Key points: Balance continuity and similarities with new stuff. Watch for reuse on small details and for reuse of themes and storylines. Try different takes, outcomes, characters, directions. Hang a lantern on reuse -- let the reader know that you know you are doing it. Try recombination of disharmonious elements and random jumbles to make yourself stretch.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses Season Three, Episode 18: how to not repeat yourself.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] This is Season Three Episode 18: how to not repeat yourself.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard, hesitantly] I'm Howard.
[Dan] And this is season three...
[Brandon] All right. How to not repeat yourself. Last, no, it was two episodes ago now, because we...
[Howard] It was two episodes ago now.
[Brandon] How to not repeat yourself. Okay, this is getting terrible.
[Brandon] We... As a writer, I often run into this problem. I will sit down and start writing a book and realize the themes that were important to me in a book I'd written before are still surprisingly important to me. So I start writing a book covering those same themes. Or the type of character that made a certain... the type of attributes that made a certain character fascinating to me in a book are still fascinating to me, and so, lo and behold, that same character pops out again. How do you avoid this? Help? John.
[John] Hi, I'm John and I do not repeat myself.
[Brandon] By the way, we have John Brown again. Yay.
[Dan] Didn't we have him on before? This seems a little repetitive.
[Brandon] Buy his book, Servant of a Dark God, coming out from Tor in October sometime.
[John] Thank you. I'll talk about it from a problem perspective. I know I used to go out and look for new authors. I would read... I would see this exact same thing. I would read three or four books. Then I would say I'm reading the same thing over and over again. On the other hand, if you look at something like Burn Notice or Lost, you're experiencing a lot of times the same thing over and over again. I think there's some continuity that's going to be there. I'm going to be honest. I looked at Brandon's books... I just went through them very quickly again and I noticed a lot of similarities. But when I was reading them, I didn't mind because he had introduced enough new stuff. I think for me, that's what I try to do, is I try to stuff... if I see something, I'm going to cut it, and try something new. But I'll also just try to stuff new things in, if I'm really just loving that theme that I already wrote about.
[Howard] This is a huge risk for me because if I start to repeat myself, it's because I'm telling the same joke. There's 3300 days of Schlock Mercenary. 3300 punchlines and I need to not repeat them.
[Brandon] But it gets bigger than that, though, because... number one... well, part of it, the way you're doing it as you're going, I could see running into a lot of danger where you realize, "Hey, wait a minute, I did this exact same character arc with this exact same character three years ago." How do you avoid that? Can you avoid that? What do you do?
[Howard] The way I start is I try and think, "all right, for this story, what haven't I done?" If I'm going to re-tread some ground... if I'm going to go back and do something that I know I've done before... I want to have another take on it, I want to have a different outcome. I want to have different characters involved in. The danger that I find myself falling into is reuse of words, punchlines. It's happened to me three times in the last week. Where I've been writing something, and I thought that seems really familiar. I will then Google my own website and found out, "oh, yes, that's familiar because I wrote that punchline for that strip." What I did in that case, is I said, oh... it was actually the punchline that just aired, putting all your eggs in one basket, you might as well use an exploding basket. I thought that's a powerful metaphor. This character would have remembered somebody having used that metaphor and would refer to it. Rather than joking about the exploding basket, he's taking it a step further. But catching myself... that was a job for Google.
[Brandon] Let me point out something Howard said here which I think is important, and then we'll get into other aspects of it. You are suggesting hang a lantern on it. I don't think we've used this term before on Writing Excuses.
[Dan] We have not defined it.
[Brandon] Hang a lantern -- it's a screenwriting term. Which is one way to deal with a potential problem in a script. If there is a continuity problem or readers or listeners or viewers are going to say, "Wow, that really stands out." One way to deal with it is to point out that you know that that stands out by doing what they call hang a lantern on it. Have one of the characters mention it, in other words. Or I've used this joke before, have the characters mention remember that joke... suddenly you can use the joke again because readers will allow you to do it. I do this. In fact, when I was approaching how I wanted to do my writing, I realized that there were some things I wanted to look at again and again. I thought there's no way I can publish all these books dealing with the same concepts from different sides. Then I thought for a while and said, well, yes I can if I make it a theme. If I say I am going to do... for me, it's the city of the gods. If you follow all the back stories, the behind the scenes of Brandon's books, you will find that there is a reason why this theme keeps popping up in my books. It is something that the characters are approaching from different directions. It becomes intentional. Because I sat down and said I want to do this, let's see if I can make it all work out connected together. Then it becomes something cool instead of something accidental.
