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On writerly delusions, starting with my own

This is, in some ways, a continuation of the last post, because these are the types of things I think about when I should be writing.

Before I started writing for publication -- as opposed to writing the things that I would never try to get published -- I equated good with sales. This is in part because I didn't pay attention to bestseller lists or in-store placement when I was choosing a book; I chose a book I wanted to read. Anything else seemed irrelevant. I had no idea what numbers which novels had garnered, nor did I care. If I loved it, it must be selling.

When I started writing for publication, I knew, as all writers know (yes this is irony) that if I wrote a book that was good enough, people would love it, and their love would translate into popularity and sales.

I wrote a book that was deemed good enough to be published. But its sales weren't great; it did get some good reviews, but also some mixed ones. And I accepted the bad parts because I knew that I hadn't quite managed to translate what I wanted to say clearly enough. I was trying, still, to figure out things like structure, pacing, narrative flow. I did the best that I could do at the time, I really did - but I knew that I hadn't quite managed it. I wasn't there yet. I had done some things right; I had done some things wrong.

So I had to figure out what I'd done wrong, and make sure I didn't make the same mistakes in future novels.

When I wrote Hunter's Death, I'd finally begun to subsume so much of what I knew intellectually into an organic process; I think that book was better in many ways than the books that had come before it. People liked it. I knew it wasn't perfect, but I felt like I'd finally gotten close. So close.

Broken Crown was the book that taught me the most about the intersection of reading, writing, and the blinders I had been wearing, without any awareness of them, to that point.

Broken Crown was the first book I ever finished that I was certain was almost exactly what I'd envisioned. Yes, of course there were revisions, and all the usual additions to make things clearer (and really, having to add 250 pages should have been a clue). But...this was the book that said and did what I meant it to say and do.

You can probably see where this is going.

I was utterly baffled by the response to it. It was, I knew, the best thing I had ever written; it was the pinnacle of my craft to that point. But... somehow, it failed to allow readers to connect with it. The Jody Lee cover was fabulous, and I think people picked it up for that, and still pick it up because of that cover. But somehow hundreds of thousands of people didn't love it, even though I'd finally, I thought, succeeded.

So the negative reviews for this book were the first bad reviews that actually hurt. I was totally confused by them (this reaction makes me laugh, now). And it wasn't until I read a review (I think in Starlog) in which the reviewer said readers would either love the book for its cultural density, complex characterization, multiple viewpoints -- or they would hate it for exactly the same reason-- that the lightbulb finally went on.

Yes I had finally written what was, in my mind, the book I wanted to write, and no, the success of the writing goal did not guarantee that everyone else would love it. A lot of people did love it, because they read for some of the same reasons I do. But a lot of also people found it impenetrable. Or, you know, boring.

Because I had always, on some level, assumed that people didn't love love love my books because I hadn't quite gotten good enough, arriving at a point where I thought I had and finding the view from that pinnacle quite different than I expected changed the goal that had pulled me through the writing of seven novels (well, eight really, because I had finished Uncrowned King by the time Broken Crown was published). I was not going to have the sales of David Eddings overnight. This book that I loved and that I had been so happy with was not going to make me Robert Jordan.

I think this is a natural progression for many, many writers. The lightbulb goes on. People read for different reasons, and what they love to read is often not what everyone else loves to read. I think that as readers we already know this -- but while the impulse to write and create comes naturally out of what reading meant to us, we often don't apply what we feel for books in general to what we feel for our own stories. Does this make any sense?

Well, no.

And it makes the writing much harder, in some ways, because there is suddenly no clear metric, no clear way. Your love for your own story is almost -- but not quite -- irrelevant (I'll return to this). Even if you do not fail your story in any way, it's still irrelevant because you are not the only person who will read it. The success or failure is in part in the hands and hearts of the people who will try to read what you've written, no more and no less.

You can do everything right with regards to the actual writing. You can lay out the perfect structure, you can make it as real as you possibly can, you can write perfect metaphors, perfect words -- in the end, it doesn't matter if what you've written doesn't speak to your audience.

I was lucky in some ways; enough of what I did love was liked by people who could make publishing decisions; enough of what I did love was liked by people who buy books. But... I was never going to reach Robert Jordan numbers because of what I'd chosen to write.

So what did that leave me? With the decision, in its entirety, of what I chose to write.

But the thing about writing is this: You need to love what you write. (Listening to writers who are pulling all their hair out and cursing their work does not perhaps drive this point home to people who don't write, but trust me, it's true.) You need to love it enough that it has heart, because without heart, no matter how fabulous it is, it's cold and mechanical, and people won't connect with it even if they can't articulate why.

