But then….

Over the past several months, I’ve come across more and more reader comments about my writing along the lines of “I don’t like his writing, but I can’t stop reading him” or “he’s not that good a writer, but there’s something that makes me want to finish the series.”  While I’ll definitely accept such comments over those that begin “What the f—?” the question that comes to mind is, if I’m, such an unlikable writer or storyteller, why do those readers keep reading what I write?

Some might say that it’s to see how things turn out, but that doesn’t make much sense to me, because, while I write long “series,” I’ve never written more than three books about a given character, and these readers write about continuing to read me, as if my work happens to be an addiction that they can’t control.  From the sales point of view, that’s not totally bad, but I have to say that, in a way, it troubles me.

One reason for my unease is that I keep asking what is it about my work that is addictive enough that it compels those readers to continue against their feelings.  Or is it that they somehow feel ashamed to confess that they might actually like what I write?  Is it that I’m somehow unfashionable among certain groups – in the way that many male readers hate to confess they read romances or women that they like macho thrillers?

Then too, if I only knew exactly what it might be…. Why then, I could distill it and make millions in advertising or other fields, as opposed to a merely financially comfortable living as a writer.

Perhaps it’s because my work, especially my fantasy novels, has never been classified as deep, ponderous, and earthshaking [all right, I’ll grudgingly accept “ponderous” for a few], but neither are the books fluff, not even close to it, not if one reads all the words.    And I’d be the first to admit that, for most readers, my books aren’t exactly “light” reading, although there are some readers who clearly skim them and dismiss them as such.  It’s easy enough to tell that they do, because their comments ignore facts, traits, and events in the books in favor of a superficial gloss of the plot, and usually not all of it.  Unhappily, some of those readers are professional or semi-professional reviewers, and, as I’ve noted more than once, I tend to view sloppy and slipshod reviewers with the same distain and disgust as I do of slipshod and sloppy work in any field.

Or perhaps it’s as simple as the fact that readers like to be able to characterize in simple terms what they read and why they do… and the complexity beneath the surface of my books makes that difficult.  In point of fact, that’s always been one reason why I’ve never sent my editor a synopsis of any book before he reads it.  Anything short enough to be called a synopsis would be overly simplistic and misrepresentative and anything long enough to be accurate would scarcely qualify as a synopsis.

Whatever the reason, I have the feeling that such comments will continue and that I’ll continue to puzzle over them in a few of the moments when I’m not writing.

8 thoughts on “But then….”

  1. angel says:

    I have to admit that I am one of those persons who say what the f***k when i read some of your novels mainly cause I get attached to the characters and want to read more about them. Other than that you are a awesome writer. Thank you, and please keep up the great stories.

  2. Joshua Blonski says:

    The first thought that entered my mind when reading the quoted comments was, “Wait a minute, isn’t the draw to continue reading one of the defining factors of a good writer?” In that light, it seems very odd to say that you can’t put a book down but that you don’t like an author’s writing.

    I think you have two things working against you for your books. The first is simple enough: many adults don’t like to admit to reading fantasy or sci-fi books. It’s sad, but some people judge the two as being less literary. The way I see it, fiction is fiction. I don’t read for absolute true events. I read for good writing and engaging stories. If I want a real story, I turn to a newspaper or other published articles.

    The second thing that might be working against you, for some people, is that your characters do not fit the typical fantasy stereotypes too well. My friend and I were just talking about this yesterday, actually. You create characters that have very real flaws and drawbacks.

    A lot of fantasy authors give their main characters forgivable or “easy” flaws instead. This character fights against his destiny because he doesn’t want this lifestyle, and his choices got some people killed. That character is hell-bent on revenge, but it’s okay because the object of that revenge is the “bad guy” who killed her family. You know, the typical problems we’re all used to.

    Instead, your characters often have traits that demand attention from the reader. You can’t gloss over the fact that some of your characters kill innocent people, regardless of intent. You can’t overlook the fact that some of your characters just make very bad decisions because they didn’t think things through, and didn’t attempt to understand repercussions. Some of your characters have to learn the hard way. Some of them make mistakes that can’t be fixed or resolved. Some characters demand judgment from the reader.

    Unfortunately, I think there are a number of readers who get turned off by that. They want a nice, sugar-coated storyline with a near-perfect or otherwise “shining knight” hero-type character. But your characters are incredibly more engaging because of their design, and that’s part of what makes your stories so addictive. My guess is that even if people feel that they don’t like those types of characters, they feel a need to keep reading because of how true to form those characters are. They become real in our minds, and until their stories get resolved, it’s hard to let them go. And then it’s hard to not fill their ended story with a new one that does the same thing.

    The interesting thing is that this is one of the very reasons why I (and many of the people I’ve introduced your writing to) like your books. It’s one of the reasons why I think you’re one of the great writers of fantasy and sci-fi. So in a way it seems like some of those mentioned comments come from people who on some level actually may like your writing, but they’re not used to it. It’s not within their comfort zone. And that’s hard to express if you don’t think about it, as a reader or viewer of someone’s work. It’s interesting that something that might cause a negative reaction in the reader might also be the draw to read more.

