We occasionally run posts from our wayback archives. This post from Jennifer Apodaca (Jennifer Lyon) was first published in May of 2006. We think it’s still a timely topic.
This is such an interesting question. It leads to some obvious points; do some prolific authors’ books seem like the same book over and over? It can happen. It’s really hard to make every book different, and some similarities will come through in every book. Those are usually part of the author’s “voice” and her style. An M.O. (Modus Operandi) if you will.
One of the most amazing “stretches” for an author that I’ve seen is Nora Roberts writing as JD Robb. Those books are totally different from her Nora Roberts books. The voice is edgier, the plots are grittier, and the suspense is darker. Amazing. Do I think she could have done that in the beginning of her career? Doubtful, although Nora Roberts truly has a “gift” in writing. She may not appeal to everyone, but the woman can tell a story.
So can Stephen King. And he has done some serious growth in his career. Off hand, I’d cite THE GREEN MILE as an example. Stephen King takes risks, and sometimes the reading public doesn’t like the result. But his books are rarely the same thing over and over. I believe he’s grown in his career and he has worked at growing. He tries new things. He doesn’t let fear or reader and publisher expectations keep him in a mold.
I’m not so sure the same could be said for John Grisham or James Patterson. I love some of John Grisham’s early works, but somewhere along the way I just plain old lost interest. That could just be a coincidence. I thought A TIME TO KILL was truly a compelling book. I stopped reading James Patterson when he stopped writing his own books. Enough said there.
There are many factors that can come into play here, branding, putting out several books a year, publishers demanding similar books, the author’s comfort zone, reader expectations…they affect how we write. I’ve known very good authors who had to fight, and fight hard, to expand and grow in their work.
We don’t have a lot of control over all the factors that come into play, but we can control our comfort zone. To grow, we have to push the barriers on what we “know” we can do. For instance, my mystery series has certain built-in parameters. Although I strove to find ways to challenge my writing and keep my characters fresh, by the fifth book, I knew I was pretty much in my comfort zone. To stretch a little I wrote a novella in third person (my mystery series is in first person). Then I wrote an entire book in third person (THE SEX ON THE BEACH BOOK CLUB) with much looser parameters. Trying new things is the only way I know to really flex and strain the writing muscle to see how much it can handle.
Growth does not happen in a vacuum. It’s impossible. We must feed the writing muscle to grow it. Get out from behind the computer and live a little. We need friends who support our dreams, hold our hand when the writing gets tough and slap us around when we doubt our ability.
While I don’t think volume absolutely equals growth, I do think we have to keep writing to grow. It might be uneven progress, sometimes we’ll have to compromise to meet a deadline (this is a business no matter how much we might like to romanticize it!), and sometimes outside forces will prevent us from stretching as much as we’d like. But I think every book gives us the opportunity to grow in some way. The trick is to be willing to take the risk, invest the time and effort, and believe in ourselves.
What about you? What authors do you think have really grown? And which ones write the same book over and over?
My husband and I co-write the Skylar Drake Murder Mysteries, a hard-boiled detective series. Since the stories take place in 1955 we have researched a great deal of that era.
In the second book of the series, Strange Markings, Skylar is hired to investigate the missing nephew of a Los Angeles matron. Clues takes him to pre-statehood Hawaii (1955). As a result, we looked into commercial airlines of the ’50s.
We learned that the Pan American Airlines made frequent flights to Hawaii using 377 Stratocruisers. We also found something called Sleeper-ettes, and early first class attempt to provide comfortable sleeping arrangements for their passengers. Lobster counted as first class airline food. I found an old ad from TWA mentioning a, “full meal to be served in-flight”. That would have included: soup, salad, meat, vegetables, and dessert. And drinks was served in glassware!
Our fourth book in the series, Spike Hill, will be released February 2018, and yes… we are still married.
Janet Elizabeth Lynn and Will Zeilinger
Published authors Will Zeilinger and Janet Lynn had been writing individually until they got together and wrote the Skylar Drake Mystery Series. These hard-boiled tales are based in old Hollywood of 1955. Janet has published seven mystery novels and Will has published three plus a couple of short stories. Their world travels have sparked several ideas for murder and crime stories. This creative couple is married and live in Southern California.
