A book is not a child

Susan sent us a link to a Charlaine Harris blog entry about the nature of the writing process, and the part readers play in that process.

I’ve noticed lately that quite a few readers seem angry if books don’t turn out in a way that would have made them happier. That’s an attitude I find hard to understand. (Maybe it’s my age? I don’t know.) … I know that readers have every right not to be happy with the way a book ends, or with the way characters meet their fate. But to be angry with the writer? The characters belong to the writer. I know in a certain sense they belong to the reader, too; but the characters live in the writer’s mind and at her/his will.

Well, there’s anger, and then there’s anger. But I don’t think the feelings of betrayal are that inexplicable—Misery is an effective horror novel because Annie Wilkes is a rather mundane, everyday creature exaggerated to grotesque extremes, which tends to be a specialty of King’s. She’s your biggest fan—and you don’t want to piss off your biggest fan.

Reading for pleasure is a deeply personal process—and when you’re reading fiction, it’s also a deeply emotional process. I know I’ve become angry at authors for fucking up their stories. It’s not the personal, directed rage I’d feel towards somebody who had actively done me wrong, and it’s not the deep, sustaining slow burn I feel when I encounter what I perceive to be social injustice. Later on in the blog, Harris mentions that the writer is God, and I think she’s hit the nail on the head, because you know what? People get angry at God all the time. It may not be rational—it may, in fact, be a completely useless endeavor, but it’s a very human urge.

There are different types of anger, too, and I think it’s important to distinguish between them. There’s the anger I feel when I finish a truly awful book. When the craft displayed isn’t inept so much as in need of major reconstructive surgery—so much so that I have no idea how the book got published—I tend to feel pissy at the time and money I’ve wasted.  I don’t expect a choir of angels singing every time I open a book, but I do expect a base level of competence.

And then there’s the anger at an author when she starts out terrifically, and then fucks it the hell up further down the line (with certain authors, like a certain somebody whose name starts with “L” and ends with “aurell K. Hamilton,” the fucking is literal as well as metaphorical). In a rather strange way, it’s a compliment to the author. The readers are obviously emotionally invested in the book and the characters; the fact that they’re unhappy with the turn of events may be tiresome (and I’m all for an author staying true to her vision, because writing solely to please the fans is a pretty disastrous proposition) but it shows that at least somewhere down the line, you did something right.

I do find the question of who the characters belong to to be an interesting question. The author has ultimate control, but the reader plays a crucial part in the interpretation process. They may not spend as much time with the characters and story as the author does, but the ties that are created can be every bit as strong and real. The readers don’t—and really shouldn’t—get a say in how the story goes, but I can certainly understand their proprietary urges.

The writer is determiner of fate for his or her characters. Writing is a lone pastime, not a group endeavor. It doesn’t take a village to write a book. It takes one person, shut up in a room for hours on end.

This little bit here made me think about the creative process and how we tend to have this idealized vision of the author as this Glorious Isolato, struggling with her vision and her muse. And then she hands it in to the editor, who asks her to cut 5,000 words so the story is tighter and finds a continuity error that needs to be fixed, and the copyeditor, who catches some typos and points out gently that switching tenses every other sentence makes for a jarring read. Yes, a book is written mostly alone, and as I’ve already said, when it comes down to reader whims vs. authorial vision, authorial vision should win, but I think writing a book is a somewhat more collaborative effort than what we give credit for. A good editor is worth her weight in gold; it’s not a coincidence that certain authors start sucking when they hit the big time and are given more space to be self-indulgent. Cf Rice, Anne and BATSHIT INSANITY.

So some things to think about (and if they sound a little like textbook discussion questions, blame law school for putting me in that frame of mind):

What was the last book you got angry about?

Why were you angry?

Were you mad at the book, or at the author—or both?

Who do you think the characters truly belong to: the author? The readers? Both? Neither?

Authors out there: how strongly do editors influence your vision?

Editors out there: How do you keep your authors happy?

