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Wherein I worry

Reader expectations are one of those minefields that, frankly, terrify me.

As an author, I have no say about my covers (well, beyond the usual pleading, begging, and generally undignified behaviour that I will spare you all), and none on the cover blurb; I have no say about what goes on the spine, and in the end, no say about where the book is actually shelved in the stores.

But as a reader, I know roughly what I want to read on any given day (the exception to this is Terry Pratchett, who I can read in any mood, at any time, and in any sleep-deprived state) and I tend to pick up a book according to that amorphous desire. And boy, if I pick up what I think is a Robin McKinley novel, and I end up with a Horror novel or a Military SF novel, I'm likely to be peeved beyond reason at the book I did get. Even when the book itself, as written, is entirely blameless.

Nothing new here.

But… wait, I'll get to the relevant part.

I write under two names (well, or three, if you count the Sagara West amalgamation): Michelle West (largely for DAW) and Michelle Sagara (for Luna); my first four novels, written as Michelle Sagara, have been reprinted by BenBella books under the name "Michelle Sagara West".

The West novels are all interconnected; they all take place in the same world, and are actually all on the same time-line. I am not the master of incluing, and my guess is that it's pretty hard to read any of those books without reading the ones that preceded them. They are all multiple viewpoint books, and while I would now structure the first 2 novels of the SUN SWORD series differently, the disparate plot threads and character arcs take some time to come together. Where time in this case means thousands of pages. Literally.

I try to end each novel with the closure of the novel's sub-arc, and with some sense of the emotional resonance relevant to that novel – but the story isn't done. I know where it's going; I know what the end-point for all of the characters I've introduced is, although some of those endings are based on characters that I haven't introduced yet. And one or two have changed since 1994, because of characters that have been introduced subsequently (this isn't really a spoiler – but or people who've read these books, an example: I knew where Kallandras was going to end up at the conclusion of the End of Days sequence, and now … it's not as clear.)

The Sagara Luna novels are my first attempt to do something different. I wanted to write novels that would a) stand alone and b) work in concert – much the way a Buffy season does. I also wanted to write something that had a much more accessible tone, something contemporary in feel, even with all the strangeness of the world around it. They're fun books to write. But they're actually harder, in some ways, for me. The language, the metaphors, the tone of the West novels – those are my writing voice. That's the voice I write in when I'm not really parsing words qua words; when I'm deep into story, and it's the story that's driving everything, hell bent on arrival. The Sagara tone is completely different, and I often find I'm stripping out metaphor or a turn of phrase that doesn't work with a contemporary feel when I do my first pass line-edits.

I thought of the first Sagara book as my attempt to write a Tanya Huff novel, with the clear understanding that I'm not Tanya Huff. I would like to be one tenth as witty or clever. I'm digressing.

People have read the Luna novels, and this makes me happy. People have even liked them, and have written to tell me so, and this makes me unreasonably happy. It's good to know that something you've tried actually works.

But … I'm not at all certain that the readers who liked the Luna books will actually like the West novels – and that's where reasonable reader expectation comes in. They are very different. But they are both written by me. I would have bet against it, but some people clearly do like both – and I'm completely uncertain about what to say when someone in the store asks me whether or not they should read the West novels if they like the Luna ones – or vice versa.

It doesn't do me any good – it doesn't do my career any good – to give people a novel that they don't actually want (it in fact helps no one's career to do this, in my experience). I've so far only had one person say "If you can write something good, why are you writing something boring?" in reference to the difference between the two. (Obviously I consider neither boring, because anything that bored me would never get finished; it's hard enough to finish something that's almost an obsession).

So the bookstore girl behind the writer wants to know how to navigate that minefield without denigrating either identity.


( 46 comments — Leave a comment )
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Apr. 3rd, 2007 04:29 am (UTC)
I've read both your more recent series cycles and I like them both. The difference to me is the depth of worldbuilding detail given in the Hunter/Sunsword etc series vs the Luna books. The Luna books are also more focused and pared down than the Sunsword ones. I suppose, for me, I'd say that those who prefer a quicker pace with more plot focus will like the Luna books better. Those who prefer a deeper/broader look into the world will prefer the DAW ones. People who read both types will like both types.

