sorry, your book is in another castle

Time-honored wisdom among writers says that it’s better not to respond personally to reviews. I agree with that; what I’d like to do is use a review as a jumping-off point to discuss something it made me think about.

I’ve gotten my first negative review. (Counting the Kirkus slam as a rite of passage, rather than a review. <g>) A reader on Amazon who had adored my first two books rated this one two stars, and explained his reasons.

Let me say straight-out: from my perspective, Midnight Never Come is the best book I’ve ever written. It is not flawless; if I thought it was, I’d kick myself, because the only way I could think like that is if I weren’t trying hard enough to improve. But I consider it more intricate and well-thought-out than either of my first two novels.

But that isn’t the point, is it? Quality, if we can even speak of that objectively, is not the major determinant of the reading experience. Midnight Never Come is not the book this reader wanted (and hoped for) from me. I’ve said to several people that you can read it through a variety of genre lenses (urban fantasy, historical, romance, political thriller) — but secondary-world adventure fantasy isn’t one of them. So while I think there are points of similarity, such as the espionage, that will attract some readers who liked the Doppelganger books, it all depends on what you attached to the first time around. There will be other readers who pick this up, wonder what the hell happened to the Marie Brennan they enjoyed before, and walk away — some of them permanently.

This? Drives writers crazy. Because it’s a balancing act for which there isn’t even a recognized “win” condition. Some forces want you to do more of the same; some want you to grow and change and try new things. It isn’t even a straightforward matter of readers on one side, writers on the other, because of course writers may want to keep exploring a world their readers aren’t responding to, or readers may get bored by a writer they perceive as stuck in a rut. What’s victory? Selling lots of books? But what if that comes at the cost of pursuing ideas you’re really passionate about?

Actually, I take back what I said. There is a win condition, and it’s called being Neil Gaiman. The man could probably write anything he wants to, and his fans would love him for it.

This is my third novel. It’s not set in the same world as my first two. This is officially my first encounter with the phenomenon: that every time I change tracks, I will lose readers whose sphere of interests don’t include this new thing. There’s nothing wrong with it (unless I lose so many readers my publisher drops me), and it doesn’t mean the disappointed readers are wrong. They just wanted something else than what I delivered. I may or may not find that the shift brings me within the ambit of a greater number of new readers. Someday, I’ll decide to shift again: rinse and repeat.

I can tell myself it’s natural, but it’s still saddening, realizing the choices I’ve made have disappointed a fan.

0 Responses to “sorry, your book is in another castle”

  1. antonstrout

    Oh, how I can’t wait for this sensation! I am sure it is wholey different than the one I get when I let one bad comment here or there invalidate all the fan letters and such….

    there’s no pleasing everyone.. sigh…

    • Marie Brennan

      I remember seeing results cited from a psychological study that said, on average, it takes something like twelve or fifteen pieces of praise to outweigh one negative comment. Which I most devoutly believe, from my own experience.

  2. wldhrsjen3

    He may have come to the book with expectations it couldn’t fulfill, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that his disappointment will be permanent. Maybe he, and other readers with a similar experience, will come to realize (and respect) what you are trying to do by exploring different stories and styles. I, personally, enjoy seeing an author stretching their horizons like that. A good storyteller is a good storyteller, imvho. I like going along for the ride.

    And I *do* think that you’ll attract plenty of new readers. 🙂

    (Plus, I just started Midnight Never Come and I am deeply in love.)

    • Marie Brennan

      It might not be permanent, no. But it isn’t necessarily a matter of realizing and respecting; not everything will be for everyone, and I’m fine with that.

      (Okay, I’m not fine with that. I want my books to be universally adored and worshipped and reprinted and lavished with awards. But I recognize that universal adoration doesn’t happen in the real world. So I respect the fact that people’s opinions differ.)

      Glad you’re enjoying it!

  3. jimhines

    I’m expecting to run into some of this in January with my first non-goblin book. I’m sure I’ll lose some readers … but I keep telling myself I’ll also gain new ones, and hopefully the gain will outweigh the loss. Hopefully.

    I think we should establish a ten-step program on Becoming Neil.

