Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Exactly the Same, Only Different

Sharon Wildwind

I wonder if stories have a best before date? Hollywood certainly doesn’t think so. Trying the search term “The Return Of . . .” on the Internet Movie Data Base got so many hits that they couldn’t be displayed. And that search wouldn’t capture the metamorphosis of television shows like Mission: Impossible and The A-Team into full-length movies or the multiple-movies series like Harry Potter and Rocky.

I spent some time this past week taming data bases that had, like Topsy, just growed. I read a lot of mysteries. Big surprise, eh? Because I write, blog, and speak about the world of mysteries, it’s helpful if I can remember at least the basics of what I’ve read like name of author, name of book, or name of main character. Over the years I created several simple data bases to keep track of that minimal information. As I upgraded my computer system and found new programs, I try new formats.

Bottom line was that I’d ended up with five different data base formats that weren’t compatible or usable. So I spent a grey cold winter day doing a lot of copying and pasting, turning disparate formats into a consolidated whole.

Mostly what I read are samples, a book here, a book there in a series to get an idea of a wide range of writers, but each year I pick a couple of writers that I really like and read their entire series, in order. The size of some of those series stunned me: 11 books, 12, 17, 18, 32, and a whopping 47 in one case.

Here’s my confession. As a reader, I am a writer’s worst nightmare. I want my old favorites to be the same for each book. And I want each book to be different. Both. At the same time.

Remember the pushmi-pullyu (pronounced "push-me—pull-you"), the gazelle-unicorn cross in the Dr. Doolittle books? Writers are the pull quality. Writers go farther, go deeper, go boldly (and try not to split infinitives as they go). If there are a limited number of plots, then the writer’s job is to make the old new and fresh.

The bottom line people are the push quality. Do what you’ve done before. Do what sells. Do what your readers expect. Do it just like you did before—or just like that other top-of-the-charts bestselling author did—only make it different.

As writers, we often have to keep doing what we’ve been doing. The contract demands it, at least for a certain number of books. But don’t let anyone talk you into the idea that what you are doing now is the only thing you should be doing forever. Contracts expire, the world changes, our own skills grow and mature. It always pays to have something different waiting in the wings.

I’m not talking about our occasional one-night stands, like writing haikus for amusement or helping Aunt Sophie whip the family history into shape. Those are fine things for a writer to do, but they don’t stretch you as a writer? A writer need at least two secret passions, projects that she works on every so often, projects that one day she just might bring to the foreground and work on seriously.

My two? The first is memories. I do a lot of journaling. I read a lot of women’s recollections of their lives. I believe that it is indescribably important that we, as women, document the everyday moments of our lives.

I also have a background in technical writing. I’ve been told I write good instructions. Once in a while I take a crack at trying to explain complicated things in a simple manner, just to see if I can still do it, just because one day it’s a skill that I might need again.

What are the two other kinds of writing that you have waiting in the wings?

Quote for the week:
Always keep some of your creative energy for play. Today’s playground could well turn into future sales. ~Barbara Hambly, science fiction, mystery, fantasy writer, November 2008


Sheila Connolly said...

I love the "helping Aunt Sophie" idea. Far too many family members think that dotty Aunt Sophie has nothing to say (and she says it often), but when she's gone they realize they've lost a precious connection to their own history--especially after they've tossed all her letters, clippings, photos and treasured memorabilia into the Dumpster.

Back-burner ideas? To write a biography of one of my more interesting ancestors, and to translate a series of 19th-century diaries of a farm wife into a useful educational tool about life in that era.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

That's an easy one for me, because I'm in the process of doing something about mine: recording a CD of the songs I've written over the years. OUTRAGEOUS OLDER WOMAN is available for preorder, and my website is up (sans actual music, but all the info is there) at http://lizzelvin.com. 'Scuse the BSP--you did ask. ;)

Sandra Parshall said...

For a long time I've had an idea for a historical mystery with a setting no one else has used (yet). But first... there's that thriller I want to rewrite and get published.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I have a couple of book ideas that I've kept alive for a few years, but they are very far on the back burner partly because I'm afraid if I started one, it would take over my life. (And there is one of my flaws--obsessiveness and persistence to get it done at all costs.) I'd love to write about the obsession (there's that trait again) for the family farm in my family--and what is happening to the family farm (or has happened to it) in this country. That too was an idea my family discussed again and again.

Anonymous said...

These are all wonderful ideas. I would love to see each of you pursue these back-burner stories.

Liz, congrats on the CD and the web site. Will you sing for us sometimes as part of your blog? You know, make a YouTune video and post it?