Honestly though, the tone and themes aren't really that different. :P

JMHO though.
Apr. 3rd, 2007 04:53 am (UTC)
Well, as a reader who has read both the West and the Luna novels, I personally was more than satisfied with both of them, and obviously the Luna novels are much less dense, but if one takes the Luna novels for what they are, not what they aren't (i.e. West novels), I don't see how readers wouldn't love them. ^_^ And while the "Sagara tone" is certainly a bit of a switch, especially initially, I found after reading the Luna novels that one of the things I value most about your work--and it's hard to describe, but I'd say the subtlety of your style would be as close as i could come (as well as a certain tendency to have a hint of the apocalyptic in the background, maybe ^_^)--was just as evident in them as it was in the West books. And I don't know how someone could call the Luna books boring, either, because (especially Courtlight) if nothing else the details are bloody fascinating.

Hmm, I don't really know if this reply is actually getting at the bookstore girl angle. If I had read the Luna books first I think I would have been quite happy to read the West books, but I think it depends on what aspect of the Luna books a reader valued--if they just want more brain candy, the West books would probabaly not be the best recommendation, but if they're in it for more than just the snappy pacing and dialogue and romance, then the West books could work too.

Hooray for Kallandras possibly having a different fate. He's one of my favorites. But then, almost all of them are.
Apr. 3rd, 2007 05:18 am (UTC)
The boring was in reference to the West novels; the reader in question did like the Sagara novels, although I think they found some of Courtlight confusing =/.

(no subject) - starlady38 - Apr. 3rd, 2007 06:46 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msagara - Apr. 4th, 2007 02:39 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mizkit - Apr. 4th, 2007 09:19 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - starlady38 - Apr. 4th, 2007 04:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
making things too obvoius - (Anonymous) - Apr. 12th, 2007 11:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 3rd, 2007 05:10 am (UTC)
There are actually striking similarities between the two styles, at least IMHO. But they're definitely two different-purpose types of reading for me. I can't read the West novels one at a time, and I won't start a reading without plenty of brain-space for all those subplots. Oh yes, and a box of tissues. (But they're happy tears, mostly.) I think of them as a vast tapestry on which the fate of the world is described.

On the other hand, I read the Sagara novels for fun action with lots of entertaining irony. Kaylin feels much younger than anyone in the West novels, despite her history, which I think accounts for the slight YA feel. The characters still have depth, but there's not as much of the gorgeous embroidered detail. A little bit of Buffy, but more... Alanna, from the Lioness Rampant books by Tamora Pierce.
Apr. 3rd, 2007 05:41 am (UTC)
So the bookstore girl behind the writer wants to know how to navigate that minefield without denigrating either identity."

How about, "It's like Nora Roberts -- people who read books under Identity X want different things than people who read books under Identity Y. They're both me, it's just that sometimes I like to write different sorts of books."
Apr. 3rd, 2007 05:45 am (UTC)
My introduction to your work was with the Sundered series. I loved them so much, but I think it was early 90's and I had a hard time finding the rest of them until the reprints. As I love Tanya Huff's works as well, I see now why I liked them.

When I picked up your Sacred Hunt novels and the other West novels, I had no idea it was you that wrote them. As you said, the writing style was different. I'm one of those readers in which the West Novels didn't appeal. I stopped reading it after the Scared Hunt series and couldn't get into the Sun Sword series.

I'm really hoping you write more in the Sundered style and world.
Apr. 3rd, 2007 05:56 am (UTC)
I think it's impossible to please even the most loyal fan 100% of the time, but beyond that, I think reader expectation isn't only dependant on the reader, but the reader's goal, and even then some books just don't click for certain people (I can enjoy the stories of Jane Austen and recognize them as quality prose, but something about her writing really irritates me). There are books I've bought and studied knowing I dislike them, and then tried to figure out why I didn't like them. I don't want to sound defeatist, quite the opposite, but my current problem with Pratchett is that the lastest books no longer surprise me. The last few Pratchett novels have a certain expectation that's fulfilled, and even though it's technically continuous new ground, the story archs tend to be the same, and for most people, that's okay. They want Vimes to be running around in his underwear for at least four pages and I'm amused just like the next person. But beyond that, I read too much into things, and I suppose it also comes down to why I read Pratchett, or any other author. Do I want to laugh? Do I want to sit down and think? Do I want to get angry or offended or emotionally charged?