Categorized:

Random Musings

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  1. 1
    Kate Duffy says:

    WITH NO ONE AS WITNESS by Elizabeth George.

    She killed off the pregnant Lady Hellen Clyde.

    I am still angry with the author and she is not invited to my house.  Ever.

    The characters belong to the author and so do the consequences of the author deciding what to do to and with them.  It’s called the plot and that is the author’s as well.

    If my authors are happy, that’s the first I’ve heard of it.  As the first reader on behalf of the public what I do is try to convey the impact of some decisions about plot and character which don’t work for me. But the author’s name goes on the book and the choices ultimately should be up to them.

    Kate

  2. 2
    Kate Duffy says:

    Helen not Hellen, I know.

    Poor woman deserved better.

  3. 3
    Meg Cabot says:

    I’ve told my editor stuff I planned on doing to characters in various series and she’s flat out told me no, absolutely not, you are not doing that, and made me take it out.  And by “made me”, I mean she’s written me 8 page single spaced editorial letters about why it’s wrong. 

    Sometimes I’ve fought her on it, but usually I’ve done what she said and taken it out (case in point, if left up to me, Book 2 of the Princess Diaries series would have been called “Princess of Puke” and would have featured long puking scenes.  We won’t talk about some of the other things I wanted to do that she talked me out of). 

    And, looking back, even though it enraged me at the time, I’m glad I did it, because she was always right. 

    And that’s why when that particular editor recently left my publishing house, I followed her.  Because sometimes you just get so caught up in the story, you can’t see properly.  Maybe those other writers just don’t have editors who care. —Meg

  4. 4
    sandra says:

    COUNTERFEIT LADY by Jude Devereux, the first and last book of hers ( or is it his?) I will ever read.  The ‘hero’ is a spineless, drunken fool, the ‘heroine’ is such a doormat that she ought to have “Please wipe your feet’ tattooed on her forehead, and the villainess is fat. That’s her main evil trait:  eating her way through the planet, while Mr Spineless and Ms Doormat do nothing to stop her.  I consider that an insult to the Fat Women of the World.  I was furious with the author for writing such a piece of crap (which gets my vote for Worse So-called Romance Ever) and with the publisher for letting it see the light of day. There ought to be some sort of standards, to protect the reading public.

  5. 5
    Katie W. says:

    The most recent book that angered me was Liz Carlyle’s

    Two Little Lies

    It made me angry for a few reasons. The book that preceded it (

    One Little Sin

    ) was rather enjoyable, and it introduced me to the characters that would be featured

    Two Little Lies

    .

    The problem was that the first book did NOT give me a good impression about the characters of

    Two..

    . (Possible Spoilers Ahead) In

    Sin

    , Quin was affianced to a girl, who happened to discover him engaging in sexual activities in his study with a woman who kept slapping him with her riding whip.

    Lies

    carries on the story between Quin, and the Italian opera singer (the woman with tendencies to whip men).

    Which meant that

    Lies

    had to re-tread old ground for the first quarter of the book—simply from Quin’s perspective and not his jilted fiancee’s. Which was boring.

    THEN there were even more flash-backs to establish the relationship between the two characters. Flash-backs on top of flash-backs made me really, really mad. Since the actual story about these two people in the present, didn’t even get going until half-way through the book. By then, I didn’t really like any of the characters very much. They whined a lot, they complained about their lives, about the bad choices they’d made, etc.

    And there were practically no sex scenes. The most exciting one was the one in

    Sin

    with the riding crop and that was just sexual play—they weren’t even having sex.

    So. Recap of why I was angry about this book: Double flash-backs were double boring. Self-indulgent characters who WHINE. A LOT. And practically no decent sex scenes (and by “decent,” I mean “naughty”). BUT the supporting characters were very interesting and it was actually the supporting characters who kept me reading the book.

  6. 6
    MaryKate says:

    LOVER REVEALED by JR Ward.

