The Same Book? [And Lots of Spoilers]

For at least several years, I’ve been puzzled by the handful of readers/reviewers who insist I write “the same book” over and over.  My first reaction was that they weren’t reading all of what I wrote… but several of these reader reviewers have clearly read much of what I write.  So my latest reaction tends to be, “If you find what I write so objectionable in its repetition, why do you keep reading my work and repeating your objections?”  If you don’t like it… then don’t read it.  I understand that my work doesn’t appeal to everyone.  No author’s work does.

But perhaps they feel so strongly that they’re compelled to try to persuade others that my work is “repetitious” or the like?  Why?  What’s the point?  I’ll admit that there are books and series that I feel the same way about… but I don’t spend time and ink trying to make that point to those who love those books and series.  If their followers enjoy them, then that’s their pleasure.

This “sameness” criticism has been applied especially to the Recluce Saga, and since several amateur reviewers [who consider themselves superior] continue harping, I thought I’d try to take a more analytical look at the saga and see if I could identify persistent areas of “sameness/repetition.”

One charge is that I always write about young people trying to find their way, yet out of the 16 books in the Recluce Saga, only four deal with protagonists younger than 20 [six, if you count the second book in the case of Lerris and Cerryl], and those young people come from very different backgrounds, ranging from being an orphan to being the son of a ruler.  In six of the sixteen books, the protagonists are well-established in their occupations and all over 30. Do they all then go from rags to riches?  In only three cases in all the Saga do the protagonists become absolute rulers – Cerryl, Lorn, and Saryn.  While Cerryl does move from “nothing” to high wizard, Lorn is the son of the fourth most powerful man in Cyad, and takes two books and much effort to reach the top spot. Saryn begins as number two in Westwind and ends up as number one in Lornth. Creslin starts out as the son of a ruler and ends up as one of five members of the ruling council, in roughly the same place after a great deal of trial and tribulation.  Kharl is a prosperous cooper who loses everything and finally manages to become a modestly endowed junior member of the aristocracy.  Dorrin  comes from a prosperous background, is exiled, fights, and ends up as what might be called an engineering tribune who founded Nylan. Justen begins as an engineering mage and ends up as a druid-influenced gray wizard and far from wealthy.  Rahl begins as a scrivener and ends up as the Mage-Guard advisor to the provincial governor. Nylan begins as a ship’s engineer and ends up as a gray mage in Naclos.    So… most of them did somewhat better for themselves, if at rather high costs, but not all did.

Well… maybe the books are stylistically similar.  Of the sixteen, two were written in the first-person past tense, four in the third-person present tense, and ten in the third-person past tense [which is the POV used in about 90% of all F&SF books].  That doesn’t present an overwhelming “similarity” in approach and actually differs greatly from the average.

Then does this purported sameness lie in the plot or the characters?  I’d be the first to admit that there is one definite element of similarity – the main characters all do survive and succeed to some degree, but the degree of their physical success varies considerably.  Creslin and Megaera effectively lose their entire families and end up trying to build a land on a desert isle.  Lerris ends up with no wealth, and no family except his wife.  Lorn becomes emperor, but loses his father and sister, and his remaining sister exiles herself. Justen spends his life as a wandering gray mage.  Rahl becomes a high-ranking mage-guard and does marry his love.  Kharl loses his wife and children, but eventually gains true love and  small estate.  Nylan gains nothing, except his wife and son, and loses his daughter.  Cerryl gains great power, and will spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder.  Maybe I’m missing something, but the only similarity I see is that these characters have paid high prices for their survival and success, and the prices they have paid differ in how and when they were paid.

Heinlein once observed that there were only three plots in fiction – the success story and its opposite, the tragedy; the love story; and the story of the person who learned something.  I’ve only written one tragedy [The Forever Hero], and while many of my books incorporate love stories, I will admit that most of my books do center on people who have learned something and who have succeeded to some degree – if generally at a high personal cost.

If some reviewers claim that this is writing the same book again and again, then the same claim could be lodged against  90% of all the books ever written, because every book with a plot will have a basic sameness compared to what came before, and like pretty much every writer, I’m guilty of that sameness.

So what else is new?

