When I heard McGuire say that as a child she loved stories where the child protagonists went to a magical world where they became heroes and warrior-princesses and the like, but was always so angry that they then had to go back home, I was nodding emphatically in agreement. I wanted to get lost in the misty woods and find myself caught in a war between goblins and elves. Or go around a bend on a lake shore and find myself face to face with a giant beetle who greeted me and told me we had to run because danger was coming and so forth.
Except I didn’t want to have to come home again after the first adventure was over. The other world was so much better than the real world. I recall one time when I asked a teacher I trusted why the stories always ended there, she wasn’t very understanding. “Wouldn’t you rather be home with your mom and dad and all your friends?”
She didn’t know what to say when I asked, “What friends?” I didn’t add that if I could run away and never see my father again I would be the happiest boy in the world. This isn’t to say that I never had friends as a child. But being the kind of kid who was always quickly labeled a sissy (or worse words) and a weirdo whenever new kids met me, combined with the number of times we moved because of my dad’s work in the petroleum industry (ten elementary schools across four states), I never had a lot of friends. This particular conversation happened less than two months after we had moved yet again, and I hadn’t yet really found a friend at the new place.
Another time that I told someone how much I wished I could live in one of those magical worlds, the person tried to convince me that the things which seemed like an adventure would not be fun. “Real monsters aren’t just scary, they actually hurt you.”
I had learned through multiple experiences that if I told such adults that I already lived with exactly the kind of monster who actually hurt you that I would be disbelieved at best. Because the kinds of adults who will see a ten-year-old with stitches and multiple contusions on his face and one arm in a sling, look that kid in the eyes, then lecture him that if he was just more well-behaved his father wouldn’t do these things to him not only don’t know what monsters are—they enable monsters.
That reality is precisely why portal fantasies appealed so strongly to me as a kid. And why the endings were always so frustrating.
Let’s pause a moment to go over some terminology. A portal fantasy is a story in which people from our mundane world enter into a different, fantastical world, through a portal of some kind. Classic examples are falling down a rabbit hole in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or through the enchanted wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or carried off by a tornado in The Wizard of Oz, or being injured and losing consciousness to wake up elsewhere as in the Thomas Covenant books.
A portal fantasy is different than an immersive fantasy, where all of the action occurs within the fantastical world and there are no characters who come from the mundane world. Think of Lord of the Rings or The Last Unicorn or any of the Conan the Barbarian stories. It is also different from an intrusive fantasy, where magical/fantastic creatures somehow come into what otherwise appears to be our mundane world—sometimes the narrative assumption is that the magic has been there all along, but for whatever reason most of us are unaware of it and thus don’t believe in it. Think of Dracula or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or A Wrinkle In Time.
The particular appeal of the portal fantasy for a kid like me is that in the fantastic world, I would have options that aren’t available to me in the real world. I didn’t see how any of the monsters and evil overlords in the fantasy books were worse than things my father (and the whole structure of society that enabled child abuse) did to me. As a kid, I may not have really understand the concept which is summed up by the old adage, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” but there was one thing that the protagonists of the portal fantasies had that I didn’t have in the real world: agency. The kids transported to the magical kingdom may have been put in perilous situations, but they weren’t powerless.
It wasn’t just when I was a young child that other people critiqued my enjoyment (and enthusiastic recommendations) of portal fantasies. In my teens and later, an additional critique was added: “You just want a happy ending.” This was usually served with a heaping helping of cynicism about how happy endings don’t exist in the real world, and people who don’t understand that are defective in some way. All of that judgmental cynicism is also the foundation of critiques (that often comes from certain people who call themselves fans of sf/f) which dismiss many works of speculative and fantastic fiction as merely fan service.
I have two responses to this line of argument.
First, go back up and re-read the bit about having to survive beatings from my dad that led to hospital trips. I suspect I know far better than the people who make the happy ending argument just how bad the real world can be. And I survived that. And you better believe that part of the reason I survived it is because fantasy books helped me to imagine a life where the monsters could be conquered. That alone should justify the existence of so-called escapist literature.
For the second and more important response, let’s go back to the Wayward Children books and the author thereof. There are two things I’ve come to expect from a Seanan McGuire book:
- At some point in the story she will break my heart,
- By the time I get to the end, I will be holding my hands out (metaphorically) toward the author like a Dickensian urchin and will plead, “Please, may I have some more?”
And to be clear, I mean there are things that happen in the stories (not just this series) to the main characters that make me physically shed tears as I’m reading. Sometimes McGuire has left me sobbing uncontrollably with some developments that happen. Characters in her stories do not always get a happy ending. Many very unhappy things happen to them. So if all I wanted was happy stories where nothing bad ever happens, why do I keep reading her stuff (excitedly pre-ordering things when I can; and recommending the stories to others)?
Because I never get the feeling that she is doing it just to shock me. She never allows harm to happen lightly—even to the bad guys. Death never happens senselessly. By which I mean both that the bad things always makes sense within the world, but also because the bad things are integral to the plot. It always feels genuinely that she knows this pain and she understands it. These stories don’t sensationalize or revel in pain and suffering, they show pain because real people suffer things that hurt this much. In the real world, far too often the pain of many types of people is ignored, rationalized, and even celebrated.
I don’t want to celebrate pain. Celebrate the moments of happiness and love that characters seize despite misfortune? Yes, please!
Then my husband and I attended Locus Awards weekend in June of that year, where McGuire was a guest. There’s an autograph session during Locus Awards Weekend, and the University Book Store sets up several tables with books that have been nominated for the Locus, along with other books by some of those authors, and I was delighted to see that the sequel to Every Heart… was available. So I wound up buying both a hardcopy of Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones (even though I already had the Kindle edition of the first), so I could get them autographed.
As of this month, there are four books in the series (I should note for the pedants: these are short books; for awards purposes they count as novellas rather than novels). I just finished the fourth a week or so ago, and I had originally intended this post to be a review just of the fourth book, but I realized I don’t want to review it without talking about the entire series.
Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and emerging somewhere… else.
