What do writers owe readers?

I love talking to people who read my novels. After all, I’m a reader myself, and I love talking to other writers about their books, their characters, the worlds they create, and the writer’s life.

But occasionally readers’ questions become requests, or demands, or complaints. Ask George R.R. Martin. His readers’ vitriolic demands to hurry up and finish A Dance with Dragons prompted Neil Gaiman to write “Entitlement Issues,” the essay better known as, “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.”

Authors who write series are constantly asked: When will the next book be published? The answer isn’t always simple. If it’s been a while since a series book came out, don’t assume the author is lazy, or distracted, or has stopped caring about the series. Often the reason relates to a publisher’s schedule. Sometimes the reason is financial as well as artistic. When readers ask Laurie R. King why she hasn’t yet written another Kate Martinelli novel, she says: “Because you aren’t buying enough of them.”

Writers gotta eat.

All this is a roundabout way of getting to the correspondence I’ve had this week about the Evan Delaney series. A reader wrote that she has finished the novels and that I’ve left too many questions unanswered for too long. She wanted to know what happens to Jesse Blackburn. She said she doesn’t plan to read any of my other books because she hates when authors stop series with no indication of where the characters are heading.

Fair enough. That’s not something I would ever tell an author, but fair enough.

But: I haven’t ended the series. Evan’s story is not over. Seriously. I’ve been writing other books (because I love the stories, and because I gotta eat). I don’t yet have a date scheduled for a new Evan novel, and I know that can seem frustrating. But Evan is still around. There might be an Evan short story soon. Stuff’s going on behind the scenes — stuff I don’t blog about, but it’s going on.

And, of course, I told the reader: Kill Chain was not Evan and Jesse’s last appearance. They both feature in The Nightmare Thief — which came out in paperback just a few months ago.

I said I hope that helped. The reader replied: As long as there’s more Jesse — he’s too good for Evan. What has she ever done for him?

I didn’t respond to that, but it didn’t matter. The next day a new message arrived. Subject: Disappointed.

The reader had rushed to check Nightmare Thief out of the library based on my promise that Evan and Jesse are in the book, and felt extremely disappointed — because Jesse has only a small role in the novel.

Maybe I could have been clearer. The Nightmare Thief, as the jacket explains, is a Jo Beckett novel. Evan and Jesse are crossover characters, and Evan has more page time by far. But that was only the start of the reader’s complaint. The rest of the message expressed her stinging anger at Evan. Her feelings: Evan is a user. Jesse is a hero and a superman. Evan has done nothing but take from him, always demanding more, until he has nothing left to give. Jesse should get away from her as fast as he can. And it’s obvious Jo Beckett is the just same as Evan, a woman who for once in her life finds a good man and takes advantage of him…

At this point, I was thinking: they’re fictional characters. And the reader was livid. I mean, this email was the only message she signed, and she was so furious that she misspelled her own name. Clearly she was angry at me, but I kept thinking: fictional characters.

The Husband had a different thought: “Can you tell where the email originated?” I couldn’t. I asked why he wanted to know. He said: “Because if she writes back, saying, ‘I don’t like what you’re wearing right now,’ we’re locking the doors.”

In any case, I replied to the message, saying I was sorry she was disappointed, and thanking her for reading.

So, readers: My characters are not perfect. They have flaws — they’re meant to be human. But I certainly don’t think the heroines of my books are users who suck the life from the men around them and give nothing in return. If you do, please take another look at the novels. And after that, if you still think Evan and Jo are emotional vampires, repeat after me: fictional characters.

What do writers owe readers? We don’t owe books tailored to individual readers’ tastes, that turn out exactly as they prefer. We do owe our best possible work. We owe stories that are exciting, surprising, moving, thoughtful, and fun.

That means we can’t please everybody. It’s okay. I still love to write. And I still look forward to talking to people who read my books. So let’s hear it.

31 responses to “What do writers owe readers?

  1. Holy crap! Honestly? I think it may have something to do with living in the electronic age. Surely there wouldn’t be the same kind of correspondence if this person had sat down and had to actually pen you these lines and then toddle off to the post office?
    (You’d hope that somewhere between her(?) first draft and sending that puppy off, some semblance of sanity might have returned to her? You know… a wee ‘oh shite what was I thinking?’ kind of moment?)

    Sheesh… carry on, Meg–your characters have just the right amount of ‘flaw’.
    (You know this reminds me of the “Mordor” joke, don’t you? Sad Flake… very, very sad…)

  2. Well written, Meg. As you say, fictional characters with flaws. I don’t always like what you do with the characters, because I like them and I want them safe, and happy, and cozy, and you shake up their lives. But wait, you’re writing THRILLERS! Duh. I agree with Flakes. Possibly, this is a facet of the digital age…where every single reader of every single piece of writing (fiction, non-fiction, opinion, etc.) feels that he or she has the right to respond, uncivilly in many cases, and demand satisfaction from the author.