And there are some stories that I, at this point in my life, can't love. I just can't. I can take a good, hard look at the market and I can see what's selling -- but I can't find a story of my own to love in all of that that would give me access to those readers.

So I try to figure out what, in my stories, doesn't work, and what does. I give up on ever gaining the love or approval of certain readers. I understand that some of my writing choices will lose people.

But I understood that on some level before I started. I understood that writing fantasy novels -- in series no less -- had already cut me off from a vast swathe of readers. It cut me off from a vast number of very vocal writers whose work I admire as well, because, well: Fantasy Series.

We all have our delusions. Mine was: When I finally do everything right, I will sell tons. Others have the: When I am published, people will of course love this book and recognize me. The delusions we entertain produce unfortunate outbursts when we're finally forced to face the truth.

Some people flail in public, because they're still trying to figure out why. And while people who are more objective (i.e. not them) could tell them, they're not really absorbing the words; there are some lessons we kind of have to work our way around to on our own, with the hope that once we finally get it we won't have offended everyone along the way. Before this happens, we get things like the author who is unhappy with agents. Or editors. Or who feels that publishing is somehow a vast conspiracy and for Insiders Only. Choose your delusion.

It is not just people who can't get published who do this; people who are published -- and who discover the hard truth about being published firsthand -- do it as well (often by dismissing things that they don't like that do sell, like romance or spy novels or fantasy series), frequently going so far as to say readers are just stupid or readers just want garbage.

Well, no.

Name of the Wind was a fabulous book. The writing was fabulous, on a word for word level; it was lovely, it was spare in the right places, lyrical in the right places; the characters, even the small ones, felt real. And that book sold because something in the story reached readers. It was in no way garbage. It was in no way phoned in or dashed off or ... any of the things that are often said about books that sell.

So I know that I can write something that intricate, that real, and still reach people. Or rather, I know that it can be done.

Still trying.

Comments

( 30 comments — Leave a comment )
manga_crow
Apr. 21st, 2009 09:28 pm (UTC)
For what it's worth, the moment I finished The Broken Crown was the moment I knew I had just found one of my favorite authors =) (and The Uncrowned King just cemented that)

But you make a really valid point; it's a lesson that can be learned earlier, too. I remember one time in high school lending a good friend a copy of a book I thought was incredible, only to hear when I got it back "why did you loan me this piece of crap?". It hurt, even though the writing wasn't mine; how could he not love the things that I love in a book?

It was a good lesson as a writer. Thankfully, I have the luxury of writing as a hobby, so I can keep writing the things I love to read. Maybe someday one of the books I submit will strike an agent or publisher as something lots of people will love - I'm not holding my breath though :p

(And yes, I think Name of the Wind is an excellent answer for those who think that good writing can't sell well. Though I miss some of the emotional impact I get from the books that I really consider my favorites)
sartorias
Apr. 21st, 2009 09:32 pm (UTC)
Well said, oh yes. This so resonates.

(Though I think Rothfuss' book has just the right blend of splendid writing and the wish-fulfillment hero who just always wins. That is a powerful, powerful trope.)
blythe025
Apr. 21st, 2009 09:38 pm (UTC)
Thank you. This was a great post, and I'm sure I have plenty of my own delusions.
burger_eater
Apr. 21st, 2009 10:09 pm (UTC)
My debut novel comes out in the fall, and right now it is all potential. I can't help but daydream about how successful it will be, and how that would change things for my family.

My expectations--really, my hopes--are distracting and nerve-wracking. I'm trying to shed all hope and take it as it comes.
msagara
Apr. 22nd, 2009 03:33 am (UTC)
My expectations--really, my hopes--are distracting and nerve-wracking. I'm trying to shed all hope and take it as it comes.

This is the direct result of knowing too much *wry g*. But honestly, I will threaten to at least break your legs if you are not delirious with joy and excitement when you get your author's copies, regardless. It's the first book, and that one is always special :D.
burger_eater
Apr. 22nd, 2009 04:45 am (UTC)
My legs and I will behave appropriately. :)
stillnotbored
Apr. 21st, 2009 10:14 pm (UTC)
And when I should be writing, I read your posts and think about them.

I thought watching my friends go through the entire publishing cycle, the edits, the reviews, sweating sales, etc. had stripped me of most of my delusions. I know I haven't thought that 'good' equated sales for years, not when it came to my own stuff anyway.

Beta readers stripped me of more, both with their comments and people totally blowing off giving me comments. I might love my book and think it's the best thing I've written, but other people? Not so much.

And anything that might be left over and hiding in a corner the rejections I'm getting from editors at publishing houses are killing off. They all say wonderful things about me and the book, and then they say no.

