The writer’s conundrum . . . or how you can’t make everyone happy, so at the end of that day, as a writer, you do what’s best for the characters and the book.
One of the things I always like to do here in this little corner is have a small writing lesson for my sons who are working on their first novels. And the one thing I harp on them all the time about is to listen to their characters and to tell the story the way the characters want them to tell it. Yes, readers are important. They are a most necessary ingredient, but readers aren’t writers and no matter how “perfect” a book is, someone out there will hate it. You can’t control the haters and you can’t control their emotions. All you can control is the quality of the book and do the best for each and every one you write.
That’s the one lesson I’ve learned most in the almost forty years I’ve been a paid, professional writer.
Case in point . . . as we all know, I write long series that in some instances span decades of publication and involve characters who have complicated relationships that are sometimes thousands of years old. The one thing I’m known for is taking characters who’ve been in the series for a long time (often hated) and then to tell their version of the story. This is nothing new for me or for my series. I’ve been doing it for over the twenty plus years I’ve been published.
Likewise, I often take one scene and use it in several books, showing how that scene or chapter is vastly different in another character’s point-of-view. I’ve been doing this since I published my first novel in 1993. It’s not “laziness” as some of those wonderful critics want to call it. It’s vital perspective. Ask any police officer who has ever covered a crime scene.
One event. Nine witnesses. Three dozen versions of the same, exact incident that changes over time as the witnesses remember the story and retell it, embellishing or remembering new details each and every time.
I did this with Julian and Kyrian’s books. They both talk about the same events that they participated in, but tell different parts of the story. Night Embrace and Kiss of the Night open with the same exact phone call. Verbatim. Bad Moon Rising starts just before Night Embrace, then has scenes from Night Embrace, Unleash the Night, Seize the Night, etc, until it catches up with the regular storyline and moves forward past it. Devil May Cry had pieces of Kiss of the Night and Dream Hunter in it.
And let’s not even start with Styxx which is verbatim Acheron, except from Styxx’s point-of-view.
Ah . . . Styxx. That huge book where I learned one important lesson (or so I thought). Up until Styxx, readers had never noticed the scenes I picked through and reused. Ever. Not once was this ever commented upon, unless a comma or piece of dialogue was changed and then readers wanted to know WHY it was different in one book. Did I forget what I’d written previously? Was there a reason I’d changed it? (Reason was always a copy editor unknowingly changed it and I tried to change it back and somehow it didn’t get fixed back to what was previously published).
To write Styxx, I had scenes from many, many books as he was a character who’d been around since the beginning of the series. Night Embrace being a large one, and of course Acheron, and the entire Second Chances that was originally pubbed at the end of Unleash, and in the Companion, then in Acheron and again copied and pasted verbatim into Styxx. But I left one scene out of that 1600+ manuscript.
Acheron’s wedding. Since it wasn’t important to Styxx, and I knew all the readers or fans would know Styxx was there (as it’d been previously published and written in Acheron) that I’d simply show the scene where Urian woke up Styxx to get him to the wedding, then omit the wedding scene (because we really didn’t need to introduce that many characters Styxx didn’t know and who wouldn’t appear again in his book and waste pages on a scene that was completely irrelevant to his story) and cut to the a few months later where Styxx was in the desert. I assumed readers would be wise enough to know that during the three days between Styxx’s awakening and leaving that he’d have gone to New Orleans for the wedding, returned home and then left. After all, most people only spend two to three hours at a wedding. I didn’t think I had to mention it.
My mistake. I can’t even begin to catalogue how many times we’ve had to answer to fans that A) yes, Styxx was at Acheron’s wedding B) I didn’t forget that he was at the wedding or forget to put it in Styxx’s book as I had my reasons for not including it, and C) why it is I chose to not include those additional 60+ unnecessary pages of character introduction toward the end of the novel when I thought readers would be more interested in reading fresh, unpublished material and not a scene I’d already published in another novel that didn’t pertain to the current one.
The lesson learned coming off Styxx was that any time I had a character who spanned a lot of books, then I’d better include every, single scene that character appears in or the readers will become angry and think that I was changing the story, and forgetting what the character had previously done. I learned in book 1 many years ago when a copy editor changed some previously published dialogue that NEVER should ANY comma or ANY piece of dialogue be changed as that will spawn all kinds of conspiracy theories about the characters, as well as accusations against me that I can’t remember what I previously wrote (or worse, what’s wrong with me that I’m ‘too lazy to go back and cut-and-paste the scene’ to ‘get it right’), and that I was changing the characters or books and their meanings and confusing fans.
So given all that experience and all those emails and posts we’ve answered over the last twenty years, when I sat down to write Illarion’s book Dragonmark, I knew not to cut a single scene (right?).
Now we know from Illarion’s book, as with Bad Moon Rising (Fang and Aimee), and several others, that Illarion and Edilyn’s relationship began in the past. Centuries ago.
