Category Archives: Musings

Idea Playgrounds and Twisty Journeys (A Tale of Two Series)

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.

Luck, Skill, and Choosing Your Reactions

I read an article recently about the concept of luck in games. Some people don’t like games that involve luck, because it makes winning and  losing seem out of your control, like your skill and effort don’t mean anything. But while all that can be true, the article said, luck can also be a test of skill, because part of that skill involves knowing how to react to unexpected circumstances.

A few weeks before this, I was thinking about something entirely unrelated—the car accident I was in back in December. “People like to talk about how it’s better to act than to react,” I mused to my husband, “but when it comes down to it, a lot of life is about reacting. Everyone likes to think they’re completely in control of their lives, or that they could be if they tried hard enough, but a lot of the big things that shape our lives are things that are entirely outside our control. All we can do is react.”

That article about games stuck in my head, and I wasn’t sure why—until it occurred to me that those two lines of thought weren’t so unrelated after all. What, after all, was my car accident—and the flu that made it all but impossible for me to work for most of January, and the benign but alarmingly large tumor I needed surgery for last year—except luck? That’s the definition of luck, both in games and in life: something either good or bad that affects your life but isn’t under your control.

But we’re told that everything is under our control. We’re told that we should always be acting rather than reacting. And we think that’s what we’re doing as we go about our lives. And yes, of course our actions affect the direction of our lives. (If I hadn’t chosen to take a chance on writing as a career, my life would look very different today.) But the truth is, life is as much about our reactions as our actions, if not more so. From the time and culture you’re born into, to global events, to the events that only affect you personally, life is largely about responding to things you can’t control. There’s no getting around that.

And it’s an uncomfortable thing. It feels unjust for something bad to happen to us when we haven’t done anything wrong, or for something good to drop into the lap of someone who doesn’t deserve it. It feels like we should be able to avoid all the bad stuff and bring all the good stuff down on our heads as long as we just try hard enough. It feels inconvenient, like our lives would be a lot better if life didn’t keep intervening. Just like in games—how dare that unlucky dice roll interrupt my victory??

Just like in games, some people take this to mean it doesn’t matter what they do, or that the world is simply unfair. But that’s not really true, when you think about it—while some things actually are stacked against you or in your favor (see: racism, sexism, wealth and poverty, and myriad other things that give some people a leg up over another), the universe itself is not unfair. The laws of the universe apply equally to everyone, with everyone having the same chance of good or bad luck. A random dice roll that goes against you isn’t a sign that the game is inherently unfair, just like a random dice roll that goes in your favor isn’t a sign that you’re good at the game.

And just like in games, the point isn’t choosing our actions so well that we never have any bad circumstances to react to. All the skill in the world can’t stop a bad dice roll. The point—and the challenge—is in choosing your responses. That, I suspect , is largely what life is about: not fending off bad circumstances with the power of our actions, not giving up and letting fate determine our lives for us, but shaping our lives through how we respond to the things we can’t control.

The Hidden Laws of Fictional Universes

It’s easy enough to see what the setting of a book is. Lord of the Rings is set in a fantasy world, with elves in the forests and dwarves in the mountains and humans living in quasi-medieval cities. Harry Potter is set in our world, but with magic. Ender’s Game takes place in space, in a future world with hostile aliens. Books like Gone Girl—they’re just set in the real world. And so on.

But elves and magic and aliens are only the most visible part of a book’s setting. And “set in the real world” is never actually that simple.

