Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Gunga Din

Flo is going to be a hard act to follow, not only because of her insightful blog, but also because of her thoughtful responses.

My blog today is about …. Signature. And audience. What do the two have in common?

Let me explain. Recently, there was a blog about the value of not repeating yourself and how disenchanted a reader might become with a writer who tends to do the same things in book after book. In theory, I wholeheartedly agree with that opinion.

And yet… I also know that I, like many writers, tend to tell a certain kind of story in a certain kind of way. This was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago when I watched the first half hour of Gunga Din, the 1939 movie which is a loose adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's poem of the same name.

I read somewhere that this was one of Cary Grant's first movies. I'm a big fan of Cary Grant though I had never seen this film. I'd seen many of the later ones, though, and I knew about his charming ways. Debonair, handsome, sophisticated and yet vulnerable, he was a certain era's ideal of a lovable playboy. But this, remember, was, if not his first film, one of the first, perhaps the one that launched him into stardom.

And you know what? That twenty something year old Cary Grant was every inch the same guy who made Arsenic and Old Lace in 1944 and Charade in 1963, almost twenty-five years later, both movies which I adored in the past and still watch whenever I can. Many of the same mannerisms, the same charm, the same man. I loved this guy when I was a kid and his movies were shown on television, and I still enjoy him. And no one else did what he did in the way in which he did it.

His acting was a signature of sorts. Plus, he knew his audience.

I think this is something to balance the fear that can grip you when you find yourself writing a book that seems reminiscent of another book you have already written. I'm not talking about exact events or predictable situations, I'm talking about format, perhaps, or maybe just an overall feeling the book has and the way in which you approach different parts of the writing. Maybe you have to write umpteen books for this fear to kick in, I don't know, but it's bound to occur to you at some point. And while I always strive to find a new road and not do the same thing repeatedly, I also have to admit, that there is a method, an unconscious one for sure, to the way I think of and construct a story. It's a method that comes from somewhere deep within as we all know I'm not all that analytical, but it's there.

And hopefully I also know my audience. I think it's wonderful my husband enjoys my stories, but the truth is, he is not my buying audience. And while he might enjoy a bloodier gunfight now and again, that's not always on my -- or my audience's agenda. I don't think in genres, I think in stories and my stories reflect me. If I were an actor, I imagine there would be scripts I would reject, if I were a movie director, there would be material I was drawn to bring to life.

I am not suggesting that writers, actors and directors do the same thing over and over again. I am simply stating -- in a general way that is not a universal statement -- that there is within most writers and perhaps most creative souls, a certain viewpoint and voice and a methodology and that it's okay. If it's enjoyable to readers -- to the artist's target audience -- it will keep them looking for their work. It will make their work distinctive, and it might be as hard to change as a fingerprint.

I cannot speak for everyone, nor would I presume to do so. But when I read a favorite author's work spanning twenty years -- say it's twenty books -- all in a row, say within twenty weeks -- I see the patterns, I hear the voice and if now and then I glimpse the same thing in myself -- well, it's okay.


Lisa Pulliam said...

Alice, great post, very thought-provoking! I agree with you, I don't mind seeing patterns within my favorite actors or authors because it's why they are my favorite . I like Susan Elizabeth Phillips books because I know I'm going to get humor, likely a hero and heroine who want to throttle each other, some amazing secondary characters, and a secondary romance or two. Many of her books deal with an unplanned pregnancy or child in some way or another. Yes, they are patterns, but these patterns are why I enjoy her books. I like knowing what to expect when I pick someone's book up.

The type of pattern that does bother me is word choice. Recently I read a book where every page someone was grimacing. Another book where they groaned. Another book where characters sauntered all over town. Those are the repeats and patterns that irk me.

Alice Sharpe said...

Oh, Lisa, I know what you mean. I have a favorite author whose characters are always lapping at something as in "She lapped up her clam chowder." It drives me nuts. I think the reasons words like this in repetition bother us is that they aren't words we ordinarily use so they stand out. You might read that someone walked toward someone else or walked away or turned and walked to the corner or what have you and not even notice the word being used over and over again. But insert saunter, which depicts a certain way of walking, and they begin to stand out.

