Monday, July 17, 2006

SB Day: Déjà vu All Over Again

Once again it’s Smart Bitches Day (a rather belated one due to my sunburned glory) and it’s time to talk about repetition. Yesterday on the way to fry ourselves, the druggie and I got into a conversation about the books she’s read this summer. The druggie works in a slow pharmacy (hence her nickname; she’s also a pharmacy student), and in between feeling drug subscriptions and fighting with insurance companies she has ample time to sit and read. Thanks to the library (and their website) she’s found several new authors (that “also liked” suggestion box is always helpful) and read the entirety of several authors’ works without spending a dime.

She’s noticed something disturbing as she’s blown through the backlist of a couple of big name Chick-Lit authors. In each book the same or a very similar situation will occur (answering the door in just a towel) and all of the main characters share some of the same habits (love champagne, hate pretty underwear, one friend is always committing adultery). The repetition has really begun to bother her because she feels that it is an example of lazy story telling and shouldn’t someone—the author or the editor—have caught this before it went to print?

“I think I’m going to have to send her a letter with a list of different alcohols,” the druggie said. “There is more in this world than just champagne.”

This isn’t an uncommon problem. Many times when I’ve discovered a new author and have gone back to read the rest of their books, I’ve discovered the very same thing. It could be anything from as small as an obsession with a certain type of clothing to something as noticeable as the same fantastical place to have sex. I’ve heard from customers and friends that this repetition begins to make them wonder if this is a reflection of the authors own loves overlaid on the character; the point where an author cannot separate himself/herself from the person she’s created on the page.

The counter argument, of course, could be that this is the little wink and nod by the author to his/her reader; a repetitive theme that is there to make it a signature story by this author instead of that one. But it rips me out of the story when I see something repeated and ruins the experience. Does this cause the same reaction in anyone else?

Are we making too big of a deal out of this? Maybe, but I don’t think so. When you’ve taken the time to create a fully realized character in book A, despite the fact that I love and adore her, I don’t want to see shades of her in book B unless she is there. Characters can have similar personalities (thus appealing to the same people) in different books without repeating the same traits (alcohol choice) and site gags (answering the door in the towel). It’s the duty of the author to realize what is going on, and if they can’t, it’s the duty of the editor to have enough knowledge of the author’s past work to try and catch these things.

I’m not asking too much, am I?


Beth said...

I don't think it's too much to ask. At all. I mean, puh-leeeez, like it's so hard to say "cabernet" instead of "chapagne"? Unless it's just laziness, and the author doesn't wanna research fine non-champagne wines. That whole 40 seconds on Google is a lot to ask for, after all.

web said...

I quite agree. I knew Anita Blake was over for me when she became Merry Gentry.

Eileen said...

You do not ask too much.... I wonder if the authors even notice or if they think the story is just humming along? Sort of like when you catch yourself telling someone a joke and then realize you've told it before- but then it is too awkward to stop.

Molly said...

It's not asking too much, but maybe an editor might find it easier to catch this type of thing than the author. I think we all have our blind spots - words we overuse, jokes we tell too many times - and they're so second-nature to us that it's nearly impossible to spot them without a fresh eye.

Really egregrious repetitions are irritating but I think the minor ones are kind of cute. It's like a little slip of the mask where you get a glimpse of the author behind the narrator.

Christine Fletcher said...

No, it's not too much to ask. It irks me, too, when I come across obvious repetition in an author's work.

The clue for me, as a writer, is when a phrase, or bit of dialogue, or character action leaps with no effort from keyboard to screen. That tells me that more than likely I've used it before (or, god forfend, I've READ it before...shades of Kaavya Viswanathan...) The phrase/dialogue/action always fits perfectly, of course. I look at it, savor it, and sigh. Then I hit delete and start racking my brain for something new.

I understand the temptation to use these shortcuts, though--deadline approaching, and anyway, it was charming in the last three books-- what's one more?

Nonny said...

Nope, you're not alone. I remember when the first Merry Gentry book came out, and I was annoyed at the character similarities -- almost exactly the same "voice" (which pisses. me. off. in first person), the height factor, and the physical descriptions were almost identical, too. I know there were a couple other things that stood out to me at the time, but I haven't reread either series since then -- and that was back in 2001. I read part of Cerulean Sins when it came out, and was pissed as all hell because she was characterising Anita like Merry -- and to my understanding, that's only gotten worse, since.

Really, when I'm reading an author's work, I want to read about different characters, or the same one -- not a bunch of them masquerading in Other Series Character suits. >_<

Jane said...

I think it is worse when an author repeats herself in the same book. I've read a few books this past month where the sex scenes were virtually the same down to the using the same terminology at one point. I don't know if the author's are using a subconscious cut and paste but I wish the editor would pick up on it.

Kate R said...

I tend to glom when I find an author--buy the back list and tear into it. So I expect to find repetition.

There are only so many personality types floating around in author brains I guess. Heyer managed to have a whole lot of different heroes and heroines, but that seems unusual. Someone likes dark disturbing dudes, that's what she'll write.

repeating herself in the same book though? Ugh, Jane, that's a wall-banger.

Ms. Librarian said...