 

28 Responses to “The Same Book? [And Lots of Spoilers]”

  1. Jim 2 (to avoid confusion) says:

    You do have some common themes — especially personal responsibility for actions, and that decisions and choices have prices. Those prices vary, but your characters generally pay a price for what they do and receive. Looking at Recluce, Lerris ages drastically, and loses his most of his family by the end, for example. Others are blinded by their use of violent force. Ryba clearly became isolated from everyone around her due to her visions. Chaos users bodies, and even the things around them are ravaged and destroyed almost as a byproduct of their chaos use. But each story also stands on it’s own, and each character has their own growth and challenges to face.

  2. Frank says:

    I believe that the relationship between a book and a reader is one of the more personal, subjective and intimate relationships available. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying something weird about the author, it’s the story that I am commenting on. The story is, after all, comprised of what an author records and a reader’s perception of that record, both of which are required to make it happen.

    As an avid reader and consumer (of the written word), the only objection I would think that could be lodged is that a novel was not worth the cost paid, and, if you assume that a library is available, that becomes meaningless.

    I won’t presume to “review” your works, or any other author’s for that matter, because I’m not a writer and not, in my view, qualified to make professional criticisms. I can, however, make consumer critiques…done primarily with my credit card, via amazon, books-a-million and, occasionally, some used book stores I’m lucky enough to find.

    I have so critiqued everything that you have written, or, more accurately, everything listed in you books as your published works. Hope you liked the reviews.

  3. Sam says:

    Hmmm.

    Speaking of repetition this blog post seems familiar. I have this feeling of deja vu that I’ve read a similar post sometime in the last year pointing out the differences in your books in order to demonstrate that they aren’t all the same.

    If I was to suggest any kind of commonality/repetition it would be an underlying philosophy/worldview about the way societies and individuals operate. Also all your protagonists that I can recall have been fallible but they’ve also been highly competent. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where your protagonist has had power, position or both and been incompetent or at least mediocre. Uninformed or uneducated at times perhaps but generally fast learners who rarely if ever make the same mistake twice.

    Sometimes we ordinary mortals can be brilliant and drastically flawed at the same time. Eminently capable in our profession and colossal failures in our personal lives or vice versa.

    Another type of story I don’t think I’ve ever really read in your books is about a character who has passed their prime and is in decline and struggling to hold on to what they once had.

    Occasionally human failings are the jumping on points for your stories but I don’t see them as the drivers. For example Rahl started out as one of your most flawed characters I have read to date; his poor/selfish decisions in the beginning led to undesirable outcomes and he quickly learnt to make better choices.

  4. Curtis says:

    I’ve read many of your books and own most of those that I’ve read, so take this from someone who greatly enjoys your writing. I find that the sameness in your books comes from the feeling that your protagonists are the same person. Yes, they have different backgrounds, different abilities, encounter different types of challenges and enemies, they’re not even all men. I still can’t escape the sense that I’m reading about the same person with a different name.

  5. StevenH says:

    I think what the reviewers are not realizing is the cyclical nature of the Chaos/Order power struggles. While on the surface it may seem as if the same Recluse story is being told over and over, it isn’t. The Balance keeps being tipped one way, then the other, over and over again because people aren’t realizing how the world works (or, if they do, they have agendas that take advantage of the unbalance between Order and Chaos). That cycle is broken by Lerris, once he understands the underlying nature of things and decides to put an end to the oscillation.

    (Well, that’s what I got out of it, anyway, after I read them in story-chronological order. I had missed that the first time, when I read them in a more or less random order, as I picked them up.)

    So I don’t agree with the reviewers who say that it’s the same story, at least, not in the sense that they mean it. In a sense, it *is* the same story, told over a series of books; one long saga. But the books don’t strike me as being any more repetitive as anyone else’s series’ books. The variations in character, plot, and execution are enough to make them all distinctive enough (YMMV).

  6. Andrew says:

    I think it is your striving for realism that results in people thinking your main characters are the same. There are no obvious villainous antiheros, they are all just making the best rational decisions they can with the cards they’ve been dealt (or they experience an extra helping of strife until they do begin to face reality). Everything is rationalized whether its killing thousands or destroying entire cultures; while the characters give evidence of emotion in the face of these events, usually the precise nature of that emotion is left to the reader’s deduction.

    So I think it boils down to your strength as a writer for telling “real” stories, and I don’t think your readership would want you to cut back on that.

