Am I repeating myself—yes I am! Do you?

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
I returned to creative writing in 2013, initially with short stories, novellas, poetry and song lyrics. I wrote my first novel in 2014, a police procedural/psychological thriller and tried querying almost 200 agents and publishers with it before realising it was double the length it should be for a debut novel by an unknown author. D'oh!

Undeterred, (I'm stubborn!), I wrote a prequel of the correct length—which I've yet to pitch to agents, as I'm 15,000 words into the third story of what is becoming a series featuring a Cornish detective. I'm already making plans for the fourth novel. As Carol Rose says in her Keeping Things Straight thread, there are tricky problems in maintaining continuity when writing a long series.

I've come across a different dilemma, which reminded me of a technique that one of my favourite crime writers Ed McBain used. He's credited as a pioneer of police procedural novels, and his 87th Precinct stories use exactly the same descriptions of his cast of detectives. Protagonist Steve Carella is always introduced as:

'He was a big man, but not a heavy one. He gave the impression of great power, but the power was not a meaty one. It was, instead, a fine-honed muscular power.'

These brief hints at the looks and nature of his cast of characters are carried across from one book to another. They become a welcome way of refamiliarising oneself with who's who, the thumbnail sketch a mantra.

In my series, the Cornish landscape is as much a character as my heroes and villains, and rightly so as it's a mystical and dangerous place, with plenty of legends and natural hazards. Scores of holidaymakers are injured or killed here every year. Faced with a way of saying this again, I decided to repeat myself:

'Cornwall could be a dangerous place, and it was usually visitors to the county who were caught out by being too relaxed in its deadly beauty. Holidaymakers tumbled off cliffs and into old mine workings or drowned in rivers and at sea.'

I also repeated myself in introducing one of the characters, a forensic pathologist called CC:

'She was unmarried, but enjoyed plenty of suitors over the years. With no children to distract her she was melded with her career—though an aged Grey Parrot kept her on the straight and narrow. The bird's language was as colourful as CC's own, and the pathologist's screech of laughter reminded him of her avian companion.'

I don't see this as laziness, and I see no point in rewriting a description just for the sake of being unique. As I found, when reading Ed McBain as a teenager, readers may like the sense of familiarity the repetition creates.

Do any of you do this?
Personally, as a reader, I'd feel short-changed if I found that the same words were used to describe people or places from book to book in a series. I think the only time authors should do that is in a prologue, where I'd say it's fine to repeat the whole prologue between books in a series, if relevant. But that's just my gut feeling, I don't actually know what accepted practice is...
I am a very grumpy reader and rather rather annoyed by repetitions (as anyone for whom I ever did critique will know :D). It's a different story, though, when it is used consciously, as a part of the style or to highlight things. I am reading just now a book in which constant repetitions, not only of phrases, but themes is obviously intended (Mario Vargas Llosa, "Bad Girl"). While recycling the theme in each chapter (move to another city, make a friend, meet the girl of your dreams again, watch her disapear, lose a friend) seems to serve its purpose, it's even soothing in a way, I am getting really sick of the phrase "Tell me one of those stupid, sentimental things".

In my writing, I root out all repetitions, unless I want to specifically recall/stress something.
It can be tricky. If your series is actually a serial (the terms are use differently at times than I'm used to using them) where it's expected the readers need to read each book/installment in order (think Stephen King's The Green Mile), I don't think it's necessary or expected to find the exact same descriptions of characters in each book.

Even if the books in the series can be read in any order, using the exact same words to describe a character or a place in each book might become more annoying than identifying. Doesn't mean you shouldn't do it, but I'd be careful how much of that you use in each book.

Then again, some readers don't start a long series at the beginning. (insert eye rolling here) I read a recent review on a site I won't bother naming, where the reviewer-bless her heart-had plucked up book #8 of my 12-book series, The Weathermen, and decided that was a great starting place. Most of her review was saying in various ways how "lost" she felt. DUH. Yeah. I'm sure she did feel that way.

Individuals readers have their own ideas of how books in a series should be read. Some feel they should each be standalones, but other readers get upset by that. They want to see the overarching themes, characters, story lines throughout. What most of them don't want, unless warned ahead of time, are cliff hangers. This of course, relies heavily on genre as well. Some genres favor different ways of writing series or serials. So, as in all things, I would say go with what your gut tells you is right.

A quick word on my use of prologues, only because I don't want anyone to be confused by this. I use them, and they are the same at the beginning of each book in the series, but not exactly the same. In The Weathermen, since the series spanned two full years set in the future, the prologue did change in small ways over the life of the series. It was only used to provide a quick (it's only a page and a half) set up of what happened and why, and where we're walking into the action. And I only did it to avoid having to weave in the same back story for twelve straight books. That, IMHO, would have become tiresome and repetitious.

I have a prologue planned for two of my new series that will be the same in each book, but I'm not using one for the third series. I'm not a huge fan of them myself unless they are used in this way - for set up, and to avoid having to repeat a lot of back story in each book. A lot of authors use them in the wrong way, and they become annoying to read. For example, in the shifter series, the very reason the lynx shifters are able to do what they can, and possess the enhanced abilities they do, has to do with a legend. Instead of finding a way to weave in this legend in each book, I will use a quick prologue to explain it.

Hope this all makes sense, and that it helps. :)
I'm on the fence. In a series I've been told that each book should stand alone. There are parallels in TV series - even the theme music - and provided that there is a substantial new story then I csnnot see the harm. I'm an avid reader with a memory getting worse by the day and un;ess it's dreadfully blatant then I don't get upset.

My typing is tending to crap too..
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Litopia's June Meetup

June Meetup - last call