I was going to make three separate posts about the three topics in the title, but recent thoughts have tied them together in my head pretty thoroughly, so I might as well address them all at once. They influence each other, after all.
Within the past day or so, I got a new review on Goodreads. Three stars, which is less than ideal, but with a decent amount of praise. Yay!
Some of the points in the reader’s critique, though, are things I’ve been hearing a lot, from readers who’ve given me all different sorts of star-ratings. So I’ve been mulling most of them over today, trying to figure out what went wrong in book 1 to bring up some of these issues, and what I can do better in book 2.
First, and most painfully, is that parts of the beginning are confusing. I’m going to assume that the bulk of the problem is with Chapter 2, because it was a latecomer to the overall text. It originated from a draft about three years older than the rest of the material, because it was stuff I had decided to cut because I thought it bogged down the start — and I was right at the time, since in addition to what’s currently in Chapter 2, I also had some extraneous characters’ points-of-view on what had just happened in Chapter 1, and a lot more material mixed in with what eventually was cut down to be Chapter 2 that didn’t really have a purpose.
However, because it was a lot older and because I decided to reinsert the chapter into the book at the 11th hour, I don’t think I went over it as well or completely as I should have. Especially for an early chapter. I should have read it out loud to myself to make sure that everything flowed, made sense… Sure, Cob is basically delirious, but that doesn’t mean the text should be difficult to read.
Urgh. I hope it didn’t kill too many readers’ interest to have a problem like that so early in the book. I haven’t actually looked at it — I can’t bear to see how bad it might be — so in my mind it’s some dense tangled horrorshow. Presumably it isn’t that bad, since a reasonable amount of people have gotten through it, but still.
What do I do with it? Do I rewrite it immediately and upload a new version to Amazon, Smashwords et al? I could. This kind of publishing gives me that ability. But that would invalidate some of the criticisms in the reviews I already have, so is that rude? Is it somehow duplicitous of me? I want the book to be perfect but it never will be. Maybe I should just suck it up, and only give it a re-edit if I ever have the opportunity to re-issue it traditionally.
Take my lumps, which I deserve for forcing it into the world somewhat prematurely.
That being said, I’m also told that it’s slow until we get to Bahlaer. I don’t mind if it’s slow, really, as long as it’s not confusing. Or boring — I guess it shouldn’t be boring. But some feedback has told me that I should have started seeding in more background (which presumably means more of the magic, mythology etc) into that area, which I don’t know if I could do.
After all, that first part of the story is there to lay down the base, physical reality of the locale — encroaching Empire, worried peasants, nervous citizenry — and also the world as Cob sees it. Superficial, merely human. He doesn’t know about any of the metaphysics or mythology beneath this stuff, he just knows what he’s been taught, and Ammala has only a few brief sections. She’s a laywoman, I can’t really have her spouting about her goddesses; to me, that would feel like clutter.
I did originally have Jasper tell the story that Morshoc tells later, on the ride into Bahlaer instead of on the trip out — so I put that dash of mythology in much earlier. But I thought it bulked up that pre-Bahlaer part too much, and, apparently wrongly, that people wouldn’t really be interested in a long story divergence that early in the book.
I seem to have been wrong. A lot of the feedback I’ve gotten is ‘more worldbuilding info, more mythology’, which I suppose translates to more stories the characters tell each other. For some reason I always felt like those were intrusive — that I should be limiting them instead of increasing them — and that I should stick more to the plot (such as it is) and not let my characters ramble on like that. Don’t get me wrong, I like it when they tell stories; I like to tell stories through them, especially since some of the stories have extra meaning depending on who tells them.
But for some reason, I didn’t understand that readers would like them.
What is wrong with my brain?
Part of it might be that I was using these storytelling sessions as an alternative to an info-dump. But since, to my perspective, I was still pouring info into the text, they felt the same amount of dull to me — even though they were essentially conversations between the characters, with the arguments and mockery and musings that come with those. So it was my seeing them wrong that caused me to limit them, inadvertently cutting down the amount of information I was giving.
Seriously. This is a massive revelation and I just had it today. Right now. While typing this post. What has been wrong with me all these years, that I didn’t understand (AS A WRITER) that people want to hear stories?! Even if they’re already inside other stories?! Goddamn!
Moving tangentially for a moment, I’ve always had this problem with revealing information. I don’t want to drop a brick of knowledge on the characters, I want to lightly season them (and now I’m imagining Cob looking cranky under a pair of animated salt and pepper shakers). But sometimes I have problems telling the difference between normal information and actual secrets. My beta readers have always pointed to things and gone ‘what’s that?’ and for a long time I went ‘tee-hee, you’ll see’ instead of explaining when there was NO REASON to be coy. NONE. I could have just said ‘oh it’s this, sorry you were confused’ and put that in the text and it would have fixed. so. much.
Why, brain? Why must you think you’re so clever?