There's a line between knowing what to expect -- a good mystery, say, or spitfire characters -- and predicting a chain of events or continuing characters who never seem to change. I picked up the latest Dianna Mott Davidson book the other day (a mystery series) that I hadn't read in awhile. The series has been going on for what, maybe fifteen years? And her character had aged less than half that and I don't know why, it just bothered me that she should still be in her thirties after all this time. Silly, I guess. Readers are a hard bunch!

Alice Sharpe said...

By the way Lisa, that picture Eli posted of you on the blog page is beautiful!!!

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Can't follow silly girl.

I love this post. Maybe because it's something I'm thinking of in detail right now as I plot out my third release. How do I keep it new and fresh, but at the same time write a book that fits with the other two and gives the reader what they're expecting?

I admit to being one of those writers who reuses words like Lisa pointed out (I tend to pick one phrase or word and use it TO DEATH in a manuscript). Luckily, that's what editing is for. My editor commented in the revision list for my first book that she got sick and tired of hearing about the perfume my heroine wore. See? Over-described the scent and didn't even know it. But what you're talking about is the feeling you get from a writer that - even though their writing may grow and mature over time - is still as prominent in the twentieth book as it was in the first. And maybe that's voice or style, I don't know. I do know I think that pattern is a good thing. Not every writer is going to connect with every reader, but there's something about my favorite authors that resonates with me, and that's why I keep reading them. What's my pattern? I'm not sure. Snarky characters, fast paced plots, a good mix of romance and suspense. How is that different from other RS authors? I think it comes down to voice and the way I mold and shape my characters.

Last weekend the DH and I rented Michael Clayton - the movie George Clooney was nominated for an Oscar for recently. Good movie. I really liked it. But at the end of the movie I said to the DH, "Why on earth was Clooney nominated for an Oscar? He acted the same in that movie as he has in every other movie I've seen with him in it - even, calm, a little dangerous, but nothing out of his normal pattern." And the DH said, "Because it's Clooney and everyone loves him." But why is he nominated for awards when one acting job is just like the last? Because people love his style. And just like Cary Grant, that's what's made him a success.

Thought-provoking blog, Alice, that I'm going to be thinking about more in depth when I head out for my run. ;)

Paty Jager said...

Very interesting blog, Alice.

I agree every writer has a natural "style" that makes them different and unique from other writers and that is what keeps readers reading their work. Because they know what kind of read the author is going to deliver.

At the moment, I'd say mine is characterization and a fast read.

I've noticed the books I like the best are the ones with great characters.

Thanks for another blog that made me think.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

I agree, Alice. Isn't that pic of Lisa gorgeous?! I just love it.

All the pics are beautiful. We're a hot group of romance writers, baby!

Karen Duvall said...

Hey, Alice, I know Diane Mott Davidson fairly well. She was my neighbor when I lived in Evergreen, Colorado, and we did a Story Magic weekend together with Kay and a couple of other writers. 8^) I've only read the first 3 books in her Goldie series and enjoyed them, but obviously not enough to keep up with all the books. How many are there now?

I read the first nine books of Laurell K Hamilton's Anita Blake series. All of the guys Anita is attracted to are short, like 5'3", and have long hair down to their butt. Weird. And it got annoying after a while. Plus these guys with their gorgeous little bodies just creeped me out.

I've started reading books by new authors that begin okay and really hooked me until halfway through when certain patterns started to chew at my nerves. Like Rob Thurman's Nightlife that has this edgy character with a sarcastic personality I liked, but the story focuses more on what he says than what he does. The plot was all over the place as this character's snappy one-liners took center stage. I got to page 106 and closed the book for good.

So I guess one of the things that bugs me about a lot of today's popular fiction is the emphasis on style rather than content. Kind of like eating a meal that's all desert with empty calories. Leaves the diner, and in this case the reader, unsatisfied.

Alice Sharpe said...

Eli -- Maybe with George Clooney, and Cary Grant, too, is that their style looks effortless. Maybe we respond because it doesn't look like acting. Although, when I think of Harrison Ford in Mosquito Coast or Witness or Star Wars or Indiana Jones, I definitely see different characters. Hm -- have to think....

