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Terrible Tips Tuesday: Stay in Your Lane

February 22, 2011

In this post, blog writer extraordinaire Briane Pagel discusses how pretty much every role Tom Hanks and Harrison Ford play are the same.  That is that they each stick to certain types of roles for the most part.  In Ford’s case it’s kind of obvious.  I mean Han Solo and Indiana Jones are pretty much the same type of dude.  Tom Hanks is far less obvious, but the analysis does make sense.

Anyway, this would seem to be a bad thing.  We’re always being told that variety is the spice of life and that diversity is great.  After all, we live in the Great Melting Pot, right?  So it would seem that limiting yourself to certain types of characters is not the way to go.

But I disagree with that.  If you can do something well and make money off of it and people aren’t tired of it yet, then keep on doing it.  Specialization is part of the natural order in the modern world anymore.  Heart surgeons don’t on a whim start doing dentistry and vice versa.  Could you imagine if your auto mechanic got bored with that and decided to start doing people’s taxes?  There’d probably be an epidemic of audits.

Of course there are a few “Renaissance Men” (and women) out there, but most of us are lucky if we’re good at one thing let alone at several things.  So if we find that one thing, it’s best to just keep on doing that until we can’t anymore.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with writing, here it is.  If you really like one genre or one world or one character, there’s no shame in continuing with that for as long as possible.  If you like writing romance, then keep doing it.  If you like your fantasy world, keep it going.  If you like your hero (or heroine) then keep things going for him/her as long as you can.

Because just like all of us are lucky to have one talent, in writing we’re lucky if we have one genre we’re really good at.  Stephen King has horror, Grisham has legal thrillers, Danielle Steele has romance, and so on.  Even deeper than that, Tolkein has Middle Earth, Lewis has Narnia, Rowling has Potter, and Meyer has Twilight.  They were all lucky enough to find that one world they were really good at writing and it paid off for them.

Another great example of this is Terry Pratchett.  His Discworld series is at almost 40 books since 1982.  If you do the math, you know that’s more than 1 per year!  He’s done a few other side projects, but he’s kept the Discworld series going all this time.  He was smart enough to realize that was his bread and butter and wasn’t dumb enough to destroy it to move on like Douglas Adams did with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novels.

You’d think that after all these years there’d be a serious drop off in quality, but at least in my mind there really hasn’t been.  That’s because Pratchett was also smart enough not to paint himself into a corner.  The Discworld keeps evolving, adding new technologies and characters so that it remains fresh.  It’s the same way “The Simpsons” has managed to stay around for 22 years.

So what I’m saying is to find what you like and what you’re good at and stick with it.  So long as you don’t hem yourself in too tightly, you can make it last the rest of your life without sacrificing the quality.  Think of it like a marriage.  After you’ve found “The One,” you find ways to keep things lively without destroying the whole thing.  (Though in today’s society most people just get a divorce.)

Don’t listen to that voice that says you need to do something different or something more serious.  That’s what led to Garth Brooks making an alternative album and Snooki “writing” a novel.

Thursday I’ll get into literary first loves, which would have been more appropriate on Valentine’s Day


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  1. I think it depends on what you’re wanting to do with your life. Berke Breathed canceled Bloom County at the height of its popularity because he didn’t want it to become like Garfield or some other comic strips that were obvious milking machines for cash. I think the same can be said of Tim Burton. But for every one of those that sticks to a “rut” or “lane” as it were, there are examples of those like Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorcese that make vastly different things (“Departed” as per se “The Aviator”.

    • That depends how deeply you look at things. At first I wasn’t really sure when Pagel said Tom Hanks’s roles were largely the same (how could the guy from Philadelphia be the same as “Forrest Gump” be the same the same as the kid/man in “Big?”) but after reading the post, I understood what he was saying.

      I’d say most every Tim Burton movie share similarities (not just casting Johnny Depp and his wife in almost all of them). Spielberg got into a pattern of releasing the big blockbuster and then the more artsy movie: Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park 2, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me if You Can, Minority Report, Munich. Even those probably share similarities if you look deep enough.

  2. 🙂 I agree, I think that as writers we need to follow our hearts and our inspiration. We shouldn’t conform to what we think the writing gods want us to do. The novel that I finished a bit ago and am now editing is dystopian YA. The novel that I’m starting to write now is LGBT fiction/romance, not of the YA genre. People write better when they write what they want, so writers should be able to do that.

    ❤ Gina Blechman (fellow crusader)

  3. Grisham and King both branched off into other areas — sometimes with more or less success. “Playing For Pizza” was a terrible book that it seemed to me Grisham wrote to try to make it into a movie, or maybe TV series; it seemed creatively bankrupt the SECOND TIME (SPOILER ALERT!) he had the protagonist arrested for no reason whatsoever, and the ending was more or less predetermined.