It wasn’t a book that made me realize this; it was the video game Skyrim. The main story of the game is standard fantasy fare, where you’re the hero who fights the evil dragon. But most people don’t play Skyrim for the main story; they play it for the world. The world of the game is huge and detailed, and it’s possible to stumble across all kinds of side stories. You find those stories when people ask you for help, or when you watch them simply living their lives, or maybe when you read a book you stole from a mage’s study or a dead adventurer’s backpack. And as I played the game, I started to notice that a lot of those side stories were… off somehow. Underneath people’s ordinary lives, underneath their helpful advice and their praise for my heroism, they were hiding everything from profound selfishness to much worse things. The first sign was the city where the majority of the inhabitants, most of whom had been friendly and helpful with me, had all happily made a devil’s bargain with a thoroughly nasty entity. But I didn’t realize what was going on until the book that held the story of a group of seemingly benevolent necromancers who resurrected a desperate couple’s young child into something that wasn’t quite human. That was when I started thinking, There’s something about this world that I can’t quite believe in—and it has nothing to do with the dragons flying overhead.

Leaving Skyrim aside for the moment, imagine two books set in the same small town. In one of them, a woman comes back home after a tragedy, reconnects with old friends who help her get back on her feet, and falls in love with her nemesis from high school, who has turned from the arrogant jerk she knew into a genuinely good person. In another, that same woman returns home to find that one of her old friends is dead, and the ones who are left either close her out or are too nice to her. Those books aren’t just in two different genres; they’re set in two different worlds. It doesn’t matter if the towns have the same name, or the maps are identical. In one of those worlds, people are fundamentally good at heart, even if it takes them a while to realize it themselves. In the other, it’s impossible to really trust anyone, no matter how much of a history you have with them. When it comes to fiction, those aren’t just opinions; they’re fundamental laws of the universe, and they control what can and can’t happen as much as the law of gravity.

Realistic fiction sounds simple enough—it’s set in the world you live in. Except it’s not; it’s set in the world the author lives in. Maybe that’s a world where people are fundamentally good at heart. Maybe that’s a world where no one can be trusted. Either way, these elements often carry over from book to book by the same author, because authors often don’t lay out those elements consciously like they do the history or geography of their setting. They’re just writing about the world as they see it. But that doesn’t make these things any less a part of the setting, because they’re a crucial part of how the story world works. A world full of good people has different limitations than a world where no one can be trusted, and vice versa. Certain things simply can’t happen; other things are inevitable. Just like how realistic fiction means magic can’t exist, and historical fiction means no technology from after the time period in which the book is set.

Skyrim is set in a world where, more often than not, there’s something nasty hiding under an innocent-looking surface. Dean Koontz’s books take place in a world where where ordinary life hides epic battles between good and evil. Jodi Picoult writes about a world where people’s families, past and present, are at the center of who people are and how they change. The Hunger Games isn’t just set in a dystopian future, but in a world where violence is the central corrupting element of humanity, and one we can never transcend. There are books that take place in worlds where “everything works out for the best in the end” is a law of the universe. Some books are set in worlds where the universe is an absurd and meaningless place, and in other books, luck is an active force and coincidences happen at just the right—or wrong—times.

Sometimes these things are also the story’s theme, but just as frequently—if not more—they’re simply part of the background. Often they slip in without the author noticing—because, after all, the author is just writing about the world as it really is.

But even if the author doesn’t see these hidden laws (I’m sure there are things hidden in my own story worlds that I would be surprised to discover), they’re there—every fictional universe has them. And they ultimately have as much of an effect on a story as whether it’s set in a small town or on a spaceship.

Different Types of Escape, and Why Fandom Isn’t For Me

I read a lot. I always have. Even before books taught me to write my own stories, they taught me to care about stories in their own right. And that love of stories carried over to TV and video games, although books are still my first love, storytelling-wise. I know fictional characters the way I know the people I talk to every day, and countless other people’s lives live inside me.

I know many people who feel the same way. But in a lot of cases, their love of stories led them to seek out other people who loved the same stories they did. They make fanart, read and write fanfiction, share their delight and horror at a character’s actions, debate where a series is likely to go next. This all looks like a lot of fun in theory. A community brought together by a common enthusiasm for the thing I love – what could be better? But I’ve never felt much of a draw toward the world of fandom, even though I’ve often felt like I should. When I was thirteen I used to regularly post on a forum devoted to a TV show I watched obsessively, and I enjoy comparing notes with a book I loved or hated with someone else who has also read it – but by and large, my watching and reading has been a solitary pursuit.

