As the end of the year approached, I sat down to write another Christmas-themed blog post. I’ve had this blog for nearly four years now and this would be my fifth Christmas-themed blog post (because I did two in 2015 when everything to do with writing this blog was all so new and I had so much to say). I sat down and tried to write… but nothing happened. I decided I just needed to give it a little more thinking time.
I sat down a few weeks later and tried again. Still nothing. Because apart from the fact that I wanted it to be about Christmas and writing, I had no idea what I was going to write about.
My four previous Christmas-themed blog posts were about:
*Writing a Christmas-themed book (December 2017)
*What a writer wants for Christmas – time, money, inspiration, motivation and luck (December 2016)
*Whether or not a writer should write during the Christmas holidays or take a proper break (December 2015)
*A poem about Santa running into a writer still writing as he was delivering presents – because “the night before Christmas/Was as good night as any/To write a few words/And if possible many” (December 2015)
This is now my third attempt to write this year’s Christmas-themed blog post. But I still had a big fat nothing. After all, how many different ways are there to write about the same thing? Yes, Christmas and writing are pretty broad topics but still, really, how many different opinions can one person have about them? And how many of those opinions will translate into something worth writing (and reading) about?
A handful, a dozen, a hundred, a thousand, tens of thousands, possibly millions? Millions, yes, if we’re talking about millions of writers. More likely a handful if we’re talking about just one writer. Maybe a dozen if we’re talking about a really insightful writer. And obviously that number gets a whole lot higher if we forget about things like being insightful and worth reading.
No, it’s not especially Christmasey but it’s as close as I’m going to get so this is it; I hope you enjoy this year’s Christmas (but not really Christmas-themed) blog post.
Writing the Same Story
Talk to any police officer and they will tell you that ten witnesses to the same crime will all have seen slightly different things and therefore will have ten slightly different versions of the same story. It’s a common writing device to use this approach to tell one story; multiple characters get their turn, each narrating essentially identical stories, the later perspectives revealing a little more, something that the other characters didn’t see or didn’t understand the importance of.
In a piece of writing like this, it’s crucial to develop the distinct voices of each of the characters telling the story. Otherwise, the danger is that readers will start to feel like they’re simply reading the same story ten times, instead of ten slightly different stories.
Writing the Same Topic
Clearly, it’s problematic for me to write about the same topic too many times (especially when the topics are Christmas and writing) but there are plenty of people out there who have no trouble churning out piece after piece on virtually identical subjects (see the work of every right-wing commentator with a weekly column for evidence of this).
The key is identifying all of the smaller components that go into the same topic (the A-Z, the top ten, etc) and then fleshing each of them out until they are large enough to make up a complete piece of writing on their own.
Writing the Same Theme
Ainsley Hayes: “‘He is an Englishman’ is from HMS Pinafore.”
Lionel Tribbey: “It’s from Penzance. Don’t tell me about Gilbert and Sullivan. It’s from Penzance or Iolanthe… one of the ones about duty.”
Ainsley Hayes: “They’re all about duty. And it’s from Penzance.”
“And It’s Surely to Their Credit”, Episode 5, Season 2, The West Wing
Gilbert and Sullivan must have been able to write the same theme over and over if “they’re all about duty”. They’re not the only ones. All writers fall into one of two categories: those who write about the same themes all the time and those who write about a variety of themes. Those who write about the same themes all the time know what they like to write and stick to it. Romance (true love), dystopia (anti-authoritarianism), science fiction (discovery), drama (the meaning of life).
Writing the same theme is a lot easier than writing the same topic because it is so much broader. While romance can seem quite limiting, true love can be about a lot more than just romance. True love can be about parents and children, about friendships, about citizens and countries, about pets and their owners. The same theme is more often than not an undercurrent rather than the easily identifiable plot points.
Writing the Same Character
Patricia Cornwell and Kay Scarpetta. Lee Child and Jack Reacher. Sue Grafton and Kinsey Millhone. Agatha Christie and Miss Marple. Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. Jeff Lindsay and Dexter Morgan. Ian Fleming and James Bond. Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt. Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot (yes, she was good enough to come up with more than one character to write handfuls of novels about).
Kay Scarpetta, Patricia Cornwell’s most famous creation, is referred to in the novels as “doctor, lawyer, chief”, a play on the “Tinker, Tailor” rhyme as well as the fact that she has degrees in both medicine and law as well as being the Chief Medical Examiner for Virginia. Although the focus is on her role as a pathologist, her background gives plenty of scope for a wide range of stories. She also has a past (not a dubious one, just the life that has got her to the jumping off point that is the first novel).
If you have an interesting enough character, you can write about them for the rest of your career. Determining whether you have an interesting enough character, however, can be difficult. Sometimes it’s just a matter of waiting to see how the readers react to them. And if the readers react favourably, then it’s a matter of making sure the character has enough depth to be constantly wheeled out for the next book.
Writing the Same World
I’ve written before about not letting a world you’ve already created go to waste. And if you’ve created a great one and aren’t using it more than once, then you’re not just doing a disservice to yourself, you’re doing a disservice to all the readers who enjoyed immersing themselves in it the first time around.
Writing the same world doesn’t mean you have to write the same characters. Harry Bosch, Mickey Haller, Jack McEvoy, Terry McCaleb and Cassie Black have all starred in their own Michael Connelly novels but all exist in the same fictional version of Los Angeles and appear in minor roles or are referenced in other books of which they aren’t the main character. JK Rowling has written seven Harry Potter books and also released a “textbook” called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them that featured in the original novel. A series of five movies based on it, essentially prequels in the Hogwarts universe, are now being made. JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are all set in the same universe of Eä. What do all these works of fiction have in common? They have been an absolute goldmine – both in terms of earnings for their creators (or their creator’s estate) and as a foundation for continuing reinvention. Books have become films, TV shows, plays and merchandise beyond even the most confident writer’s imaginings.
Developing a fictional world that can withstand the constant return of a writer to plunder it time and time again is not a simple thing. But done right, it can be a marvellous thing – for both writers and readers.
So how many different ways are there to write about the same thing? Fewer ways if we’re talking about really specific topics, many more if we’re talking about broad themes. But there are two crucial things when doing it:
*Keeping it all straight in your mind – nobody is better at picking up discrepancies than devoted readers and they will not hesitate to let you know about it.
*Keeping it different enough – even when writing or reading about the same thing multiple times, both writers and readers are looking for something new.
Best wishes to everyone for safe and happy holidays and a 2019 full of wonderful writing and reading experiences.