On a panel at Locus Awards Weekend, McGuire talked about why she wrote the first book. She described stories she adored as a child, where a kid or kids who didn’t seem to fit in at home would find themselves transported to a magical kingdom, have incredible adventures, save the world… and then were forced to go back home and just be the ordinary, unappreciated kid they had always been. “And I just wanted to know why? Why couldn’t they stay and keep being heroes?”
So the first book introduces you to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Eleanor was, herself, a girl who slipped through the shadows into another world, before eventually having to return to ours. She set up the school as a refuge for those children who were not happy to be sent back to mundania. She tells the parents and other outsiders that her goal is to help the children get over their delusions and learn to cope, but that’s just to keep them from worrying. The school is full of children who have been to many different kinds of worlds, and in the first book, seen through the viewpoint of the latest arrival, Nancy, we learn a bit about the many magical worlds, some of the rules of how they operated, the theories of why some children are drawn to those worlds and why the worlds discard them or push them out after a time.
We also deal with a series of murders that begin happening in the real world at the school. That’s where my heart got broken, because McGuire didn’t pull any punches. Characters the reader becomes very attached to are not spared, if it makes sense in the story that they die.
The second book is a prequel. It tells the story of two of the children we met in the first book, and how they fell into their magical world. The Moors are kind of an old Universal Studios Monster Territory. There is a nobleman (The Master) that everyone knows is a vampire. There are villagers who know that if they abide by certain rules they can go about their lives mostly unharmed and protected from other horrors that roam the countryside. There is a mad scientist (Dr Bleak) who can bring some of the dead back to life, and help put people back together if they are injured or maimed. The children who fall through are a pair of twins, Jacqueline and Jillian back home, though they prefer to go by Jack and Jill. Jack becomes the apprentice of Dr. Bleak, while Jill becomes the ward of The Master. More choices are made, and alas, some characters pay the price of other people’s choices, and we learn how the girls came to be sent back from the Moors, and why one of them did the things she did in the first book.
The third book, Beneath a Sugar Sky begins at the school, where we meet a couple of new characters, Cora and Nadya. Cora is a brand new student, recently returned from a world where she was transformed into a mermaid and became a hero. Nadya has been at the school longer. She also went to a water world, though hers was a much darker one than Cora’s. Their day is interrupted when an impossible girl falls from the sky and demands to be taken to meet her mother. The reason Rini is impossible is because her mother was a child who died in the first book, having never found a way to return to the magical candy land kingdom, yet Rini claims that her mother did return, re-unite with the farmboy she had a crush on before and defeated the evil Queen of Cakes. Rini was born about 9 months after the defeat of the Queen, and everything in her life was going famously until her mother mysteriously disappeared. And now Rini’s body is slowly vanishing.
Eventually Cora and Nadya join two boys we met in the first book, Kade and Christopher, in a quest with Rini to figure out how to bring Rini’s mother back from the dead and get fate back on track before Rini vanishes altogether. They wind up visiting two different magical worlds before everything is sorted out.Which brings us to book four, the one I read most recently. In An Absent Dream is another prequel, telling the backstory of one of the characters we met in the first book. We meet the little girl first at her sixth birthday, when she makes piece with the that that, in part because her father is the school principal, she will not have friends at school. A couple of years later she finds a mysterious tree with a door in it and goes through, where she finds the Goblin Market. She finds a friend and a mentor there, has some adventures, and makes more friends. But while grieving over a death she returns to the real world, and is not able to find the door back for a couple of years. For the rest of the book we watch as Lundy tries to make a life going back and forth between the worlds. Because she does love her family (especially her younger sister), yet she loves her best friend in the Goblin Market, too.
Trying to balance both, she makes a magical deal that doesn’t quite work how she wishes.
This one is different in tone than the previous one. The narrator has more of a personality, rather than feeling objective. The narrator directly addresses the reader from time to time, telling us a bit about what is about to happen. Those of us who read the first book already knew how Lundy’s story would end. More so than we did for Jack and Jill in the second book. So I think the narration had to be framed this way.
I do believe that the second and fourth books can be read as stand-alones You don’t need to know anything that happened in the other books to understand anything that happens in them.
I’m less certain about the third book. The story carries on just fine, but I’m not sure a reader who had not read the first book would find it as compelling. Mainly because a lot of the emotional drive of the third book is whether the one character who died in the first book will be brought back. And it was in the first book that the reader meets her and gets to know her, and therefore would be invested in saving her.
I find the entire series a lot of fun. Not everyone gets a happy ending, or the happy ending that you want, but the stories contain joy and some triumphs. And there is more than a bit of the found family theme in several aspects of the series.
McGuire has mentioned on social media that the publisher has contracted for eight books so far in the series. She’s also said that her plan is to continue the pattern established thus far: odd-numbered entries will be stories that take place at the school, even-numbered books will be portal fantasies in which we see a wayward child or two find their magic door, of fall down the rabbit hole, or slip through a shadow in the back of the cupboard to find a magical world.
I’m looking forward to the rest!
But that isn’t quite full disclosure. Because I am also quite a nerd/fan of anything to do with Urban Legends. And I have a particular fondness for any sort of work of fiction that attempts to explore and more fully explain folklore. For example, see any of the blog posts where I talk about Mary Stewart’s Arthurian novels: The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, and The Wicked Day.
Because of my love for urban legends and fiction based on folklores, I was aware of the existence of the McGuire’s earlier book, Sparrow Hill Road and had it on my list of books I intended to buy and read some day. Sparrow Hill Road is a fix-up; which means that a number of stories which had originally been published elsewhere are assembled (and sometimes altered or expanded) into a single story. This is different than an anthology, which is merely a collection of the previously printed stories. In a fix-up, the author transforms the series of pre-existing stories into a more coherent, novel-like structure.
I had not gotten around to buying and reading this book, when I became aware that a sequel—which was not a fix-up but was a new story conceived and written as an entire book from the get-go—was about to be published. As in, within a few days of me finding out it was in the pipeline, it would be available to purchase. So I went ahead and pre-ordered the second book, while buying and downloading the first, which I started reading right away.