For a long time I didn’t know why fandom didn’t work for me. What made me figure it out was thinking about fiction as a form of escape. A lot of people talk about liking fiction because it allows them to escape into lives that aren’t their own. For me, that’s rarely the case; I’m much more likely to use fiction as a way to understand the world better, to explore an interesting idea, to slip inside someone else’s head to look at things in a way I hadn’t considered before. But something about the idea of fiction-as-escape niggled at me, telling me it wasn’t entirely wrong.

It took me years to figure out that fiction is a different type of escape for me. Fiction gives me permission to shut out the world and replace it with a different one – but in that other world, especially if I’m reading a book, everything is on my terms. There are no distractions or interruptions, no bright lights or loud noises – just words that describe those things, and I choose how to imagine them. Nothing goes by too fast, nothing drags on too slow. There’s only the interplay between the story and my own mind. There are only words, and I can process them in my own way, at my own pace. It doesn’t matter if it takes me five minutes to read one chapter and an hour to read the next; it doesn’t matter whether I visualize the characters the same way somebody else does. If I miss something important, I can go back and find it.

For me, reading isn’t an escape from my life, but it is an escape from the stresses and demands of the outside world, and the pressure to process all the outside input quickly and correctly. It’s a space where I can just let my mind do its own thing.

And so of course I don’t get that urge to connect with others through fiction. Not when, for me, it’s something intensely personal and deeply internal.

The more time I spend writing and publishing, the more interested I become in the purposes of fiction, the importance of entertainment, and the role of storytelling in human culture. It’s a complicated subject, because stories are so many different things to different people. But both of these things, I think, are a part of what stories do in general, and what books do in particular. They can give people a way to connect with each other… and they can give people a mental refuge, a pressure-free place to explore new facets of the world on their own terms.

I hope that my own stories are able to give people that same refuge, and that same way to connect.

Skill Doesn’t Always Lead to Passion… but Passion Can (Almost) Always Lead to Skill

A couple of months ago, I wrote about following your passion, and why it’s an idea that is too often romanticized, but why I also think it’s worthwhile. I want to follow up on that for a minute, because I’ve encountered an idea in several different places recently that basically boils down to “real passion comes from being good at something, so focus on the things you’re good at and passion will come naturally.” This is probably true for some people, or else the idea wouldn’t be so prevalent, but it couldn’t be further from my own experiences, and I think it has the potential to lead to some bad places.

I grew up with a natural talent for writing. It’s also something I love doing. My natural talent was nowhere near enough, by itself, to get me to a professional level of skill, but because it was something that I loved, and something that mattered to me, I developed my skill far beyond what I was born with.

But I’m good at other things, too. Including playing the viola, as I discovered when my school had everyone pick a musical instrument. I wasn’t any kind of musical prodigy, but I had enough natural talent to pick it up more quickly than average. I ended up playing for about three years. I practiced nearly every day, and steadily improved. I wasn’t amazing at it, but I was good enough to win spots in performances that required auditions.

It took me three years to realize that despite my talent and the skill I had developed, it wasn’t something I actually enjoyed. I didn’t get any real fulfillment from getting better at it or demonstrating my skills, and I didn’t feel what musicians talk about feeling when they pick up their instruments. I practiced not because of any internal drive, but because I was supposed to. The reason it took so long for me to figure all this out is that I was familiar with the narrative of how playing music is something that smart and creative people do. For as long as I could remember, I had been told that I was both of those things—and so, based on my subconscious logic, of course I liked playing a musical instrument, right? That was the narrative I knew, and so I assumed I was enjoying myself, even when it didn’t fit my actual thoughts and feelings. Even once I realized the viola wasn’t for me, I just figured I was playing the wrong instrument, and switched to the guitar. It took another three years for me to figure out what was really going on—I didn’t belong in that narrative after all. I was good at playing music, and I had the personality for it, but it simply didn’t appeal to me.

