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?
I’m taking a page from Michael Hyatt’s playbook and trying to write ALL my blog posts for the next week or two in ONE day. Whew! The good news is that I get to write all day! Haha! The other good news is that with my brain focused on one thing, I’m writing better blog posts, though I’m not sure if it’s taking me any less time. (Maybe if I do this regularly it will go faster, but not yet.)
The other interesting thing is that my posts are becoming somewhat thematic as I write them all today. Everything I’ve wanted to write has to do with encouragement in one form or another. (Due to the luck of what day the 9th fell on this month, because that’s my blog day here, I have three posts hitting three different websites today!)
From a writing perspective, I want to encourage you to keep asking “Why?” John and I went to the East Valley Authors annual writers retreat last Saturday and had a great time. But on the way home, one or the other of us would start muttering, “Oh damn…” Laurie Schnebly Campbell taught two workshops on character motivation for the whole day, and it was startling to suddenly realize what you thought was your character’s motivation was just your author reasoning. It was a great day and Laurie gave everyone a lot to think about.
It also made me reconsider my own motivations. Why am I doing what I’m doing? And as Laurie said, “And why is that? And why is that?” After some work, you get another “sudden” revelation about the real why. Whether it’s for your character or for figuring out yourself, it’s good stuff.
When you are feeling tired or disheartened about your writing career, I want to encourage you to ask yourself why. The initial answer might be, “I write so slowly, I’m not getting many books out.” Or “I’m published but not selling many books.” Or “I self-published to make more money and I’m not making much.” Whatever the first answer is, ask yourself why about that. Why do you write slowly? Why aren’t you selling many books? Why do you have these expectations about money? And why is that? And why is that?
As you keep going deeper into the “why?” follow-ups, you may find your deepest motivation is something entirely different. Maybe it’s not money or fame that drives you, but a craving for respect from a significant person in your life who values money or fame. Maybe it’s not storytelling that drives you write, but the need for an inexpensive creative outlet. Who knows? You won’t even know until you start asking these questions.
I’ve learned some difficult things about myself over the years. Not having financial success makes me feel like I haven’t moved away from my poorer, other-side-of-the-tracks roots. I do write to tell the stories in my head, but I mostly write for the same reasons I teach – to connect with others and share what I’ve learned and entertain them in the process.
Knowing these things helps me understand why some advice from other writers works for me and some doesn’t. For instance, the “write every day” advice or the people who say “I have to write every day because I can’t not write” – that doesn’t inspire or motivate me because I can get the same high from teaching, and I can write every day for weeks, then not at all for a month or two, and I’m still quite happy. Up until recently, I felt guilty about that! I thought I had to feel the way “everyone else” feels in order to be “a real writer.”
I hope this helped you think about your career from a new perspective. If you’re interested in a more spiritual bit of encouragement, check out my “7 Steps to Building a Great Business and a Great Life” post on my author website. And if you’re giving some thought to quitting your writing, read “If You’re a Writer in Need of a Cheerleader” on Writer Entrepreneur Guides where I teach and share on writing topics.
Good luck! You can do it!
Unfortunately, writing with a day job is incredibly easy. You simply keep writing material with you at all time. Paper and pencil work as well as an iPad. Then when you find a block of time (like I usually have to wait for that student who never shows up for a scheduled appointment or arriving hours early for my appointment because the 60 freeway is completely and inexplicably free from traffic) you write. After dishes are done and the family is watching reruns on TV, you write. When you awaken hours before the rest of the world, you write. I imagined my whole blog would be one word long:
That would be the world’s shortest blog. In addition, I suspected I would be preaching to the choir. People who write and have day jobs know this. Who else would care? Maybe, I should blog about something else. But what?
Inspiration struck while I wandered the local bookstore and sipping my venti café mocha I noticed a whole wall of thick serious books on how to write everything from baby picture books to novels to true-crime police procedurals. Stuck in the middle of all this writing information were two thin books on How NOT to Write.
Heck, not even Nora can want to write all day every day. I would have thought there would be a bit more information on how not to write. Constant writing must be some type of mental illness or at the very least a nasty bad habit. Surely, there must be tons of books on breaking such a habit. I looked. There wasn’t. Just two tiny little books all alone in the vast sea of heavy writing advice.
Clearly, not writing was a topic few writers were comfortable discussing. I’m pretty brave. I can handle controversy. I’ll write a blog on how not to write. I could come up with a set of rules. Break new ground. Give out sage advice.