The urban legend McGuire explores here is a subset of the Phantom Hitchhiker. There are many versions of the Phantom Hitchhiker, but McGuire focuses on is “the girl who asks for a ride home; the one who turns out to have been dead all along.” So the first book, Sparrow Hill Road, introduces us to Rose Marshall, who was 16 in 1952. When her boyfriend failed to pick her up for the prom, Rose got in her car and started down Sparrow Hill Road and wound up in a fight for her life against, well, that’s a detail that is revealed slowly over the course of the individual episodes in this first book. Suffice it to say that Rose is killed and she becomes the Phantom Prom Date.
Over the course of the stories we watch as Rose interacts with the living and certain supernatural forces. From the child separated from her parents at a rest stop who Rose leads to safety, to an angry ghost that doesn’t even remember why it wants to kill, to a retired banshee who still likes to lend a helping hand, we see a wide variety of people and other beings whose destinies are tied up in the highways and byways of America. McGuire builds a rich and multilayered mythology here, weaving in elements of folklore and other urban legends to create a fascinating twilight world.
Rose’s primary function is to help those who are fated to die on a roadway get through the transition and head on to the afterlife (one that is denied to her for various reasons) without becoming one of those vengeful spirits or other dangerous creatures. Sometimes she’s called to a scene where the mortal can be saved, and if Rose can, she does.
The Girl in the Green Silk Gown is where things start hopping. Rose’s first full-length novel opens up 60 years after her initial accident. She’s been 16 years old for all that time, and has become an expert at navigating several layers of reality—dipping into the mortal realm when needed—and familiar with a lot of supernatural threats. Throughout the 60 years she has been pursued off and on by the immortal Bobby Cross, who was responsible for her death. Killing her wasn’t enough. He is out to end her, because consumer her soul (or essence or whatever) being necessary to preserving his immortality. She has eluded him many times over the years, so he launches a more complicated scheme to strip of her powers and trap her in the mortal realm where he’ll be able to finish her off. With a very unlikely ally, she embarks on a quest the included going to the depths of the underworld in an attempt to not just survive, but get back what she’s lost.
The novel builds on and expands a lot of the secrets of the ghost roads and related phenomenon introduced in the first collection. There are some great new characters, as well as the return of several favorites. It’s fun. It is tense when necessary. McGuire kept me turning the pages, anxious to know what would happen next.
I think that The Girl in the Green Silk Gown can be read and enjoyed by someone who hasn’t read the first book. I recommend them both. I’ve seen some overall positive reviews that are less happy with the episodic nature of the first book, particularly the fact that the stories aren’t entirely arranged chronologically. So if you think that might bother you, maybe try the second book first.
I loved them both!
James Davis Nicoll writes book reviews and related articles that are published (among other places) at Tor.com. He recently posted “100 SF/F Books You Should Consider Reading in the New Year” where he gives brief (and fun) descriptions of each of the books. They include both fantasy and science fiction, and range over a rather long publishing time. He says in bold print in the introduction, and repeats in all caps at the end, that this list is not meant to imply that these are the only books one should consider reading this year.
Shortly after it went up, he found out other book bloggers were making a meme out of it, where they would list all 100 and mark them in some way to indicate which ones you have read. So on his personal blog he listed only the titles, authors, and year of publication with the suggestion: italics = you’re read it already, underscore = you would recommend a different book by this author, and strikethrough = you recommend no one read the book. And since I keep meaning to write more about books on this blog, I figure this is an easy way to start.
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (2014)
The Stolen Lake by Joan Aiken (1981)
Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa (2001-2010)
Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō by Hitoshi Ashinano (1994-2006) [partial]
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
Stinz: Charger: The War Stories by Donna Barr (1987)
The Sword and the Satchel by Elizabeth Boyer (1980)
Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue by Rosel George Brown (1968)
The Mountains of Mourning by Lois McMaster Bujold (1989)
War for the Oaks by Emma Bull (1987)
Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler (1980)
Naamah’s Curse by Jacqueline Carey (2010)
The Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter (1996)
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (2015)
Red Moon and Black Mountain by Joy Chant (1970)
The Vampire Tapestry by Suzy McKee Charnas (1980)
Gate of Ivrel by C.J. Cherryh (1976)
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho (2015)
Diadem from the Stars by Jo Clayton (1977)
The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (1973)
Genpei by Kara Dalkey (2000)
Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard (2010)
The Secret Country by Pamela Dean (1985)
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany (1975)
The Door into Fire by Diane Duane (1979)
On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis (2016)
Spirit Gate by Kate Elliott (2006)
Enchantress From the Stars by Sylvia Louise Engdahl (1970)
Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle (1983)
The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss (1997)
A Mask for the General by Lisa Goldstein (1987)
Slow River by Nicola Griffith (1995)
Those Who Hunt the Night by Barbara Hambly (1988)
Winterlong by Elizabeth Hand (1990)
Ingathering by Zenna Henderson (1995) — (this is actually a collection of a series of stories, about half of which I have read separately)
The Interior Life by Dorothy Heydt (writing as Katherine Blake, 1990)
God Stalk by P. C. Hodgell (1982)
Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson (1998)
Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang (2014)
Blood Price by Tanya Huff (1991)
The Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughes (1980)
God’s War by Kameron Hurley (2011)
Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta (2014)
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin (2015)
Cart and Cwidder by Diane Wynne Jones (1975)
Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones (2014)
Hellspark by Janet Kagan (1988)
A Voice Out of Ramah by Lee Killough (1979)
St Ailbe’s Hall by Naomi Kritzer (2004)
Deryni Rising by Katherine Kurtz (1970)
Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner (1987)
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier (2005)
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (2013)
Biting the Sun by Tanith Lee (Also titled Drinking Sapphire Wine, 1979)
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (2016)
Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm (1986)
Adaptation by Malinda Lo (2012)
Watchtower by Elizabeth A. Lynn (1979)
Tea with the Black Dragon by R. A. MacAvoy (1983)
The Outback Stars by Sandra McDonald (2007)
China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh (1992)
Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre (1978)
The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia A. McKillip (1976)
Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees (1926)
Pennterra by Judith Moffett (1987)
The ArchAndroid by Janelle Monáe (2010)
Jirel of Joiry by C. L. Moore (1969)
Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2016)
The City, Not Long After by Pat Murphy (1989)
Vast by Linda Nagata (1998)
Galactic Derelict by Andre Norton (1959)
His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik (2006)
Dragon Sword and Wind Child by Noriko Ogiwara (1993)
Outlaw School by Rebecca Ore (2000)
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor (2014)
Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce (1983)
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976)
Godmother Night by Rachel Pollack (1996)
Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti (1859)
My Life as a White Trash Zombie by Diana Rowland (2011)
The Female Man by Joanna Russ (1975)
Stay Crazy by Erika L. Satifka (2016)
The Healer’s War by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough (1988)
Five-Twelfths of Heaven by Melissa Scott (1985)
Everfair by Nisi Shawl (2016)
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski (1986)
The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart (1970)
Up the Walls of the World by James Tiptree, Jr. (1978)
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner (1996)
The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge (1980)
All Systems Red by Martha Wells (2017)
The Well-Favored Man by Elizabeth Willey (1993)
Banner of Souls by Liz Williams (2004)
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson (2012)
Ariosto by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1980)
Ooku by Fumi Yoshinaga (2005-present)
Nicoll tends to review books that don’t get reviewed elsewhere, and he reads a prodigious amount, it shouldn’t shock anyone that this list includes a lot of authors who don’t fall into the cishet white male category. I was pleased at how many of the books on the list were ones I had already read and liked. There were a few that were already in my to-read pile, and a good number that I’ve seen before and been interested in, but just hadn’t gotten around to.