I started with something I was naturally good at, and spent six years steadily improving my skills. I got plenty of external validation, and was able to watch myself getting better. But I never developed passion, and only rarely felt even a quieter kind of enjoyment. Even before I figured out where I had gone wrong, it was certainly never something I considered devoting the rest of my life to.

In contrast, about ten years ago I started exploring a style of digital art that involves using software to create images using pre-created 3D figures. (Here are some examples of varying quality, although none of these are mine.) I was, frankly, terrible at it. Visual art is not where my talents lie. But it was fun. I loved doing it—not the same way I love writing, but enough to keep on doing it and work at getting better. I read guides for beginners, and more advanced tips, and studied what other people were doing. When I created an image I wasn’t happy with, I tried to figure out where it had gone wrong. I kept learning and working until what I was doing was, if not exceptional, at least above average for an amateur. I stopped for reasons unrelated to either skill or enjoyment, but if I had chosen to focus seriously on it, I have no doubt that I could have improved my skills much further. I would have become much better at it than I had ever been at the viola or the guitar, and enjoyed the process a lot more.

It’s easy to look at something you’re good at and think you should be spending your life doing that. Especially when that’s the feedback you get from the people around you. I’m lucky in that the thing I have the most natural talent for is also the thing that gives me the most fulfillment. But that’s luck (or possibly a very early love for storytelling that made me focus enough on it at a young age to give me an advantage when I started writing stories of my own). That’s not how it works for everyone. Sometimes the thing you’re good at isn’t the thing you want to devote the rest of your life to—even if the narrative tells you it is.

There are times when choosing to spend your life doing the thing you’re good at, even if you’re not passionate about it, is the right decision. You might not actively dislike it, after all; maybe it just doesn’t set your soul on fire. (And it’s okay not to have an intense passion! A lot of people don’t.) Or maybe you’re the type of person for whom the joy of accomplishment and achievement is as important as, or more important than, enjoyment of the process.

And it should go without saying—but often doesn’t—that deciding to spend your life doing something you love, but not putting in the time and effort to get good at it, is never a good decision. That’s true whether you’re naturally talented or not. Except in the case of genuine prodigies, natural talent is never enough, and if you rely solely on that, eventually you’ll hit a wall and realize you never learned how to work to improve your skill.

But you can get good at anything—barring natural limitations, of course (I’m never going to be tall enough for basketball, no matter how much work I put into it). So if you there’s a choice between doing something you’re good at but don’t really care about, and doing something that you enjoy or find fulfilling, I would almost always say to choose the latter. Even if you’re terrible at it, you can change that. And when it’s something that matters to you, the process of getting better will be, if not fun (because work doesn’t have to be fun!), at least satisfying in the way that devotion to a craft or field you love is satisfying.

It’s hard work, but making yourself enjoy something is a whole lot harder.

Why I Prefer Frodo Baggins to James Bond

Frodo Baggins is my favorite fictional character.

He accepts a quest that he knows is too much for him, that he’s been told is too much for him. He wants nothing more than to keep on living his comfortable quiet life, but he takes the Ring to Mordor anyway, because he knows he’s the only one who can. He pushes himself to the limit of his endurance and beyond. When he has nothing left; he just keeps going; even when his physical strength gives out and he can no longer walk, he crawls forward. When I read Lord of the Rings as a kid, Frodo shaped my view of what a hero is.

And yet this is a controversial preference. When I reread Lord of the Rings a couple of years ago, I discovered that a lot of people dislike the story because of him, or even love the story but wish he weren’t a part of it. They see him as weak, as not properly heroic. Where I see the ideal hero, they see someone pitiful and passive.

