I followed a link back to a disgruntled reader’s comments about Memory of Fire, the first of the WORLD GATES novels, because the little Technorati link included the line that she was never picking up another one of my books, and I was curious about what I had done to so anger her.
It wasn’t what I thought. The object of her ire was not the quality of my writing, or issues she had with my plotting or pacing, or complaints about stupid mistakes. She was writing me off forever because of subject matter.
In a fantasy novel, I had dared to include a heroine who was a mother, had dared not to make her overweight and had permitted her to be rather pleased that, at the age of thirty-something and with a two-year-old kid, her butt and her stomach looked pretty good. The book included a little kid, something offensive to this reader. It also included not one but two threads in which people started exploring the possibilities of falling in love with other people. I had dared to include real-world elements that crossed over into a fantasy universe and back again.
I had done these things in a fantasy novel, oh horrors — where as everyone knows you can only write about elves and castles and dragons and brave knights and trolls. Or whatever the hell it was she expected to find when she picked up the book.
But see — for the writer, subject matter is not really what you write. It’s who you are.
If I wrote the book this reader wanted, the heroine would be overweight, childless, preferably infertile, and there would be no hint that she might want to fall in love with anyone of either gender, or that anyone of either gender might be attracted to her.
And that is not my book to write. I don’t know what it would be like to be that character, and while I could extrapolate, and maybe come to understand or like the protagonist, the character this woman wants to read belongs to someone who knows her intimately, and wants to know her intimately.
That isn’t me.
I already have other stories that are mine to write. I know first-hand about dealing with trauma and tragedy, miscarriage, childbirth, love and betrayal, death and loss, motherhood and spousehood, marriage and divorce and remarriage, hope and failure and triumph in endless cycles. I know ambition pretty well, and passion and desire. I know what being terrified is like; I know what thinking you’re going to die right now is like; and while I know despair, I also know how it feels to beat that bastard back into its cage.
So I write about kids, about falling in and out of love, about fear and the conquering of fear. I write about being postpartum late thirty-something with a flat stomach and a nice butt because I’ve been there, and it was fun to be there. God knows I’m not there now, but I like where I am, too, so that’s okay. The kids in my books are real kids, because I wrote fictional versions of my kids, sometimes even stealing an at-the-moment quote from one or the other of them, and roleplaying with them to find out what they might do in some very odd situations. (In Minerva Wakes, for example, the “stinky fish” episode is what my then-very-small son who’s now in the Air Force, would have done when faced with the problem I presented to him.
I write about faith — finding it and losing it — because I have been both places and learned something from the journey. I write about hope. About the courage that lives inside of abject terror. These are the subjects that matter to me, these are the deeply personal bits and pieces of my life that I value most — and so when I offer them in fictional form, I believe they are the best of what I have to give to someone else.
I write about dragons and castles and magical places, too, because I love those things. I love the the way fantasy can be wrapped around the world of today and made relevant, the way the moment we live in now can be transmuted through the lens of the fantastic into something grand and terrifying that we can nevertheless bear to look at honestly and without flinching … because it is not us, but simply us-if-we-had-been-someone-else. That, because it both is and is not us, fantasy drawn from real life can resonate long after the reader closes the book. Can give my reader something to keep after the story is done.
To write personally, though, I’ve discovered that I cannot write to readers. Because for every reader who is facing the same questions I face, there are a dozen others who have no interest in those questions. For every risk I take, there are readers who want to take that risk with me, but so many more who won’t read any book in first person, or any book with a woman main character, on any book that includes children or some suggestion that people might want to fall in love. Or includes dragons and castles. Or the here and now.
I cannot write to chase numbers and trends, or allow myself to be constantly and painfully torn between the desire to see the story be what it can be, and the need to make it like something it is unlike in order to conform to “what’s hot right now” (but which won’t be in six months, when the book is done).
I want to be constantly pushing myself to write better, to do more, to find new places and new challenges, whereas most readers don’t want new or different or challenging at all. Most readers desire that a book they loved before be repeated as closely as possible, so they can experience it again, only brand new. The writer, the readers, the story, and the publication process are therefore all constantly at war with each other, with each of us wanting to go in a specific direction and all of those directions demanding sacrifices that no one going in the other directions wants to make.
I’ve learned that Shakespeare was right when in Hamlet he wrote, “Unto your own self be true, because as long as night doth follow day thou cans’t not be false to any man.” So I tell what I have found to be true. But not everyone will want the truths that I have found. They will have to go their own way, asking the questions that are theirs to ask until they find writers who share their questions and their longings, and who might offer answers that they find both true and acceptable.
In the end, I can only write to myself, asking my questions, constantly poking my psyche for painful places and then putting my pain, in altered forms, onto the page, and then demanding of my characters all that they can give to face that altered pain and deal with it in their own ways, while offering up all their many answers. I keep the needs of the other warring forces in mind as I do this — the readers and the publishing process and the story. I do my best to play fair, and to be honest, but my pain is not everyone’s pain, my stories are not everyone’s stories, and when I’m fighting from word to word, the best I can do is be true to myself as I struggle to figure out whose turn has come ’round among my four fierce armies to sacrifice next. I hope that I choose wisely, I hope that I play fairly, but in the end, all I have to offer is me.
And that’s not what everyone wants, nor will it ever be.
P.S. If you’re a writer and you want to build the path to the novels you and you alone can write, I teach that in my How to Write a Novel class. [link opens in new tab]