  7. Joe says:

    I do not agree there are only 3 types of story. Hyperion, itself an hommage to the Canterbury tales is very different from your books. As is Dune, or the Saratoga Barrier. As is the Foundation series or the Robot series from Asimov.

    The best novelists can invent more than one convincing original interesting story, but few can. For instance I really like Magician by Raymond Feist, but all his other books are boring repeats. CJ Cherryl came up with more new ideas (Cyteen, Snare, the Faded Sun) but still got stuck in a rut with her Foreigner series and many of her books suffer from the same lack of new ideas. Even Frank Herbert’s Dune degenerated at the end — not to mention his son’s cartoonish rendition of the Dune prequels.

    And that is the point: do you introduce new ideas or do you simply just write the story of someone who’s vaguely interesting, in a kind of vaguely interesting world? Adiamante introduced new ideas, in particular codification of responsibility. Flash introduced some ideas about technological advances in advertising. I wasn’t that impressed by the book I read of the Imager series. And yes, it’s hard to be original all the time, but I very rarely found Asimov repetitious.

  8. I am an avid fantasy reader and I have read so many series. While I will agree with people that some are better than others, yours are simple special. I never am happier than when I have a new imager or recluce nover to read. Please ignore your critisizms or at least don’t let them get to you!

    Can’t wait for your next book!

  9. G.Thomas says:

    Perhaps, and I am just speculating here, it is that at some basic level an author is really projecting his or her own “person” into the characters they write about. As an author becomes more prolific, the more the readers of those works learn and become accustomed to this projected pesona as well as developing a preconceived sense of character based on the previous body of works they have read.

    A discerning reader recognizes that,(since an author is an individual and has a distinct style), some commonality from book to book/character to character is inescapable and will instead concentrate on what the new story is about and who the new character is an individual. At least in my case, I develop an overlying sense of “author” transposed onto the characters I read about. I feel I am seeing into the authors mind as much as I am understanding the characters actions and thoughts. Since the author does not change from work to work perhaps it is just this familiarity with “author” that creates in less discerning readers a sense of repetition in story/character.

  10. Just for amusement’s sake, I’ll extract some comments (including one of mine) from suggestions about Scalzi’s recent appearance in your stead.

    Remember, rather than getting cross about people making fun, remember, we obviously read enough of your works to come up with these ideas, and thought it a keen idea to have some form of collaboration. And I’m embarrassed that I forgot “carpentry.” :-)

    ———————–

    Steve Wright – Now we need a Scalzi/Modesitt mashup, photosynthetic-skinned order-masters dropping onto alien worlds from orbit, forging great weapons to fight orthodox reincarnationist aliens and save the world, while going blind. Or, you know, something like that.
    24 Aug 2011 (edited) +7

    Christopher Browne – I think you need to do up a short story involving a possibly-immortal special forces commando with a major in economics and a minor in ecological reclaimation, who does gourmet cooking and wine tasting in his spare time…
    24 Aug 2011 – Edit +2

    David Lynch – Christopher: You forgot carpentry.

  11. Ryan Jackson says:

    The issue is that people don’t read all the way into the novels. They don’t notice the more nuanced aspects of the character.

    Basically they’re stopping at “Someone Naive to the power structure of the world is thrust directly into the conflict, must learn to use their inate ability with Magic to triumph.”

    That still doesn’t cover all of it. I’d Say Lorn, Creslin and Dorrin all start from a place of understanding and really only needed to learn the mage aspect of themselves.

    I can see what the nay-sayers see. When I first read these as a teenager I thought they were very similar stories. As I’ve reread them over the years that’s changed. Biggest example is it took probably a decade before I really snapped into the fact that Creslin and Justin aren’t “Good” guys.

  12. Martin Hind says:

    I have read everybook that you’ve written and is published.

    Do I enjoy what you write? Yes.
    Do I care what some one else thinks? No.
    Have I noticed similarities and errors (for instance using a Recluce term in the Soprano Sorceress book)? Yes.
    Do I care? No. If I cared I wouldn’t bother reading them.

    The most common similarity that I’ve noticed is that you tend to write the end and work backwards in your epic fantasy series. (Okay not the Soprano Sorceress books). However the only similarity between the major characters is they tend to have strong, very able girlfriends / wives, and sure I get a hint that a lot of your books ‘The woman makes the man.’

    I’m going on here… Didn’t mean to.