I know, most of America drives around in their own cars, but those city dwellers who find themselves in the back seat of a taxi or other hired conveyance may sympathize with the situation. Many people that drive for a living have the radio on: talk radio, music, endless news, NPR. I have to confess, I am a big advocate for silence, and feel there should be a bi-partisan movement for the right to not have to listen to stuff (on airplanes, in elevators, in malls, etc.).
Sure, I could get (and indeed have) earphones. But I don’t want to block out the world, I want to hear it, just not endless marketing jabber or musak or whatever. But I am particularly unhappy with having to listen to endless news or much of talk radio. There are a few talk radio stations whose goal is to be entertaining or informative. But most lure their listeners in with conflict, outrage, fear, danger, scary information, etc. like a fish with a dangler lure….
These kinds of shows—TV, radio, whatever—wind listener’s clocks, pull their chain, and give them some frisson of energy, hate, fear, anger, which seems to be far more addictive and universal (clearly part of one’s “lizard brain“) than a feeling of peace, happiness, learning or engagement. It exhausts me to listen to the streams of exhaust! And I don’t have adequate shields to effectively block out noise. Yes, I freely confess, I can’t pack with the TV on. It’s just too distracting.
Propaganda works if you hear information over and over again, it wears away at your critical faculty (if you have one). It’s convincing, even it it’s patently untrue and utterly ridiculous. If you see it, hear it, read it, talk about it it gets truthified through endless repetition. So I now not only ask the drivers to turn off the radio, but tell them to stop listening to this endless, depressing stream of fairly useless information. It isn’t good for their outlook on life.
It’s all a creepy, voluntary self-brainwashing.
I now feel much more charitable towards endless sports! But really, they should be reading romances….
During one of my Canadian vacations, I accidentally came upon a film crew shooting in the streets of Old Montreal. The movie was called Heavenly Dog. The star of the flick was comedian Chevy Chase (known for the Caddyshacks and National Lampoon’s vacation movies) and co-starring with him was a cute little scruffy dog named Benji. The plot of the movie is about a detective who is slain in the middle of a murder investigation and is given the opportunity to come back to earth—not as himself, but as a dog, so he could solve, along with the original murder, who was behind his own demise. I think it’s pretty obvious who played which part.
With hardly any effort at all, I somehow managed to get some one-on-one time with Chevy Chase. We talked about Montreal, the entertainment business and the movie he was working on. Widely known for his comedic behavior, I was surprised how serious he was when it came to conversing in small chitchat. I guess we all have this image of how we expect someone we see on film to act when we meet them in person.
Because I was on vacation, I happen to have my camera with me. But truthfully, there’s a reason why my friends and family used to affectionately refer to me as the Kodak Kid. If there was ever an opportunity for a photo, I’d be there with my handy dandy Instamatic. ‘Cause nothing says it better than a Kodak Moment (or to help you remember those things that age has a way of making you forget).
As we were posing together, I could tell Chevy was either making funny faces or doing some kind of gesture behind my back. I told him several times to stop, because I wanted to have a nice picture of us together. Every time I told him, he would humbly agree to stop. And like a fool I believed him. I didn’t realize until after I had my pictures developed, that he had put rabbit ears over my head. At first I was annoyed, but I guess Chevy being Chevy, he couldn’t resist. And now when I look at the picture, it just makes me laugh.
Several yeas after the release of Heavenly Dog I was at a CBS afternoon Affiliates party when I met Benji’s trainer, Frank Inn. Frank, a world renown animal trainer, got his start as an assistant trainer to Skippy, the dog who played Asta in all of those famed Thin Man movies.
Besides Benji (whose real name was Higgins), Frank trained Orangey the cat, who played Cat in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Arnold the pig who was best known for his fictional character as Arnold Ziffel on TV’s Green Acres. Frank was so fond of these animals that when he died, all three of their ashes were buried with him.
When Higgins, the original Benji retired, he was replaced by his daughter, Benjean. She was smaller than the original Benji , but fluffier, and the tips of her ears had to be dyed to match her father’s. The older she got, her own ears turned as dark as her dad’s, and dyeing them was no longer necessary. I’m sure she was thrilled. And Benjean forever became known as Benji and went on to star in the most popular of the Benji movies, including Heavenly Dog, and then on to the popular TV shows.
Not only was Frank kind enough to have Benji perform several tricks when we met, but he allowed me to take a picture with the adorable moppet-like star.
After posing with both Chevy and Benji—man and canine, it’s hands down for me who of the two followed directions better.
Bobbie Cimo has worked in Hollywood for years. She has ALL the best stories.