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… but I want to talk about it a little. The blog linked below doesn’t list the reviewer’s name (at least not where I could find it) but the Google Alert that directed me there said it was written by one “David Marshall.” Check this out:

There’s a fantastic market for spin-offs, sequels when one story arc has finished, and prequels. And those prequels can go back as far as you want into childhood. Hey, you could even write some for the YA market. Get them hooked on your heroes young and they’ll follow in lockstep into the adult serial. It’s a trail of breadcrumbs to riches. That means never starting at a beginning because, by our definition (on our contract terms to be negotiated) there’s no such thing as a beginning, just a point of origin tetralogy.” So poor unpublished Harry Connolly looks at the dollar signs written into the contract for his first novel, acts on what the publisher says, changes the title and sells his second novel.

“Poor unpublished Harry Connolly” pretty much describes me when I was doing the last polish on Child of Fire. I would have made “Poor” my first name and “Unpublished” my middle if I could have afforded the courthouse fees. But I couldn’t. I was poor.

Of course, now that I’m published, I’m as rich as a Wall St. con man, and I’m famous on the internet. The review I linked to above is a pretty positive one, all things considered, so why comment on it? There are lots of reviews out there. What strikes me here are two distinct points the poster is making (roughly speaking):

1) That I published Child of Fire, which is not the beginning of Ray’s story, for a big wad of cash, with any existing prequels held back for even larger wads later on, and

2) That I structured Child of Fire as a thriller for commercial reasons but I could have written something more satisfying (which I read to mean “not a potboiler” and “more art/less formula”).

Formula!! ::clutches pearls and faints::

Let’s break it down! (Detailed blathering, including the bad-literary version of Child of Fire behind the cut)

1) Where’s Book Zero???

Child of Fire is book one in the Twenty Palaces series. The cover says it’s “A Twenty Palaces Novel” and it’s my first published book, right? So yeah. Book one. But Ray and Annalise appear on the first page with their animosities at full power. Ray betrayed her. Annalise wants him dead. I, the author, committed backstory. A lot of readers double-checked the cover; was this really book one or was it book two?

I haven’t made a secret of the fact that there was a Ray Lilly novel before Child of Fire. That book was difficult to write, extremely personal, and as a result I was tremendously invested in it. I wept openly while I wrote one of the final scenes (something that I think only affirms my masculinity, I’ll have you know. Ahem.)

But Book Zero wasn’t the first book, either. There was another one before that, which took place in the same setting and featured characters and incidents that form the foundation of Game of Cages. And there were the short stories, too. Several of them.

One thing I can promise you, though, is that I didn’t trunk them because I was hoping to cash in on them later.

In truth, they just weren’t good enough. Book Zero affected me powerfully, but no one wanted it: the plot is low-key for sixty pages and then turns into super-powered craziness, and the action is too over the top. The book before that one? A real mess. That one is never going to see the light of day in any form.

You know? I kinda don’t care. Someday I expect to revise Book Zero and put it out into the world, but there’s no rush. And I really really don’t care that some people think my first novel reads like a sequel. I think it’s a standalone story with characters who have an existence before this book and after (well, the lucky ones get an after). Everything necessary to understand how these characters got to this point is in there, and the rest is mysterious. I like mysterious. Others like exposition “context.” They like paragraphs of narrative voice describing the world building (provided the world-building is cool).

Me, I’d rather jump in blind and piece it together. That’s what I call fun. “Two killers drive into town,” seems an excellent opening to a book AND a series.

So! Book Zero isn’t on the shelf because prequels are so lucrative. It’s on the shelf because it’s not good enough. Maybe someday I’ll be able to clean it up.

2) Writing Thrillers: Rent-Seeking Behavior, Tragic Waste of Talent, or Both??

Have I mentioned the reviewer said I was talented? Yep. Talented. Said it twice, in fact. Why bring it up? Oh, no reason. I just like to point out the word talented.

But there’s this idea out there that writers looking for sales ditch their writerly instincts to write “potboilers,” and you know what? That’s not wrong. Some writers do that, no question. I’m just not one of them. When I sit down to write, what comes out of me is a type of story I love: the supernatural crime thriller.

