In this business of publishing, your definition of success changes as time goes by. It’s a ladder: When you’re at the bottom and not even on the ladder, not even published in any way, you just want to see your name in print – someone else’s print, that cost someone money to print. Even a zine called Everything in This Zine Sucks seems like a dream at that stage. Then, once you’ve seen your name in print a few times, you start to want to get paid – just a little – for your stories. You’ll even accept chickens and McDonald’s gift certificates just to be able to say you got paid. And so on, until you’re a hugely successful novelist demanding that solid gold toilets be installed in your house before you write a single word for your next blockbuster book.
Or so I’m told. I’m sort of at the lower-middle of that ladder myself.
Of course, one of those steps on the ladder is publishing a book. Just a book. One, tiny novel. Once you do that, of course, you immediately want to publish fifty or seven hundred more – eventually flooding and dominating the universe with your literary output until you are proclaimed Emperor and given absolute authority – and at this point, assuming you manage to do so, you’re in serious danger of hitting The Rut.
When I was younger, I read a lot of books by Jack L. Chalker. I still love those books, and I still have the cheap paperbacks I bought back when I was a kid, because I never throw or give books away, ever. Chalker was a master and I can only hope to publish as many books as he did – but Chalker had a Rut. We all do. The Rut is your Theme You Can’t Escape. Often subconscious, it’s an overarching concept that creeps into all of your work, or at least most of it.
For Chalker, his rut was body transformation. I haven’t read every book the man wrote, and I may be forgetting something (I often do, because of the booze), but so many characters get repeatedly transformed into some other creature – while retaining their personality – in Chalker’s books, you start to expect it. No matter how cool the overall premise is, no matter how inventive the plot or how appealing the characters, you know going in that Chalker is going to transform some or all of the folks he’s writing about into mythical creatures, SF monsters, or blue-skinned gods of some sort.
Nothing wrong with that. We all have themes we can’t escape, tropes that show up over and over again, creeping even into our non-SFnal work. Sometimes these themes will be buried, deep and hard to see, sometimes they’re right there in front of you, obvious.
You have to get beyond one book or series of books to really see, however; in a series of related books, it’s natural to have shared themes or obsessions that bubble under all the time. You’re writing about the same characters in the same universe, after all. When your first series of books deals with a group of teenagers with special powers who are hunted by the powers-that-be, and your third, unrelated series deals with a different group of teenagers with different special powers who are hunted by the powers-that-be, well, you might have a Rut going there.
Is The Rut a problem? Not necessarily. Our obsessions drive our work, after all – we’re exploring things that interest, terrify, and amuse us. Trying to explore themes that don’t interest/amuse/terrify you would be sort of like writing a textbook that resembles a novel: All the parts might be there, but nothing would pop off the page. If your Rut is feeding the world crackerjack stories, no worries. But once you notice The Rut, it starts to worry you a bit, just because you have to start wondering if you’re a one-trick pony, writing the same story over and over again.
The big question, I suppose, is whether you’re bringing anything new to your obsession each time. If you’re exploring new, bold horizons using a familiar tool, bully for you. If you’re just falling back on familiar plot twists to keep things moving, well, that will bite you in the ass soon enough, grasshopper.
What are my Ruts? You tell me. I think I know; I’ve got enough unpublished material here to give me a fair idea well before my work goes public. And no, booze and pantslessness are not Ruts, technically. Those are Lifestyle Choices.