And a bunch of these have been added to my wishlist, now.
I should try to put together some recommendation lists of my own. Or maybe just find a few more lists others have posted to link to.
I’d come home from work, load up the car, drive to new place, unload the car, then possibly do a couple of small things before driving back. While I was out Michael would be packing more boxes. Once I got home I would usually start packing, too. Sometimes I would simply load up the car and drive up again. Then the next weekend it was multiple trips every day again. Until the day of the big move, and we started sleeping at the new place. Then my routine became come home from work, hop in the car and drive back to the old place to pack more little things and/or clean. And so on. Thus did the once familiar and happy-making route become a dreaded chore.
We managed to take at least one night off each week. One night where each of us came home from work and did virtually no packing and there was absolutely no driving back and forth. I didn’t always skip any and all moving activity on the night off. Just not having to spend that time—nearly on hour—in transit was quite a relief.
A couple of weekends ago, when I said to some friends how much I was looking forward to the weekend that I knew would arrive eventually when I didn’t have to drive that route again and again, one friend shuddered and said, “Oh! I know that feeling. Believe me!”
It isn’t fun… Read More…
Most advice I’ve read about using feedback as a guide for revision assumes that every writer feels compelled to immediately change their story to comply with every suggestion, and that most of us need pep talks to remember the story is ours. There’s nothing wrong with such pep talks, but my experience has been that many writers (myself included) are more inclined to dismiss most advice, critique, and suggestions unless such feedback comes from someone we know and trust.
Be open. Don’t dismiss feedback out of hand, and resist the urge to argue or explain.
Yes, if you are attending a writing workshop taught by an author you have long admired, and bonding with your fellow students, you’re likely to take every single piece of advice to heart, even the contradictory ones, and tie yourself in knots trying to rewrite your story to address every issue. Similarly, if you have a critique group you trust, you may find yourself in a similar situation after they go over a story. In that circumstance it is important to remember the Neil Gaiman quote: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
People are making suggestions because the story isn’t working for them. Some of the suggestions are contradictory because the people offering them are misidentifying the root cause. Before discarding contradictory advice, see if you can find an intersection. For instance, one time I received feedback on a draft novel from three people whose opinion I trust. One was quite insistent that I needed to add some dream sequences or some other sort of mystical experience to more explicitly explain why the reclusive shrine-guardian was compelled to undertake a quest to save the world. Another thought I should remove several characters (including the shrine guardian) that (in their opinion) weren’t contributing to the main plot, because there were just too many things going on, and clearly the center of the action was the cursed thief. The third person wanted me to split off the shape-shifting fortuneteller (and a few other characters) into their own book.
The intersection of those comments was a fundamental issue all three readers were missing: the novel doesn’t have one protagonist, it has three protagonists whose fates are intertwined and that all come together in the end. Now the reason these readers were missing that detail was not because they were dense or didn’t appreciate the story; they were missing it because I as the author hadn’t made it clear. It was not working in the story. I needed to fix it, but the fix did not involve removing characters, or adding dream sequences, or splitting the book in two. The fix also didn’t require massive rewrites. The fix required dropping a few scenes that weren’t carrying their weight, replacing them with some that did more, and making tweaks to several others.
Look for the unobvious connection. Just because advice seems contradictory doesn’t mean it is wrong.
Sometimes the feedback you get appears to come from a different planet. I’ve mentioned before the reader who complained about my happy endings. The story that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for that reader was a tale which ends with two of the main characters saying good-bye as one is going to escort the corpses of several murder victims on their journey to their families. The story had featured some graphic violence long before getting to that scene. While the killer had been caught and was going to be facing justice, and some of the characters had survived, given how many didn’t and where I set the final scene (literally next to some coffins) I had trouble thinking of it as a happy ending.
I’m a person who fundamentally believes in hope. I’m never going to write stories that will appeal to the sort of reader who insists that happy endings never happen for anyone. That particular story had already been published, so it was a bit late to revise it. But I still found the feedback worthwhile. It was worth asking myself if I had written something earlier in the story that had led this reader—who was really looking to read something grim and dark—to think that that’s what this one was going to be. Did I raise an expectation that I failed to deliver?
