On writing

The same old themes crop up again and again — even when you don’t plan on it

I find that many of our favorite writers have themes, or story ideas, which they carry across from series to series.  I don’t know if themes are conscious or not.

For example, the female protagonists written by one author are always in formerly abusive relationships.

Our stories?  Well, we didn’t think they were alike, but then we thought about Alliance, where people are trying to kidnap Ean, and Confluence, where—even though it happens late in the book—Yu’s people sort of try to kidnap Ean too.

Or even with Stars Uncharted, which most of you haven’t read yet, where hopefully we’re not giving too much away by saying that one of our protagonists is on the run and that some of our antagonists want her to do something for them.  It gets even worse in Stars Beyond, the book we’ve just handed in to the editor, where they really are after her.  (A bit cryptic, but I’m trying not to give plotlines away.)

Hmm.  Pot calling kettle black?  Definitely.

At the moment we’re tossing up over which stories to send to our agent next.

There’s Acquard, of course, but series books aren’t flavour-of-the-month right now and while Acquard’s not an Ean Lambert story, everyone’s favorite(?) other linesman, Jordan Rossi, does get gig, so that may be a hard sell.  (There’s no guarantee she’ll like Acquard anyway, but we’ll see). We’re considering what else we can send her as well.

She wants space opera. So do we.  And we do write ahead a little.  Not much, but enough that we know whether it’s a story we can write or not.  Which means we need to have written ten or twenty thousand words, minimum, and know how the story is going to finish.  Enough to send samples and a synopsis.

“What about Arrax?” I suggest.  “It needs a major rewrite, but it’ll be a good space opera, and the science behind the story is neat.”

Except … as we propose it, Arrax starts off with someone being captured, and fairly early in the book someone else gets kidnapped.

Sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it.

Not only that, the basic story is about some people going to a planet to look for some MacGuffin. Well, it’s not really a MacGuffin, but people will call it that.  A chase—in space and on planet—looking for some kind of treasure, fighting bad guys to get their prize, and so on.  Lots of fun.

Sound familiar?

Maybe not, but let me reproduce the Goodreads blurb for Stars Uncharted.  (My emphasis on the last paragraph.)

Three people who are not who they claim to be:

Nika Rik Terri, body modder extraordinaire, has devoted her life to redesigning people’s bodies right down to the molecular level. Give her a living body and a genemod machine, and she will turn out a work of art.

Josune Arriola is crew on the famous explorer ship the Hassim, whose memory banks contain records of unexplored worlds worth a fortune. But Josune and the rest of the crew are united in their single-minded pursuit of the most famous lost planet of all.

Hammond Roystan, the captain of the rival explorer ship, The Road, has many secrets. Some believe one of them is the key to finding the lost world.

Josune’s captain sends her to infiltrate Roystan’s ship, promising to follow. But when the Hassim exits nullspace close to Roystan’s ship, it’s out of control, the crew are dead, and unknown Company operatives are trying to take over. Narrowly escaping and wounded, Roystan and Josune come to Nika for treatment–and with problems of her own, she flees with them after the next Company attack.

Now they’re in a race to find the lost world…and stay alive long enough to claim the biggest prize in the galaxy.

Now does it sound familiar?

Yes, well.  Time for a rethink.  Let’s bring out another book we have on the back-burner.  Fergus Burns, with the best bad guy (girl) we’ve written to date.  Alis Mack Carroll.

Meantime, back to the drawing board to rethink why we have so much kidnapping and chasing people in our own stories.

4 replies on “The same old themes crop up again and again — even when you don’t plan on it”

I think there are only so many ways to get tension into a plot. Murder, kidnapping, MacGuffin chasing, etc are biggies. As a reader, we know what to expect if the story starts with one of these and so we can settle in for a good read. Stories that don’t start with that tension can be slow going and get put down. I’m currently reading a YA that started as coming of age, duck to swan thing, it’s turned into an odd duck, still coming of age I think, but now like ten chapters in (about a third of the way), this big magic aspect to the main character has appeared out of nowhere and changed things and the book isn’t turning out to be what I thought. I’ve put it down multiple times now and read other stories in between, and I’m cogitating if that’s why. If the disconnect between what was used as the opening page turner changing so dramatically, and what the page turner is now has put me off, or if I’m just not connecting to the story in part because I don’t care for the way the big magic ability appeared so late in the story. This probably doesn’t even make sense. I guess it’s all relative to what each reader wants in a story. There is a big name author whose stories are so very identical, switch names and abilities and they are the same plot and each usually starts with a murder or a big crime like that that shakes the heroine up and sets the stage for the eventual hero to appear. And I love these stories, each one is so readable, I care about the characters and what happens to them. They make me happy. I don’t mind in the least that each starts with murder or kidnap or theft of the MacGuffin one of those three things, it’s the relationships in the book that drive the story and I love them. Then there is another that has about ten books in her series and each one it’s the same thing, the world will end if the heroine doesn’t save it. This series isn’t about relationships, it’s about the plot, the character is the same after ten books. After the first three, I was tired of the world not ending. There was no tension, the character is now a whiny brat, the world never ended pick a different theme! I guess that’s a long post to say, I wouldn’t worry about repeating your opening page turner, well written books transcend the cause of the tension. I’d rather read three of the author that repeats her tension page turner idea but writes great relationships than finish this one book that doesn’t have a murder/kidnap/MacGuffin but doesn’t write the tension well and has static relationships and I’ll never read another by the author that is ten books in with a repeated plot and a main character that isn’t growing/changing.