    I was not so much angry as bitter. I just felt like she’d walked Butch and Vishous to the line (they embraced naked for God’s sake!), and then wussed out. How much more interesting the long-term relationship would have been if they’d crossed the line and then had to go back!

    But no.

    Also, a little hot BDB butt secks would have made me happy. Maybe it’s just me.

  7. 7
    Jami Alden says:

    I don’t want to name names, but I get really mad when I’ve been waiting and waiting and WAITING for a couple/character to get their story, only to find that a) the most interesting parts of their story were already written like, 3 books ago and/or b)the story is boring, lame, and totally unworthy of a character I have grown to love over several books

    I think I mostly get mad at the author, for stringing me along through a zillion books, and for writing what I consider a lame story when I know, based on past books, that she is capable of writing truly awesome books. Kind of like a mom getting pissed at her kid for not working up to his or her potential. I’m not just mad, I’m very disappointed… 

    As for who those characters belong to, it’s the author, obviously. But at a certain point, especially with ongoing series, I think there’s more of an obligation to give readers what they want, even when it might be more interesting creatively to kill off a long standing character or do something equally unexpected. 

    Oh, and I’m like, supposed to have a vision? Crap. I better email Hilary, pronto, and see if she has any ideas…  Kidding aside, my editor (and Kate) had a huge hand in the concept for the series I’m working on now. Since I’m really new at this game, I rely on their years of experience and knowledge of what readers respond to.

  8. 8
    Ellen says:

    I have a third kind of reader-anger, which is when an author does something that makes me unhappy but that I know makes the story stronger (e.g. killing off a character I like, separating a couple I want to be together). I get over this anger eventually.

    I definitely get angry at the author, not the book.

    I think characters do belong to the author, but as you say, reading is an emotional process, and the second type of reader-anger you mention makes me feel betrayed. It’s, maybe, like breaking up with someone: no one may be technically in the wrong, but you’re still mad as hell and don’t want to be in the same room anymore.

  9. 9
    ktg says:

    Charlaine’s blog doesn’t surprise me at all. I met her a few years ago at a boom signing, if I recall correctly, she claimed that she and Laurell were friends. And further, Charlaine said she was a huge fan of Laurell’s. I imagine it’s hard to watch your friend and colleague take so much heat from former fans.

    *shrug*

    And if it only takes one person to write a book, what’s with all the dedications on the first page? “This book would not exist without the help of Yadda Yadda Yadda”?

    I certainly don’t think that fans have any say over what happens to characters, but they have every right to express their opinions as loud as they like.

  10. 10
    KTG says:

    Errr BOOK signing, not boom signing.

    *head desk*

  11. 11
    bungluna says:

    I’m an avid reader, and I do get disgusted with long-favorite authors because of the direction their writing has taken.  Case in point, anything written by Linda Howard in the last couple of years has been a severe disappointment, especially her tendency to linger (waste page space!) on the pov of the bad guys.

    That said,  I know the author is the ultimate ‘god’ of his/her universe.  I’m along for the ride.  If I don’t like it, I can move on to another universe.  But constantly harping about how the ‘author’s done me wrong’ has never entered my mind.  He/she is the owner of her work;  me, I’m the owner of my wallet and have the option of not buying that person’s work anymore.

  12. 12
    Carrie Lofty says:

    I haven’t been angry at a book in ages. Can’t remember the last. Maybe because few of them have been significant enough in my brainpan to make me feel cheated. Is that terrible? No, I just don’t read as much as I should.

    As for the village analogy—dude, you won’t wanna see my stuff before my CPs get hold of it. UGLY. And that’s before the pros step in and make is saleable. Solo authors turn into crazy authors who can’t self-edit.

  13. 13
    SandyO says:

    I have to answer Ms Harris a bit.  I am a big fan of her Southern Vampire books.  Now I know they aren’t romances, but rather a hybrid of romance, mystery and paranomal.

