Confession: I was shoulder-deep into the manuscript revision of my fourth book, which has a deadline of, oh, one week from now, when I realized I had to write this blog post. And for the life of me, I could NOT come up with something to discuss. That tends to happen when I fully immerse myself into a book – all other aspects of my brain shut off. So I asked some writer friends if they had any subjects they wanted me to cover, and the wonderful Kris Riggle, who has a new book out next week called The Life You Imagined  (and who DID NOT, I promise, ask me to say that for her!), asked me how I ensure that I don’t plagiarize myself, how I ensure that I don’t write the same thing book after book.
And I thought – what a great freaking question! Because now, on my fourth book, this is a huge concern of mine, and something that I am taking very strong steps to protect myself against. But at the same time, I’m also aware of the fact that quite simply, this is also who I am as a writer: I have a voice, a way of writing, a tone that is present in all of my books, and I think that readers have come to expect that from me…so I’m trying to toe this line, to figure out the balance between recreating my work and challenging myself and not, say, offering a work so different that no one recognizes the threads that tie all of my books together.
So. This is what I’m doing.
1) I’ve made a very conscious choice to eliminate any magical realism from this book. (And even if you don’t write magical realism, insert XYZ into your own work.) My past two books have been defined by this concept, and initially, I was urged to include the magical realism twist in this one too. But I thought, “You know, I’d really like to prove that I’m not a one-trick pony. That I can create a very grounded, albeit high-concept book, without that suspension of disbelief.” And so, out went the magical realism, even if that’s what I’m known for.
2) I am challenging myself to write in a way that I’ve never written before – namely, the book is pocked with scenes told in the third-person. Now, my comfort zone is first person. I can write in first person until the end of time. Third person, in fact, is my mortal enemy. But I wanted to try something different, push myself. And thus, I did. And guess what? Damned if honestly, those aren’t the best written scenes in the book. Why? Probably because I didn’t have my old habits to fall back on, my word patterns that are so familiar to rely on. By stretching my brain, I feel pretty confident that I’m stretching my writing too.
3) I’m trying to give my characters hobbies and traits that I haven’t yet explored. It is easy, after all, to essentially write the same person over and over again. I try, actually, to do this with each book. Jillian, my protagonist in Time of My Life, was very, very different than Tilly, my protagonist in The One That I Want. And similarly Nell, my new protagonist, has her own skew of the world – namely, one in which she’s lost her memory in an accident. Throwing myself into something so unfamiliar allows me to create something entirely new.
4) I try to be very conscious of words and phrases that, well, I use too easily, too often. For me, those are (among others): push, press, absorb, exhale, and guts. (Again, among many, many others.) Anyone who has ever been copyedited very quickly sees the crutches on which he or she leans. For me, it’s these expressive or active verbs. So I reread these sentences and try my very best, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not, to rethink them, tweak them, write them in a way that I haven’t before. Which isn’t to say that I remove my voice from this book or this character. I’d like to think that instead, I’m fine-tuning it, improving it each time I step up to the plate.
It’s a tricky thing, and I can see how authors who write ten books end up essentially writing carbon copies of their previous work. Not because they’re being lazy, but because many of us have our way of doing things, and shaking that up requires a lot of mental acuity and a lot of sweat. I’ve even been thinking that writing one book a year might not be best for my creative process, despite whatever contractual obligations I might have. Brains need time to refresh themselves, so if mine isn’t up to the task in the ways that I’ve laid out above, I’ll rethink and step away until I can be sure that I’m truly game for writing an original.
I’d love to hear how you guys ensure that you’re not plagiarizing your own works too!
Photo courtesy Flickr’s One From RM