Now, I happen to believe we can write thrillers so they evoke complex, subtle and uncommon emotions (that’s how I interpret the reviewer’s call for more satisfying stories), but the traditional evocations of a thriller “crowd out” those rare effects. A writer working on a straight literary novel can spend all the time they like capturing a certain feeling: say two siblings listening as their Mom’s will is read. A thriller writer who wants subtle or complex emotions in their book has to squeeze them in around the expected evocations: the dangerous chase scene, the moment when the protagonist turns the table on the antagonist, the slow build that changes safety into uncertainty, and so on. You know, the thrills.

Does that sound like a formula? I know there are formulas out there, but I don’t have one. Sometimes I wish I did, so wouldn’t have to sweat these damn books so hard.

Now, I imagine I could have written Child of Fire as a non-potboiler. I could have made it more of a literary novel. Ray and Annalise would have driven into Hammer Bay looking for the guy casting dangerous spells. When they met Charles Hammer, instead of weird violence, they might have talked to him. He might have shared his troubled past, and how he’s still trying to measure up to his father. Annalise would have divulged her own difficult relationship with her dad, and they would have bonded. When Ray mentioned the fires and the dying children, Hammer would have gone into denial and thrown them out.

They’d have met people in town. Mrs. Farleton would have been attracted to Ray and spent a long afternoon with him in his motel room. She’d freak out when he mentioned that he’d been in prison, and rushed out to her car. Ray would see her re-engage with her husband and her church with renewed vigor, and he’d know that she considered him a terrible mistake, and what’s he going to do with that information? Cynthia would have slept with Annalise out of boredom, and casually mention that there’s a monster living in their house.

Ray and Annalise break in and meet the extradimensional creature, which looks and acts like a child with some sort of congenital deficit. It’s trapped in the house, doing menial work for the Hammers (reading the future) like an imprisoned illegal immigrant. It complains about the work, about missing home, and how none of the food here tastes right. It misses home and can never return. Ray offers it a toadstool pizza and it accepts knowingly, then dies.

Cynthia sells the family business immediately and buys a house in the San Juans for her and Annalise, but after three months she wakes up to find that Annalise is gone with all of her things. And then, I don’t know, someone walks into the sea.

Okay, that’s the joke literary version, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be done and done well, especially if the writer put more work into the complexity of the relationships than I did while typing up those joke-agraphs.

But that doesn’t interest me. Just because I try to squeeze in complex feelings around the thriller trappings doesn’t mean I don’t love the thriller trappings, too. You know that moment when the protagonist sees something terrible is going on, and sees a phalanx of powerful enemies lined up against them, yet still decides to fight for the right thing anyway? Yeah, you know it, and maybe you love it as much as I do.

So I just want to say that I wrote this potboiler because I love pots that boil. I’m happy to have the pre-empt deal Del Rey gave me, and I’m trying damn hard to be worthy of their investment, but that doesn’t mean I designed this book as a commercial endeavor. Honestly, I wrote Child of Fire because everyone rejected Book Zero and I was furious with myself for failing so thoroughly on a project I loved. Add to that the failed filmmaking project and other difficulties, and I said: “Fuck it! I’m a fucking failure, and fucking failures write whatever the fuck they want!”

And I did.

I’m glad the reviewer enjoyed the book, though, even if he did consider it a mere guilty pleasure.

Mirrored from Twenty Palaces. You can comment here or there.

Comments

( 34 comments — Leave a comment )
nick_kaufmann
Apr. 19th, 2010 04:51 pm (UTC)
I know it's ultimately a good review and all, but I say fuck this guy. He has no idea what he's talking about.
burger_eater
Apr. 19th, 2010 04:58 pm (UTC)
I empathize with him, because I've thought similar thoughts in my time. Why is Writer X doing this half-wonderful, half-dull thing?
(no subject) - i_amsherlocked - Apr. 19th, 2010 05:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - burger_eater - Apr. 19th, 2010 10:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - i_amsherlocked - Apr. 19th, 2010 05:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
kathi430
Apr. 19th, 2010 04:55 pm (UTC)
Well ... I guess it's sort of flattering that he imbued you with such foresight and Machiavellian overtones, right?

And he did use the word talented (twice).

I personally enjoyed reading the story the way you wrote it - there was a constant tingly what's-the-real-story-between-these-two that kept me turning pages but still satisfied that at some point, in some book, I'd get a resolution of the hidden back story.