So here it is:
1. Pay attention, this is important. Not writing is the hardest work you will ever do. It is not for the faint of heart. Not writing takes planning, dedication, and a tenacity that many writers lack. Don’t try it unless you have the necessary backbone.
2. To not write you must get up early in the morning. The perfect time is 4:30 A.M. but for you sleepy heads 5:00 A.M. will work as well. If you sleep until 8, half the day is gone and you may as well just waste the rest by writing.
3. To not write you must have a full pot of coffee. Dedicated non-writers program their coffee pots so they can start their day with a fresh cup as soon as they leap out of bed. I suspect that tea drinkers can’t help themselves and start writing as soon as the tea bag hits the trash can, so if you really want to not write break your tea drinking habit immediately.
4. To not write you must have an outfit. You can write in your PJs and no one will care. Not writing takes more style, especially if you want to avoid pointed questions about your mental health. Your outfit can’t just be jeans and a tee-shirt unless of course, you’re male. Females must have a complete, color-coordinated outfit with jewelry, makeup, and styled hair. For women, I strongly advise pantyhose and two-inch heels as well. For men, not shaving is NOT an option.
5. To not write you must have a clean office or not-writing space. If your space is messy and cluttered, then you must take the time to make it tidy. Organizing it would be even better. I recommend categorizing all the bookshelves in your house by subject and author. Should you use the kitchen as your office, alphabetizing your spice rack while you’re at it is always an excellent idea. It wouldn’t hurt to get some of those cute little bins for all your rubber bands and paper clips. You should also consider sharpening all your pencils and testing all your pens to see if they still work. However, cleaning the bathroom or doing laundry is a bit excessive. Should you find yourself contemplating such work, just give up and write. Let’s face it if you’re going to work that hard you may as well get some recognition for it. Completing your manuscript and sending it out will, at the very least, get you an RWA Pro pin and a round of applause at the next chapter meeting. Only your mother will notice whether or not you clean the bathroom.
6. To not write you must play computer solitaire until you win. None of that two-game only nonsense; this takes a real commitment. You must win. Four Suit Spider Solitaire is an excellent choice for those truly dedicated to not writing. Less adventuresome types can try the Two Suit version or Free Cell. However, should you select One Suit Spider and not win in 30 seconds or less, well, just don’t tell me. I firmly believe everyone I know is smart enough to get an advanced degree in rocket science if only they had the time. Shattering my world view like that is just plain cruel.
7. To not write you must build into your schedule time for physical exercise. As I mentioned above, not writing is hard work. Drinking coffee, while playing Free Cell, in your spanking clean office, and keeping your outfit stylish is quite emotionally draining. If you are not careful you could actually get bored and open up your WIP. Your whole day of not writing will be shot to heck. Walking around the block, especially if you live on a steep hill should help.
8. To not write, I must caution you, taking two dogs for a walk as your scheduled physical activity will invariably set you right back on the writing path. How you may ask? Two dogs are not going to agree on speed, direction, or when to leave odorous land mines for you to pick up. This lack of coordination on their part will provide comic relief at your expense for your neighbors. If one of them says something like, “Martha, ya got to come see this” while you, of course, are in the middle of the street, tangled up in dog leashes attached to a white dog going North and a black dog going South, juggling three baggies of land mines, a pouch of special doggie treats, the training clicker that supposed to help train the dogs, but actually makes the black dog cry and the white dog sit until he gets to eat all the treats. Well, can plotting this neighbor’s death be far behind? If he’s going to die, you’re going to have to think of a better reason then laughing at you to kill him. Then you’re going to need several characters who also want him dead for equally good reasons, and finally, the proper sleuth and her love interest will just pop right into your head. The next thing you know a whole series will be in the planning stages and you won’t be able to not write for months.
9. To not write you must have a not writing buddy or sponsor. This buddy is someone you can call any time of the day or night whenever that uncontrollable urge to break out Chapter Four and fix it threatens. Your mother or sisters cannot be your not writing buddy. This is considered cheating as it is much too easy to get them chatting and waste valuable not writing time. No, your buddy must be trustworthy and kind and also dedicated to not writing. She must intuitively know when not to ask how you worked out that problem you accidentally but cleverly wrote into Chapter Eight. She should NEVER tell you she’s finished her WIP. She should always know when to invite you to Starbucks for venti mochas or to Nordstrom’s for a good day of shoe shopping. Shoe shopping is, by the way, the only shopping for which you can indulge without guilt.
