If you know me, you know I write in several genres. At last count, those included urban fantasy, romance, thriller/suspense, paranormal, action-adventure, dystopian, and hard science fiction-space opera. Hard sci-fi and space operas were new for me as of last month. Sci-fi is a genre I enjoy as a fan of TV, film, and novels (Dune was my first!), but had never experienced as a writer.
So far I've published one sci-fi novel (Drifters' Alliance, Book 1) and a short story prequel to that series (Winner Takes All), which is scheduled for release on August 24th as part of an anthology titled Dark Beyond the Stars. I've really enjoyed stretching my wings and trying this new thang. I love space battles! Pew-pew!
I've also realized something important about myself and my job as a writer, and because this new discovery is kind of slowing me down and holding me back from writing my next book (by clogging up my brain), I figured I'd blog about it. Generally speaking, when I write something down in the blogosphere, it gets it out of my head and allows me a clear path ahead. And right now, my brain is completely clouded and jammed up with the specter of … duh-duh-duh-duuuhhhh … Reader Expectations.
What exactly do I mean by reader expectations?
Once you write a book, if it's good enough and all the planets and stars have aligned (meaning you get some kind of online exposure somewhere, be it via a retailer and/or an influential blogger), you gain a following of readers looking forward to your next release. And those readers will naturally have some expectations concerning that next release. For example, they'll want your next book to be similar in tone and style, similar in length (or longer if possible), and capable of evoking the same kind of emotional responses the previous one did. Fair enough, right? That's cool. I'm down. I'm a reader too. I toootally get it.
When there are just a few expectant readers out there, it's somewhat easy to make them happy. After I wrote one book, I had maybe three people who bothered to email me and tell me what they were hoping to see in the next book (and one of them was my mother). I was happy to accommodate any of those requests that made sense for the next story, and I did my best to write the second book with as much passion and focus as I had the first. Reader expectations in small doses like that were invigorating!
But once you write 30 plus books, you gain a lot more readers and along with them, a lot more expectations, a lot more email messages with strong opinions, and a lot more … shall we say … vigorous requests for certain story arcs, character development points, and other various things that go into telling a story. Shoot, I even have people telling me how I should run my business.
What kind of expectations are we talking about here?
I'm pretty open about my writing process, and I regularly invite readers to contact me and discuss my books. Maybe that's why I get so many passionate messages from people who have opinions about how I should write my books and what they hope to see from me next. My reviews are often written as messages directly to me, since my readers know I read those things every day. It's cool! I love it! But you know, even very wonderful things tend to have a dark side to them, and reader interaction is no exception.
The problem with reader expectations for me at this point, really, is twofold: First, because there are so many, they constantly conflict with one another; and second, because of that first point, they eventually make it very difficult for me to write anything at all.
I'll give you an example of the first situation, a phenomenon you can verify by reading the reviews on any of my books. For the same book, I've heard from readers that :
- the story is too long, and the story is too short,
- the girl should have gone with boy #1, and the girl should have gone with boy #2,
- a girl of this age would never do what my character did, and my character acted exactly as a girl of this age would,
- I didn't resolve the main conflict, and the main conflict was completely resolved
- people don't say in real life what my characters say, and my characters are so real they practically jump off the page,
- I don't know what I'm talking about, and I'm a frigging genius,
- series suck, and series are awesome,
- cliffhangers suck, and cliffhangers are awesome,
- characters shouldn't swear (because it's not nice to read in a book), and characters should swear (because real people swear and characters in books should act real).
After you read a few hundred of these conflicting messages, you start to wonder if there really is any way to please anyone. (In fact, *spoiler alert*, you can't. In case you didn't already know that.)
That leads me to my second point, which is that as each new book comes out in a genre I've already written in, the pressure increases exponentially and makes it very, very hard to write anything at all. Pressure with book #1 in a new genre? Practically zero. Maybe 1 out of 10. Pressure with book #2? 5 out of 10. Yeah. Big jump there. Pressure with book #3? 10 out of 10. And I have a series that's going on 9 books now. You can imagine the freak-out level I'm at with that one. (War of the Fae, holla! Book 1 is FREE, yo, jus' sayin'.)
With every single word that flies off my fingers and onto the keyboard, I'm questioning whether I'm doing the right thing, whether I will disappoint a huge number of people and make them hate me (readers can get really, really cranky when you don't deliver, trust me on this), and whether I will finally see the end of my career as a storyteller. I'm a human being. I want to be loved just like everyone else. But these books are part of my brain, part of my spirit, maybe even part of my soul. It really, really stings when people say I let them down. Knife. In. The. Heart kind of sting.
On the other hand, the process of writing a book, the mechanics of it, get easier with each one. I can whip out a manuscript formatted perfectly, I've lost most of my bad habits, I edit faster, etc. But to actually create the story inside the book…? I swear it gets harder with every one I write, sometimes tortuously so. For me, it's not writer's block that slows the start or completion of a book; it's the high expectations readers have for me and that I have for myself.
Now … would I change it if I could? Get rid of all the reader interaction and just focus on writing for myself? Leave those expectations unnoticed in the dark? Ignored?
No. Because in order to have demanding readers, you have to write books people want to read, books people get excited about. I get excited about good books. I know how that feels to read something awesome and want to talk to someone about it. And to be able to talk to the author? That's some kind of miracle for a bookworm like me.* So why wouldn't I want to do that for other readers who like my work? I'd have to be crazy to shut myself off from all that reader love, regardless of the side effects.
I must be doing something right, because the expectations for my work seem to get higher and higher with every release. So according to my long-winded blog post here, that means I have more and more pressure to look forward to. But what's the alternative? The way I look at it is this: the alternative to life is death, so even when life gets tough, it's better than the alternative. And what's the alternative to reader expectations? No reader expectations because no one gives a crap about what I write. And I could never live with that. Talk about soul-crushing!
So, I guess what I'm saying after reading my own words here, is bring on the expectations and the opinions, bring on the passion, and bring on the rage if that's all you can manage; just don't stop reading and loving my stories and my characters. Readers, you are ALL blessings to me. But if I'm a few days late delivering a promised book, please don't roast me over a fire for it. I'm doing the best I can in this pressure cooker that is my brain.
*(I've only fan-girled once and somehow managed to hold back from asking the author why he wrote a particular scene that drove me crazy with wondering, as much as I wanted the answer! The book was Defending Jacob by William Landay in case you want to check it out. I recommend it!)