Oh well - to each his own, I suppose. Like you said, it could have been a worse review.

burger_eater
Apr. 19th, 2010 05:05 pm (UTC)
Well ... I guess it's sort of flattering that he imbued you with such foresight and Machiavellian overtones, right?

Mwah-hah-hah! ::rubs hands together::
beth_bernobich
Apr. 19th, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
Talented.

I have nothing to add, I just wanted to say the word 'talented' to you.

burger_eater
Apr. 19th, 2010 10:08 pm (UTC)
It never gets old!
martianmooncrab
Apr. 19th, 2010 05:43 pm (UTC)
I made a friend get your book to read, and mostly I told them, that the opening scene reminds me of driving into Port Townsend. Plus its a good read.
burger_eater
Apr. 19th, 2010 10:09 pm (UTC)
Port Townsend?

::whistles casually::
(no subject) - martianmooncrab - Apr. 19th, 2010 10:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
barbarienne
Apr. 19th, 2010 07:04 pm (UTC)
This is the sort of review that makes me assume the writer of the review hasn't ever written a novel.

I get very tired of people creating the false dichotomy between "literary" and "potboiler" or between "books that make you think" and "books that (merely) entertain."

Screw that noise, I say. The books that make me think the most are also the ones that entertain me. There are books that make me think and yet bore me. There are books that are fun and yet fall right out of my head when I'm done.

And then there are books that do both. They're not somewhere along a continuum between "thinky" and "fluffy," because a book can be both thinky and fluffy. The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy strikes me as the epitome of simultaneously thinky and fluffy.

Contrariwise, I hate books that make you think but the thinking is dull. Holden Caufield's ennui is often torture to mature adults because we've been through it. We're over the whole teen angst thing.

One reader's profound insight is another reader's ancient news. One reader's exciting thriller is another reader's cliche-ridden tripe. Fortunately, there are millions and millions of readers, spanning a huge range of tastes and needs.
burger_eater
Apr. 19th, 2010 10:22 pm (UTC)
I suspect the most useful distinction is between fun w/ added thinky and thinky-free fun. Because if there's no fun, I don't even know about it, personally.
meallanmouse
Apr. 19th, 2010 07:18 pm (UTC)
The first thing that stood out for me in Child of Fire and contributed to keep me interested was that there was this huge backstory. And that the story started out with Annalise wanting Ray dead.

It didn't make me look for the previous book - it made me want to find out the subtleties of their relationship as of that moment, in the book itself.

In short - it was nice to read a book about people who already had backstory, that wasn't about that backstory. ;)

Fancy that!
burger_eater
Apr. 19th, 2010 10:24 pm (UTC)
At my first ever signing at SDCC, a woman received an ARE, read the first two pages in line and demanded to know if there was a previous book. She looked so disappointed when I said "yes" that I stopped volunteering the information. :)
Talented Teratology - amberley - Apr. 20th, 2010 04:31 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Talented Teratology - burger_eater - Apr. 20th, 2010 02:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
burger_eater
Apr. 19th, 2010 10:26 pm (UTC)
That's pretty much how I feel, too.
ethelmay
Apr. 19th, 2010 09:00 pm (UTC)
Has the guy never heard the expression _in medias res_? (Latin for dump 'em in the middle of the interesting stuff first thing, to get 'em hooked.)
ethelmay
Apr. 19th, 2010 09:02 pm (UTC)
And yes, of course, someone else, indeed a couple of someones, have already thought of using that as a blog title. Inevitable, I suppose.
(no subject) - burger_eater - Apr. 19th, 2010 10:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
zornhau
Apr. 19th, 2010 09:18 pm (UTC)
Yes I've had this conversation....
I was chatting to a pro who writes more literary SF than I aspire to, and we talked about lots of literary and philosophical stuff. When he asked me to describe my book - the one that's doing the rounds now - he was a little surprised, I think. Why not write something more intellectual and sensitive? My answer was (1)
that I'd spent five years learning write pulp action underpinned by world building and characterisation, (2) I did explore themes (e.g. modernity vs medievalism) but by creating a sort of thematic pit fight, and (3) my life is generally intellectual and sensitive; wtf would I want to write about it?
burger_eater
Apr. 19th, 2010 10:29 pm (UTC)
Re: Yes I've had this conversation....
I pretty much describe my books as "Monsters and face-punching."
Re: Yes I've had this conversation.... - zornhau - Apr. 20th, 2010 07:35 am (UTC) - Expand
brownkitty
Apr. 20th, 2010 03:04 am (UTC)
What is this "beginning" you're supposed to have started at? Your beginning is always going to be someone else's middle, and a third person's end, so which beginning are you supposed to use? Not to mention that starting at the beginning and having all the info don't happen all that often in life. Stories are about journeys and collecting things along the way, last I knew.