Um ... do you suppose using the same bits over and over means the author just can't write? That s/he is just regurgitating familiar words?

And why does repetition in characterization bother you when, within the hundreds of thousands of romance novels out there, the same 6 plots are repeated ad nauseam?

Personally, I think there is very little originality in fiction these days. It's way too easy for an author to get away with repeating himself or herself. What editor is going to risk pointing this out to a best-selling author, as long as the books are selling?

(I think this was the problem with Robert Heinlein's books after "Stranger in a Strange Land." He didn't have an editor who had the balls to stand up to him and tell him, "Bob, this is crap. Rewrite it!")

lady t said...

Repetition is why I gave up on Anne Rice,especially after reading Violin-she pretty much regurgitated every one of her autobiographical/obessional themes in that sucker.

I think that repetition only annoys when the writing is not up to snuff;many authors have characters in different books enjoy and/or dislike the samy types of people,places and things but if the story holds up,then you don't really mind. It's when you can tell that they're just trying to coast thru characterization with their usual grab bag of goodies that you get urked.

Amie Stuart said...

It bothers me as a reader and a writer! It's like they're writing the same character over and over again and it annoys the living daylights out of me.

I do some things that are tongue-in-cheek pokes but I also try to give my characters different quirks and foibles that suit them.

RandomRanter said...

Yep, it bugs me if - as others have said - there is no reason for it. (An author may always have champagne kind of characters.) The plot tricks bug me more that the alcohol preferences.

And the other character repeats, I find annoying. Particularly when there are a trio of main chicks - there's so often a blond, a brunette and a redhead - which since it's a book should not be a necessary trick for helping me tell them apart.

Susan Adrian said...


No, it's not too much to ask--but it is hard sometimes for an author to realize she's doing this. That's what good critique groups/reading partners are for, not to mention editors. I know my critters poked me when I used the same description detail unwittingly for 2 different characters; I hadn't seen it, since I'd written those portions of the book almost 2 years apart, and had read right over it later.

By the time a book gets to print, though, it should've gone through so many reads by different people that stuff should be ironed right out.

Shanna Swendson said...

I'm not bothered so much by bits of phrasing or situations as I am by authors who keep hitting the same themes or major plot points in all their books. I think authors sometimes have some compelling emotional issue that drives them and that tends to come out in their fiction.

There's a chick lit author whose books I love, but I was disappointed by her latest book not so much because of the book itself but because by that point I'd read all of her other books, and every single one of them hinged around a plot point dealing with infidelity -- in most of them, the heroine wanted a man who was involved with someone else she knew, and then there were a couple where she switched it up and the heroine was the one being cheated on. By the time I'd read the fourth or fifth book about the heroine lusting over a man she was afraid she couldn't have and feeling guilty about betraying her friend, it started to feel like a cliche to me, even though she did mix up the way she used that plot element. It might not have bothered me so much if she'd written even one book where nobody was cheating or tempted to cheat.

There's another author I love who tends to work substance abuse issues into the plot of every one of her books, and I've learned not to read too many back to back because that can be enough to drive me to drink. They're better enjoyed separately where I don't find myself saying, "Well, here's our alcoholic character for the book."

As writers, we have to be aware of our own personal hot buttons and be conscious of whether or not those things rear their ugly heads in absolutely every book. I know I have a few that tend to show up in every idea I come up with, so I try to challenge myself to come up with ideas that have nothing to do with those particular themes.

Where I'm struggling now is that I'm writing a series in which all the books are narrated by the same character. People in real life do tend to have pet phrases and terms they use frequently, but there's a balance in keeping the character's voice consistent while trying not to get too repetitive with any of the character's pet phrases.

Kathleen Dante said...

It would be nice if an editor saw it. However, an editor handles lots of books from different authors in a single month. By the time the editor gets back to that author, more than a month has gone by and the story would feel fresh, not repetitive. Readers see the repetition because they recently read (or re-read) the author's work.

It usually falls on the author's crit partner(s) to say, "What? This again?" regarding storylines, jokes or characterization.

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Heather said...

I don't think attention to detail is too much to ask at all, whether it's avoiding the pitfall of using stock characters or situations, or catching repetitive actions in an author's work. There are a few authors I will no longer read because their books/characters all started to sound alike. A little variety, please!

Here are two more examples of how lack of attention to details cheats the reader:

1. I read two books by one author that were out a year apart, and found the same bedroom scene in both books. It felt like all the author had done was change the names and whose room they were doing it in. Other than that, it was the same exact scene. I felt cheated and have not read anything else by her.

2. This past fall I found the same type of error in two different authors' books released a month apart by the same publisher. In both instances one character performed an action that had already been done the page before by another character (ie: turning off a radio in one, and bringing coffee in another when it had already been brought). This is something that someone should have caught -- author, crit partner, editor, copy editor -- anyone. Mistakes like that should not make it into print, IMO.

Anonymous said...

It's important to know that while I find the repetition of things annoying (especially an alcohol that I've never really liked much), I still enjoyed reading all those books. I think that most people have similar issues with reading multiple books by the same author, but if you keep reading them, there must also be something good...
The Druggie : )

Diana Peterfreund said...

Mmm... I like champagne. Who needs other drinks when you've got champagne? ;-)