There are two types of fictional heroes, I’ve noticed, that people tend to gravitate towards. And I suspect both are popular for the same reason. When we read, we often put ourselves into the shoes of the main character. It’s natural. We want to imagine ourselves stepping outside of our ordinary lives for a while, defeating monsters and having great adventures. We like to think that if we were those characters, we could do what they do.

The first type of hero is the larger-than-life character, the kind of person we wish we could be. They’re good at what they do—not just good, but the best. They have the skills to get out of any situation they find themselves in. Hardly anything fazes them. The people around them admire them and fall in love with them. They triumph because of their competence. James Bond, for instance, is a classic wish-fulfillment character in this mold.

The second type of character is also wish fulfillment, but in a different sense. These characters aren’t larger than life; they’re ordinary people, or appear to be at first. They might be skilled at certain things, just like we all have our own strengths, but their skills aren’t on a superhuman level. They are not unfazed; they go through their stories as uncertain and afraid as we would be in their situation. But these characters also triumph in the end, and when they do, it’s because of their inner strength.

The first type of character lets us imagine being somebody else—somebody stronger, somebody smarter, somebody better. The second type of character lets us imagine being heroes as we are—ordinary people who are capable of accomplishing extraordinary things.

I think I prefer the second type because they let me imagine myself as a hero while remaining myself. To be a James Bond type, for instance I would have to be an entirely different person, with an entirely different personality and set of strengths. And while I can understand the appeal of that kind of fantasy, that’s not what I want. I like who I am, even though my traits aren’t those of the typical hero. I like being a quiet person with a quiet life. I like being more intellectual than physical. I like being cautious and needing time to analyze a situation before acting. In short, I like all the things about myself that would make me completely unsuitable as a larger-than-life action hero. And while it can be fun to step into the head of someone totally different for a while, what I really love are stories that let me be myself in my daydreams of heroism.

And more than that, I love stories that say that people who aren’t the type of person everyone wishes they could be (and really, who among us is capable of being James Bond?) can also accomplish great things—not in spite of who they are, but because of it. Aragorn, after all, who does fit the mold of the classic hero, would have been corrupted by the Ring long before he reached Mount Doom.

A Job You Love Is Still a Job

“Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”

This platitude gets repeated over and over again. And as someone who turned my childhood dream into a career, I can tell you that there’s not a bit of truth to it.

When you do something as a hobby, you probably only do it when you feel like it. It’s what you do for fun, or to relax. I remember when I wrote purely for fun, before I was even thinking about publishing anything. I remember writing thirty pages in a day in a rush of pure inspiration, and waking up the next morning with an idea for a new story I loved even more. I remember dreaming up endless details for stories that never got put to paper, because the dreaming was the fun part.

When you start doing that same thing as a job, you do it every day, whether you want to or not. It doesn’t matter if you’re not feeling inspired. It doesn’t matter if there’s something else you’d rather do. Or maybe you really do want to write (or draw, or whatever else) but what you want is to work on that new idea that came to you overnight, not the overdue project that you’ve been stalled on for the past week. That doesn’t matter either. You have to write, or the book won’t get written.

It can be a difficult shift to adjust to, especially given the expectations around working a job you love (see the above platitude)—particularly creative work, and particularly if you’re self-employed. I’ve seen more than one person who turned a hobby into a career talk about how it ruined the thing they used to love. They say that’s why you should never try to make a living doing something you love, and should instead ruthlessly separate work and play. They end up quitting writing entirely, or art, or programming. For some, that’s the right decision. But for others, I suspect all they really need to hear is, “That’s normal. You didn’t ruin it, you just started doing it when you didn’t want to do it. Nothing is fun all the time when you do it on demand. That doesn’t mean it can’t still be fulfilling.”

Yes, writing is less fun for me now. I still have days when inspiration runs through my veins like lightning, and I can’t sleep because of all the ideas circling through my head. I also have days when my unfinished draft feels like a weight pressing me to the earth, and I don’t want to get out of bed because it will mean sitting down at the computer again and trying to wring words out of my brain for That Awful Book again. Most of the time it’s neither of those things. It’s just the thing I do every day. It’s a routine. It’s work.

