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5 Ways Writers Get Lazy

Thursday, June 7, 2012


I’ve never heard any author say, “My first couple of published books were good. So now, I don’t care if I bomb my future books.”

No. Most often, I hear authors say, “I want to keep on studying the craft of fiction-writing so that I get better with each book I write.”

I believe most writers truly do desire to continue improving their writing skills and story-telling ability.

Why, then, do some authors grow stagnant or decline in writing skill as they publish more books? Occasionally, I pick up books by well-known, multi-published authors and find myself disappointed with the quality of the story and writing.

I can’t help but think those authors want to get better with each book they write too, that they didn’t intend to publish something mediocre. Like the rest of us, they desire to wow their readers with each book.

So what happens? Why do we—against our best intentions—fail to produce better quality books with each one we write?

The more books I complete, the more I’m realizing how difficult it is to keep producing fresh, vibrant stories. And I'm beginning to see how multi-published authors can sometimes end up with a lack-luster novel.

Here’s my evolving opinion: When we reach a point of having written numerous books, we have to continually push deeper into the recesses of our minds to find original, creative, and fresh material for our stories. We have to dig around in the untouched areas of our imagination to bring out something new. And that digging requires a lot of effort.

Sometimes amidst the busyness of the writing life, we don’t always have the time and energy to go that extra mile. We’re working hard to keep up with deadlines or trying to get our books out in quick succession. Instead of shoveling deep and finding new treasures, we sift through the front lobe of our brains and rehash the old stuff—because it’s easier to stay there.

Here are five ways we can get lazy:

1. Using Cliches. Most of us know we need to avoid those well-known clichés. But the more books we write, the harder it gets to find original ways of saying things and the clichés start to creep in. We have to remember if the phrase slips easily off our tongue, then it’s likely one we should avoid. I’ve found that I can reduce clichés by using more similes and metaphors—especially those that relate to my character’s interests or to the setting.

2. Telling of Emotions. Another major way writers get lazy is when we decide to tell how our character feels rather than showing it. We obviously can’t always show every little emotion and detail. Sometimes we have to name the emotion to clarify what’s going on. But when we’re tired and writing fast, we may find ourselves telling too many emotions rather than going to the hard work of showing them. We need to make sure that we’re mostly bringing our character’s feelings to life through dialog, actions, or internal narration.

3. Overusing Adjectives and Adverbs. I’m not an all-or-nothing gal. I still believe in adjectives and adverbs—if used in moderation, particularly when we can’t find a strong enough noun or verb to fit the situation. But . . . as with clichés and telling of emotions, it’s so much easier and quicker to tack on an adjective or adverb. Instead, we need to persevere to find a stronger, more telling word.

4. Camping on Pet Phrases. I always seem to land upon a pet word or phrase while writing my first draft. Thankfully, if I don’t catch the phrases myself, my editors alert me to the repetition. A simple search for the word can help me locate the trouble areas, and I’m able to delete some or find more creative ways to express that pet phrase. What I’m now noticing is that I have to be careful of overusing phrases between books as well. That’s a little bit harder to catch.

5. Rehashing the Same Plot or Story. After we’ve written multiple books, we may begin to find that our stories start to sound the same, have similar threads, or even have characters that resemble one another. Perhaps you’ve even gotten tired of a favorite author because “all the stories are too much alike.” Yes, our voices will remain the same in all our books. But we can’t let our voice be an excuse for getting too comfortable with the same old, same old. We need to constantly be exploring new plot territory and searching for unique and fresh stories.

My Summary: Indeed the task before the modern writer is daunting. The bar continually rises. If we hope to keep our readers happy with each book we write, then we can’t afford to get lazy. We have to resist what comes easily to our minds, and instead be ever-exploring deeper into the creative labyrinths of our imaginations.

How about you? Have you ever gotten tired of an author because his or her books started to sound the same? Why do you think some authors seem to get "lazy"?

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23 comments:

  1. Good morning, Jody. I'm going to ask a tough question. I was talking with a fellow writer yesterday, and we were talking about #5 - Rehashing the Same Plot or Story. It's true. Some authors' stories begin to sound formulamatic and tired. My question is this: Is this a trap the writer falls into by getting lazy, or do some editors encourage writers to write similar books because it's what sells? In other words, does the responsiblity lie completely on the shoulders of the author, or is the editor/publisher responsible in part as well?

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  2. Good morning, Heather! That's a great question! I can only share how things work with Bethany House, my publisher. So I don't really know the parameters other authors may get. But Bethany House has never put any limits upon my stories/plots.

    As you know, they HAVE steered me toward certain time periods or settings. And they HAVE veered me away from certain types of stories that perhaps they've already seen a lot of or that aren't selling well.