I’ve been writing this story for way too many years now, and I think 99% of the text is in my head — not on the page. I have so many threads I’ve been weaving that won’t pay off until the sixth book, that I can’t see past them to the places I’ve left holes. Informational gaps that I have no reason not to fill, except that I can’t perceive them. To my eyes, the series is a grand and vibrant tapestry so full of threads that I can’t fit another one in. On the page, it’s more like the awkward handiwork of a novice crocheter, full of weird gaps that a more experienced artisan would automatically fill.
Good thing I didn’t try to publish this a couple years ago, when I still hadn’t had the revelation that just because I remember something doesn’t mean I actually WROTE IT DOWN. Guh. But I still have that problem with clutching my information like it’s valuable secrets.
Let it go! LET IT GO!
I know what the real secrets are, dammit! I don’t have to hide away every little sneaky tee-hee bit of info that I think is neat and tricksy and then NEVER TELL ANYONE. That defeats the purpose! Argh!
I’m trying to get better. But yes, there is a ton of stuff I should have added to book 1. There are a ton of questions Cob should have asked, that other people could have answered without revealing anything really sensitive. There are even tidbits that others could have volunteered that would have enhanced the understanding of the tale without taking away any of the mystery. And yes, some of Cob’s scenes are artificially truncated because I was still in tee-hee hiding things mode. Stupid me.
But there are other things that I legitimately can’t answer yet, and to that I turn to the idea of short plots vs. long plots.
Look, I know I bit off way more than would actually fit in my mouth with this series. Six books? Novice writer? Yeah, well. Often I have felt that I am 5-10 years too young to be writing this, like I can’t live up to the quality or outlook that the stories themselves deserve — that I can’t translate them from my head to the page well enough yet because I’m still muddling around, confused as to what I should be doing. But this is the story that has me in its clutches, and the damn thing is six books, and I can’t write anything else, so I’m going to try to spin it out as best I can.
And because I know the end and have a bazillion notes, I also have plotlines that start in book 1 but don’t pay off until books 4, 5 or 6.
Heck, I have CHARACTERS that show up in book 1 that don’t pay off until books 4, 5 or 6.
I hardly know how to balance them all. Some are in holding patterns indefinitely, with me tossing out a section or two to remind people they exist and forward their story a smidge but not resolve anything. I don’t want it to suck. I don’t want readers to go ‘why does this guy exist?’ So in the interim I use a lot of them for information-seasoning. But I worry that maybe I’ve planned too far ahead.
The review isn’t specific but I think the reviewer might have detected some of my long plots and been unsatisfied by the progress I made on them, or the information I gave about them. It’s probably a bad thing, but I think of Book 1 as kind of an extended prologue to the rest of the series; it follows Cob and Darilan’s short plot to its end, while providing anchorage for a ton of long plots that won’t pay off for ages.
Will Book 2 suffer for this? It has its own short plot, the overarching long plots from book 1, then more long plots that start in book 2… Am I getting overburdened? I resolve some of those long plots in 3, but start more for the second half of the series. In the end, I know how they all tie up, but am I too ambitious?
Yes, of course I am. I look at my note files and the way book 3 is swelling up with everything that I suddenly realize I have to include, and I think, “I never wanted to be Robert Jordan. Why is this happening?!”
And in my head, a Venn diagram has been sprouting with the tales of all the minor characters briefly intersecting the main plot. Just a sliver appearing in the text, while outside of it a huge untouched circle blooms… I could easily write a one-shot novel for each of them.
Maybe I’ll get to do that some day. But has this become too much? Am I hiding things because I know that to address all the plot threads would be overwhelming? Am I going to fuck this up? In my mind’s eye I see the tapestry, and it’s so tragic and beautiful, so horrible and turbulent and bright, and I don’t know if I can weave it to specifications — if I can translate thoughts into words and pull strands from my mind that make any sense at all.
I worry. Reviews make me worry a lot.
But reviews teach me. Beta readers are helpful but many of them know me, know my world, have pored over the texts a time or two. Reviewers are clean slates. I can’t grill them for information, but neither can I brush off what they say, especially when they say it in chorus; the criticism wounds me but I have to poke the injury to figure out what’s wrong. I need to explore it even if it’s painful, because it’s probably right. I don’t want to be blind to what I’m doing. I will never write exactly the story that someone else wants to read — I will only ever write to please myself — but as said, 99% of that story is in my head. The text is the translation from dream to reality, and it needs to be intelligible. It needs to capture the spirit of what moves me, and reconfigure that spirit into someone else’s mind effectively. Else there was no point in publishing it at all.
I guess that’s enough rambling for this week. Damn, you’d think I was drinking by the way I reel about on the page here. But the blog is for my unvarnished thoughts and unedited work, for people to pick at as they please, and so I wouldn’t try to knead this into further coherence. I think it gets the point across adequately.
For now…I think I’ll leave book 1 as is. A monument to the learning process. And I’ll apply my new knowledge to book 2, hoping that the series will become better and better as I go — as I become a competent weaver and close all those invisible holes.
In ten years, who knows what stories I’ll be writing. But at least I’ll have gotten this one out.