Mentor of the Month: Justin Cronin: The Summer Guest and The Passage, a small critique on repetition

One of the things that writers are warned against is repetitiveness: Don’t repeat words too often if you’re not going for an effect. Don’t be repetitive in how you structure your sentences. Don’t start too many sentences or paragraphs with the same word. Don’t you see what I did there? (Hee hee. But it doesn’t count because I was going for effect. So there.)

Well, I was reading The Summer Guest, Cronin’s second novel and the prologue (Oh no! Another don’t among writing advice!) covers a family coming to a run-down summer camp that they’ve purchased. It’s been abandoned for years. Running water is questionable. Heat is a luxury. The wife, a character named Amy, stays inside while Joe, the husband, chops wood.

And you ask: What’s the big deal?

Nothing really. It’s just that I had to put the book down for a second and go: Wait. Didn’t I already read this?


Yep, in The Passage. Wolgast and Amy arrive at the run-down summer camp in order to hide from the glowstick vampire zombies that are hunting down the world. It’s been abandoned for years. Running water is questionable. Heat is a luxury. The girl, Amy, waits inside while Wolgast, her guardian, chops wood.

It was a little freaky to read. Had the sections been in the same book, I would have thought that there was some kind of parallel that I should be looking for. As it is, when reading through someone’s published body of work, or at least a sample, as I try to do for these Mentor of the Month posts, it just feels like a really awkward mistake. Like the author expected no one to read both books. Or like he forgot about writing the Summer Guest scene when he wrote The Passage scene.

Sure there are differences. But does setting one run-down summer camp in Maine (The Summer Guest) and the other in Oregon (The Passage) really make it that much of a difference? And then you have the issue of the character names…Amy in this case.

Now, a question: When you’re writing, going from one story to the next, how concious are you of repeating scenes? Either in character reactions in the scenes or in the building of the scene itself? Do you figure: Hey, no one’s gonna read this story, so I may as well use this bit over here and gamble that no one will see the similarities? Is it even that big a deal?

And, as writers, how do we even guage where to put these scenes when the publishing order and writing order are not the same? In this case, the similarities were so striking that it threw me out of the story pretty quick. And Cronin had written this scene before the scene in The Passage, which I’d read first.

Mentors Writing Problems

jenny maloney View All →

Jenny writes dark fiction that her mother hates. Her stories and essays have appeared in Across the Margin, Pantheon, Shimmer, Black Denim Lit, Skive, and others. When she’s not writing her own stuff, she’s reading mysteries for Criminal Element. When she’s not writing fiction or reviews, she’s writing/directing/performing/designing plays at Springs Ensemble Theatre.

1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. Or was it completely unintentional? Did he not even realize he was doing it?

    You and I have both picked out similarities in scenes written by colleagues. I don't think they even realized how close those scenes were.

    But it is something to watch for.

    “Subsumed” is the word that is currently banging me on the forehead in “The Passage.” But I'm digging the story nevertheless.

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