But work isn’t a bad thing. Writing is less fun than it was when I only did it when I felt like it—but fun isn’t my number one goal in life. Everyone needs fun, including me. Sometimes I need a day off to just play video games all day and not think about the stupid book. But I’d feel better after a week of beating my head against a wall over a project that matters to me, and getting that much closer to sending it out into the world, than after a week of nothing but video games. I suspect most people would.

It’s not about fun. It’s about fulfillment. It’s about spending my life doing something that matters to me—and however I feel about the writing process on any given day, telling stories still matters just as deeply to me as it did when all my writing was for fun. Maybe more, because my years spent improving my craft have given me a deeper appreciation for what goes into a well-told story and what it can mean to a reader.

I didn’t ruin writing for myself. I don’t even want to go back to how it used to be. I finish my projects now instead of walking away when they’re not fun anymore; I do the unsexy work of revising and editing to make my stories into what I want them to be; and regular practice—however unwilling at times—has improved my skills enough to let me write a book that begins to approach how the idea looked in that initial burst of inspiration, instead of a pale reflection. I sit down at my desk every day and add something to the world that did not exist before. I have no regrets.

And I have friends who looked at what it took to be a professional writer and decided they only ever wanted to write as a hobby. As far as I know, they also have no regrets.

I’ve seen a lot of backlash lately against the idea of following one’s passion. I don’t agree with it. I think a lot of the people who turn their backs on their dreams to go for the smart choice are going to wake up thirty years from now and wonder why they didn’t even try. I believe in doing something with your life that matters to you, insofar as that’s possible, whether it’s how you make money or not. Which means, yes, I believe in chasing your dream and following your passion.

That is, I believe in following your passion as long as you know what you’re getting into.

Just don’t go into it thinking you’ll never work a day in your life. Work you love is still work—and that’s not a bad thing.

Six Months

So I just realized something – yesterday marks six months since I first published The Torturer’s Daughter.

It’s been a good six months. The response to The Torturer’s Daughter has been a lot better than I ever thought it would be. Six months ago I went into this not knowing what to expect, excited and nervous at sending my book out into the world. Now I have fans I’ve never met, people I don’t know but who are connected to me through this creation of my imagination.

It’s a strange feeling.

Even though I was sure I was doing the right thing by self-publishing The Torturer’s Daughter, there was still that small part of me that wondered whether I would regret it. Now I can say for certain that I don’t. I don’t know where I would be right now if I had taken a different path, but I do know that I’m happy with the one I chose.

I don’t know what the next six months will hold, or the next year, or the next six years. But I’m looking forward to finding out.

Novellas and Novels: What Do You Want From Your Reading?

I’ve been thinking about novellas and novels and short stories lately, and why I have a strong preference for longer fiction while other people prefer the shorter stuff. I know there’s no sharp line between the two audiences – lots of people like both novels and short fiction. Even though I’m mainly a novel reader, I’ll still read a novella sometimes, and I know there are plenty of people who read novels, novellas, and short stories indiscriminately. But I know a lot of readers check the page count carefully before they order an ebook (I’m one of them), while others couldn’t be happier at finally being able to find novella-length stories.

There was a discussion on Kindleboards the other day asking whether the authors who visit the site plan to write more short fiction or longer works this year, and that’s part of what made me start thinking about it. I had assumed it mostly depended on what people were used to reading – I’ve been inhaling novels all my life, while other people grew up reading short-story magazines – but reading through the thread, I got the sense that it came down to more than that. Someone mentioned preferring novels because a novella might not tie up all the loose ends adequately. I’d prefer to read a full-length novel, too, but I had honestly never considered that as a reason. Someone else said that novellas are mainly written to be read in a single reading session, so someone used to sitting down and reading a novel start to finish probably wouldn’t feel satisfied by a novella. Novellas often leave me unsatisfied, too, but I’m used to reading a book over a period of at least a couple of days.

