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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.


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.