    • Marie Brennan

      Dude, if we could market a path to Becoming Neil, we wouldn’t need to write books for a living.

      I, for one, am looking forward to the princess books. But then I’m a folklorist and retell fairy tales myself, so I’m not the audience you’re worried about. <g>

      • nonnycat

        “Dude, if we could market a path to Becoming Neil, we wouldn’t need to write books for a living.”

        Gods, yes.

  4. Anonymous

    Then of course there are the friends like me that are just going to buy, and read, whatever you write ’cause you’re a friend of mine and I’m interested to read it. However, I don’t think that’s gonna’ pay the bills. Probably just not enough friends.

    Although it’s an interesting phenomenon because honestly, if I didn’t know you, I’d probably never give Midnight Never Come a second glance, nor would I have read the Doppleganger books for that matter. But, given that I know you, and I know where some of these things come from in your head (at least as far as Midnight Never Comes goes because, I’m assuming the whole “villian in the book having the same name as the villian from that table-top game” isn’t just a coincidence), I’m very interested to see what it’s all about, and how it goes down.

    I guess cheers to having friends that are authors to widen your literary horizons.


    • Marie Brennan

      I actually feel a bit weird about people buying my books because of personal relationships rather than interest in the story. Mostly by this I mean family members who don’t even read SF/F in the first place; I really wonder what they think of the books. (Do they look down on what I’m doing? Have I opened their eyes to a new genre? Who knows.)

      Then again, what you’re describing is a microcosm of what this whole blogging thing does to the relationship between writers and readers. It’s happened countless times that somebody starts reading a writer’s blog, decides they’re an interesting individual, then goes out and buys their books. Personal relationships have become a lot more important in the reading experience, I think.

      • diatryma

        I have Ideas about this topic, but no framework for putting them together. If we’re ever in the same state again, grab me and I may expound. The gist is that the idea of the author has become more important to most readers I know– I don’t read the back cover much any more, for instance– but that might be an artifact of most readers I know being writers.

  5. sora_blue

    That’s sad! 🙁

    But I have to admit that I don’t really understand it. When an author has more than one book out, I’m buying those following books because of how the author writes… not because of what genre they had written to.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m buying those following books because of how the author writes… not because of what genre they had written to.

      But those two things aren’t separable. I use a very different writing style in, say, the YA urban fantasy I was working on earlier this year, than I do in MNC. If a reader likes MNC for the lyricism of the prose, that book would be very jarring to them. Etc. Genre, plot, character development, prose, and all those aspects are dependent on one another, so switching genre (or in this case sub-genre) can mean a shift in the qualities a given reader liked.

      • sora_blue

        I think “how” wasn’t the right way to put it. I know from the previous books, and the short stories I’ve read, that you can write and that your style adapts to the particular thing you’re writing. So the variation in style or a switch to a different genre won’t stop me from trying the book. I might not finish it, but I wouldn’t criticize the author for writing something different.

        It’s more of an appreciation of an author’s technical ability than a specific style. (Which sounds odd, I know.)

        • Marie Brennan

          (Which sounds odd, I know.)

          No, I follow you. Maybe what it really just boils down to is trust: you believe the author knows what they’re doing, and that what they’re doing will be worth your while.

          • sora_blue


            But I have to wonder how much of this expectation that an author will always provide the same thing is being encouraged with the notion of authors as brands.

          • Marie Brennan

            Hell yes.

            The “branding” thing annoys me. On a macro scale, not just in writing; the notion of cities “branding” themselves for tourism, etc. makes me want to vomit.

          • sora_blue

            Well, the problem with branding a person or a place is that they aren’t a “thing.” A brand emphasizes one message, but who gets to decide what that one message is?

            My hometown is the “Tournament Capital of Canada.” Aside from the CSA implications–that branding suggests we don’t have an art scene or two theatres or concerts in the park, etc.

          • sora_blue

            SCA. My dyslexia must be kicking in.

          • Marie Brennan

            Right. A brand’s job is to boil something down to a simplistic, easily-grasped concept. And that bugs me.