Maybe I did. A lesson I took away from that was to remember to look for those unintended expectations. Everyone has heard the famous advice about the gun on the mantlepiece: if you show the reader a gun on the scene, the gun needs to figure in the plot before the story is over. The advice doesn’t just refer to guns, it means that when you draw the reader’s attention to things, people, or events that seem to signify certain dramatic possibilities, that something needs to come of it. That isn’t to say that I must write stories that meet the reader’s expectations, just to make certain that I don’t mislead the reader midway through the story. Yeah, misdirection is okay as long as you play fair (that’s a topic for an entire blog post on its own), and you don’t want to telegraph the ending to the reader, but don’t play bait-and-switch.
Don’t blame the messenger. Maybe the person giving you the weird sounding feedback is absolutely the only being in the universe who will misread your story this way, but don’t forget that where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.
I’ve gotten feedback that left me feeling confused and conflicted about whether my story is worth telling. That might be a good time to follow the advice I read in a magazine article decades ago (and have long forgotten who wrote): sit down and write out an explanation of what is wrong with each part of the critique to don’t like. Do not ever send this to the person, repeat any of it to the person, or post it. Instead, set your reply and this story aside and go work on something else. Later, when you can look at this story objectively, pull out your explanation and go through your story. Is everything you say in the explanation in the story? Is it clear in the story? Chances are that some things you have assumed the reader will infer aren’t as obvious as you though. Sometimes you’ll discover that you never actually mentioned one very important fact for your plot. You thought you did, but it isn’t actually there. Now destroy that explanation/argument you wrote, and rewrite your story.
Argue with yourself, not the reader. Figure out what is missing, and add it in.
Many times I’ve written scenes that never wind up in the story. Sometimes I write them because I’m not certain what to do next, then later I realize that scene isn’t necessary. Sometimes I write them because I’m trying to figure out something that I plan to have happened in the past or off screen, but I need to be able to have characters who lived through the events react accordingly later. And sometimes I write a scene because I received suggestions or critiques that I either wasn’t certain I agreed with, or was quite certain I disagreed with but it kept coming up from multiple people. So I tried writing the scene that followed the suggestion. Usually what happened is not that the new scene went into my story and replaced a bunch of other stuff, but rather, in the course of writing the scene, I figured out something else about the story. Just trying to write it the way other people wanted it to go clarified where the story actually needed to go.
Give it a try. Every writer writes stuff that eventually we decide not to use or to change significantly. Don’t be afraid to spend some time giving alternatives a go.
Trust the story. Recognize that you will stumble and sometimes fall. It doesn’t matter how many times you do that, if you keep getting back up and get moving. So stop thinking about the story, and go write it!
It’s the most natural thing to do, because you know you don’t have a bigoted bone in your body, so of course you aren’t racist/sexist/homophobic/anti-semetic or whatever the person has just said. So of course you feel the need to defend yourself. But you’re wrong. That’s because what you think they mean is that you are a horrible bigot, but that isn’t what’s going on here. What the person is actually trying to communicate is this: “I felt devalued or erased by some of the content of your story.” Nothing you say can change the feelings they had when they read your book. So the first sense in which it is wrong to argue is that you see this as an attack on you, whereas they are explaining how attacks on them that society has been subjecting them to their entire lives are being unintentionally aided and abetted by your story.
The other sense in which you are wrong is the belief that you don’t have any bigotry at all. Because all of us do. It is impossible to grow up in human society without absorbing a lot of prejudice. Including prejudice aimed at ourselves. Queer people have to overcome a lot of internalized homophobia just to come out of the closet. Women learn and internalize misogyny and sexism. Ethnic minorities learn and internal racial prejudice, and so forth. So it doesn’t matter how much you feel you aren’t bigoted, there is going to be some unconscious prejudices boiling around inside. And problematic content isn’t usually about overt bigotry, but is often more subtle.
So, when someone confronts you about any unintentional bigotry in your work, you need to do three things:
It is tempting, even if you stop yourself from getting defensive, to respond to this sort of criticism as just another kind of negative review and say, “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it” then try to change the subject. But this is a different category of discourse entirely. And quite often the people who bring this criticism to you did enjoy most of your story. That’s why they’re taking the time to tell you about this problem. So a better response would be, “I’m sorry the book disappointed you in this way.” If you can say that sincerely, you might also say that you didn’t intend to do that, but don’t let it become an attempt to prove they’re wrong. Better to say, “I’ll try to do better.”
If the person wants to explain to you what it was in your work that made them feel this way, listen. Don’t argue, listen. If the person doesn’t want to talk in more detail about it, that’s all right. It doesn’t mean that they’re wrong or that you’ve someone won the argument. As uncomfortable as it is for you to hear that something you wrote made someone feel de-valued, it is just as uncomfortable (and riskier) for them to bring it up. Dealing with every day discrimination and microagressions means that members of marginalized communities have already had to defend themselves and explain how they are hurt by discrimination thousands of times. And they don’t have the energy to try to educate you in depth on the issue.
Which is where we get to the learning. Once it has been brought to your attention that some readers feel this way (which you never intended) while reading your work, it’s your job to decide how to do better. I love quoting the advice “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right.” That’s part of a Neil Gaiman quote. One of the truths Gaiman is getting at is that if one reader feels a particular way about your work, many other readers will, too. The rest of Neil’s quote talks about fixing problems, and fixing it is the writer’s responsibility, not the reader’s. They’ve told you how it made them feel. If you don’t want some of your audience feeling that way, you have to decide how you’re going to fix that going forward.
I want to emphasize that I know this process isn’t easy. The first time someone told me a story I wrote had sexist bits in it I became extremely defensive and reacted like a complete jerk. I was wrong to do that. Fortunately, I also spent some time, after I acted like a jerk, re-reading the story and trying to see it from the reader’s point of view.
