Sunday, 18 September 2011

Guest Article: Jaine Fenn on "Living with the Reader/Writer Paradox"

Today it is the turn of the very charming Jaine Fenn (cocktail companion without compare) to take her turn on my blog, and she offers a perspective on "Living with the Reader/Writer Paradox".

If I had to chose an epitaph I think it might just be So many books, So little time. Ah, you say, you need to find that time. I agree. Perhaps I should build a cloning machine. Or give up on sleep.

However, I've got an excuse: I spend a lot of my potential reading time writing; in fact I'm lucky enough to get paid to write.

In an ideal world I'd also get paid to read, because the income from writing one book per year ain't enough to keep a girl in merlot and chocolate once the basic living expenses have been covered. Sometimes I entertain the fantasy that rather than supplementing my writing income by coding html, writing promotional copy, dealing with members of the public and trying to second-guess my genius but eccentric boss at the day-job, instead I would read a selection of the best new SF novels then write cogent reviews for a major newspaper in return for a generous monthly salary.

Until that happens, or until I get the hang of cloning technology/life without sleep, I have to be selective in my reading. For this reason, I'm leery of books in series. I do read them, due to having a husband with similar tastes and more time to read (I'm currently enjoying Neal Asher's Agent Cormac books, though they've rather put me off seafood) but I don't pick up books from series on spec, for fear that in order to enjoy the book in my hand, I'll need to buy the other two/four/however many more in the series. If I know the time and money that entails will be worth it, then fine. But often I don't know, so I don't risk it.

That's me as a reader. As a writer, I like to write the sort of thing I'd want to read and, fortunately, my publisher appears happy to indulge me. However, I'm currently five novels into writing a series which will (I hope) run to at least nine books. It's a story I want to tell, but it's going to take a while to unfold.

Can you see the conflict here?

In order to keep my personality intact, I decided from the start that the books in the Hidden Empire series would function as stand-alones which added up to create an overall big story arc. That's what I like to read, so that was what I would try and write.

Easy to decide, far harder to implement.

The first two books, Principles of Angels and Consorts of Heaven, weren't too much of a problem as they took place at the same time in two different places and featured different sets of characters. There is a causal link, but it's not necessary to spot it to enjoy the books. When I reached the third book, Guardians of Paradise, everyone met up and started interacting, and I ran up against the inevitable problem.

I was, in essence, writing for two audiences simultaneously. One set had followed the series (thank you, oh loyal readers!) and consequently wanted the story to move on without wasting time retelling stuff they already knew. The other set had picked this book up knowing nothing of my ongoing personal power-trip; putting myself in their place, I wanted to give them the information they needed to enjoy the book in their hand, regardless of whether they felt inclined to read any other books in the series.

There is no easy answer; my only conscious resolve was to avoid the kind of contrived infodumps where character A asks character B why they are about to do something/go somewhere when both characters know the answer already. Then again, if I didn't know enough to avoid that kind of mistake, I shouldn’t have been getting my stories published at all.

To judge by reviews, I did moderately well in this tricky balancing act. However, two books further on, and I know I could have so much done better. I believe I'm doing better now, and that I can continue to improve, to give (almost) everyone what they want. Ultimately, of course, it's for the readers to judge, whether they've been with me from the start, or whether they just picked the book up, and wonder what the story is.

Thanks loads, Jaine!

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