Saturday, October 4, 2014

Let Sleeping Books Lie

Photo credit goes to Adrian Gaucher (@nobidieshero) Check out his site

A good friend of mine who also doubles as my extra special beta reader loves to hang around bookstores with me and discuss what we're reading. Who doesn't? We often refer things to each other, but try, try, try as I might, I could never convince her to read Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series. (Which is amazing if you enjoy steampunk.)

She absolutely refused, not because of the genre or content, but because she had been burned by Scott Westerfeld once before.

She read his Uglies series and absolutely loved it. Originally, it was set to be a trilogy, but somewhere along the lines Westerfeld decided to write a fourth book in the series, after the trilogy had seen some success. She loathed this fourth book and claimed it completely ruined the series for her. She refused to read anything else he'd written because, as we began coining it, he was sure to pull another "Westerfeld."

We'd used to the term to refer to writers who couldn't let a series lie, and that term got much use in our conversations. Which author had pulled a Westerfeld? Was it someone we adored? A series we loved?

Recently, while perusing through Chapters, I came across the newest book to the Shiver series, Sinner, which features around a character in the Shiver series, Cole St. Clair, and follows him and his love life after the end of Forever. I have yet to pick it up, but I know I will. Because first of all, I don't believe in judging books before reading them and because I absolutely adored the Shiver series.

Which made me kind of angry, standing in that bookstore and facing a new book in a story I thought was finished. Did Cole St. Claire's story leave questions unanswered? Oh hell yes, but not in any way did I feel like I needed to know more. It felt finished, and I had a sense of closure reading the last book. He still had things he needed to accomplish in his world, but they didn't seem focal enough to need a whole book about it.

Both in the Uglies series and the Shiver series, the fourth book was an after-the-fact addition. It appeared after a grace period where there was little to no lead in from the book previous to it. It's a case of what I consider "not letting go."

Another case could be seen in the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series. Though the "trilogy" ended, most of the end of the final book was used to set up conflict for the next series. This sequel baiting gives you an "ending" that isn't complete, that has raised just as many questions as it answered. This, sometimes, I feel is a bit more annoying, just because it is more in your face. It's as though the author or publisher promised you an ending by calling it a "final" book, only to pull out the rug at the end and say, "If you want closure, you have to read this next series of books." It feels a bit more like trickery, not so much in the storytelling as the way that it's marketed. At times, I feel like if it just called itself a series or a saga and then the writer produced however many books were needed to tell the story, it wouldn't be an issue.

Why do writers do this? What's with the obsession with trilogies when some stories just don't fit in three books? There are probably a million answers, some more justifiable than others. But no matter the quality of the follow-up book, it will ruin the series, because the story was finished. This new story? You're slopping fresh clay on top of a finished statue. And why?

Because fans, and authors, love the world. Let's face it, fans can't let go. All you have to do is look to Firefly to understand that. Often, fans will respect a proper ending, but the real hardcore fans, the ones every author dreams about, the ones that create art of our work, write their own fanfiction, who stay up all night dreaming about where your characters will go after the end, will never be happy. In some ways, these fans are toxic. Because even when you present them with the utmost perfect ending, they still want more.

But how can you shame them for that? Fans want more of your art because they love it. That's the dream.

The publishing business, as well, loves to see writers keep writing. At the end of the day, publishing is a business and houses want to be in the black when it comes to sales. What makes the most money in books? Series. Hook a reader with your first book, and they'll gladly buy a second and third and fourth. I faced this a little myself when I got my own agent. I had written a stand-alone book to sell as my debut. There was no way to continue this story. I massacred one of my main characters, I obliterated the villain and completely resolved the conflict. There was nowhere, NOWHERE, for the story to go without feeling horribly contrived, and yet my agent still pushed for it to be turned into a series, as it would "sell better." But, caught up in the glitz and glamour of agent life as well as being a little young and naive, I said, "Of course I can turn my single book into a series."

But every time I sat down to write the sequel, I ran into walls. It felt contrived in every way. I wrote that book, scratched it, and began again at least three separate times. But the book wasn't to be written, because there was no story left there.

Can I blame the agent for pushing a series where there wasn't one? I feel like I can, because although everyone needs to eat, the bigger paycheck should never be the thing driving art. When all you're looking at is the income, you forget about the bigger picture, the story, and it is so easy to lose it to cliche or crappy, half-formed ideas. Art that is rushed or forced isn't art anymore, it becomes a product. If that's what you want to be at the end of the day, someone like James Patterson who pumps out books like they fly out of his ass, then by all means. There are many others out there with similar views of books as something to be mass produced.

Then there comes the authors, the writers, those of us who can't let go. I can hardly fault a writer being in love with their world or their characters. After all, isn't that why we do this? But, I think the inability to let go of something you've written is not done so much out of love, but out of fear. This world is established, these characters are flushed out, the plot makes sense, and if you're published and selling well, people really like it. It's so much easier to come up with new conflict for characters that already exist than to start from scratch with a new idea. But that is what we must do.

There are so many ideas out there, so many stories to be told, and so many that aren't being told, because people favor the hero's tale, the simple plotline, the easiest path from A to B. I feel, as authors, we have to have the strength and the knowledge to know when to stop. To know that the series you've written is finished, and it's time to move on.

If Maggie Stiefvater had spent all her time writing more Shiver books, she never would have created the Scorpio Races or the Raven Boys. If Scott Westerfeld never let go of Uglies, we wouldn't have Leviathan. Not to mention, if they had clung to these ideas, they would have long ago faded away into obscurity. No idea lasts forever, no matter how many books you can pump out of it.

How do you succeed in this business? How do you create a really good story?

1) Know Where To End A Story

2) Always Try Something New

I may be the minority here, but when I sit down with an amazing book series, I want closure. The end is always my favourite, and it leaves me feeling empty when the story is left half-done or a finished story is revived, to walk amongst other books like the living dead. Endings are hard, because after we reach it, there's no going back, no adding to it, no time to fix plot holes with more story. It is a finality, and it opens the door for criticism, as there's no more hiding behind the mystery of "more to come."

"To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong." Joseph Chilton Pearce.

I think Pearce puts it best.



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