    She started her books off with the heroine Sookie Stackhouse falling for Vampire Bill.  Then a few books in, Vampire Bill began to fall out of favor.  Then there was Vampire Eric, Werewolf Alcide, and Weretiger Whatshisname (I don’t like him, can’t ever remember his name).  But I’ve stayed with the books, even though I’m a Bill fan (and terrified that Ms Harris is going to kill him off), because the books are good.

    However, the last one wasn’t that good.  I felt Sookie was out of character, didn’t pick up on things she would have normally.  Basically, the book was a bridge, connecting where the previous books have been to where the story is going.

    I know that Ms Harris has a very vocal message board at her site and an author can’t please everyone.  But who are we to be upset with when the characters seem to spiral out of character?  Are we to be upset with the fictional characters or their creator?  As someone who paid $25 for Ms Harris’s last hardback, I have a right to my displeasure.

  14. 14

    Larry McMurty kills off his main characters with an alacrity that drives me nuts. But I can’t help myself; I keep coming back.

    After Lonesome Dove I swore I wouldn’t read another. But then I read the sequal.
    The hero in the sequal gets killed off after getting his arms and legs chopped off and squirming his way across the desert. I exaggerate, but not by much.

    I swore then I would never read another. But then I did. I read ever single one of his books. I hated myself while I did it. But his characters are so damned good I can’t stay away! And then he kills them.

    Maybe this explains why S&M shows up in so many of my books. Hmmm. Back to the shrink.

  15. 15
    Karen Scott says:

    What was the last book you got angry about?

    Karin Slaughter, she did a very bad thing, with one of her main characters. I think that donkey has been flogged well enough now though.

    Prior to that was Patricia Cornwell, she too did a very bad thing with one of her key characters. Readers went crazy, then she tried to make it all better, by cancelling out the bad thing that she did.

    It was never the same after that though.  Kind of like trying to stay friends after you split up with a former lover.  Awkward and uneasy.

  16. 16
    Liz C. says:

    Sweet Revenge by Nora Roberts. Dear lord that book pissed me off. I didn’t realize it was a re-release of something from the 80s. I expected better from Nora Roberts. Even when I realized it was probably an earlier work I was disappointed. It wasn’t funny. I didn’t like the characters. And it had a rapist abusive sheikh for chrissakes! Oh and I can’t forget the hero who magically healed the heroine, who was afraid of sex after witnessing her mother being raped by her father the sheikh, with sex. Man, it still pisses me off that I spent money on that book.

    But, I don’t think I was really mad with the author. Disappointed yes, but I was mad at the book for sucking so hard.

    The characters definitely belong to the author, though, which makes it hard not to get angry at the author when a book isn’t what you expected.

  17. 17
    Scotsie says:

    I get more annoyed when authors tend to carry on series far beyond their logical conclusions.  Case in point: Jean M. Auel (enough of the mammoth sex already) and Diana Gabaldon (enough of the OMG I know the future we’re all going to die—but then we don’t—followed by sex).  I would rather leave my characters who I’ve grown to love at a time and place where I can feel good about them and know that there’s a HEA.  The parallel is when a TV show goes on for far, far too long.  No one really watches it and it sinks into obscurity, clinging to guest starts and cameo celebs.  Those are the things that make me upset with books/authors.

  18. 18
    LesleyW says:

    MaryKate – I agree. I would have liked to see the Vishous/Butch thing explored further. One thing that grated a little was when they finally have their embrace – it was followed by this was Never going to happen again, NEVER EVER, that’s NEVER EVER EVER. She couldn’t just let the action speak for itself and leave it ambiguous.

    As for the book that last upset me. I almost hesitate to mention this ‘cause I know blogs and message boards where discussion is still ongoing. But it’s Karin Slaughter’s Skin Privilege (Beyond Reach in the US). I’ve given away all the books in the series. I read the end and felt like I’d wasted my time and money.