    In short, I love your books. I don’t care if there are similarities or not, I will continue to spend my money on them.

  13. Jim 2 (to avoid confusion) says:

    Regarding common terms, ideas or technology (implanted communication, needleboats, FTL drive systems, foods, plants, economics…) — I don’t care and don’t blame an author for transplanting some things across worlds or book series. Why try to reinvent the wheel every time? I’d rather have you spend the energy and time writing the book and developing the characters and plot than trying to invent a whole new technology or whatever every time.

    I read your books because they’re well written. Because the plots interest me and reflect reality. And especially because, as much as I can simply read and enjoy them for what they are — they make me think. You’ve tackled everything from “what is a god? And — what responsibilities does a god have to its followers” to “how much should advertising be allowed to become invisible and circumvent conscious filters and awareness?” As I said — responsibility, both individual and societal, is a common theme I’ve noticed in your writing, but it’s far from the only thing.

    And I vote with my money regularly. I’ve purchased just about every one of your books; you’re one of the few authors I’ll buy the book without even reading the blurb or a few pages (unless I’m trying to remember if I already have it!) Note, I’m not trying to claim that you owe me anything more than the book I buy!

  14. One thing I clearly didn’t make obvious in the initial blog was that I wasn’t finding fault with people who liked what I wrote either because it was “the same” or because they liked it for other reasons, but those who kept complaining that I wrote the same book time and time again and either wondered why I bothered or said they’d never read anything else I read [though some obviously have... and kept complaining].

  15. Derek says:

    Jim pretty much nailed it for me. I’ve been reading your books since my early teens. I stopped even bothering to see what the books were about before buying them simply because your name was on it. Your books are fantastic.

    The only sameness I feel from your books are the overall aspect of the world and how it works, such as Steven mentioned about the cyclical nature of your Recluce Series. I don’t see why that would cause any problems though considering it’s a series. The characters are very much different, otherwise I wouldn’t have favorites! (Lorn, Rahl, Cerryl, and Kharl)

  16. Brad says:

    Funny you should post this, just the other day I read a review of Legacies on Amazon saying essentially the same thing, so I guess that’s one you’re referencing.

    Anyway, I’m a bit surprised to see this blog post, as I don’t think you really need to defend yourself or your work against reviews. People clearly like what you write and vote with their $$ because you’re still writing, still getting published.

    I’ve read about 15 or so of your novels across a few series and stand alones, but they’re not all the same. Saying you write the same novel every time is like saying a techno group writes the same song every time because they are all in 4/4 and 120 bpm. There might be similarities in the base structure, but it stops there.

    And “The Forever Hero” series is by far my favorite of yours… you should do more tragedies.

    • Derek says:

      I’d just like to comment on this and say I completely agree with you about the Forever Hero series. It was a fantastic read.

  17. Jack says:

    I have been reading your novels for years, and have enjoyed everyone of them. As previously noted, there are common elements in your writings. The one that I see time and again is the the “Final Solution” used by the protaganist to solve and unsolvable problem. The consequences are never as clearcut as it would seem, the antagonist or even the whole society is destroyed, but problems still persist. Thats life. Victory doesn’t ensure peace and perfection.
    Anyway, enough rambling. Keep up the good work. I will continue to await your next novel with anticipation.

  18. Ryan Jackson says:

    So I read some of those reviews and another thing came up that made me curious.

    Many of the reviewers, good and bad, make comments about your religious background and how it clearly is pressed forward in your work. (Usually tied to the romance in a given plot).

    Now I don’t really look for these things to begin with. But in reading your works I’ve never really even gotten a clue to what your religious background is and I’ve never felt any such thing pressed in the novels.

    Maybe I don’t see them because I’m not looking? Or are some people just looking for some sort of “justification” for something they didn’t like and so slap the lable of religion on it?

  19. I’m made no secret about my belief about religion. Just like any other belief structure, religions have their good points and bad points. The point I have made about religion is that taking any belief structure — secular or religious — to an absolute extreme is the epitome of evil.

    • Ryan Jackson says:

      I definately got that from your books. I guess I phrased it wrong. I wasn’t really of the opinion that you hid anything, just that the religious message, if any, if your books were on a much simpler moral and ethical scale as opposed to pushing any specific agenda.