I read this post (part of a larger series) a while back, and that discussion made me think of it again. The post is about video games, but I think some of the points could apply to novels as well. It talks about how people tend to fall into two camps when thinking about the length of a game. For some people, a game – a good one, at least – can never be too long. The longer a game is, the more they feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth from it, because they’ve gotten more entertainment for their dollar. Others feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth out of a game when it provides a complete experience that they can finish in a reasonable amount of time. For these people, a game that costs $60 isn’t worth the money if they play for fifty hours and are only half-done, because they’ve only gotten half a game out of it.

The same thing could be true for readers. Maybe there are two ways of looking at a book – whether it provides you with the most hours of entertainment or the most complete experience. (In addition to novels vs. novellas and short stories, it could also apply to whether people like series novels or stand-alones.) Obviously it’s not as cut and dried as all that (just like it isn’t that cut and dried for games, as some of the comments on that blog post point out), but I think it makes a decent starting point.

I tend to fall into the former camp when it comes to games, so it makes sense that I’m the same way about books. It would be very hard for me to find a good book that’s too long. (Obviously a book padded for length is worse than the same book written with tight prose, but in that case the length also makes the book less good, which doesn’t make it a good example.) Although I have to say, I don’t seek out series books as much as I used to – with all the books I already want to read, the thought of getting into a new series can feel daunting. When I find a really good series, though, as long as the books stay consistently good I don’t want it to end. I don’t need the wrap-up in order to feel satisfied, as long as the good books keep coming.

What do you think? Does this seem like a plausible way of looking at reading? What do you look for when you read – is it more important to get a complete experience or more hours of entertainment?

Readers and Writers

I’ve noticed a strange animosity towards readers in writing communities lately. Writers complaining that readers are greedy mooches who just want free books, or sneaky mooches who wait for a book to go on sale before buying it. (As if we haven’t all waited for something we weren’t sure about paying full price for to go on sale at one point or another.) Grumbling about readers who don’t write reviews, or saying that readers have no taste and just want to read something that doesn’t make them think.

Even when there’s no animosity, there’s still a divide. Writers spend countless hours fruitlessly trying to figure out what readers want and how readers discover books. I see writers talking about how sites like Goodreads are useless because they’re places to talk about books you’ve read, not places for writers to promote their books. It’s common, it seems, to talk about readers as elusive prey, with writers the hunters trying to capture them.

It can be easy to slip into that kind of thinking. All writers want more readers, and once you start thinking about how to get more people to read your book, it’s easy to start seeing readers as maddeningly wily creatures to be hunted with your release schedules and your marketing plans.

It can be easy to forget that you’re a reader too.

But writers are, presumably, readers. At least I hope I can make that assumption. After all, if you don’t love books and reading, why write a book in the first place?

I’m sure there are a few writers out there who don’t love books, not even their own – who see their books simply as a vehicle for their entrepreneurship. I don’t want to read these writers’ books. I’m of the opinion that these writers should go write for a content site (that plague of the internet) and stop pushing their soulless novels on unsuspecting readers. But I doubt this type of writer is common. I think it’s more likely that the divide comes both from a misguided marketing mindset and from the idea some people seem to have that you can either be one or the other. if you’re a writer, you’re not a reader, because you’re a writer.

But that idea is wrong.

I’m a reader as much as I am a writer. Being a writer doesn’t make me less of a reader. I didn’t start loving books any less the day I started writing, or the day I started writing stuff that was actually good, or the day I published a novel. My writing would have suffered if I had. My writing is built on a foundation of reading, the way all writing should be.

So I won’t draw the line between readers and writers that so many people do. I won’t stop thinking of myself as a reader just because I’ve published a book. If I did, I would be denying the very thing that makes my writing possible.