528. Repeat, with Variations

You hear it said — author Joe Doakes has written the same book thirty times. The phrase is sometimes supercilious and often has more than a touch of envy hidden in it. The implication is, “Hell, I could do that.”

True confession: I couldn’t. Sometimes I feel good about that, and sometimes I wish I could do that, because repetition is one of the main paths to $ucce$$. I keep telling myself it is not the only path.

If you are, or want to be, a writer, you should examine this notion from the viewpoint of a reader, standing in front of a shelf of books, with only enough money and time to buy and read one of them.

The one with the naked woman catches your eye (male viewpoint assumed; for alternate gender, insert your own preference) but you’ve been burned by that advertising gimmick before. One looks likely, but you’ve never read anything by that author before, so you hesitate. If you could find a book by a favorite author, you would be reassured. If you could find a book by your favorite author, featuring a favorite character, your satisfaction would be almost certain.

It’s that simple. In addition, the author has the advantage of not having to invent a new main character for each book. It might be that finding something new for an old character to do would become tedious, but I can’t report on that from personal experience. No wonder publishers want books that can become the first of a new series.

We are talking about comfort food books here; true escapist reading for the times when you want to think, but only just a little. Television substitutes. Something for the long-haul trucker to read at night to take his mind off the fact that his wife is two thousand miles away, and what he would really like to be doing is . . .; you get the picture.

For me, during my first twenty years of writing, my go-to escape was Louis L’amour. I was writing science fiction and fantasy; he was writing westerns. He didn’t exactly write the same book fifty times. If he had, I couldn’t tell his good ones from his bad ones, and he had both. (Read Flint or Conagher, but avoid The Haunted Mesa.)

After beating my head against the typewriter (this was pre-computer) for a few hours, I would pick up a Louis L’amour western and ride off across the plains. Thoughts of interstellar travel were banished until the imagination well refilled itself. It was good stuff, but I don’t read him much any more. I have them all memorized.

I also have Heinlein in the photo at the top, which is a little unfair. He was not guilty of writing the same novel over and over (people who have only read from the second half of his career may disagree), but he only had one character. Male, female, both alternating, old, young — it didn’t matter. Every one was the Heinlein character, so if you liked one of his books, you were likely to like the rest. And if not, not.

The Travis McGee books are a clinic in how to do a series character who can continue to repeat with variations. No one ever did branding as well as John D. MacDonald. Every book contained a color in the title. He wrote The Deep Blue Good-by, Nightmare in Pink, A Purple Place for Dying, the Quick Red Fox, and seventeen more shades. You could recognize a McGee book from across the bookstore. MacDonald’s biography was titled The Red Hot Typewriter. In it, he explained that before he committed to the series, he wrote the first two novels to see if he could stand to be married to McGee for decades. For more, see 49. The Green Ripper.

The Spencer novels belong here as well. I read with pleasure through the first ten or so; each one was reasonably unique and expanded his character. The next thirty were increasingly dreary repetitions; they provided a quick escape and as quickly faded from memory. I still occasionally re-read one of the early novels, but the rest were all one-and-done.

Today, when the writing stalls, I rinse my mind out with Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. I can’t say I really like them, but I always know what to expect.

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