And she was right. There were several little things I had done just because that’s what women characters do in that situation in millions of books and television episodes and movies that we’ve all watched. And it was a simple matter to make some very minor changes to get rid of them. I didn’t become suddenly a sexism-free writer after that. I found myself a couple years later being asked by someone why after six chapters into a book I was writing, not one single female character had appeared or had a line of dialog—in a story that was set in a ordinary public school in a small modern American city. There were a number of women and girls in my imaginary world, some of whom were going to figure in the plot later, but for whatever reason, I had omitted them in the opening chapters. This, by the way, was the incident I’ve mentioned before that prompted me to re-read a whole bunch of my work applying the Bechdel–Wallace test1, and finding myself very embarrassed at how many of my stories failed it.
And even though since then, I have tried to educate myself on it, and made several changes to the way I tell some stories, I still find problems. I was editing a scene in one of my currently still-in-progress novels not that long ago when I happened upon a line of dialog that I barely remembered writing, and it was a very clichéd and sexist line. I changed it. Now not only is it not sexist, I think it’s funnier.
Again, not every such criticism is going to be spot-on. A few years ago I got a long angry letter about how a story I wrote perpetrated hate against religious people. The rant included accusations that I had been “brainwashed by the femi-nazis” so I wasn’t inclined to take it completely to heart. I asked some religious acquaintances to read the story (without mentioning the negative review) to give me feedback on the portrayal of religion and the various religious people in the story. Not that if they disagreed that proved the reviewer wrong, it was just two more perspectives from people who I trusted.
I ultimately had to make the decision about whether the story perpetuated anti-religious bigotry.
That’s all we can do: try to learn, try to see things from other perspectives, and find people we trust to check our conclusions from time to time. Members of particular marginalized groups can disagree. A few years back I and another gay male sci fi fan and writer got into a really long discussion about whether something I had written perpetuated negative stereotypes about gay men3. We never came to a complete meeting of minds on the topic.
There’s an excellent post over at Patheo by Libby Anne which makes really good reading on this topic: What to Do If Someone Calls You Sexist: A Short Primer. And it doesn’t just apply to sexism.
1. Based on a 1985 comic strip from the series Dykes to Watch For by Allison Bechdel, in which one woman asks another if she wants to go to the movie, and the second woman explains that she has a rule, she will only go to a movie if “…one, it has at least two women in it who, two, talk to each other about something other than a man.” Then she confesses that the last movie she’d been able to go to was Alien, because there is one scene where the two women on the spaceship crew talk about the monster. But only the one. Bechdel herself expressed some discomfort with people naming the test after her, since she said she got the idea for the rule from a friend, Liz Wallace, and to the writings of Virginia Woolf.2
2. If a movie or book passes the test, that doesn’t prove that said work isn’t sexist. All the Bechdel-Wallace test is assess whether women appear in the work to specific degree. That fact that so many works fail to achieve even this level of inclusion is just sad.
3. Remember, it is not a valid defense against an observation of bigotry to be a member of the marginalized group in question, any more than claiming to have a friend in the group absolves you of all culpability. Internalized homophobia can manifest in even the most woke queer person.
Everything I need to know about responding to reviews of my books I learned from my choral directors
There have been a few really notorious cases of this type. There’s the author who seemed to become obsessed by one person who had given lots of negative reviews online to a lot of books. The author tracked down the reader in real life, going to rather absurd lengths to document all the things the reader had said in her various personal profiles on different social which appeared to be false or exaggerations. It culminated in the author going to the reader’s home and confronting her. That’s not only not cool, it’s stalking under the legal definition in most states in the U.S., and could be prosecutable.
Another author tried to sue Amazon and a reviewer for libel.
Then there’s the various Anne Rice incidents: posting a link to a bad review on a book blog on her Facebook page and encouraging 740,000 plus fans to harass the reviewer in 2013; writing a scathing 1100 reply to a reader review on Amazon in 2004; issuing a petition to try to force Amazon to reveal the real names (and contact information) of customer reviewers; trying to get bad reviews reclassifyed as cyberbulling in 2015; et cetera.
I’ve seen some really good articles and at least one of those humorous flow charts about how to respond to negative reviews. And those are great. But negative reviews are only a subset of the problem. And I realized that when I shared and commented on one of the recent posts about this, that I was repeating advice that I’d received from some of my music directors back in the day. I was in orchestra, band, choir, and a small men’s ensemble in school, and then choir and small ensemble in college, and later sang in a gay & lesbian community chorus. I’ve had a lot of music directors, but it was always the choral directors who gave advice about responding to negative comments and other sorts of reviews one might receive to a concert. And what they said can apply to any creative work, so here we go:
When someone tells you they disliked your performance/your story/et cetera: Your response should always be limited to a simple and sincere, “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it.” As one choral director said, “Don’t give in to the temptation to try to convince the person that the concert was great. Don’t try to educate them about the significance of the piece, the history of the composer, and especially about how much hard work you put in. Just say, ‘I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it’ and move on.” Doing anything else just makes people feel angry and defensive.
Personally, I think this response is best deployed with someone contacts you directly or tells you in person that they didn’t like your story/book/painting/what-have-you. In the case of published reviews or reviews posted online, the best response to negative reviews is to pretend you didn’t see them. Maybe talk to a close friend about any particularly badly phrased review, if you need to vent a bit, but don’t respond online or publicly in any way. Don’t send the reviewer private messages. Don’t post links to the negative review.
Arguing with someone is not going to change how they feel about it. And it may well convert them from someone who merely didn’t like this story, to someone who has a grudge and goes out of their way to bad mouth all of your other work.
Negative reviews aren’t the only kind that can be problematic:
When someone tells you they really liked it: Say, “Thank you. I’m so happy you enjoyed it.” This may really seem like a no-brainer, but I can’t count the number of times that a musician, artist, or writer I’ve known has responded to positive comments by saying something like, “But we did it wrong!” or “I hated it! Look at all of these mistakes I made!”
One choral director put it really well: “What you just said to that person is, ‘You have really bad taste in music or are really clueless because you didn’t notice the mistake.’ It’s an insult. Even if you are convinced that they are merely being polite, just say ‘Thank you. I’m glad you liked it.’”