Anyway, as a person who adored the Sunsword books, I say the day you reach all of my expectations I'm no longer learning anything (or I'm fully enlightened and no longer need to buy another book). I'm probably not your target, but that being said, I think it's totally fair to challenge your readers.
Apr. 4th, 2007 02:47 am (UTC)
I'm probably not your target, but that being said, I think it's totally fair to challenge your readers.

With the West novels, I don't have a target audience in mind -- they're my internal idea of what I want to read, on some level. But they're odd. I have a yahoo group -- well, someone else started it, but I answer things on occasion there -- and I tend to stay firmly out of the threads in which people speculate about what will happen in future books. I did read one post about it -- I honestly can't remember whose -- and what I came away with was I'm not very clever. At all.

Most of the ideas struck me as vastly more clever than I am, and I had that authorial pause of despair, in which one thinks "omg everyone is going to be disappointed at how obvious things are". Maybe because I don't think of myself as a surprising or clever author, I just try to tell a story that stays true to the characters as they evolve -- I want people to be moved by things in the same way I'm moved by them. If that makes sense.
Apr. 3rd, 2007 08:02 am (UTC)
Hmm, I also enjoy both current series, but while I am buying the Sundered series I have a much harder time getting into them (I enjoy hope in my romance and since I'm basically rooting for the devil to get the angel the second and third book - which I have browsed into - are for reading when I am more composed about those two. Oh, what IS nice is that I have no idea whether you'll get them together at the end or not).

I found you via the Hunter books and then went into Sunsword because of that (and because of the gorgeous Jodi Lee covers). Near the end of Sunsword I realised that the two are connected (I'm slow that way, I just throw myself into the world and see if I can swim, I don't analyse while I'm reading), which encreased my enjoyment. Actually I do read even your big series one at a time when they appear. I shall reread them when I have all of them (provided you finish them in my lifetime ^^, I can see places you can go with them but you've surprised me often enough, so who knows what'll happen).

The Cast in Courtlight have the advantage of one viewpoint which focusses your style more and - as you said - recurring characters (if I can take up the Nora Roberts view, they'd be your J.D.Robb series) and since I love the character it works well for me. I don't see them as YA though, the dark background made the heroine grow up very fast. I'm looking forward whom she is going to end up with, or even if she will. I'm hoping for an eventual good ending after however many adventures you'll have her go through.

I thank you for not being Terry Goodkind who threw his main characters in the Sword of Truth series into the ever more harrowing torture scenarios until I couldn't take it anymore. With you the adventure stays fresh.

Hmm so this is an analysis from my viewpoint but no real help for your question I guess. Sorry o.o;
Apr. 4th, 2007 02:52 am (UTC)
I thank you for not being Terry Goodkind who threw his main characters in the Sword of Truth series into the ever more harrowing torture scenarios until I couldn't take it anymore. With you the adventure stays fresh.

I think it's hard to write about characters when their story is finished on some level. I've had one or two people ask me (very, very politely) not to give up on the West characters because I was bored with them -- and I am honestly never bored by them. Because in the long arc, most of their stories aren't finished. Where they are now, how they get to the end of those arcs -- those are still compelling for me because I want to tell those stories, and I haven't finished.

But I think it would be very, very hard to return to characters whose story is finished, for me.

People do read for character, and often, for very specific characters -- but I sometimes wonder (because, working in a bookstore, I've heard this about Goodkind several times) if the emotional story he was telling was finished earlier in regards to the two, and he felt he had to continue with them regardless. I honestly don't know; I don't know the author in question. I do know other authors who grind their teeth in frustration at being shackled to older works.
(no subject) - estara - Apr. 4th, 2007 04:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 3rd, 2007 08:54 am (UTC)
I'm completely uncertain about what to say when someone in the store asks me whether or not they should read the West novels if they like the Luna ones – or vice versa.

I suspect, "If you like Guy Gavriel Kay and casts of thousands, you'll probably like the West books," would do as a rough place to start. I'm not sure how to pitch it from the other side--the Luna books are different enough from most of the urban fantasy that's out there that it's harder for me to come up with a rough outline of "if you like X, Y will probably appeal."

