Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Same Old, Same Old

I think one of my special talents is being able to complain about any stage of the writing process whatsoever. I believe I've already moaned on this blog about finishing a I'm going to moan about starting one.

People ask "Where do you get your ideas"? And my answer is usually, "Getting ideas isn't the problem. It's getting the right idea that is tricky." More specifically—getting the right idea and then developing it in the right way. This right idea doesn't have to be particularly original. Most every idea has been done already, in most cases over and over and over again. Shakespeare stole most of his plots. What an author has to do is take an old idea, and make it her own.

I'm at the point where I've got an idea for the next book, and it feels like the right idea, and I'm spending some time brainstorming and researching and developing it. My biggest problem right at this moment is trying to make it new for me. This will (hopefully) be my fifteenth published book, and I've found that I tend to have types of characters, types of situations, types of settings that appeal to me and that I want to use over and over again. Like, I like chefs. I really like chefs. I've had three of them so far, and those three characters have appeared in five books. I them, okay? Same with writers. I've had four of those, and they've all been heroes or heroines.

So rule number one and two for this new book: No chefs. And no writers.

More insidiously, I tend to have types of story and conflict that appeal to me. They say that every writer has her core themes, which she returns to over and over again, and mine are identity and truth. Someone, most likely the heroine, is always going to be lying or hiding something in my books. And someone, most likely the hero, is going to be the person who forces her to admit and face up to the truth.

I know that other writers have their own core themes. In every book of Susanna's that I've read, for example, the theme seems to be discovery of self and community, of connection between people, and between present and past. Anna's books are about self-discovery, too, but in a different way: they're about finding moral strength, and courage. (Susanna and Anna might disagree with me here, of course.)

I keep on trying to think up different stories. But my brain, my heart, my fingers all steer me in the direction of stories about identity and truth. Probably featuring chefs and writers.

(NO! No chefs or writers! I swear it!!!!!)

Of course, this doesn't bother me in other people's books. Marian Keyes, for example, often writes about overcoming depression or addiction. Do I care? I do not. I lap it up. I love it! That story of hers is something I want to read, over and over and over again.

Do you find you have topics you write about, over and over? Do you find your favourite authors returning to themes again and again? What do you think about repetition?

(And in my new book...can I maybe have a blogging dinner lady? How about a skywriting short-order cook?)


  1. I've noticed that the same basic story thread or theme does often get repeated in the books of authors whose work I love (and therefore have read many/all of). I wonder if there's a reason writers gravitate to a particular type of story - is it a reflection of our own experiences and moments of growth, perhaps? Are we writing a larger version of what's subconsciously familiar?

    I'm working on my third manuscript. I hadn't really given it much thought to now, but now that you point it out... in all of them, the main character is unwillingly or unintentionally thrust into a conflict, and the story is initially about them coming to accept their role, and then how they grow in order to solve it.

  2. Julie, I think you're probably right about all my books having a common core theme. And it's not even something I consciously do -- it's just that whichever way I try to aim the compass, it always swings around to north..

    And even I, after ten books, can spot the character types that like sneaking into my stories -- the older, wiser, mentoring character; the good-natured confidante; the Inevitable Pets...

    (Also, according to one of my keener-eyed fans, in every book I write the hero will, at least once, take my heroine's face in his hands when he kisses her...:-)

    Like you, I don't set out to write recurring characters or themes, it's just how the stories come out. And even if I make a conscious effort NOT to have them, they work their way into the books just the same.

    Case in point: For Mariana, I didn't want to use the standard older-woman-as-wise-woman trope, so I deliberately created Vivien - a young woman - to fill that role, so she could be the one helping Julia through her experiences. Only she didn't do much more than be a good friend, for all that, and Mrs Hutherson kept wandering into the book, and whenever I tried to write her out again she stubbornly wandered back in, and took over the wise woman role anyway.

    So now I just go with the flow.

    And oh, Julie, a writing chef! I'd SO love to see you write one of those! (Pretty please?)

  3. Julie, you make me laugh! I know what you mean....with me I have artists and self forgiveness....

    But you wisely once said to me all plots have been used etc but it's what you bring to it that is different. That comment saved my soul and that particular book. So maybe you need to work through your chefs and your writers because you have finished giving them your twist and then move on......

    Love your chefs btw


  4. Hi Ladies. I'm a new reader here. Enjoying your blog.

    I've been writing for about twenty years, and from the get-go I've been drawn to father/son relationships, mostly disfunctional, sometimes solid, but if so then tragically broken by death. There's always a son with a father issue. If the son has fled his father, then here comes an uncle/father figure into his life for him to have conflict with.

    I'm not a son or a father. My relationship with my dad is great. Why do my stories wander back to this issue? I think it goes deeper than fathers and sons, to what those characters in the prodigal parable represent, God and His children. THAT is an endless fascination to me. But why it should always manifest in my stories as sons and fathers, and not mothers and daughters, or daughters and fathers, or sons and mothers, I have no idea. I don't fight it anymore.

