Which Came First, the Writer or the Reader?

by Kiersten Hallie Krum

Yesterday, Lady Smut blogger Alexa Day talked about the dreaded DNF–that book that you just could not finish–in her post The Bitter End: Pushing Ourselves to Finish Reading. It takes a lot for me to not finish a book, but I recently had to give up on a new release from a major paranormal romance writer whose books I’ve glommed for years. It was a real disappointment in writing, character, and story, and the fact that I walked away from it has been bugging me for weeks. First because I wondered, after reading effusive fan praise in reader reviews, if it was just me and I simply grew out of the series and that writer for the nonce. And second because if it’s not just me, then what the hell happened?

DNF books always make me follow the bouncing ball to books that haven’t satisfied, like that one book from that favorite author for a beloved secondary character that I waited and waited and waited for only to find when if finally came out that it was…meh.

Gone Too Far
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The one that stands out most in my mind will always be Gone Too Far by Suzanne Brockmann. I loved Sam Starrett and Alyssa Locke since they first showed up as bickering adversaries in The Unsung Hero through The Defiant Hero where they because unexpected friends through Over the Edge and Out of Control when they became smoking hot lovers and Into the Night where they were brokenhearted exes. I Could Not Wait for their book Gone Too Far to arrive and read it through in one sitting only to be…underwhelmed. It just didn’t feel like Sam and Alyssa and somehow, the back story for Sam particularly didn’t quite gibed with the character he’d been for five books. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good romantic suspense book with SEAL hero, sharpshooter heroine, emotional angst, all kinds of good, good stuff. It just didn’t live up to my long-held expectations.

Those books, the ones we as readers have waited a long time for only for them to piffle out, were on my mind this weekend as I brainstormed with a friend who is doing just that, creating a new book series around a fan-favorite secondary character from a previous series. I can’t imagine the kind of pressure that must involved, the need to do right by the character just as strong as the desire to fulfill reader expectations. In a publishing landscape that loves a series (as do I), getting readers invested in that series and those characters is key to them being successful both as a book and a product.

Which brings up the question of entitlement. Fans who invest in a product, be it a book or a show or a vegetable, increasingly feel a sense of entitlement, that they have a voice in how that product should play out. Who should be with whom. And when an author doesn’t fulfill those expectations? Well, cue the pitchforks.

Where do we draw the line between what the reader wants to see and what the author as creator feels compelled to write? How do we stay true to story and character and yet keep the fans happy? What do we do when there are fans of multiple options? Do we let that fandom drive our creative decisions? Do we risk the witch hunt when we don’t? Writers do depend on readers to read (and buy) their books, but does that give readers the right to expect a return on their investment that suits their own desires? Which responsibility is greater, the one to our creative process or the one to the fans who pay for the results?

These questions are top of mind for me personally as well as I work through writing and planning my three-book series, especially now that I’ve added a novella to the tally. I suspect because I’m a glutton for punishment. The novella is a surprise based on a secondary character who I think really (and, believe me, unexpectedly) pops from the page. Will she pop for readers too? I don’t know. But in a publishing landscape where series are increasingly published quickly to build readership and sales, which means the whole dang thing may have to be written before anything hits the shelves, it’s a gamble I, and many other writers, have to take. Are we doing our characters justice? Or should we wait for reader feedback before we decide their fates?

Is there a series book you waited for that fail to live up to expectations? Do you think readers are entitled to weigh in on the fates of their favorites? Do you like when secondary characters in a series finally get the limelight or would you prefer for them to remain in their glory on the sidelines?

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  • Post authorAna (@anacoqui)

    As a reader I’ve been there in the wanting & hoping. I’ve squeed excitedly over the announcement over a favorite secondary getting their own book, I’ve asked writers if they had plans for particular set of characters and I have also faced the disappointment of reading a book that just doesn’t live up to expectations. There has been enough fantastic stories written for secondary characters and series explicitly built that way, that is not an unreasonable expectation to have as reader. I do imagine that this struggle has always existed from the first troubadours and storytellers.

    Personally I’ve always really appreciated when an author has simply said, that don’t have a story for that character right now if they in fact don’t. I rather have that for an answer than trying to write something they feel forced to write. I think they should understand that the enthusiasm readers feel for a secondary characters is a compliment and maybe an expression of a lack in the market. Sometime that secondary character has the kind of story that doesn’t usually get told. That readers want more, speaks to unmet need and market potential.

    I hope that CP and beta readers will give authors feedback that can help identify if a character they want to write about does “pop” for readers too. For the most part if the writer is truly excited to write about them I will be too but it won’t always work out. And sometimes it isn’t either the reader’s or the writer’s fault, just a problem of timing and expectation. Personally I know I am tired of psy-heroes in Nalini Singh’s fantastic Psy-changeling series. She could write the best one ever, and it won’t be what I want becaus I am just thirsty for one of her shifters. I am going to wait her out, and she might eventually the story I want when she is through writing the story she needs to write.

    Reply to Ana (@anacoqui)
  • Post authorMadeline Iva

    Savvy writers seem to follow their gut over reader expectations. Take Nora Roberts—part of her web page FAQ includes responses to why she just hasn’t written another book for her more popular series.

    And then sometimes a book just goes wrong. But the writer is on deadline. She must deliver. I wonder if the super-popular writers have a story-doc they can call when things go wrong? I’m sure they have writer-friends, agents, and editors who help them correct the course. But sometimes readers will still gobble up a book because of their loyalty to a writer — and so the sales stay high — so how will the writer ever know if her book is just meh? Especially if it’s the *next* book that everyone decides not to buy?

    It’s a complicated world we live in.

    Reply to Madeline Iva
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