    I’ve gone off series before (LKH) but I’ve kept the books I enjoyed. But this last Grant County book…it’s the first book that’s made me appreciate Kathy Bates position in Misery.

  19. 19
    Chicklet says:

    I think what bugs me most about the Harris post is her disingenuous “surprise” that readers are so invested in books/characters that they become angry when the books take a direction they don’t like. When an author invites readers to interact with them (and with each other) via a blog or message board or forum, readers will feel more comfortable voicing their opinions. Is that so difficult to comprehend?

    As for the last book that made me angry, I think it was Stephanie Plum #12, when Stephanie kissed Ranger while living mostly at Morelli’s house. Infidelity is my #1 bulletproof squick, so between that and the lazy writing (barely 200 pages, 14-point type, 16-point line spacing, and 1.25” margins) I felt quite justified in not only skipping #13, but in donating #s 1-12 to my local Goodwill.

    I’m starting to get a little scared by the spamblocker’s psychic abilities: my current word is reaction99.

  20. 20
    Teddy Pig says:

    Gee Mary Kate,

    Um I am not gonna waste my time even reading that JR Ward book.

    Thank you for the heads up.

  21. 21
    Chrissy says:

    I agree with Two Little Lies.  85% of the damned novel was unnecessary and blatantly stupid.  It felt like John Jakes old crap.  Wallow, wallow, sex, wallow, wallow.

    Anyway, I hate to harp on her, but I not only can’t read Hamilton anymore… her promotional nightmare with Micah was an outrage.  I picked it up, took one look at the gi-normous font and print spacing, and discovered she’d gotten a novel’s worth of cash out of me for a cheesy, incomplete, bad novella with unpleasant TMI sprawled over every page.

    Johanna Lindsey’s Captive (not the last, but the one before—may have the title screwed up) was, IMO, so badly written I was convinced the first few pages were either a joke or something awful had happened to her and an intern was forced to write the book.  I haven’t picked up the new one.

  22. 22
    lisabea says:

    I think everyone was pissed at Charlaine Harris when she killed off the husband in one of her other series. I can’t remember which one. It was a big deal, I guess, but I read the last book first, so I didn’t really care. But I recall that her readers were outraged. Tough titty.

    I was pissed at the Vampire Queen’s Servant. Sorry Joey. I suck, I know it. I just didn’t like her guys. Sorry. I couldn’t find ANYTHING redeemable about her. Nothing. And that made me a little mad because I was so looking forward to reading it. But I will keep reading Joey Hill. :)

    “Also, a little hot BDB butt secks would have made me happy. Maybe it’s just me.” ABSOLUTELY agree with you there, Mary Kate.

  23. 23
    Nora Roberts says:

    The characters belong to the writer, during the process of creating them and telling their story. A writer can’t write with readers hanging over her shoulder giving their opinions, their hopes, their wishes.

    Which one(s) do you listen to?

    But the characters become the reader’s when the reader opens the book. And she has every right to get as angry as she wants, as happy as she wants.

    An editor edits—and thank God for good, solid, smart editors who tell us no. (No to Princess Puke!)

    I don’t think writing is a collaboration. It’s a partnership, and that’s a different thing to me. Ultimately, it’s my decision whether to listen to my editor, and to take her direction. If I’m a good partner, and trust my partner, I’m going to listen, and the majority of the time, take her advice.

    The reader then becomes another partner—each individual one. A writer can’t listen to all of them, as they’ll often contridict each other. What one loved, the other hated. Who’s right?

    Both.

    But…

    When a large group of readers agree, the smart writer needs to listen, and to consider. Just as she listened to her editor, and considered.

  24. 24
    Kimberly Anne says:

    When a book meets my bedroom wall, it is almost never because of something that a character has done.  My major beef is with style.  If an author I enjoy has gone off the rails and written something that is more an exercise in, “Look how literary I am!  Aren’t you impressed by my magical writerliness?” than an actual story, I’m done.  Every time this happens, I have a mental image of editors fleeing like rats from the author’s sinking ship.  And if the editors have abandoned them, so will I.