It’s really easy when I look a something I wrote to see all the flaws. Particularly if it is something I wrote a while ago. Even if the story has prompted more than one reader to contact me to tell me they were so enthralled by my tale that they missed their train stop or their cue or stayed up way too late reading it. When I look at the story, I just think how the characterization of one of the supporting characters was inconsistent, or that I could have done a more subtle job revealing that clue, or why did I include the lyrics of the song one of my suspects was performing in that pivotal scene?
But those readers enjoyed it. They didn’t have to send me a comment. I might have never known they had even seen that story if they hadn’t gone out of their way to do so. They liked it. And that’s why I wrote it! I wanted someone to read it and like it! I shouldn’t try to talk a fan of my work into hating.
We’re socialized to be self-effacing. We’re taught that being overly proud of our work means we’re an arrogant jerk. Some of us have self-esteem issues and sincerely have trouble believing that people actually like our work. Don’t give in to either of those tendencies. Just say, ‘Thank you.’ Bank the compliment, and remember it the next time you read a negative review.
When someone asks questions about it: This one is tricky. We’re all socialized to answer questions when asked. Some of us are a bit too happy to expound at length if someone shows the slightest interest it our work.
It’s okay to answer questions. As one director put it, “It’s understandable that someone might ask why we performed a classical piece in German for an English-speaking audience, for instance. It’s perfectly reasonable to answer the question. Just make sure you simply answer it, and don’t try to pick a fight. Don’t assume that they are trying to start an argument. Tell them that the piece was originally written in German, and that you think music is beautiful in any language.” Questions about minor things in the plot of your book or character motivations which seem to be genuine confusion on the part of the reader can be answered in person or direct conversations as long as you don’t get defensive. Similarly to factual question about the publishing process—but keep it as simple as possible.
When it comes to published/online reviews as opposed to someone contacting you directly, don’t get drawn into an argument. Straightforward questions with a simple, factual answer are fine. For instance, I once saw in a review of a story that was part of a continuing series but had been picked up for reprint in another publication the comment: “I liked the story well enough, but wish I knew more about these characters.” It was simple to post a comment: “For more stories set in this universe using these characters, check out [Link to a place to buy them].” I said absolutely nothing else. Just an answer to the one question that had a simple answer.
Sometimes a person asking a question is looking to start an argument. And sometimes it’s quite obvious that they’re doing it. I once got a question about one story along the lines of, “Why did you have to give us a happy ending, again? Your stories really draw me in and get me interested in all the characters, but then you have yet another unrealistic ending. In real life things never work out like that!” If someone is doing this sort of back-handed compliment disguised as a question, you need to treat it as a negative review. “I told the story as I saw it. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it.”
Other questions may be less obviously a back-handed compliment, but still not have a simple factual answer, such as, “I don’t understand why the author made such an unlikeable character the hero of this story” or “Why are there so many sub-plots in this book? Why can’t we just stick to one character?” or “Why did the main character spend all that time moping and talking? He should have kicked some butt and showed them who’s boss!” There is no answer you can give to this person that will make them happy. You had your reasons for writing the story, they wanted to be reading a different story. Again, you need to treat these sorts of questions the same as a negative review. If it’s in a published or on-line review, don’t respond. If a reader is asking you directly, say as simply and sincerely as possible, “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it.”
You can elaborate a little bit. “That isn’t the story I was telling” or “This was the best way I could think of to tell this particular story with these characters” or something like that. It is so tempting to try to convince the person that what you did was the right thingFinally, remember that sometimes the reason you got a bad review has nothing to do with you or your story. Mark Kloos recently shared on twitter: “Don’t fret about your Amazon reviews. I just got a three-star review because my novel isn’t a 36-count package of Jimmy Dean sausages.” And he included a screen capture of the review. While technically this violates the negative review advice above, it’s clear that the reviewer wasn’t actually reviewing the book, and Kloos didn’t ask people to go harass the reviewer.
That example leads to the final piece of advice from several of my choral directors: “Once the concert is sung the only thing you can do is be proud of the parts that went well, laugh about the parts that didn’t, and start practicing for the next performance.”
I like to repeat the adage that the difference between real life and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. Storytelling is, among other things, the craft of weaving an illusion. You are attempting to evoke in the reader a dream. You want that dream to be similar to the one you’re holding in your own mind as you craft your story. It needs to feel real, while also making sense—narrative sense. In a narrative, the events that happen are always connected to each other and to the overall story. Things happen for reasons that relate to the intent of the participants and the meaning of the plot. But the real world seldom makes sense narratively; real life events that take place near each other are often unconnected, for instance.
The paradox of storytelling is that you can’t achieve that sense of reality and making sense by slavishly imitating the real world.
That is especially true in dialog.
So, dialog isn’t about exactly transcribing the real way that people talk. It is about creating the illusion of the way people talk, while omitting parts that don’t move the story forward. To get back to the list that’s being shared around: it isn’t that you can’t use any of those suggestions, it is that you should not dump all of them in just because they’re on the list.
If, like me, you read a lot of fanfic and self-published fiction, you see a lot of these awkward efforts to replicate in dialogue certain quirks and eccentricities of expression that people make in real life, or that actors do as part of their delivery of lines. Unfortunately, these replications often serve as a distraction rather than characterization. For example, in dialogue you might mention that when a character responded to a question with the word “yep” that the character popped the p at the end of the word. If the reader has ever known a person who does that in certain circumstances, or seen an actor doing it in a television series, say, they get it. If they don’t, they’re just puzzled. And during that moment that the reader is trying to figure out what it means, they are no longer in your story. You’ve bounced them from the narrative. You have destroyed the illusion you were so meticulously crafting. You are inviting the reader to stop reading your tale.
And if you do more of those things, you aren’t merely inviting the reader to leave, you’re actively chasing them away!
In real life people say “uh,” “um,” and similar non-words a lot more often than we realize. It’s a pause when we’re trying to pick a word, or figure out how to respond to something or just thinking through the situation we are discussing as we’re talking. If you put those non-verbal filler sounds in as often as they happen in real life, it becomes very annoying to read. Part of the reason we don’t notice is because the tone of voice and the cadence of the sentence (and if it’s a face-to-face conversation, facial expressions and other body language) give those non-words meaning to the listener. But the reader isn’t getting all of that. So, when writing dialogue, we use those non-verbal sound indicators more sparingly. We deploy them when we want to indicate the speaker is at a loss for words, or is uncomfortable in the situation, or something similar.