As for me, I came to the Daw books from the Luna books. I'd seen the Daw books before, but I by and large gave up on big fat fantasy a long time ago, not because I don't like it in general, but because it takes so damned long for the books to come out that I've forgotten what happened by the time a new one arrives in my hands, and I haven't got the heart to go back and read 3000 pages of backstory in order to remind myself. I liked the Luna books enough to try the ... Sun Sword books, whatever the name of that series actually is ... because I knew you could write and the series seemed to be complete. It took me a long time to get into the first book, in part because I'm out of practice reading BFF and there were too! many! names!, and in part because I was reading it on the train and things rather than all at once, but ultimately I got sufficiently caught up in them to keep reading, and am now very annoyed that I can't *find* the fourth book on this side of the pond!
Apr. 4th, 2007 02:54 am (UTC)
but ultimately I got sufficiently caught up in them to keep reading, and am now very annoyed that I can't *find* the fourth book on this side of the pond!

Well, if you email me, maybe we can think of some sort of hostage exchange :D. I noticed your contest and was very good and did not enter it.
Apr. 3rd, 2007 10:53 am (UTC)
So I'm one of those readers that loves both your Luna and Daw books. (I do, however, have a much harder time reading the Sundered books, so there are all types here, I guess.) I first you through The Broken Crown, which had a beautiful cover that leapt off the bookshelf. All pale blue -- it really stood out. But before I started reading it, I discovered there were the Hunters books so I went out again, bought those, and read them first. When I heard you were writing the Luna books, it made sense for me to put Cast in Shadow on my autobuy list since I liked your Daw books so much. Looking back, I guess there was danger in that if I had expected a certain type of book from you but I guess I'm not that type of reader.

What I'm trying to say is: While I do think Kaylin's books are more focused and parsed down whereas the DAW books are larger in scope and density, I actually don't think they're all that different in tone and theme. Actually I feel like there are similar themes running throughout both sets of books. And though I'd never thought of labelling myself as such, I guess certain uberthemes linger with me as a reader and I like finding them again in an author's work. (I enjoy reading all sorts of books but some don't have very strong uberthemes, if they have them at all, and I'll admit those books tend to slip out of my memory very quickly.)
Apr. 3rd, 2007 04:52 pm (UTC)
I'm with you - I've read all of the series(es?) (only the first of the Sundered, but I'm looking for more) and I love them all. Each series is different (the Luna books are a quicker read, the Sun Sword books have an intricate storyline, and the Sundered books are a bit deeper and harder to get into, but well worth it), but I absolutely loved all of them. Similar themes, but different writing styles, although all still similar.

If any of that makes sense. :)
Apr. 3rd, 2007 01:35 pm (UTC)
What to tell people about the difference? Let's say it's a Gone With the Wind versus Buffy feel. You know how I feel about what you write but let me state it again. In everything you write, there are the precious moments (I don't mean cute but seriously valued) that grip me and just shake the daylights out of my heart. Whether the moment is the brother being shoved off the tower or a moment of kindness from a creature of ultimate evil or a simple sentence is one of your not so short, short stories.

Yes, there are differences but that is good. Try telling the potential buyer that they're not the same but who wants to read the same thing again and again? It's like having a diet of just your single favorite food. Would you want it for breakfast, lunch, dinner and every snack you ever ate?

If you know Thom Metzger, he writes YA under the pen name Leander Watts. From works on heroin and the electric chair to fantasy set in 1830's Upstate New York, its a afar jump. He says that there is definitely a different feel for himself as well but it is still his writing. You both are just exercising different parts of your creative well springs.
Apr. 3rd, 2007 02:06 pm (UTC)
Hm.. Well, I first found you with the Sundered books.

Then the Sunsword books (and the second Hunter book is still one of my favorite books ever, with Jewel my favorite character).

And then the Court books.

And you know what?

I'm still buyin' 'em all as they come out.

Well, not yet the Sundered books, but that's cause I'm dead broke. But they are on my list!!

