About a week ago, as I was finishing the first draft of The Mortal Tally, second book in the Bring Down Heaven trilogy, I stopped at the end of the last sentence on the last page on the second to last chapter. I stared at the blinking cursor for a moment, reading the words it had just regurgitated, like a frail man projectile vomiting his way across a white page, and I thought.
“Well, maybe that’s too sad.”
The ideal goal of a second book in a trilogy is to maintain or increase audience investment and interest until you can get to the resolution in the third. A not insignificant number of authors flounder on this and the graveyards of review sites are littered with the carcasses of second books. I was determined not to lose my audience and, thus, reluctant to put them through anything they may consider too traumatic.
That was one reason for my hesitation. Another lingered, nameless and shapeless, at the periphery of my mind: a nervous itch I couldn’t quite reach.
I tried to put it out of my mind and returned to my other great passion: making out with a variety of weird and interesting races in Dragon Age Inquisition.
I dearly love this game. But halfway through my playthrough, my love evolved. See, early on in my playthrough, I became smitten with the gruff, no-nonsense, duty-obsessed Cassandra, a sword-and-shield-carrying warrior who loves the Maker only slightly more than she loves protocol. She collided in all the right ways with my plucky rogue heroine, a smart-arsed, freedom-loving jerk of a woman who rattled Cassandra’s cage perfectly. I had it all planned out: we were going to butt heads on important points, then slowly come to appreciate each other and ultimately fall in love and live happily ever after (after we had killed thousands).
And then I found out that Cassandra was straight.
It sounds weird to say that this threw me for a loop. It is, after all, a video game. And what’s more, it’s a testament to the writing abilities of Bioware that I got mad over a waifu. To date, I’m still not sure if I approve of flirtation options for characters you can’t romance. In fact, I was very close to tweeting my friend, Patrick Weekes (who is a very accomplished author himself), and expressing my annoyance.
Then I came to my goddamn senses.
Beyond the rather iffy grounds of dictating a character’s sexual orientation (something I’m not prepared to discuss here), I realized I couldn’t very well go demanding the story conform to my ideas of what it could do. And slowly, my playthrough went from nursing a childish crush to a bittersweet companionship. It was kind of sweet. I was still kind of irritated that it didn’t work out exactly how I wanted, but I was left with something that made that particular arc (which I had concocted in my own damn head) unique from every other perfect love story.
But I don’t think I realized the significance of that aspect until I read this tumblr post from Joel Watson, creator of the webcomic Hijinks Ensue. You can read it for yourself, but the summary of it is pretty straightforward: a fan made a statement expressing disappointment in the direction of the story and Mr. Watson replied with a statement I mostly agree with. I might have responded differently, but then, it’s not my creation being discussed there nor is this going to be a discussion of Mr. Watson’s reaction.
Rather, I want to talk about the phenomenon of creative closeness.
Fans and creators have always enjoyed a special relationship. Fans are an immense boon. People that go from casually perusing to actively consuming are a godsend for creators. I actively squeal every time I get a piece of fan art and someone dropping by to tell me they loved my book brightens my entire day. They are pillars who uphold struggling creative endeavors and build solid foundations for that endeavor to grow. Any creator with any sense at all can and should be grateful to their fans.
But should they be beholden to them?
This question has been around for awhile. People who express dissatisfaction with a story and input on how it should progress have been sending their opinions to authors for ages now. At first, by beating them with sticks. And then, by sending them letters. And then, by posting on message boards. And now with the explosion of social media platforms giving everyone instant and unfettered access to each other, we are back at beating them with sticks.
That might sound dramatically martyr-like and I don’t mean to imply that fans should never voice their opinion, but I do notice that as we go on, we see a number of tweets, blog posts, tumblr posts, instagram photos and facebook threads wedged neatly between the cat videos and grandma’s conspiracy theories that are directed at authors with input that sometimes borders on demands or blackmail.
Sometimes, they’re a little less direct, like the tumblr post I linked above.
Sometimes, they’re very direct.
I don’t find myself totally unsympathetic to these fans. I have had to bid farewell to many, many webcomics and other creative works who took a direction where I simply couldn’t follow. With webcomics, this is a bit more prevalent as it’s a much more immediate format and thus, so many strips are influenced by what’s going on in the creator’s lives. Sometimes this means parenting humor. Sometimes this means exploring an avenue of a character that doesn’t interest me. But when they go down that creative path, I can’t follow.
I have yet to send them letters to this effect.
For one, it would serve no purpose but to inform them that I am no longer interested, which sounds a bit like being rejected by someone without ever asking them out in the first place. It would nothing but ruin their day. But more importantly, I realize that what I fell in love was their voice, their passion, their vision. It didn’t matter that they were talking about video games or geek culture or ferocious women fighting monsters, it mattered that they were talking about them. I loved those voices.
And those voices haven’t changed. They just changed interests. They are still as passionate as they ever were, just about different things.
Sometimes, it’s even worse than that. Sometimes, we’re passionate about the same things and in love with their voice, but we just disagree on fundamental things. The internet, for example, blew the fuck up over the season finale to The Legend of Korra (and by that, I mean those who wanted her to end up with someone who they also felt nearly and dearly to. The people who objected to Korra ending up with who she did on moral, religious or political grounds can go eat sand).
Again, this is not new. We’ve been doing this forever. Authors you know who have been getting published since the 60’s have been getting angry letters for just as long over who put whose hand on whose butt. It’s understandable. When someone goes from reader to fan, they become invested. It’s no longer a one-way consumption. They are putting their hearts and their emotions into what they read and it makes them the best possible readers.
But we’re no longer asking them to read. We’re asking them to enter a relationship with us.
And that means we’re going to have to accept the fact that we’re going to break each other’s hearts sometimes.
I mean, it’s not like creators don’t get upset by losing readers, either. Few things hurt more than a formerly devoted fan deciding you can’t be together anymore. But they know what if they pursued that guy who wrote the breakup letter, they’d lose that girl who was interested in the direction they were taking. And if they pursued that girl, they’d lose someone else. It’d quickly become a game of Jenga that no one could win.
So they can only do what they were doing to attract them: staying true to their voice.
They can’t ask for anything else. They can’t give anything else.
So I went back to my draft of The Mortal Tally (which is now finished, by the way) and left the sad chapter the way it was and moved onto the next.
And I went back into Dragon Age Inquisition and Josephine and my Inquisitor are very charming together.
And I continued to do me.
And hopefully, that will be enough.