[Dan] One of the other things that you do, and John already mentioned this, is just adding in lots of extra stuff. You talk about gods and deification is a major theme... I don't think I've read a book from you that doesn't have a character turning into a god by the end. But that is an aspect of it. There's so much other stuff. There's no way I can look at your books and say these are all just different versions of the same story because they're totally not. There's plenty of other things going on. There's other ideas in there. That's just a recurring theme, not a "oh this again."
[Brandon] Right. Hopefully.
[Dan] I agree.
[Hang a Lantern is called Lampshade Hanging at TVTropes http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LampshadeHanging]
[John] I do too. If you look at it on the big scale, there are people that say there are only two stories: a guy came to town and somebody died. Or there are nine stories. Or there are so many themes. There's romance that gets written over and over again. I think the time that we get into problems is when it small... it's the smaller details. I have the same description... I remember reading T. Coraghessan Boyle. He always had a description of a guy going into a creek and... I don't know if I want to... the way the water affected his unmentionables. It was the same thing in every book after every book. It was that kind of a detail that was startling... like Howard's jokes. Howard could probably... after how many years and how many panels... you look at Calvin and Hobbes as well, you've always got dinosaurs and you've got Calvin being the same type of guy. But it's those small details I think are the ones that need to be worried about.
[Dan] I agree wholeheartedly. When I noticed this as a problem, it's always because it's a small detail rather than an overarching storyline.
[Brandon] I have it on large things. David Eddings is an example. I loved David Eddings books as a youth. I would read through the books. His first series was fantastic. His second series was even better, except there's a voice in my head saying, "This is the same story again." I said, "Yeah, but it's really well done." Then I hit the third series and I'm like...
[Howard] This really is the same story, isn't it?
[Brandon] This really is the same story. I couldn't read the fourth series. Now, granted, I've already read 20 books by this author, and maybe there is no way that an author can go that many books without you saying that.
[Howard] He sold you 20 books. He did okay.
[Brandon] He sold me 20 books, so it's kind of... it's hard to... but at the same time, it made me say, "Okay, I'm done." I did the same thing with Clive Cussler on the second or third book.
[Howard] Those are all the same book.
[Brandon] That gets into reader expectations. Which maybe once we come back from the break we will talk about.
[Howard] This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by John Brown's Servant of a Dark God available from Tor... when? Now?
[Brandon] Sometime. October. October... mid October. October 14.
[Howard] This book has a launch date, but the podcast is not brought to you by the launch date, it's brought to you by the book.
[Dan] This podcast brought to you by John Brown, The Servant of A Dark God.
[Brandon] And we're back. Reader expectation. You wanted to say something, Howard?
[Howard] I was going to say... reader expectation. If you look at the Clive Cussler novels, if you look at romance novels, if you look at things in that genre, people want escapist fantasy in which this, this, and this happens, but don't tell me exactly which characters going to do what. Make me guess. That's okay in those genres. In what we're writing, I don't think you can get away with it for very long.
[John] I think part of this is... I don't know, I can't speak for the Eddings thing... but I think part of it has to do with how critical surprise is in the reading experience. If you look at somebody who is reading... it doesn't matter if it is romances or it's epic fantasy or whatever... they are reading the same type of book over and over again. They want -- they crave that same experience, but they can't get it unless there is something surprising about what's going on. I think maybe there's something there... I don't know...
[Brandon] I think there is something there. It comes down to understanding your genre in part, understanding your readers. Oftentimes fiction -- I've said this before -- I think is a balance between the original and the familiar. That balance is different for every genre. But if we're really looking at it and saying we want to push ourselves as authors -- this is important for nonpublished authors, too, you guys. Those out there are thinking, "Oh, this isn't an issue until you have 15 books out." I was having this trouble when I was an unpublished author writing. When I sat down to write a new book. There are several times where I said I can't write this book. I stopped part way through.
[Howard] But you were an unpublished writer writing your dozenth book.
[Brandon] It was... but there are people listening who have... I started having this pretty early on where I said I can't write this book because I've already written this book. It ruined the process for me.
[Dan] Most people are going to write several books before they get one published. They're going to have to deal with this.
[Brandon] So how do you deal with that? As a writer...
[Howard] Thematically, I don't have a tool. In terms of phraseology and punchlines, I use Google and I search the stuff that's on my website. All of my script files for my comics are in Microsoft format in a single folder. I can go into that folder and I can do simple word searches. Sometimes it takes three or four minutes to grind through 3500 some odd files, but it will show me where the matches are. I can use that for other things. When you said hang a lantern on it, if I find out I've used a punchline before...