    But once I get a story idea approved (via a synopsis), then I usually have an incredible amount of flexibility to take that story where I want and develop the plot as uniquely as I can. My editors may give me a few suggestions during the synopsis stage of what to avoid. But overall, during the first draft stage, I feel the responsibility is completely mine to get my story and plot as unique and fresh as possible.

    Hope that answers your question! :-)

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  3. I did come across an author recently and found her first two stories to be very repititious - I could even predict how the second one was going to fall into place, but I liked her writing style and I liked her overall story lines. I picked up her last book, expecting to find the same formula, but I was surprised! She had switched it up and presented something different - ironically, I liked her first two books better. I have a friend who loves Karen Kingsbury (I've only read one of her novels, since I prefer Historical Fiction) and she's commented to me that there are whole sections of books she can skip over while reading because it's almost as if the section was copied and pasted from another book. I don't know if this is true, but it's made me think about the sheer volume of books Karen produces and I've wondered how she keeps things fresh.

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  4. I remember reading two books by a favorite author many years ago, and being absolutely wow'd by them. The stories were wonderful; the writing was crisp, vivid, and descriptive; and I couldn't put them down until I finished.

    Then I picked up another book by the same author, and I was so disappointed. In the first chapter alone, I found myself mentally editing the text for him. I wondered at the time if he had switched editors...the overall text seemed so unpolished. I never did finish reading that book.

    Which leads me to ask...how would a "lazy" book get past one's editors? Wouldn't they be working just as hard as always to produce a fresh, lively story, and wouldn't they be reluctant to publish and release one that wasn't up to the same standards as the previous ones by that author?

    ~ Betsy

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  5. Gabrielle, I've wondered the same thing about Karen Kingsbury. I just don't know how you'd keep it fresh after so many books! But people REALLY love her! She's got a wide following and is always on the best seller list. So she must be doing something right!

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  6. Betsy, GREAT question! Yes, all authors continue to undergo editing. But sometimes, I think the bigger your readership becomes, the less your editors feel they have to manage your writing. Obviously the bread and butter authors of publishing houses have more klout and if they don't like the way their publisher is managing them, then they can write for someone else! Also, I do think that some houses have had to cut back in their editing departments in order to keep afloat. That could be a factor. And some publishers offer more editorial feedback than others (so if the author switched publishers you may have seen a difference that way).

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  7. Jody, I think there are a couple of reasons behind later books of an author not being up to par.

    When the cycle starts, we've devoted a lot of time to that first or even second novel. But with contract deadlines, edits, marketing, and the press of life, time becomes a factor.

    Further, although we've all heard how there are an endless number of scenarios that can be the basis for novels, we tend to fall back on what works. I've just finished re-reading the entire works of the late Robert B. Parker, and even that great writer sometimes used the same plot twists, even the same snippets of dialogue. Makes me realize how tough it is to keep things fresh and turn out good work consistently.

    Thanks for making us think.

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  8. Great points, Richard. I also think authors tend to gravitate toward what they LIKE. And so, I find myself with the same kinds of heroines and antagonists because I like spunky, strong heroines and dark, creepy antagonists. So it's a bit tougher to think outside of what we like to find something really NEW.

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  9. Great topic!! I think it's important to continue to grow in craft. And I hope I avoid rehashing the same stories as I go along my writerly path.

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  10. Jody, thanks for this great reminder. For some reason, Meg Ryan's comment from "You've Got Mail" surfaces: "So often I find that my life resembles something I've read in a book, when shouldn't it be the other way around?" As a writer, regardless of deadlines and pressures of marketing, I find that I still need to get out from behind the desk and LIVE. I'm often surprised when ideas flood in after I've strolled in the park or experienced an adventure with a friend that I normally wouldn't do on my own - such as go to NASCAR. (Yes, really.) In reality, it shouldn't surprise me at all. So often my best writing comes when I take time to experience life to the full.

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  11. This is definitely something I fear for myself. I feel like it takes soooo much energy to think of an original plot just once...much less numerous times. I want writing to be a career, though, so it's just something to work hard at. And it shouldn't be the whole "find a formula and stick with it." I like when writers switch it up. Case in point: I'm reading Brandilyn Collins' book Gone to Ground, and it seems quite different than her Kanner Lake series, which I love. Both are still suspense, but I think it says a lot for the author that she took the time and energy to produce something fresh for her readers. Hard to do...but possible.