      If I got any type of ethical message from your books it was primarily along the lines you just said. Or perhaps a more realistic approach that a person should attempt to do their best to make things fair for as many as possible while accepting that you won’t be able to help everyone and that sometimes the system can’t be fair.

  20. Hob says:

    I’ve read all of your books and the only insight I can offer is that although the stories, Characters, plots are different–the commonality is that all the protagonists eventually bow to ‘environmental law’ and succeed when they work with this law.

    The problem that this creates is that every protagonist having a personality that would allow them to react/accept the environment in the same way without ultimately destroying themselves and others seems repetitious–although many times this is hinted at.

    But this at the same time is your underlying theme or mood/insight about humans–its what makes you popular or unpopular. Maybe the critics like the worlds you create and feel they have more capacity to house other viewpoints?

    More importantly, who cares. The real problem is that people who do not enjoy something convincing others before letting them try feel no responsibility in what they do.

  21. Nichole says:

    Why do you care?

    You’re a talented and very successful writer; one has but to look at the list of published titles and their publishers to see that you are quite accomplished.

    The criticizers, not exactly reviewers given the “depth” of their literary investigations, would appear to be a minority given the great success you have exhibited as a published and widely recognized author.

    Therefor, why would the comments of the few require so much space for you to rationalize your writing to these…people. Frankly, I’m a little insulted that you would spend the effort to address these so-called reviewers; do the many (and I mean the majority) of your readers who have faithfully followed the worlds you have created deserve to see you rationalize what has made so many happy? Should we then, too, criticize your work, the development of your worlds, the timeliness of your publications (well…I don’t think you’ll ever tame our hunger for more, faster).

    Are these works yours and something for us to savor, or are they ours to mold a misshapen until they truly do become crap?

    ~Nichole, loyal reader and long-time fan of the Recluse Series.

    • You’ve asked a very good question, Nichole, and I’ll try to give it an answer. Writers live in isolation. I write for intelligent readers, ones who ask questions such as yours, but there’s one drawback to writing for intelligent readers. First, if two writers of talent write, and one writes less demanding books, in general, there’s far more feedback and greater sales from readers on those books. Intelligent readers enjoy my books, and they keep buying them, but they seldom say very much. I think my readers understand and appreciate what I’m doing, but I rely on instinct, because, frankly, unless I raise these questions every so often, there’s so little feedback that it’s sometimes hard to tell. One of the reasons, among many, for this website and blog is to get that feedback… because prior to doing this, the amount of intelligent feedback that I’ve received was negligible. Second, some of those negative comments come not from reader reviews but from reviewers considered intelligent and perceptive, and I’d like to hear from other intelligent readers, but I’ve discovered that I don’t unless I raise the questions. Third, believe it or not, I’ve actually managed to change some minds by raising the questions… perhaps not as often as I’d like, but when people find that what they’ve said that’s not terribly bright gets questioned publicly, a few of them, anyway, tend to re-think things.

  22. Don says:

    I have been a fan of yours for many years.

    I think Gravity Dreams is one of my favorite all time books.

    I think the sameness that reviewers comment comes from common threads in all your books. The ethos of good vs evil and the hero has troubles, but survives in the end. In the end, most of your heroes end up content with their situation. A gray wizard, living hand to mouth as he travels around the world with no real home, or the ruler of the kingdom, they all end content. They have survived their trials, have had personal growth as a result, and are content with what life has brought them.

    What the reviewers miss completely is the complex interplay in how societies are viewed from the outside and the inside. You do a tremendous job of writing stories from the viewpoints of members of the different societies of the world. Each sees their own land as having its faults but basically good. When you read a story from their viewpoint, you become sympathetic to it.

    Hamador, Cyador, Recluse, Fairhaven each have been shown to be both good and evil. Each tilting one way or another, depending on who the ruler is.

    I recently introduced my 14 year old son to your books. He wasn’t much of a reader when he was younger, but is devouring the Recluse novels. He was really disappointed with me last night. I didn’t return my copy of The Magic Engineer to the the bookshelf the last time I read it. I gave him Mag’gi of Cyador to read instead. That should give me a week.

  23. Sorwen says:

    Personally I consider your books because generally I do know what I’m going to get. I like to leave a book/series on a good note and while there is some tragedy for the most part there is the fact that they did get that reward in the end. Just because you know where you are going doesn’t mean the trip isn’t enjoyable.

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