  6. nonnycat

    Unfortunately, there are a lot of readers who expect authors to write the same damn thing every time, and get frustrated when they don’t. Because they were expecting more of the same. From what you’ve posted here about the book over the past, oh, yearish… it’s clearly obvious the book is very much not the same as your Doppleganger set. I haven’t read it yet (our car’s starter went, and getting that fixed is going to leave us down to money for food and gas *sigh*) but I’d imagine that given the difference in the type of story, the prose is also going to have a slightly different flavor to it.

    Myself, I grew up reading Marion Zimmer Bradley, Piers Anthony, Mercedes Lackey, Anne McCaffrey, and the like… all of whom wrote (and are writing) very different stories through-out their careers. It’s not unexpected for me. If the subject matter/style is something I don’t like, I may not pick it up… or I may anyway, out of support for the author. I may not be able to get through it, if it’s “off” enough, but hey, my husband is much less picky about reading material than I am. *grins*

    If a reader writes you off because they don’t like … their loss, I say. Even if they wouldn’t like this book, they may like the next, or the one after. You never know. I don’t usually write an author off until they have put out at least four sucktastic books in succession (… Laurell K. Hamilton…) or else have been such a prick that I absolutely refuse to support them by purchasing their book. Like, I really enjoy Holly Lisle’s romantic suspense (her fantasy has gone downhill, imo) but I absolutely refuse to buy them because of her erratic and volatile behavior. I’ll pick them up from a library or UBS, tyvm.

    Don’t let it get you down too much. Bad reviews happen to good authors. I’m looking forward to this book a lot, even though it’s different than your previous works. I think it’s a really cool premise, and I’m very interested to see what you’ve done with it. Dunno if that helps any. 😉

    • Marie Brennan

      but I absolutely refuse to buy them because of her erratic and volatile behavior.

      I got burned by that years ago, and was not attached enough to her books to begin with that I wanted to keep reading them. But that’s a whole other post, about how the personal behavior of an author can color, even kill, your interest in their writing. Frex, I don’t care how many people tell me Cerebus is good, I’m not interested in spending my valuable time, much less money, on Dave Sim’s work.

      I think my own approach is that, if a favored author starts a new series that isn’t to my taste, I’ll walk away for a while; but if I see them start something else later, I’ll give it a shot. I try not to hold the uninteresting series against them unless it reeked of “sell-out” or something.

  7. raisinfish

    This post strikes a cord for me, because I’m a writer who jumps genre a lot. I see genre as a tool–some stories are better suited to one genre than another, and it’s usually the story that attracts me to writing the book.

    I just finished my sixth YA novel yesterday…and it’s in a different genre than my last two books. (Similar, but slightly different, like yours.) I wonder if there is still room in the market for genre-jumping writers. I can think of lots of examples (Lois Lowry, Avi, Katherine Patterson) who have been very successful genre-jumpers, but they’re all from a previous generation. I wonder if the market still has room for writers who are passionate about different ideas and thus genre jump.

    Thoughts to ponder. I guess I’ll find out when I break in.

    • Marie Brennan

      I think there are some, but increasingly they’re writing their different styles under different names, in order to game the computer-ordering system.

  8. d_c_m

    *big hug* I for one am THRILLED that you changed you whole story landscape!! I LIKE that in an author. So now I am preparing to read your latest glorious work and I know, I know in my guts, it is going to be very very good.

  9. mastergode

    You know, I took creative writing classes at the University of Miami. One of my teachers was a woman who had one of her books picked for the Oprah book club, and as such was catapulted into non-obscurity.

    She told us about this exact problem, and that the more books you write, the less freedom you have to choose what those books are about. She said that her first or second book could have been about nearly anything. But once you create a readership for yourself, the publishers just won’t accept a book by you that’s in a different genre, or that tries something new. At least, not without a really good reason attached to it.

    It’s not in the least bit fair, but apparently that’s what the people demand. I feel for you, and I’m curious to see what you’ll do about that as your career progresses. Will you shift tracks again, eventually? Or will you stick with this type of book?

    • Marie Brennan

      It isn’t as rigid as all that, though I imagine after an Oprah hit your publisher would be very vested in you producing More Of The Same. The trick is to line things up right: if you have multiple projects you’d like to work on (and most of us do), you try to go with the one that’s the best follow-on from what you did last, and from there to move to something else.