In real life we repeat words a lot. We may put the same word in to a sentence more often than it is needed. Like, we really can, you know, say what we mean to say, like, really, you know, in a really messy way. You know? And you can write a character talking in that manner, but you’ll find it’s difficult to keep up the pattern. And again, the reader needs to know why you’re doing it. If you have a character that is supposed to be annoying your protagonist, having all of their sentences ramble and repeat can make your reader as annoyed with the character as your protagonist is. Again, the key is to choose the non-standard grammar for a narrative reason.
Then there are facial expressions and gestures. I have a really bad habit during first drafts of having my characters nod a lot. You can read through a scene I just wrote and sometimes a third or even half of the switches in dialogue begin with the character who is about to speak nodding. And it’s really annoying after a while. In real life, people nod their heads, shake their heads, tilt their heads, waggle their heads and so on while talking. But just as with “uh,” we need to use it a bit less often than it happens.
The first time someone pointed that out in a rough draft, I went through and changed all of those “so-and-so nodded” to other things. I changed each and every one to a different thing. So the first character, instead of nodding, grinned. And then the next character wiggled his hand to indicate indecision. Then the first character frowned and tilted his head. And so on. When I read the scene to myself aloud after revising it, I started laughing part way through, because it sounded as if the two of them were dancing around each other in an elaborate musical number. So I had made it worse, not better. Not every line of dialogue needs a description of what the character is doing with their body. It is perfectly okay to use “[name] said.” Multiple times.
It’s also all right, if there are only two people in the conversation, to skip the name altogether every now and then. But don’t do it more three or four lines in a row. The reader will get confused, and it is really annoying to have to go back and count, “Susan, John, Susan, John…” when you lose track. And it is super duper annoying when you do that and find it doesn’t work. You get to a line that by your count should be John, but it says ‘Susan frowned in thought. “I don’t think so,” she said.’ I have had that happen in a book published by a large publishing house. I assume that during an edit round some lines of dialogue were removed, and the author didn’t double-check that everything still flowed.
On the other hand, you can get away with a lot of things in dialogue that don’t fly in the narrative portions of the text. People talk in sentence fragments and make grammatical errors, so you can do that in the dialogue. But make sure you know why you’re doing it. And don’t over do it.
While we’re on the subject of dialogue: someone sent me a link to this excellent blog post on how to punctuate dialog. Even if you think you know how to punctuate dialog, go take a look. Everyone can use a refresher every now and then.
And then fan art for a book that seemed to be about teen wizards (but not characters I recognized) started appearing on my tumblr dashboard for a series that I’d never heard of: the Simon Snow series. Except there is no Simon Snow series. One of the novels by Ms. Rowell that I’d put on my list was entitled, Fangirl, and the blurb was that the main character, Cath, is just starting college, and that for the last few years her life has been dominated by her love for a series of urban fantasy novels. And these novels star a young man named Simon Snow.
In order to write convincingly about a fan who is very active in writing fanfic and has a number of close friends within the fandom, Rowell had to plot out a fictitious fantasy series. At least enough for the characters to talk about it as if it were a real series. Fangirl was a success, and received a lot of praise, particularly in sf/f circles, despite not being a fantasy story itself, because the portrayal of fannish culture was considered spot on.
After finishing that book, Rowell wound up writing a Simon Snow book. She didn’t write the entire series, she wrote a book that can be looked on as the next book that was published after all the books that Cath and her friends had been fans of in 2013 (when Fangirl was published). So, Carry On is not a sequel to Fangirl. Carry On is a sequel to the fictitious series which is talked about in Fangirl.
The magical world of Carry On bears a strong resemblance to the Harry Potter series, though it isn’t a parody or a satire. It also bears certain parallels to other young adult fantasy series. The plot seems straightforward, at first. Simon Snow attends a wizarding school called Watford. He was not born in the wizarding world, but he has immense power and various prophetic signs indicate that he is the person who is destined to defeat the Insidious Humdrum. The Insidious Humdrum is a mysterious being which, when it attacks, drains all of the magic out of the area, leaving what appear to be permanent dead zones where wizards and other magical creatures become powerless. Simon doesn’t know how he is going to defeat this creature, and has so far failed to master his magical powers. His powers are massive, but out of his control, and things tend to get destroyed when he tries to use them. His roommate at the school, Baz (full name, Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch) is Simon’s nemesis at school, and is assumed by everyone to be the person destined to try to kill Simon when the big battle with the Humdrum finally happens.
But the story isn’t really about the conflict between Simon and the Humdrum. It’s really about the nature of prophecy, what does it mean to be a chosen one, and how people (whether mortal politicians or master mages) twist belief and hope to fit their own agendas. It’s about identity, not just what it means to be a hero or villain (or the fact that it is seldom either/or), but there are allegories for ethnic identity issues and class identity issues. Oh, and more than a bit about sexual and romantic identity (which aren’t always the same thing).
There is a ghost story. There are several mysteries. And there is even a love story. There are battles magical, political, and personal. And it all hangs together very well. I have to admit, I think the wizarding world portrayed in Carry On makes a lot more sense than the world of Harry Potter, or a number of other fantasies of similar ilk, even though the magic part of the story isn’t the main focus of the plot.
I’m not sure that those two observations are unrelated.
I enjoyed the book a lot. I didn’t find most of the plot developments surprises. As one reviewer put it, the revelations as the story moves along feel more like confirmations of your existing suspicions than plot twists. But again, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that’s part of why the story hangs together better than some other books we could name.
I enjoyed the book a lot. It didn’t end quite as I hoped it would, but it ended in a way that felt right and satisfying regardless. It did make me wish that some of the series and fantasy books had handled their characters as well as Rowell does. I hope that the next person who undertakes this sort of tale takes note.