Since publishing the first book in the Catalyst series, I’ve noticed some interesting comparisons between this book and my previous series. Some people think this series already a lot better than the Internal Defense series. Some people, on the other hand, feel like the Internal Defense series had something that this book lacks. And some people don’t have a preference, but talk about how different the two series are—which confused me at first, because they both came out of my head, so how different could they be? But after thinking about it, I realized there are some pretty major differences between the two, not in style but in structure—and it makes perfect sense that some people would prefer one and some the other.
(If it spoils the magic for you to know what an author was thinking when they wrote a book, you may want to skip this post. The post also contains mild spoilers for the Internal Defense series.)
In the Internal Defense series, I was playing with ideas. That doesn’t mean I was trying to teach a lesson or get a point across; I was playing with ideas, which is different. It’s not about making the reader believe something; it’s about experimenting and having fun. Primarily, I was playing with the concept of how the same person (or place or group) can have contradictory identities that can coexist while also contradicting each other. Becca was an ordinary teenager and the leader of the resistance. Her mother was a loving mother and a ruthless torturer. The world itself was the ordinary world we live in, while also being thoroughly dystopian. I was also playing with the concept of other-ness and dehumanization, and the dissonance of how someone who is very human to you (Becca’s mother, or her first love) can also be other and someone who, because of their role (torturer, dissident), she would ordinarily see as less than human.
All the concrete details in those books are there purely in service to the ideas. Most of what the supporting characters do is meant to highlight one aspect or another of their conflicting identities, or to make Becca confront her own roles and how they interact with each other. (Micah and Kara were exceptions, being fully realized characters in their own right, and I’m still not sure whether that was the right way to go.) Almost every detail of the world is there to express dissonance between its two aspects: to evoke a familiar detail from the real world, or a familiar totalitarian trope, or—preferably—both at once. It isn’t meant to be a real place; it’s meant to be an idea-playground.
The Catalyst series is different. Like the Internal Defense series, it began with the central premise (Internal Defense: a mother-daughter relationship where the mother is a torturer for a totalitarian regime; Catalyst: people making far-reaching small changes to the world in service of a divine plan they don’t fully understand). But where it led ended up being very different. The Catalyst concept, if done right, is inseparable from how the Catalysts affect the world. The concrete effects have to be important, not just the abstract concepts behind those effects. The premise has plenty of interesting ideas to play with—although that’s mostly going to happen in the second half of the series—but this world isn’t just an idea-playground, because for this series, with this premise, it can’t be. It’s a place in its own right. (Writing a world that just exists sounds like it should be easier than making every detail mean something, but it’s surprisingly a lot more difficult. I’m not a concrete thinker; figuring out, “What would express such-and-such concept?” is much easier for me than figuring out, “Given these circumstances, what would this place be?”)
In this series, I’m playing with other things. Things like: What does it mean to change the world in big and meaningful ways when you can only do so through small actions? What does it mean to devote your life to a cause you can’t fully understand? What does it cost? Where does it lead? It’s not about contrasts, like the Internal Defense series is. It’s about the journey. The people going through it, and how it breaks and rebuilds them. The places they pass through, and how those places change. Most fundamentally, it’s about change. And when you write about change, the meaty details of character and plot become the interesting and compelling parts of the story—because if they weren’t, the ways they changed wouldn’t matter.
I’m a better writer now than I was when I was writing the Internal Defense series, because a writer’s skill grows with every book they write. But it’s also true that in some ways the Internal Defense series is a better series, if your idea of “better” involves rich and complex idea-playgrounds. (And I miss that! But back when I was writing Necessary Sacrifices, I was wistfully planning the Catalyst series and its twisty journey. The grass is always greener.) On the other hand, if you prefer the concrete to the abstract, or find cause-and-effect more compelling than contrast, this series will probably look like the one where I finally got the writing thing figured out. it depends heavily on what each individual reader is looking for—which is as it should be. I’m strongly in favor of reading based on your preferences. Whether I’m a better writer now than when I wrote The Torturer’s Daughter shouldn’t matter as much as whether The Torturer’s Daughter is more your kind of book.
And if, like me, you like both… then a new series just means something new to play with, just like it does for me.