    But I digress. As a blogger extraodinaire — thanks for that; I’m going to put it on a t-shirt someday– I also once asked the question about whether you would want to make enough money doing something to never have to work again… if that success meant not being taken seriously in your field. That post, plus related question, here:

    And that’s sort of what Grisham, plus Patricia Cornwell, and others have; nobody really thinks JK Rowling is a genius writer, do they? Or Stephen King? They’re successful at selling books but generally derided as being bad authors (the same with Ms. Twilight; I forget her name.)

    And the more of that thing people do — Tom Hanks aside — the less they get credit for it. The more Steve Carell is Steve Carell, the more we say “Oh, he’s not creative anymore.”

    So I side with you: if you love something, DO THAT THING OVER AND OVER, and make as much off of it as you can; the fact that you love it means you’ll probably do it well, and once you get rich, you can then make side projects or what have you, and try out other things without worrying.

    Plus, I do think that there’s some benefit in following one character for a long time. I kind of liked seeing how Kay Scarpetta, and Harry Potter, evolved over time, and Heinlein eventually combined all of his stories into one big meta-story that made it even more fun.

    Blogger Extraodinaire, signing off!

    • You’re a much better blogger than I am; I can barely keep one blog afloat, let alone five or six.

      What I should have thrown in was the best example of where this philosophy is needed, in music. I hate when a band changes its “sound” for an album. I don’t want the Counting Crows or the Cranberries or REM or Death Cab for Cutie to “rock out,” just like rock fans don’t want Metallica to do a bunch of ballads. It’s not that I want the same album over and over again, but at least stay in the same sonic ballpark. Recently I got burned when I bought the newest Sufjan Stevens album on sale on Amazon without previewing it first. Instead of laid-back folk pop like his last five albums or so I get a bunch of screeching electronic noise. I was super pissed at him and at myself for not previewing it first. Essentially it severed the bond of trust between me and the artist.

      And if I’d thought of it I would have included part of my review (or semi-coherent rant) of Michael Chabon’s “Yiddish Policeman’s Union” where I complain that I really don’t want a literary writer of his caliber to do a Dan Brown-type conspiracy thriller. It’s like Einstein writing a cookbook is how I compared it. You know, if you’re talented at something then why waste time competing in an area where you’re not as talented? Oh, right, you want to grow and all that. By the time you hit your 40s you should be pretty well grown.

  4. I think it is certainly easiest to make a name for ourselves that way, and anyone content at it, more power to them. I’m inclined to crave something a little different. I look at Nora Roberts/JD Robb and while I don’t aspire to write romance, I REALLY love the idea of writing both Cozy Mystery (zany silliness so far as murder goes–and for which I’m contracted) but also family centered suspense. They have little overlap–the one is easier for me, hence the contract, but it isn’t my primary love… my LOVE is all that conspiratorial darkness.

  5. Good point. If you do something well, then you might as well stick with it. On the other hand, it’s also important to try new things, lol!

  6. Great point! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing something and doing it well. I think some new writers might even try to spread themselves too thin in the beginning. Truth be told, even though you may want to write in six different genres, you’re going to have a real hard time in the early goings building a fan following that will want to follow you around to all of them.

    Tom Cruise is the worst when it comes to portraying the same character. They’re ALL Tom Cruise playing (insert character’s name here). Except for Lestat in “Interview With the Vampire” he got out of his own way long enough to do Lestat justice.

  7. Literally just shuttered at the mention of Garth’s ‘alternate’ persona album. :0)

    You’re exactly right; most of us are lucky to be really good at even 1 thing.


  8. Ethan Cooper permalink

    Hi BJ,

    Let’s say a writer has found a setting for his/her fiction–the business world, for example–but publishers treat books with such a setting as toxic waste. What then?


    • Coop brings up a thorny issue. I’d say it depends if you can be happy without selling a lot of books/being published. If you can, then keep writing what you like. If not, then make your businessmen sleazier like “Mad Men” or have them be vampires on the side or something.

      Of course can you really be happy without being published? Probably not. I’m always insanely glad when someone buys a copy of my novel or even comments on this blog. But maybe some people are better adjusted.

      • Ethan Cooper permalink

        Hi BJ,

        Do I really have to make my business characters more sensational? After all, Matt Taibbi in ROLLING STONE likened Goldman Sachs to a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” The field is already sensational. It’s just that publishers don’t think so.

        Happy without being published? I’m 99% certain at this point that a real publisher will never get behind my books and try to place them in book stores. I’m not happy about that and would certainly like to make, say, $50 from my books. But I’ve reached the point where the writing is its own reward.

        It’s lame but true.

  9. I’ve made over $100 from my books. But I’ve spent much more than that in supplies and such…

  10. Hey, thanks for introducing me to Terrible Tip Tuesdays! Your point makes sense. I find that I read the same sort of books, and then I seem to write the same type. It’s not on purpose, it’s just what happens.

  11. This is interesting. I’ve heard that it’s better to stick to one genre and establish yourself. But, meh, I writre, scifi, horror and fantasy. I kinda like the variety.

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