    And I just started a new novel this week. Feeling those same insecurities about whether I can pull this off again. Writing, especially committing to one particular story path to the exclusion of all others, takes a great leap of faith.

  5. Seabrooke, I do wonder if we're attracted to certain themes because of something deep-rooted in our psyche. I'm not sure why I'm so obsessed with identity and deception—I can see that I like reading books on those topics as well.

    I think part of your growth as a writer is realising these things, and learning how to live with them, as Susanna says.

  6. I hadn't considered I had any particular themes that I returned to, but then I thought about my two full-length Cat Marsters books, plus the third which I'm still percolating, and I realised that in all of them my hero and heroine have major parent issues. Even more explicitly, in all of them the heroine is fighting against what she perceives to be her destiny. Her epiphany usually comes when she can be accepted as she is, with the bad bits she can't escape and the good bits she's created for herself.

    Of course, now I'm analysing the book I'm rewriting and the book I'm awaiting edits on, and I realise that with my Kate Johnson hat on I keep writing about slightly unstable women and men who are trying not to fall in love with them. I'm not sure what that says about me.

  7. With me, it's usually conflict between people of different nationalities and characters who feel they don't fit in. I guess because I've never really fitted in anywhere myself! They have to learn to love each other despite their differences. Haven't really analysed my writing, but I always want good to triumph over evil and the bad guys have to have their come-uppance or I'm not satisfied.

    Love your chefs, Julie, and Susanna's characters too, so don't change them! Just make them slightly different like you said (pastry-chef? chocolatier? or a Steven Segal type who is a SEAL at the same time? :). I'm sure readers come back to an author's books because they know they're going to like the characters.

  8. Loving this discussion, Julie!

    Welcome Lori! :-)

    Yeah, you're bang on, Julie. My books always come back, in some way, to Doing The Right Thing. It sounds so prissy and stolid, but somehow that's what makes my heart sing - making those difficult choices and standing by them, in the hardest of circumstances. Especially when that difficult choice is about making yourself vulnerable to love...

    I don't think I've EVER had a problem with an author's recurrent themes or issues. Once I find an author I love, I'm hungry for more of what their particular twist of their plot can give me.

  9. As you say, Julie, it's getting that right idea that's so difficult. And for someone who is not yet unpublished, that right idea has to have something original about it, or be treated in a way that is totally original and will jump off the page at agents and publishers, which makes it even more difficult.

    Just thinking about the demands of the right idea is enough to make me bring wine o'clock forward by a couple of hours!

    Liz X

  10. (I'm so relieved that Susanna doesn't mind my taking a guess at her core themes...) ;-)

    Funny about your very insistent wise woman!

  11. Oh dear lord, a writing chef. That would be the pinnacle of my career. I did have a writer falling in love with a chef, but both of them together...telling lies, being deceptive...

    I would probably explode with happiness.

  12. Liz, yes, that's it exactly. The same things might reoccur, but we give them our own spin, style, and meaning. While always challenging ourselves to create something new.

    With chefs in.

  13. Welcome, Lori. Glad to have you here.

    It's funny but I tend to write fathers who are missing in some way, whereas my real father was and is very present in my life. I think these are archetypal situations, which provide a great mine of conflict. Interesting that yours intersects with your faith.

    Best wishes with your new novel! I know how it feels... (moan moan moan)

  14. Cat/Kate, I think that's very cool that you have different core themes/plots to go with your different pen names. Split personality!

  15. Christina, that's interesting that you use different nationalities, as you're an expat yourself. I've used that once or twice, but it's not a core thing for me, though I'm an expat too. Just goes to prove that it's all an individual thing.

  16. Anna said:
    I don't think I've EVER had a problem with an author's recurrent themes or issues. Once I find an author I love, I'm hungry for more of what their particular twist of their plot can give me.

    That's how I feel about my reading, too, Anna. I like authors who have themes that are important to them and work them out in different ways. But of course when it's my own writing, I get paranoid. What a surprise. ;-)

  17. Liz said:

    As you say, Julie, it's getting that right idea that's so difficult. And for someone who is not yet unpublished, that right idea has to have something original about it, or be treated in a way that is totally original and will jump off the page at agents and publishers, which makes it even more difficult.

    When you put it that way, Liz, it sounds quite scary. The word "original" makes it sound like you have to have something quite incredible and unique, something that nobody else would think of in a million years.

    Yet, really what you need is just *you*. Your style, your take on a story that's been done a million times. There isn't a secret well of originality out there; you don't need to be more brilliant or sparkling than anyone else. There's no secret. It's just having the courage to go your own way, filter the story through yourself.

    It helps if you have a snappy strap line, or if it's "high concept", but really, what will keep readers coming back is *your* writing. In some ways, if you're true to yourself, repetition isn't all that bad.