    I could be off base with this, but from other reviews and “You gotta read this!” suggestions of other books that I found simplistic, boring, and contrived, there are a ton of readers out there who want fluff. Anything more than that, while feeding the part of the mind that craves depth, might be seen as bad writing by those readers.

  3. Robert The Addled says:

    I have to agree w/ Josh – you write excellent SF and fantasy – but do not fit the stereotypes. Your characters are (by virtue of their flaws) ‘real’ enough to empathize with. The relatively short arcs within the series constantly introduce new and equally compelling characters, but leaving the reader hungry for what SEEMS unfinished – since the ‘stereotypical’ SF/Fantasy is some varient of Happily Ever After.

  4. Bruce Trick says:

    I really love the books because they are NOT “fluff”. They make me think, and the best part is that they make me think about ethics, and choices. They are not simple, but a lot of what I see in the world today is “simple”, and I want a bit of a challenge to my day to day existance than just “simple”. Challenges are good for me!

  5. Wes tower says:

    I find that besides engaging stories, I am most attracted to you stories because they are literally philosophy in motion. The stories seem to explore questions of ethics and morality that is not simplistic nor abstracted to the point of detachment from reality. I’ve always enjoyed how you seem to always test how an ideal would or would not work under the stresses of life, both prosaic and epic.

  6. Matthew Runyon says:

    It isn’t just your books. I can think of several things (television shows at the top of the list) that I don’t like at all, yet feel oddly compelled to participate in.

    I think the most applicable to your case is my feelings about the book Ask the Dust by John Fante. I detested the story, I outright /hated/ the main character, I despise the “genre”, I am sick and tired of the atmosphere of the book and all others like it…

    And yet the sheer mastery of how /well/ it was written compelled me. But it took me a while and the help of my Creative Writing professor to understand all that. So, take someone who isn’t inclined to analyze, who doesn’t have a professor prodding them along…And you get someone who doesn’t like the material, /does/ like the craftsmanship, and doesn’t know this.

  7. Slackshot says:

    I enjoy your books, for a reason. Your writing denotes a kind of “learned by experience” background.

    Most of your characters that are “Order” based, just want the answers, they don’t want to understand why. Amazingly, your chaos characters prepare in advance, with forward thinking.

    It seems almost as if the “Ordered” characters represent younger men (generally, minus Kharl), and your chaos characters also seem to represent if not older, at least men wiser than those around them.

    A first look at why that beginning sentence matters, is simply this: most people merely step along the paths already made by others. Or guided by others; such as their parents, or some such. Now, I’m not undermining “inherited experience” as I call it, so much as saying that “inherited experience” doesn’t truly impart all of the wisdom that comes from possessing the real experience.

    Your two main Chaos characters, didn’t follow their parents footsteps. Cerryl had no parents alive. Lorn’s father was a Magi. So, of course, they had to come play with their hearts in the game, in order to do well.

    I keep coming back here, when I get around to it, so that I can see there is a sane person in Utah. Sometimes I wonder about the number of sane people; with how much my smokes cost now, and how much I pay the state for a bottle of booze. Don’t get me wrong, I love children, but did you have to tax me for the 10 kids in half the houses on the block? Why not target the people who *need* to pay for their 10 kids to get through the public education system?

  8. Josh Garner says:

    I have been giving this subject a lot of thought over the past several years because of the emergence of things like Twilight and The Da Vinci Code.

    In my opinion a piece of writing can connect to people on several different levels. A novel can be technically well written, have masterful descriptions and word choice, poetic and ornate. The world/scenery in a novel can be well crafted, thought out, make logical sense, or the concept can be fresh and new. A reader can feel connects to the characters, the dialogue can be spot on and realistic, the voice of a character can invoke emotions in a reader.

    But rarely do all of these things happen at once or in tandem. Writers have their strong suits and sometimes that might be in world building and other times it might be something like plot, but it seems to be those rare writers who can put everything together at once.

    When people say that they don’t like an authors writing but they can’t stop reading their books, what I think they are saying is that they have noticed what they consider to be a weakness in the authors style, but that the strengths of that authors out weigh the weakness — so they keep reading.

    I hope I’m not overstepping with this comment but I will say it anyway. I have read a lot of your books. I love the way you handle plot and I love your world building — I think those are your strengths. Sometimes I feel that its hit or miss when it comes to my connection with your characters but that has never been such an issue that I have decided to put down one of your books. Using another author as an example– Jim Butcher. Harry Dresden is a character I connect with on some type of crazy visceral level. I’m emotional invested in what happens to him to the point of getting choked up during certain parts of his story. However, in my opinion, Butcher is awful when it comes to the descriptions and wordsmithing. But my love of that character trumps whatever failings I see in with Butcher.I still read every Dresden book.

    Anyway — sorry for posting on a subject that you talked about so long ago. I just found your blog and thought I would throw out my opinion.

    I really enjoy your books and look forward to reading many more.

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