We’re to have a hard freeze Thursday night – our first freezing temps of the autumn – so I’ve started bringing in the house plants from the patio. It’s always a glut of blooms, fallen leaves, and much shuffling of saucers and ideal locations. This, more than anything else, is the first sign of fall for me.
I’ve been working on THE FATE OF THE TALA, and talking a lot about that process on my podcast, First Cup of Coffee. If you want an (almost) daily insight into my process, that’s the place to listen in. As an overview, however, I’ve been talking about beginnings and how to decide where to start a story. This isn’t an easy decision or process. For example, I’m on my fourth opening in FATE – and I think this one will stick. It takes a lot of trial and error to find where the story truly begins, and what counts as preceding events that will be woven in as backstory.
The thing is, newer writers don’t always realize how much effort goes into finding this sweet spot, because we mostly see only the finished product.
I realized this truth (yet again) the other day when I was helping a friend – a not-yet-published writer – with her book. The beginning simply wasn’t working, for a number of reasons. I gave her some specific advice to improve beginnings in general. (In particular, I pointed her to this Twitter thread by Mary Robinette Kowal that really lit me up – all stuff I knew, but framed in a way that I found super helpful.) I also pointed her to a book opening in the same genre by another author friend, pointing out how that person set up the character, world and genre.
The aspiring author came back with a mix of admiration, envy, and despair – agreeing that the (very accomplished) author’s opening was amazing. And I realized that I need to clarify that this amazing and gorgeously executed beginning was the result of easily six months of effort on the professional author’s part. Not only has she published many novels in the genre, but I happened to know she’d torn apart this beginning multiple times. Eventually she started with an entirely different POV character, which is when the story began to sing.
So, it’s important to remember, when looking at examples to follow, that published work has been through countless rounds of revision, editing, and more revisions. Finding the best place to start a story, and writing it well, is possible – but it also takes time, effort, and patient revision.
I admit it started with a subtweet. A few blogger/reviewers were posting about authors who were publicly shaming readers who gave them poor reviews. The tenor of the authors’ complaints were that the bad reviews were harshing their (or their friend’s) release day buzz. Which… that’s a whole other thing, but the TL:DR is that nobody owes an author a sparkle pony on release day. The operative word there is RELEASE. That means letting the book go, to sink or swim in the world. It no longer belongs to the author. Helicopter parenting it will only bring misery to the author and damage the book’s chances.
ANYWAY. This post isn’t about that.
What I subtweeted about was an author who weighed in on the thread with a “but, but, but” – #protip: don’t do this – “But, but, but,” she says, “I just wish readers would *explain* why they give it one-star, so I can learn from it!”
First of all, not only does nobody owe you a sparkle pony, no one owes an explanation for a rating. Readers can rate books whatever they like, for whatever reason they like, and they don’t have to explain. They’re not in a relationship with the author, so there’s no obligation to tend feelings. They’re not writing teachers. They read.
Secondly, reviews are not for the author to read. Even readers and reviewers who take the conceit of appearing to address the author, aren’t really. They’re engaging with the voice in the book. It’s really important for writers to remember we are not our books. One of the very interesting outcomes of the Burnout Panel (and How to Maybe Avoid It Next Time) at Nebula Conference was that one of the key conditions leading to burnout is a person over-identifying with their work. A book is something we create (and RELEASE) and how readers react to it is about *them*. When someone reviews a book, it’s for other readers. It’s not a job performance appraisal for the author.
Finally, reviews are a TERRIBLE place to look to improve craft because the lens is so different. The experience of reading a book is totally different from evaluating it with an editorial eye. As proof of this, I point to the near-universal author experience of discovering that reading for sheer pleasure gets lost. Somewhere in the transition from being a person who only reads books to someone who also writes them, we develop that critical lens for evaluating the story creation. And it becomes almost impossible to shut it off again. This is bad and good. There’s some grief in the realization that the experience of reading a story without examining it is lost forever. But it’s good because, well, we *need* that ability. Every book and story a writer reads is an education – what works for us, what doesn’t, how the writer created certain impacts, where they lost the thread, etc.
Because of this profound difference in reading experience, however, reviews from readers tell us nothing about the craft of the story. Maybe a writer can glean some insight from which stories seem most popular – but most writers also will note that they can never predict which stories will “hit” and which don’t. It’s almost never our personal favorites. It often seems counter-intuitive. Many writers will say that their very favorite of their own work is the least popular with readers. Is there a correlation?
That’s the thing, and that’s my point. There is no knowing, which means that scouring reviews for information on improving craft is fruitless.
You know what does work? Read a lot (books and stories, not reviews). Write a lot.
Read. Write. Repeat.
This week at the SFF Seven we’re talking about leveling up and what that means to us.
Actually, the topic is phrased as: People always say they want to take their writing to the next level. Well, what are the levels, as you see them?
It’s a really good question. Come on over for my answer.