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  12. I've long thought that having to produce a book a year, or several books a year, is a factor in those books declining in quality for some authors. Not all can do this successfully and also grow in their craft, or give their stories enough time to grow into something deeper, more unique. I've wondered if there was a place for the author that needs two years to grow her book full term to be successful in today's market. I don't necessarily need that long to write each book, but I do seem to need a bit longer than most authors who can finish a first draft in 3, 4, even 6 months. I'm more of a 9-10 month drafter, and that's working hard 6 days a week writing and researching that whole time. With no additional editing and marketing and promotion yet to deal with. No children to raise. No other job but writing. How YOU do it, Jody, I just don't know! :)

    No, I do. God lends strength and wisdom for each writer's particular circumstances, but I admit I've sensed the strain so many published writers are under these days from reading their blogs and FB posts. It seems to be very common, so I'm braced for it, and I appreciate the transparency so that writers like me, just getting started down this road, can know what to expect.

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  13. Loving all of your thoughts today, everyone!

    And yes, Lori, I can't help but wonder if an increased writing production will eventually lead to more sloppiness in our writing. As writers feel increased pressure to write more books per year, I wonder if that will lead to more sloppiness? In our haste and busyness to keep up with everything that we have going on, I can't help but think we'll try to take shortcuts. We just can't afford to do that with our novels. Perhaps with social media, but not with our books!

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  14. This was a GREAT post, Jody! Yes, it is really difficult to keep coming up with fresh ideas and to keep the writing fresh and interesting.

    My series, The Hawaiian Island Detective Cub, is contracted for three book which have been written, but I decided to write a fourth--it was challenging. Now I'm just starting a fifth-wow! Way more challenging!

    Thanks so much for the pointers!
    Aloha! --Cheryl

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  15. You know, I've only written two publishable novels, but even between my first and second novel, I found myself wondering things like "How do I make this kiss original without making it sound like one from my previous book?" It's hard. Harder yet to keep coming up with plots and twists that don't get redundant.

    And then there are people telling you that you need to write at least two books a year if you really want to build a following. And you're going "What? Two books?" Not that I couldn't write two books, but I doubt I could write two AND make them good.

    So yes, I think that writing fresh stories gets harder for more established authors. But at the same time, everyone probably assumes things are easier for established authors. I mean, they have readerships and established social media and so forth. But coming up with original books has got to be a lot harder.

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  16. I am sure Karen Kingsbury struggles with fresh ideas. I'm just not into her writing style that much. There, I said it! Will I lose my church membership for saying that?


    I remember reading somehwere to NEVER use the phrase "all hell broke loose" because it was so overdone. See? Your eyes just glazed over!

    Some multi-pubbed authors do get lazy. And then if they write an epic, sales are down because of last year's dud.

    Trust me, I won't let that happen.
    ;)

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  17. I've tried to figure out why sometimes everything flows and other times it grinds to a halt. (oops, cliche). I find that sometimes it is not a question of exploring the recesses of my mind but exploring something I know little about (Llama clubs) and incorporating that into a potential cozy mystery. (I write these under a pen name).

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  18. #5 in particular is why I stopped reading a few of my favorite authors. I bought several of their books, but then I realized that several of the same types of characters kept popping up in the stories. It got to be too predictable, and it's not fun to read a predictable story.

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  19. I think multi-published, best-selling authors are in a bind. Their readers expect X type of story, and the authors really can't tackle a whole new genre, but they have to keep the plot and writing fresh. It's tough!

    Also, I can only speak for myself, but even after writing many books, I still need feedback on my early drafts. I think many published writers fall into a trap of thinking they don't need outside eyes on their books once they reach a certain level.

    I've picked up books by my fave authors and cringed. My critique partners would have picked up on quite a few problems. Maybe the editors aren't quite as diligent as they should be either, because the author has proven to be a team player in the past? I'm not sure.

    Have a great weekend!

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  20. I love this, Jody! I think it's true, whether we write books, articles, or other things. We need to keep learning and improving, always.

    Have a great weekend,
    Karen

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  21. Hi Jody,

    Yes, I have grown tired of some authors - because the writing starts to look the same. I hadn't thought about why. It's interesting to read your thoughts on it. I always learn something good on your blog. Thanks for being such a great mentor to so many aspiring authors.

    Have a nice Sunday. :)

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  22. I had read several books by a popular and prolific author. They were quick reads, not sophisticated, but enjoyable. Then I picked up a later novel and was shocked by the change in writing. IMO it was pretty bad, and I commented to my DH that it didn't seem like it had been written by the same author.

    In retrospect, I'm sure it wasn't. I've also discovered one of my favourite line of mystery books is no longer written by the original author, but is only co-authored by him, and the voice no longer appeals to me.

    Obviously some top selling authors have found ways to increase output without doing all the writing themselves. It must work for some of them, because they're still on the best sellers lists. While the writing may not necessarily be bad, the voice is no longer reliable and for me that's a disappointment.

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  23. My biggest complaint with some well-known authors is that they tell the same story over and over again. I can think of one whose writing is gorgeous and very evocative of place and yet he'd not told a new story in years. I don't read him any more because of it. Interesting post.

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