10. All not writing writers should know that guilt free shoe shopping is a rule. I think it was left over from the Regan administration. Subversive media types, probably male, tried to kill this rule with cruel stories featuring Imelda Marcos and her shoe closet. (Can you imagine the press if she has attended a public event wearing pre-worn shoes? The press coverage would have rivaled the media frenzy surrounding a certain female prosecutor and her new hair cut.) More sensible wisdom prevailed and shoes are officially guilt free. I must point out that as a corollary to this rule, any other type of shopping is not only riddled with real stomach turning guilt, and it requires an actual paycheck. This will naturally require you finish that book, not a good situation for your not writing goals.
11. To not write you should avoid the Internet like the plague, especially emails. Some people think the Internet is the perfect not writing tool. They are sadly mistaken. Consider, if you will, the simple task of checking your emails. You are going to get them from your weak-willed friends who are writing. Those people are unfortunately smart. Good writing ideas follow them around like ants at a picnic and they SHARE. Read one email and you’re going to get enough ideas to keep you writing for the rest of your natural life and that of your youngest child’s. You’ll have to make a pack with the devil just to finish. Really, do you want to risk your immortal soul just for email? And if that wasn’t bad enough, they’ll answer your emails by says, “Gee that idea would make a great (pick one) book, novel, short story, article, online class, workshop.”
12. To not write you should also drop out of all your critiques groups. (See above for the primary reason.) Secondary reason: Every conversation will start with, “So how’s the writing?” You’ll feel guilty. You’ll write. That clever accident in Chapter Eight, they’ll not only fix it, they’ll give you enough material for three sequels, two novellas, and cookbook. You’ll feel guilty. You’ll write.
*This was originally titled Twelve Easy Steps, but someone recently complained that I say everything is easy. She pointed out that if I would just say things were hard she would feel heaps better when she figured out how the heck to do it. When I tell her it’s easy, she gets no sense of accomplishment. Heaven knows I want people to have a real sense of accomplishment when not writing.
Marianne H. Donley makes her home in Tennessee with her husband and son. She is a member of Bethlehem Writers Group, Romance Writers of America, OCC/RWA, and Music City Romance Writers. When Marianne is NOT not writing, she might be writing short stories, funny romances or quirky murder mysteries, but this could be a rumor.
So here it is:
Â· a person who chooses freely to do or offer to do something
Â· a person who chooses freely to enter into any transaction with no promise of compensation
Â· a person who serves as volunteer, usually without compensation
Â· a person who freely chooses to offer or give without being asked or obliged
I am by nature a very curious person. When I was growing up, my mother (who was handicapped and never wanted to be noticed) always made me sit quietly and watch. Watching is definitely not my idea of having fun. As a result, I became a first-class observer and an excellent listener. It took a few years to take that first step, but I finally got my butt off the bench and have been running ever since. Today I am a dyed-in-the-wool VOLUNTEER and darn proud of it.
Itâ€™s so much better to be involved than sit on the sidelines. To me, it’s like looking at sparkling Christmas lights through a window and wanting to touch. Today, and with no regrets, I think about the adventures Iâ€™ve had, the places Iâ€™ve been, the interesting people I never would have met and the wonderful friendships Iâ€™ve made. Iâ€™ve learned and developed new skills from artfully arranging goodies on a tray to getting up and speaking to a room full of people. Volunteering doesnâ€™t have to be vocal; what you do can be done â€œbehind the scenesâ€ as well. But most important is the feeling of satisfaction knowing that your efforts may have contributed to something or someone in a positive way.
Maybe you say you donâ€™t have the time or worse, youâ€™re all volunteered-out. I took a little hiatus from volunteering just once. It didnâ€™t take long for me to realize that a part of my life was missingâ€”that connection with people and what was happening out there in the world. I couldnâ€™t wait to get back in the game and I did.
I have to be honest. More than once I should have said â€œnoâ€ instead of â€œyesâ€ and then felt burdened with a little too much to do. So do your homework. Be realistic about how much time you are willing to devote so you wonâ€™t â€œburn out.â€ What are you interested in? What will give you the greatest satisfaction? What would make your life a little more interesting? Find that event or group youâ€™d like to be a part ofâ€”they may need you as much as you need them.
Now, get out there and volunteer for something!!!