Thanks again for posting the pictures. They're all great.

Alice Sharpe said...

Karen said:

"All of the guys Anita is attracted to are short, like 5'3", and have long hair down to their butt. Weird. And it got annoying after a while. Plus these guys with their gorgeous little bodies just creeped me out."

Karen, I am still chuckling to myself. You're right, those short long haired body builders types can get creepy. I used to have a favorite author who liked gray eyed men. Every single one of her heroes had gray eyes! I longer for some ocean blue eyes or grassy green or chocolate brown -- anything but gray!

Karen Duvall said...

Shudders. Midget sex. Nothing against Little People, but egad.

I have to remark on the weather now. I'm looking out my sliding glass door and, I kid you not, there is a blizzard outside. A total white-out! It's snowing really, really hard. I'm going to think twice about walking the dog today.

Alice Sharpe said...

LOL Karen, it actually snowed here today, too. Nothing stuck, but good grief.

Enjoy your blizzard!

Elisabeth Naughton said...

ACK! Karen! We're driving over the pass tonight. Better call DH and tell him to get home sooner rather than later...

Karen Duvall said...

OMG, Eli! I just checked the pass on and it's zero visibility. Looks like night time up there. Said the temp is 21 degrees. Brrrrr. The sun's back out here in Bend, but it's windy now. The dog still ain't gettin' that walk.

Lisa Pulliam said...

Karen, I completely agree. The ratio of 'member' to height is just absurd with her characters. And the cervix touching. Don't get me started on the cervix touching. Nathan, Nathan, Nathan.

Thanks for the compliments on my picture :) Just got back from a haircut a few months back, and the stars alligned to capture a decent pic. I love when that happens!

Genene said...

Thanks, Alice and Flo -- tomorrow I get to follow two great blogs. LOL!

And I've been going to thank Eli also for adding the photos. Nice touch!

Oh, yeah, comments on the blog content. :)

Signature or patterns without repeating yourself to the point of irritating seems to be a balance similar to fitting within a subgenre yet telling a story in a fresh way.

If it's the same-old, same-old with only the names of the characters changed, that gets tiresome to me. And I do try to be careful that I don't use the same type of scene in every book.

However, I do see patterns in my work already. I write about people who have lived through traumatic events like abuse and deep betrayal, yet have come through that experience stronger. However, I don't consider my stories dark. There's humor and optimism along with the dramatic scenes.

It will be interesting to see how readers react.

Great blog, Alice.

Now I'm off to see if I can live up to the blog standard Flo and Alice have set!

Flo Moyer said...

I loved this post! (And thanks for the nice words.)

I totally agree with you on this. As a reader, I like to see a certain type of humor, sentence structure, and pacing when I read Janet Evanovich, for instance. She could have a different plot, different characters, even different growth arcs for her characters--no problem. But without those certain signature traits, I would be disappointed, as they are what entertains me in her writing.

For my own writing, in contemporary romance, I need to write sassy, humorous dialogue to be totally happy. I also tend toward characters who have had my beginnings--working class, week to week survival--whether I make them currently wealthy or not. If anything is going to be my signature, I think those two items will be. Also, I have just written up my third really quirky, kind of unique secondary character in my career, and that might be part of my signature, but one does wonder if that can be done for every book.

Why the first two? Because I used humor to cope with growing up in a relatively stressful environment that had little money attached to it. It's part of who I am, looking at life in a quirky way. (Although you ladies haven't seen much, if any, of that, Danita has on another loop. Example: I chased a snake away from in front of my house by hopping in my Kia Rio and gunning it because that was the biggest weapon I could think of. My husband rolled on that one. He said he would have loved to have been home to see that. I told him if he had been home, he would have gone out there and chased away the snake. Ha.) It's just how I think, I guess. It translates over into my contemporary writing some. I hope.

Lisa--on the repetition of words... I'm scared to death of that. I hunt down those suckers every time to the absolute best of my ability before I submit the final draft.

Sorry I'm so late chiming in on this--I have been really working hard on my April 15th book deadline.

Great blog. And I love the pictures of you all. You're a great looking bunch of ladies.