Don’t Betray Your Readers

I’d like to begin with a promise. I solemnly swear that I will never introduce a hero on page one, have him act heroic for five hundred and twelve pages and then, have him turn out to be the bad guy. I promise my heroine will not suddenly lose all her intelligence at the exact moment of crisis, just so she can be saved by a hero whose only superpower is common sense. Most of all, I vow that if I make you love a character, a good man, I will never tear him down just so I can show him defeated and destroyed.

And now, an admission. My first draft of this post included a lot of ranting about a certain episode of Doctor Who. I filed it away because it’s not nice to rant in public, but I got it out and dusted it off because of the premier of Torchwood: Miracle Day. Out of respect for spoilers, I’m not going to talk about specifics. Instead I’ll sum up: characters I know and loved changed drastically, in a way that didn’t keep with the canon of the show. The writers probably intended for me to be intrigued, blown away, and captivated. That didn’t work.

I feel betrayed.

I feel like the time I invested was a waste, because if you’re going to change everything and not play by the rules, why did I bother learning them? I feel like I have to second guess everything I knew, and relearn everything about the characters. Will they still be the people I liked? I don’t know. Can I still count on them to act heroically or to be brave? Not sure.

I’ve found this a lot in fantasy fiction. Vampires can’t go out during the sunlight, except when it’s convenient for the author, oh wait, I mean when they’ve drank fairy blood. The magic spell book can only be opened by the hero, except when the villain forces it to open. The heroine will lose her magic if she sleeps with anyone, except when she really loves the hero.

It’s maddening. Authors create a world and, yes, they have full control over them, but don’t we also have a responsibility to our readers? My worlds are filled with contradictions, quiet housewives who know how to clean a machine gun, but they don’t contradict themselves. Books create a social contract between writer and reader. In my head it sounds like this: if I promise you a smart, strong heroine on the back cover blurb, I’m obligated to have her stay smart and strong most of the time. Yes, she can have a moment of weakness, and she can do dumb things, but she’ll stay true to who she is. Characters won’t radically change overnight without a good reason.

I’m not saying that an author can’t be creative or throw in an unexpected twist, those things make writing fun. That doesn’t make it okay to make book five a liar in book 11. If an important plot point of book five is how no one has seen a dragon for decades, book 11 shouldn’t casually mention a character rides dragons each summer.

Your readers will notice your inconsistencies and they won’t be happy about it.

I understand why authors do these things, but they feel like lazy writing to me. If a character is the villain, then for the bulk of the story there should be at least subtle hints of his dark side. Fears and doubts can be overcome, but not in a matter of seconds. Characters should develop over the course of the story, whether it’s in one book or a dozen, not magically in five pages. Storytellers get to be in charge, but they shouldn’t break their own rules.

Open things up

I have a habit for corsets. Not an addiction, mind you, I could stop buying them anytime. I just don’t want to. I enjoy the way they make my figure look, the way they tie me to a long line of feminine beauty. I enjoy the mystique, the titillation, the subtle sexuality. The not so subtle idea that by lacing myself into some thing I’m seen as giving up power, becoming submissive, when really I gain it, enjoying the way my corset forces people to react.

Corsetry comes with a culture. The debates rage from genteel to frenzied. Tell an under-the-bust fan that she should be in an over-the-bust and you risk a dirty look. Tell a waist-trainer he’s as bad as a bulimic and you risk a black eye.

What’s that you say? You don’t know what any of those words mean? You don’t even know the difference between spiral steel* and spring steel? But everyone in the corset community does! Just like everyone who reads urban fantasy knows that werewolves hurt when they shift.

Or do they? Being part of a community, the corset community or a critique group, can make writers feel their work is more accessible than it really is. Phrases not found in everyday speech, comparisons to unknown things, and briefly sketched explanations require your readers to have some prior knowledge. For fans of your genre or people who’ve read your work before that’s not a problem, but do you want to exclude everyone else?

I was surprised when a colleague didn’t know what the word telekinesis meant, I’d be shocked to find someone who didn’t know that vampires hated sunlight (certain sparkling clans excepted). That doesn’t mean those people don’t exist, and I want them to be able to read and enjoy my book as much as the people who know those things. A reference to the difference between a hootenanny and a shindig makes an urban fantasy fan smile but doesn’t perplex the average mundane reader.  Referencing Anita Blake’s love life or Bob the Skull excludes people unfamiliar with the greats in our genre. Worse that kind of writing tends to be a short cut, the worst kind of telling instead of showing.

When I look back at my first manuscript I see a plethora of these comparisons. Characters look like someone from a TV show, fashion references the popular actress of the time, and work allusions to other works abound. In my current work, I’ve grown beyond that, I can say a couch is battered, stained, and infused with the smell of coffee instead of referencing the couch on Friends, hoping my readers still remember that show. It’s harder to be accessible, but if it means more readers it’s work I’m willing to do.

* For those of you who are curious, spiral steel is made up of a series of interlocking steel loops, while spring steel is a single straight piece of steel. Handy image of spiral steel from Wikipedia:

Connecting at The Con

Flying involves a hint of fear. It’s impossible to dismiss the chance of death completely from your mind. Flying into an area currently under a hurricane evacuation with the CNN news crew seated across the aisle from you typically increases that anxiety. I felt none of it. When the flight attendant prepared a package of peanuts, cookies, and miniature bottles of water wearing the Delta logo, I thanked her offhandedly.

I was going to a Con.

Hurricanes? Not a problem.

Closed restaurants and grocery stores? No worries.

Straight lines of traffic crawling along the highway? No big deal.

It’s hard to explain to someone who fits in, but a simple truth to the geeks, freaks, and lovers of the weird. Science Fiction conventions, whether a gathering of forty thousand or just a few hundred, are the only place where everyone gets my jokes, the only place where I’m not the odd man out. They’re my laughing place, and I never miss a chance to visit.

I’ve attended big cons and little ones, long established cons and brand new ones. They all fill me with the same sense of belonging. There’s DragonCon where I go on yearly pilgrimage, losing myself in the crowds of people, just watching them all. Earlier this year was the very first InterventionCon, just a handful of truly devout geeks turning a boring business hotel into something special.

My new favorite Con is MarsCon. Next month, I’m not just attending but I’m also speaking about breaking into the publishing industry on a Friday night panel. As I read over the list of guests I’m honored to be among them. Checking the schedule leaves me with my usual quandaries of which impossible-to-miss has to be missed. Between obsessively checking for updates and gleefully debating what costume to wear, I’m reminded a Con is a gathering of friends I can’t wait to meet.