[Brandon] You hang a lantern on it.
[Howard] I'll use it again. Only this time I won't use it as the punchline. I would use it as the setup for the real punchline.
[Brandon] But I think this can be an issue for writers in that it can stop them... stop the creative process... you can freeze yourself, be unable to expand further. This podcast is themed at people who are aspiring writers mostly. If they are running into this and saying I'm writing the same book over and over again. How do they stop? How do they break out of it?
[Dan] One thing I'm going to suggest here... and this is kind of what you did when you were talking about the gods thing... is take a back... when you start to realize that all of your books are very similar or everything that you write follows the same lines, take a step back and really analyze it. Get down to the very bottom core of what that idea is that you keep repeating. Whether that is... in my case, it's monsters. And the relationship between monsters and heroes. And how can a hero become a monster? That's not necessarily an overt theme, but it's in the back of my mind and it's something that interests me. Once you take it back to that very basic point, I think at that stage, you can look at yourself and say, "Wow, I'm really interested in this." There's a lot of different ways... there's hundreds of different ways I could approach this idea without repeating the exact same story every time."
[John] I think... You know the old "don't think of pink elephants" thing? That to me is what we're talking about here. When we say don't do this thing. Instead of saying don't do this thing... it's like what Dan said, it's think of... yes I want to be aware of the problem and if I'm doing this, my alpha reader, please tell me that or I'll notice it. But then the thing is to think forward and say yes, it's okay to write three seasons of Burn Notice and have the same type of thing going on. Because what I'm going to do that is, there are so many variations, there's something new, something surprising, that I want to do with this. I look at your books, Brandon, that's what I see. I see you taking this idea and you do something... you add so many wacky new incredible things. So it's fresh even though are still talking about gods. Even though the first three, first four books was this sooty, gray ash city -- I didn't care. Because there were so many other things that you were doing with it.
[Brandon] I've seen it with myself what I do. Just trying to analyze myself. I react against myself. I've tried to start using this rather than just letting it happen. I write a book and say okay, I just finished this Mistborn series. I've done these certain things. How can I write a book which takes... goes a different direction? Because of that, it actually connects my books in a way that may be good, maybe bad, I don't know, but it's how I have to do it. Because they are stepping up on each other. If one is finishing, the other is saying, OK, here's where you left off the conversation. Let's take the branch that you didn't take and approach it that direction. I found myself doing this in the early years too. How did that keep it fresh? It was really tough for me at certain points. It was something I had to come to grips with. To do it, I would often reach back and... do what Dan said, dig it down but then try and throw in something completely unexpected. Something that I'd never intended, and forcing it to work. Forcing yourself to be creative by putting disharmonious elements together.
[Dan] We've talked a lot about recombination as a source of creativity on this podcast. That is a great way to do this. If you say, this story that I'm writing now is very similar to the one I just finished, approach it from a different angle. Say, well, I'm going to tell that same story but I'm going to focus very heavily on character rather than plot. Or I'm going to...
[Brandon] And throw in a few disharmonious things. This is going to be a wacky metaphor, but Dan and I both began role-playing by playing a certain role-playing game. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
[Dan] Oh, baby.
[Brandon] Separately. It's a great game. Anyway, one of the things I think attracted us to this is the random generation of a character at the beginning. You didn't know what you are going to begin with because the game encouraged you to roll a bunch of dice and come out with a wacky thing. This type of animal has this type of path, it has this type of skills, that you didn't choose it, it all came at you randomly. That forced you to combine these all and come up with a character. Maybe that's what you need to do, readers, is take a few of these elements that are things you like and then a few things you would never contemplate putting in a book, role the dice, randomly jumble them together, and say, "Wow, how can I turn this into a book?" It's got some of the themes I like, it's got things I have to stretch for, let's see where it goes.
[Howard] Tracy Hickman built a tool for that in the XDM book that I illustrated. It's called the story thing generator. Where he said, "a blank is trying to blank a blank using a blank."
[Dan] That's foul, Howard.
[Howard] No, no. But you pick several... you pick among one of these several sentences and then you roll the dice for nouns and adjectives and whatever. It's like MadLibs, only when you're done, you realize, "A Princess is trying to eat a pie and the magic frog doesn't want her to." You come up with story seeds, from which you could go...
[Brandon] Well, we have a writing prompt.
[Howard] Okay. Writing prompt. A princess is trying to eat a pie and someone is trying to stop her.
[Brandon] And the fate of the world depends on it.
[Dan] [musical interlude -- dun, de dun dun...]
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.