I'm trying to hang onto enough of the delusion that what I write is good and that someone else will love these stories enough to buy them. Right now I'm choosing to call that faith.
msagara
Apr. 22nd, 2009 03:35 am (UTC)
I'm trying to hang onto enough of the delusion that what I write is good and that someone else will love these stories enough to buy them. Right now I'm choosing to call that faith.

Every single book, every single story, is an act of faith, I think. It seems to require less faith -- from the outside -- if the person struggling with it has already been published, but on the inside, it's not that much different (having done both).

As long as you don't give up, and you still struggle, which you do, you will get there.

Of course, once you do, there's a whole bunch more 'there' that wasn't as obvious, but by that time, you'll be used it.
kalbear
Apr. 21st, 2009 11:16 pm (UTC)
The delusions we entertain produce unfortunate outbursts when we're finally forced to face the truth.

What a brilliant line.
la_marquise_de_
Apr. 21st, 2009 11:37 pm (UTC)
I am somewhere else in the spectrum, in that I find it hard to believe that anyone who doesn't know me would even look twice at my book. I am still baffled that they do and that they even tell me about it. But then, I spent 20 years writing non-fiction and that is all about not getting sales, so maybe I'm still in that mindset. What baffles me is when books I love -- books of my heart written by authors I admire -- aren't topping the bestseller lists. Not because my taste is so great in my opinion, but because these books are so blow-away wonderful.
msagara
Apr. 22nd, 2009 03:36 am (UTC)
What baffles me is when books I love -- books of my heart written by authors I admire -- aren't topping the bestseller lists. Not because my taste is so great in my opinion, but because these books are so blow-away wonderful.

This is why the reader part of me just assumed that they were bestsellers. How could they not be when they were so great?

I've since come to understand that this is not the case -- but that part still breaks my heart sometimes.
deborahjross
Apr. 21st, 2009 11:38 pm (UTC)
Wonderful, thoughtful post.

fwiw, THE HIDDEN CITY grabbed me every bit as much as did THE NAME OF THE WIND.
msagara
Apr. 22nd, 2009 03:38 am (UTC)
fwiw, THE HIDDEN CITY grabbed me every bit as much as did THE NAME OF THE WIND.

o.o Thank you.
themis
Apr. 22nd, 2009 12:29 am (UTC)
It took me two tries to get through the prologue and first chapter of The Broken Crown. That's a level of effort I've only ever really made for one other book (Brideshead Revisited), and I found your book the more rewarding experience (in Waugh's defense, that is not his best book).

There are only a few other writers who have evoked the level of euphoria/commitment to their work - which, I think, is the great value of being a writer with real definition of subject. The downside, as you write about in this post, is that you are less likely ... to be read. Which, by the way, is frustrating for readers because it makes conversation about something I love very difficult to come by! So, I feel your pain, is what I'm saying. I feel it through several prescription painkillers, but still. It's there.
wldhrsjen3
Apr. 22nd, 2009 02:02 am (UTC)
I love this. I hope you don't mind if I add it to my memories, because I suspect I will need the reminder.
twiegand
Apr. 22nd, 2009 02:20 am (UTC)
As to your last line, "Still trying." Please keep trying. Your efforts are greatly (I can't truly say how greatly) appreciated. You write, I buy. Deal?
beautiflntmr
Apr. 22nd, 2009 05:38 am (UTC)
I second this!!
Try, try, try! That's all a human can do, right?
Try.

So, you write, we both buy.
There.
Ya got two copies sold.
::grin::

And, by the by: Yes, the cover of Broken Crown attracted me. But it was the description on the back and the first two chapters that made me buy.
That and the fact that I saw it WAS a series.
I'm all for series.
Because I'm just that much bookworm.

And to think: the first book of yours that I read was picked up in a little back-lot used book store in Vermont.
I'm glad the Sundered got republished. After reading Lady of Mercy, I kind of went crazy not being able to find the rest of the series.
...And now the House series has no home on my bookshelf because I'm not planning on getting rid of either the Sword or Sundered series.
Time for a new bookshelf!
msagara
Apr. 23rd, 2009 11:20 pm (UTC)
And to think: the first book of yours that I read was picked up in a little back-lot used book store in Vermont.

This is why I've never disliked used bookstores, or any number of other free venues -- I used them the same way.

And yes, the writing is a bit of a compulsion, so I promise that I'm in it for the very long haul.
(Deleted comment)
msagara
Apr. 22nd, 2009 03:39 am (UTC)
Of course, that was years ago and I'm much more under-awed by you now.. *G*

Although if you're being honest, your definition of 'over-awed' and a normal person's definition of the same would be poles apart, hmm?
starlady38
Apr. 22nd, 2009 05:26 am (UTC)
Maybe I'm just hyper-sensitive to the Special Redhead trope, but...Special Redhead! (Said as she clutches her dogeared copies of Nova and Tamora Pierce's Lioness books to her heart.)