    I read to be immersed in a world, not befuddled by wordplay.

  25. 25
    Teddy Pig says:

    lisabea,

    Did you see the new Joey Hill “Rough Canvas” out over at Ellora’s Cave?
    It’s got man on man action.

    I am reading it as we speak… Get it!

  26. 26
    Lucie Simone says:

    Unfortunately, the most recent book to piss me off was by a new author that I met and absolutely adored. I rushed out (err – 6 weeks later) to snatch up her book. At first, I loved it. It was riveting, and so well written. I was in love with the characters, especially the main character, and then suddenly at the second to last chapter, the main cc revealed that she was in fact the villain and had been lying to the reader the whole time about her role in the book’s murder. I was so pissed about that. It completely let the air of the balloon for me. I truly hate those unreliable narrators.

  27. 27

    I tend to be a good (or maybe lucky) picker. The last book I remember getting really angry about was the third book of the Bitterbynde Trilogy by Cecelia Dart-Thornton. Terrific trilogy, really liked it, well written, nice riffs on Celtic myths and legends, heroine makes progress at the end of each book, heading nicely toward a HEA…

    [SPOILER WARNING]

    …until BOOM! Ten pages from the end the heroine is RIGHT BACK WHERE SHE STARTED, no HEA, no memory, no friends, no lover, massively disfigured by horrible accident.

    [OK, safe to read now.]

    I believe I may have yelled “I just read 1000 pages for THIS?”

    I think I was mainly mad at the book. With a side of pique for the author and whoever let her do that. Up to that point it had been great, though.

    I also get disappointed when good series slide. Again, I’ve been a pretty lucky picker up to now, so it hasn’t happened that often.

    Lisabea, I think I read that Charlaine Harris—it’s the only one of hers I’ve read. Mainly I was puzzled, in a “Huh. Well, that came out of nowhere” kind of way, but I suspected I would’ve been quite annoyed if I’d been a long-time reader of the series.

  28. 28
    Keri Ford says:

    I picked up a book the other day (sorry, I got rid of it, don’t remember the title or the author) but after 30 pages I put it back down, pissed because I’d already wasted that much time on the story.

    What did author do? Wrote in so many cliches that I began to think it was the goal. As if the characters speaking and thinking cliche lines weren’t enough, their jobs, their internal conflicts, problems with family EVERYTHING FEAKING THING was nothing but one big cliche.

    Grr….

  29. 29
    Lori says:

    The only author I ever got seriously pissed at was Stephen King when I got to the end of “Cujo”.  I was so upset that it took me nearly 10 years to pick up another Stephen King novel even though he had been a favorite up to then.  I’ve probably only read three of his books since then.

    I have had other authors that I’ve left in the dust because their stories got annoying.  Cathleen Coulter is really pissing me off with her regurgitated novels.  They read like they were written 20-30 years ago.  Story styles and storylines have changed over the decades.

    Also, a few years ago I picked up a bunch of Harlequin romances at a garage sale…something like 10 for $1.00.  I read a bunch of them and was getting really irritated.  Then I thought to look at the published dates and they were all from the early 80’s.  All the stories had a similar theme where the “hero” basically blackmails the heroine to be with him.  We call that sexual harassment these days and I really can’t stand to read those storylines any more.

  30. 30
    Chris S. says:

    Of course readers have the right to be sad/annoyed/angry when a book doesn’t turn out they way they want.  Everyone is entitled to her own feelings.  But that doesn’t mean those feelings need to be aired outside the privacy of one’s own head. 

    Can you imagine it in an art gallery?  “You know, she used more blue in her last painting, and I liked it so much better.  This painting should be blue!  And all her future works should feature blue as well—because I like blue!” 

    No matter what happens in a book (movie, painting, whatever), someone will hate it.  Someone else will love it.  The creator of the work can’t please both;  so she has to please herself, first.

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