me for To Love and To Cherish (which I prefer to To Have and To Hold -- not that it's better, just a different flavor of angsty goodness), which I believe is a magically delicious book!


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