But I would say, if asked to summarize, that this post isn't about Patrick Rothfuss, and maybe not even about your work, either (though I will say that I started reading your work with The Broken Crown and was sucked in utterly. And I'm glad I read Hunter's Death before Hunter's Oath), so, I have to thank you for sharing your perspective, because it sounds to me like you are right, but I don't know that this wisdom is often spelled out in so many words--or at least, I don't read the blogs where it is. So thank you, since you have given me much to think about, as a reader and as an aspiring published writer.
shannachie
Apr. 22nd, 2009 05:58 am (UTC)
All of it true.
And I would like to add that whenever someone gives me a bestseller to read I invariably dislike it. I pick holes, I find it boring and I can't for the life of me understand why people buy it. I have on occasion asked myself whether somewhere in a side department of the 7th hell there is a book office where they look at books, take something really mediocre and put a spell on it.
bibliolicious
Apr. 22nd, 2009 09:40 am (UTC)
FWIW, I loved The Broken Crown. :-)
gerriwritinglog
Apr. 22nd, 2009 01:12 pm (UTC)
And it wasn't until I read a review (I think in Starlog) in which the reviewer said readers would either love the book for its cultural density, complex characterization, multiple viewpoints -- or they would hate it for exactly the same reason

Yup. I loved it, and my best friend didn't, for fairly close to that reason. However, she's much more minimalistic than I am. I like lush, complex writing. :)
timakers
Apr. 22nd, 2009 01:41 pm (UTC)
I came to a lot of these realizations while I was still writing short stories, though they were hard realities for me to face. I'm more comfortable now with the idea that books are subjective, and as long as I write things I like I'm just going to learn to live with other people's reactions. My first book is coming out in September, and I'm happy with it at an artistic level. As you said about Name of the Wind, I think it's possible to write a beautiful book that is also compelling and exciting and engaging to the reader without being overwhelming. I don't know if I've done that, but it's what I was trying for. Anyway.
book_wench
Apr. 23rd, 2009 07:39 pm (UTC)
I did pick up Broken Crown because of the cover. It was in the library, so it was not a buying decision for me.

But I loved it so much, I returned it to the library and ran out and bought my own copy! And read it again. And again. And again…

janni
Apr. 24th, 2009 06:37 pm (UTC)
At Kindling Words this year, Nancy Werlin made the point that different readers have an appetite for different sorts of stories, and no one story is going to satisfy every appetite. Which, as you say, we all know on some level, but it was good to hear it again.

The reviews for Bones that have really driven the point home, because often one reader will be irritated the story for the exact same reason another loves it. Both responses are entirely legitimate, and both responses are always going to be there--good things to be reminded of, every so often.
midnight_sidhe
Apr. 25th, 2009 12:31 pm (UTC)
And it wasn't until I read a review (I think in Starlog) in which the reviewer said readers would either love the book for its cultural density, complex characterization, multiple viewpoints -- or they would hate it for exactly the same reason-- that the lightbulb finally went on... A lot of people did love it, because they read for some of the same reasons I do. But a lot of also people found it impenetrable. Or, you know, boring.

When I first started Broken Crown when I was a teenager, I was very confused by the first few chapters, but I was seduced by your writing and immediately drawn into your world, and I really wanted to keep reading. So I did some research and found the Hunter Duology, read that, and then started over, this time with no confusion. I love the Sun Sword; it's still both my favourite series and the one I think is the best. But there are people I'd never recommend it to, for exactly the reasons you give.
carolberg
Apr. 28th, 2009 06:55 pm (UTC)
A heartbreaking, freeing, head-pounding truth, beautifully expressed.

Your sister in still trying,
Carol Berg
ilyena_sylph
May. 1st, 2009 04:24 pm (UTC)
I have just found your journal, but I've been a fan of your books since ... probably 1998. Because I think my grandmother bought me Broken Crown the year after it came out.

I spent the next four or five hours mesmerized and drawing out character tables, begged and pleaded until someone took me the 30-plus miles to town, and bought everything with your name on it I could afford.

I've picked up every book since as fast as I could, and I'm still as in love now with your worlds and your characters as I've ever been.

Thank you for sharing them with us, they're amazing.
msagara
May. 6th, 2009 05:33 am (UTC)
I've picked up every book since as fast as I could, and I'm still as in love now with your worlds and your characters as I've ever been.

Thank you for sharing them with us, they're amazing.


Thank you for dropping by to tell me, as well. When I take a break from writing (which is usually when it's going slowly and I've been rewriting the same few sentences over and over), it's a nice reminder that the work does matter to some readers.
( 30 comments — Leave a comment )