I'm looking forward to finding out some of the answers, and a lot more of the questions, over the next few books.
geniusofevil
Apr. 20th, 2010 04:04 pm (UTC)
So poor unpublished Harry Connolly looks at the dollar signs written into the contract for his first novel, acts on what the publisher says, changes the title and sells his second novel.

This makes no sense, are you being accused of selling the same book with a different title? So Game of Cages is really just Child of Fire? Man, I'm going to be so pissed!

That I published Child of Fire, which is not the beginning of Ray’s story, for a big wad of cash
geniusofevil
Apr. 20th, 2010 04:05 pm (UTC)
Hey! I wasn't done, lj!

Anyway, that last one? lol
(no subject) - burger_eater - Apr. 20th, 2010 04:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
lwe
Apr. 20th, 2010 05:55 pm (UTC)
The whole potboiler-vs.-real-novel thing confuses me sometimes because I can't imagine why anyone would want to write a real novel. I keep trying to write brainless action-adventure, and this other crap keeps getting in there whether I want it or not. Not that I'm claiming I've ever committed actual literature, but a lot of my work isn't anywhere near as formulaic and fast-moving as I'd like.
burger_eater
Apr. 21st, 2010 05:12 am (UTC)
Yeah, there's so much that words can do, it seems a shame to use them up on things that are shallow or uncool.
opionator.wordpress.com
Apr. 24th, 2010 02:31 pm (UTC)
How can I not rise to the bait?
Just a few quick points of clarification:

Those of you who know the field should recognise my reference to sequels, in-filling and the YA back story. It's not uncommon — see most recently F. Paul Wilson's YA trilogy on the young Repairman Jack.

The assumption that there's nothing in the continuum of writing between a hack potboiler and a literary novel is completely misconceived. There's a spectrum of quality in both the writing and narrative development that can take a mundane trope and invest it with interest, or vice versa. Those of you who look at the sixty plus other reviews on my site will see that I do not read "literary" novels in the pejorative sense used in this thread.

Not that it matters but @ nick_kaufmann and barbarienne, my paid output in 2008-09 was just under one million words. As I inch towards my seventies, I confess to slowing down a little last year. In my long life, I have published more words of fiction and non-fiction than anyone else who has contributed to this thread so, not unnaturally, I know absolutely nothing. :)

Putting all this together, I thought Child of Fire a good first published novel and the writing showed someone of talent at work. Like you, I will watch with interest to see how the series develops.
burger_eater
Apr. 24th, 2010 05:21 pm (UTC)
Re: How can I not rise to the bait?
Bait is soooo hard to ignore, I know. :)

While it's true that sequels and YA prequels are pretty common place, I wanted to point out that none of that was planned. I wrote the book because I had failed to break in to publishing for several years and I was angry at myself.

A smarter writer would have planned more or better. I know JK Rowling planned her seven books from the start, and both Jim Butcher and E.E. Knight have planned their series (at 20 and 14 books, respectively). Which is great!

But I'm not even sure how they manage that. I'd love to see a copy of someone's series outline, just to look at how much detail the went into and how they managed character changes. I'm thinking I should try to be more practical and systematic in the future (Although I'd draw the line at "Li'l Annalise" stories :^] )

I'm glad you liked the book and I hope you like the rest of them, too. I think they get better--if a little darker, too--as the series goes on, but I'm just the writer.

Best,
A fellow Joe Lansdale fan,
Me.
( 34 comments — Leave a comment )

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Comments

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    The creepiest part is that some of them are actually well meaning.
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    Yeah. It's godawful what people will do when they have authority and no fear about using it.
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