The court books go a bit faster, and are a bit less complicated, i.e. less worldbuilding, but I still really enjoy both styles.
Apr. 3rd, 2007 03:04 pm (UTC)
I read both series, not knowing they were the same author. Both series came to me via friends shoving the book into my hands going, "READ! READ IT NOW!". I picked up The Broken Crown for about three years on my own, because my main criteria when looking for new authors is books over 300 pages, and a Jody Lee cover never hurts because I trust that the cover will actually be a scene from the story. The blurb on the back of the book caused me to put it down every time, because of the description of Diora as teh mostest beyootiful gracefulest specialist person evar zomg! When I opened the book and read the first little bit, it seemed to back up what the blurb implied - female lead who's perfect in every way needs rescue from her own life, hijinx ensue - and that's not a character I imagined wanting to read about. The friend who shoved it into my unwilling hands said, "George R.R. Martin meets Kate Elliot. You'll love it." He was right, although Diora still made me grit my teeth through at least the first book. (and it became part of the drinking game - "Every time Diora's described as 'graceful' or 'flawless', take a drink.")

The Cast books came to me via another friend, and I hadn't seen them on the shelves prior to that. I almost returned them when I got to anthropomorphic animal people, because that's usually a dealbreaker for me. It is all too often a vector for creepy pseudobeastiality scenes. The friend who loaned me the book said, "It's not what you think. Keep reading." I'm glad I did. The writing reminded me of Jane Lindskold and Tanya Huff before she started sounding like Laurel K. Hamilton.

When I discovered they were written by the same person, I could see why the name was different - they're different enough "voices" that someone coming from one series might have expectations that weren't found in the other - however, the writing is great in both and the characters are equally engaging even though they're different, and the worlds are different.

Curiosity made me pick up 'Into the Dark Lands' when I found it, although I haven't read it yet because I can't find the rest of the !#$%!@ series. Because, you see, I know that I'm going to start reading it, get sucked in, finish it in an hour, and have a major hissyfit because I'll have to special order the other books and wait a week until they get here. The writing voices are different, but the characters are always written dynamically, and I enjoy watching them grow and change throughout the story.

Had I known Sagara = West, I would have just bought the books outright, knowing nothing about the world or the characters or the plot, and there would have been no reluctance to read Cast. You're an author I trust to tell a good story, so it's not really going to matter to me when the world or characters or even genre changes - I'd still read them to find out what you were going to do to my brain this time.
Apr. 4th, 2007 03:03 am (UTC)
This is all interesting to me - it would never have occurred to me to dislike or distrust Diora because of her appearance -- to me, for her, the appearance, the cultural survival implied by being beautiful or graceful, is a trap; it's something you perpetuate to survive. Being desired or wanted makes you more valuable to people who have power, yes -- but in a stark sense, it's not who you are, and not, in the end, what she valued about herself; she understood its value to others, and understood that to have no value was... bad. It's not something that Margret understood initially either, and Margret and Diora despised each other when they first met.

The Leontines, though, are easier for me to see -- kateelliott did a list a while back of things she doesn't feel she's good at as a writer. I would have snagged "sex" as something I'm terrible at, but someone else had already grabbed it (I think it was papersky. The Leontines have an interesting social structure (more of which in the 4th book, which I'm writing now), but it wouldn't have occurred to me to use them in that fashion.
Apr. 3rd, 2007 03:06 pm (UTC)
I think maybe readers can navigate this better than it first seems--my experience from the reader side of the fence, even before I started writing, has always been that I can be comfortable saying: Okay, I adore this series by this writer; this other series by them, not so much; but of course I'm going to try said writer's new book, just to find out if it is maybe one I'll adore as well. So long as I get books that are what I want about half the time, I'll keep coming back.

It's only after several misfires for me as a reader that I'll--not stop reading, even then, but wait for a paperback or used or borrowed or library copy before trying a writer's next book. And even then, I'm willing to be won back.

But I think--anecdotally, and of course I have a much smaller sample group than you do as a bookseller--that readers can understand about a writer writing more than one sort of book, and navigate that to find the books by that writer that they like.
Apr. 3rd, 2007 03:53 pm (UTC)
I've read both, and I love both. I understand that each series has its own unique tone and style. In fact, the fact that they are different is a testament to your skill as a writer.
Apr. 3rd, 2007 05:46 pm (UTC)
Though this may not be helpful, I have several friends that like both the sagara and west books - but the few that don't usually have a very specific type of thing they don't like that can't really be gotten around. For instance, my mother loves the sagara books, but can't stand books with many characters so the west books will never be her cup of tea. I actually like them all, though it amuses me that the feel of the books, makes me feel as though I really have two authors instead of just one.
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