Just like with Fang and Aimee, I knew if I didn’t show the meeting, readers would feel cheated because they always want to see how the characters first met. But then Edilyn supposedly dies in the middle, leaving Illarion to carry on (as we did in Styxx with Bethany) and as with Styxx, the book crossed over into other books with scenes that had to be shown from Illarion’s point-of-view as those events were extremely important to Dragonmark— in fact, Dragonmark relied on them. Any new reader, and even those familiar with the series, would want to see how Illarion came from the ancient world, into the modern. Had I omitted how he got to the modern world, it would have left a gaping hole in the story and those important characters in his book, wouldn’t have been introduced. Or worse, would have resulted in “info dumping” in the narrative, which writers are never supposed to do.
Therefore, each and every one of those tiny handful of scenes was very carefully chosen and rewritten as I’ve done with every single book I’ve ever published in my entire career. And much less of Dragonmark relied on previous books than other “beloved” fan favorites. It’s what the fans tell me they love the most about my books as it enables them to learn more about the characters and to not judge other people’s motivations as you see an entirely different range from another character’s point-of-view.
So you can imagine my shock and dismay when out of the blue Dragonmark was vehemently attacked by a small number of exceptionally verbose readers when no book before it had ever been so. For the very reasons that over the last twenty years fans have told me repeatedly that they love about my books. In fact the one book with the most “cut and pasted” scenes i.e. Styxx is a #1 fan favorite. With, ironically enough, the biggest complaint ever spoken over that book being the fact that I didn’t “cut and paste” Acheron’s wedding scene.
It was as if someone intentionally coordinated an attack on the book over a style of writing I’ve used since the beginning of my career in much the same way each TV show begins with a small rerun of previous episodes. Yet no one ever accuses them of trying to pull something over on the public or of being lazy because they are trying to make sure the viewer has the necessary information they need to proceed with the enjoyment of the program.
I can assure you that it’s much easier to write fresh pages than it is to rewrite passages from previous books to make them fit into a current one. In fact, nothing about writing is easy. If it is, why does everyone scream whenever they’re asked to write a three page paper?
Dragonmark, as all my books, was a labor of love. Illarion was a favorite character who has been around a long time and I didn’t want to give him another heroine. He wouldn’t accept another heroine. In fact, several readers have already screamed their displeasure that Urian might not be with Phoebe. But to tell Phoebe’s story, I’d have to go back through how many books? And obviously given the backlash on Dragonmark, we definitely don’t want to do that as Phoebe and Urian met in 1990’s and we’d have to go through all those Kiss of the Night scenes and a few other books after that to get to tell their story and make it complete.
Now you see the conundrum . . . Tell the story in its entirety or never go back and revisit beloved characters as to tell their story requires visiting scenes from other books that have been published before. You can’t tell their story without those vital, personality altering scenes. That would mean no Savitar. No Jaden. No Jared . . . etc.
But I don’t think that’s what the readers and fans really want. Especially given how many decades I’ve been doing this and the fact that I’ve always told the stories this way. I won’t let a few bad apples destroy the books for those who love them. As noted, every single book I write is a labor of love and comes from my heart. I put my heart and soul into every line that I very carefully craft. I write because I love these characters and I want you, the reader, to love them, too. And the only way for you to do that is for you to see them in their entirety. Sometimes we do have to revisit the past, just like that story a loved one has told a few dozen times, but those are critical parts to that person’s personality. Critical to understanding them.
For that I won’t apologize. I’m sorry any time someone doesn’t like a book. No writer ever wants to hear that a reader was disappointed. That’s not why we do what we do. We want to make every single reader love every book as much as we do— that is our goal as we sit for untold hours on end. Alone. No writer is ever trying to pull something over on a reader or trying to take an easy way out or shortcut, as there are no such animals in this business. No less time went into the writing of Dragonmark than I’ve spent with any book. As all my true fans know, I won’t release a book until I feel it’s the best I can make it. I’ve pulled plenty of books from a publishing schedule, and have pushed deadlines (and publication dates) back to make sure that each and every book I write is the best I can make it, and that they all have the time that’s needed to make them the best they can be. You might not like it for whatever reason, but I can look you in the eye and tell you it wasn’t rushed. That I didn’t take a shortcut and that I put as much love and time into that book as I have done every single book I’ve ever written. My name is my guarantee.
I love my fans. I love my characters. Writing is all I ever wanted to do and I fought hard to get here. My career wasn’t given to me. I wasn’t one of those writers who had a publisher wave a magic wand over my head and make me a sensation. I had to fight hard for my career and swim upstream to get my books sold and on the bestseller lists, and I know I owe that to my beloved fans, not a publisher. Anyone who knows me, and especially those who call me friend and family, will tell you how much I love and adore my fans and how much they mean to me. How much each and every book means to me. That includes Dragonmark and I can’t wait for the rest of the Dragons Rising books to come out. All I ask is that you judge them fairly and not be tainted by the opinions of a handful. I believe Illarion is a wonderful hero and I adored Edilyn, especially her unconventional size and temerity. She is a heroine worthy of the title. And I’m not alone. I’ve received far more fan letters from people who absolutely love the book than that tiny handful who don’t.
And so to that, I leave my sons with the advice that we started with:
You can’t please all the people all the time. Please as many readers as you can. But most of all, write for the characters and tell the story as they want it told. Listen to no one else and you’ll never go wrong. Let the characters live and let them breathe.