      Also, some full-time writers publish with multiple houses at once, and may use their different publishers for different kinds of things. One for the SF and one for the fantasy, or one for the urban fantasy and one for the epic. Etc.

      Whether I stick with “this type of book” depends (of course) on what you mean by that. Will I continue to write fantasy? Definitely; I have very few non-fantasy ideas. Historical fantasy? No, I’m not staying there forever.

      • mastergode

        <nods> I’m sure it’s different for different writers, publishing houses, levels of popularity, etc. That was her experience, though, which is, as you said, likely due to her being on the Oprah book club.

        You said that you have very few non-fantasy ideas… Just out of curiosity, do you ever think you would write science fiction? Or more appropriately, science fantasy?

        • Marie Brennan

          I should also add that I’d say you have more freedom the more books you write. Or rather, it’s a curve: you can write anything for the first one, then go into a period where consistency is important for building a readership, but if you’ve got twelve books out you probably have a solid enough readership that it can survive sea changes.

          I have precisely two SF novel ideas in my head. Would I write them? Maybe someday, but I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you. They’d have to wait both for me to have a suitable opening in my schedule of contracted work, and for me to have the enthusiasm to spend three or four months on them.

  10. squirrel_monkey

    “every time I change tracks, I will lose readers whose sphere of interests don’t include this new thing.”

    Don’t forget the potential for gaining new readers with the new thing! They might even get interested enough to check out the old thing(s).

    At least, this is my hope, as all of my books are very different from each other.

    • Marie Brennan

      Don’t forget the potential for gaining new readers with the new thing!

      As I said later in that paragraph: “I may or may not find that the shift brings me within the ambit of a greater number of new readers.” ^_^

      Don’t worry — I’m not losing sight of the bigger (and hopefully growing!) picture.

    • unforth

      There it is – this is what I was going to point out, too. New genres can also greatly expand readership rather than limit it. 🙂

  11. sartorias

    The other side of this coin is the accusation of “This writer writes the same book over and over.”

    And I’ve seen plenty of people who can’t stand Gaiman, or find all but one unreadable. (Just not a LOT of people!) *g*

    • Marie Brennan

      Which is why I don’t view it as a tension of “writer who wants to change vs. readers who don’t want her to.” The forces really do cross those boundaries.

  12. querldox

    Happens I need to drop Neil a line about something else. Mind if I include the Neil bits from the post and comments and if not would you like to be ided? I think he’d be amused by/appreciate them.

    • Marie Brennan

      Er, in what context? If it’s just a “hey, here’s what this person said about you,” I might feel a bit weird. But if it’s apropos of what you’re contacting him about in the first place, go right ahead.

      I think what that translates to is “I’d like to see how you quote me before I say yes.” Because I don’t want to come off looking like a weirdo. 🙂

      • querldox

        I’ll take that as a “no”, since it is a “hey, here’s what someone said about your ability to jump around in terms of what you write”, and unrelated to the reason I’m writing (which is to thank him for a favor I asked him to do for Kevin and Rose).

        • Marie Brennan

          I don’t have an aversion to being quoted in general, but I know how things can take on a different cast when people don’t see the whole context, and my imagination is telling me I would come off sounding wrong. Which is probably paranoia, but there you go.

          On the other hand, I may be e-mailing Gaiman myself, to ask him a question about “The Problem of Susan.”

  13. gollumgollum

    The good news is that MNC is a much stronger book than Doppelganger and W&W, so if anything, i think you’re likely to find people who read MNC who don’t like the other two as much. And i imagine you’re likely to pick up more readers by having a more diverse range of books – the Warrior and Witch series has by its nature a much more narrow audience, whereas historical fantasy, even with fairies, has a much wider one. So i imagine that you’ll grab some fans with each genre, then add to them as you go. I would guess that the trick is gaining more than you lose, right? (;

  14. mirrorred_star

    I would think that you need to write the books that want to be written or you would end up losing the enthusiasm you need for writing professionally. I think genre hopping is a lesser evil than disappointing someone.

    I really enjoy you teasing out stuff like this because its both really interesting food for thought and I haven’t seen many people discussing this.

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