Thanks, Denise.

I suppose it would be a different MacGuffin every series, at least. Even with series characters, I admit, I do like them to grow and change, and probably finish eventually.

As a reader, and also as a writer. I always say I’d like to write series the way Robin Hobb does with her Fitz books. Finish the trilogy, then later, when the story is ready, write another one about the same character.

As for those stories that start one way and turn into a totally different story by the end. I read one not long ago (author shall remain unnamed) which was amazing for the first half and suddenly dropped into a weird, totally different book in the second half. It was most disconcerting.

Well, Ian Lambert is from the lower class of Lancia, which, Princess Michelle aside, seems like a fairly horrifying galactic superpower.

***Spoilers follow, for anyone who hasn’t read the trilogy:***

The royal family can, apparently constitutionally, have their own military officers executed with a word. The Emperor can apparently kill anyone by fiat, but that may not be legal. The Navy responds to an oligarch committing fraud by forcing him to commit treason. Business leaders can buy a whole city, and legally evict all its inhabitants, with days to get out of town. This on their home planet!) So, he shouldn’t have any loyalty to Lancia, and Gate Union should logically have his sympathies…

Now, he does become loyal to Princess Michelle, and other Lancastrians, personally…and it all makes sense for the reader, but the opposition (including Emperor Yu) doesn’t know that.

And Lambert has abilities and techniques literally no one else possesses. This makes him invaluable and irreplaceable.

Under the circumstances, everyone in the galaxy should want physical control of Lambert, or else to see him dead. (Heck, Michell practically kidnaps him in the first few pages of Linesman, when he’s “only” a level ten.) With Michelle as the new Empress, and his loyalty to her by now established in the galactic mind, probably he will only face assassination threats. But assassination attempts on him seem likely to be an evergreen, unless more than one other level twelve pops up, or until humanity faces the alien threat that’s out there somewhere…

As he trains others, there will eventually be any number of people with his techniques, though not his unique abilities. Fergus Burns, so far, seems to have unique abilities…others may pop up with specialties not presently apparent. But Fergus Burns seems like another possible kidnap (or seduction) target…unless no one on the other side(s) figures out his special skills. Rossi is also a kidnap target, as the only known level ten with training in Lambert’s techniques.

***Spoilers finished.***

In your first series, kidnapping attempts seemed unavoidable plot points. If there hadn’t been any, I would’ve wondered why the bad guys were so weirdly incompetent. Stars Uncharted hasn’t been published yet, so I can’t speak to why something similar happens there, but I suspect it’s also organic to the story. Starting a novel with a protagonist having previous abusive relationships can be organic to the story, depending on what happens later…and might not be, depending on same. Murder mysteries all feature a dead body. It’s not necessarily something to agonize over.

The plots of the three Linesman novels work, but it is the character development and the relationships that build among the characters which made me turn the pages. I’ve re-read the first book a handful of times, and the next two a couple each. There are any number of more elegantly plotted novels that I will never return to because beyond the undoubted delights of an thrilling sequence of what-happens-next, there is simply nothing else there.

On the business side, further books in the same series can be a land of diminishing returns (only people who’ve read the others will read them), so that’s worth you worrying about. I would’ve preferred another Lambert book, but I’m glad for your career you’re doing something else, as someone who gets turned on by your new book (series?) may read the old ones…other books in the same universe as Linesman could be good for you, too, though, if they genuinely don’t depend on previous knowledge. That worked out pretty well for CJ Cherryh, I think, in the Alliance-Union universe: 27 books (and counting)…though some are pretty tenuously connected.

Thanks, Andrew. There’s a lot in there to make us think. I’m glad you think that kidnapping (or assassination) is a logical step in the Linesman books. And as you say, Fergus is a logical target too. Or we think so.

Or even, as you point out, seduction. The book, Acquard, that refer to often, has an enemy scientist attempting to seduce Jordan Rossi, which kicks of a major plot strand. Although, to be honest, kidnapping and attempted murder lend themselves better to action-driven scenes, which are more fun than romantic interludes.

It’s true what you say about character though. Characters are more important than the plot. I’ll put up with same-old plots, provided I like that characters. I find that happens a lot in movies, too. It’s,”Oh, no, not another Robin Hood remake.” Or, “No, please, no more Sherlock Holmes.” But sometimes they make a great movie (with a tired old story) and it works because the characters work.

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