    You tell a heck of a story. That’s all you owe your readers. Carry on.

    • Bloody oath, Snart! (Kiwi-speak for: “I concur!”)

      • Oh, Flakes. I likey! I shall begin using it with gusto! (It will rival my new favorite Portuguese word, which means “surprisingly”: supraendentment (pronounced, and this is why I love it: supra-endenchy-menchy).

      • Oh Snart, I’ve just spent my entire day inserting “supra-endenchy-menchy” into the conversation at every possible opportunity! And [coughs] surprisingly I managed quite a few!

  3. It’s true that the author, whoever he or she may be, “owes” the reader only their own best effort with the story at hand. Once the tale is written and released into the wild, it becomes the reader’s, who likely will experience it differently than the writer intended.

    I expect that’s always been the way of it.

    On the other hand, while GRRM truly owes me nothing as a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire (AKA A Game Of Thrones), it is overlooked in the brouhaha of expectations and obligations the he did set an expectation in readers’ minds that A Dance With Dragons would be delivered years before it was.

    I’m not one of those jackasses who would excoriate an author because he has a life beyond writing a tale I want to read, but really, Google what he said.

    And in the end, so what? George R.R. Martin is not my bitch, I am not his, he can follow his favorite NFL team all he wants, and I’ll enjoy baseball. I’ll also enjoy the next ASoIaF volume when it appears, given both that it does appear and that I’m still around.

    I would love it if Dean Koontz would bring out the last volume in his Christopher Snow trilogy (Fear Nothing and Seize The Night) or if Orson Scott Card would hurry up and produce that last volume of The Tales of Alvin Maker (begun in 1986!). In both cases, I would have missed other outstanding works they have produced instead.

    • I appreciate your spirited love for these authors’ books, Eddie. Now go on and relax with some baseball… as long as your team’s not behind in the playoffs…

      • It’s hard for my team to be behind in the playoffs, Meg, when they’ve already bounced out (Atlanta Braves fan here). It’s still a good month when the Yankees are behind in a best of seven series three games to none (did I mention that I’m an Atlanta Braves fan, and a homer to boot?).

  4. There will always be people who have their own spin on a character. One of my own character’s names has been in despute with my readers but I know who she is and her name fits her just right. Am I going to change it for a few people, heck no!

    You know where you’re going, so stick to it.

  5. I can’t understand why any readers would demand a story tailored to their preferences. Sounds too much like Annie Wilkes territory to me. This e-mailer has completely missed the point in following her favorite characters. I read because I like what the author has done. The best part for me is in the NOT knowing. I thought that was the whole point of a suspense novel. Who reads a book if they already know how things turn out? The reader is totally free to write their own story. That’s my two cents for the day.

  6. Wait a minute–
    Jesse and Evan are fictional?

  7. I guess the reader does not understand that it’s fiction…not real.

  8. Rich–you took the words right out of my mouth. Meg, did your cyber-stalker frequently use the word “cock-a-doodie”? Jesse=Misery! Please, let family know your itinerary before any solo roadtrips, especially in the snow! Just kidding…sort of…

  9. What's for dinner?

    Valid point, but I still think the Star Wars prequels would have been better if George Lucas had consulted the right people: http://url.ie/g5aw

    • Leave it to one of my children to post a Stephen King/Star Wars mashup comment, under an appropriately snarky pseudonym. Well done, young padawan. I raised you well.

  10. Ha! Reading through the responses I find that Susan has already written mine, almost word for word.. 🙂

  11. As long as you don’t do any crossover writing with the Joads, I’m good.

    Wait. That could be fun. I want Jesse to beat the holy hell out of Tom Joad.

    So let it be written, so let it be done.

  12. I agree with Flakes about the problem of immediacy in an electronic world and admire The Husband’s lateral move with the whole matter. There’s also the problem of constructing the world on the basis of a consumer economy. Yes, it’s true that writers gotta eat (and I did my level best to keep the Kate Martinelli series alive, I swear), but there’s a terrifying level of consumer entitlement out there. There are some areas where “Have it your way” doesn’t apply, including paying tuition and thinking that sufficient for an A and ordering up the story of one’s choice from a novelist. Hmph.

    Re: the Joad crossover, Cousin Tater would just love them Joad boys. They’ll never know what hit them.

  13. I find it incredibly ironic that you wrote this post and I JUST finished reading Nightmare Thief this weekend because I was hoping for more Evan/Jesse and hope you’re able to continue their story very soon!

    As a writer myself, I know it can be frustrating when fans are “demanding” to find out what happens… I haven’t even gotten my book published yet (it’s in process) and already have my friends and beta readers asking if I’ve finished the sequel!!

    Although it has been sooo long and there was sooo little of Jesse in Nightmare Thief (and he’s such an incredibly vibrant character) that it’s easy to “miss” him – even if he is fictional!

    I think I’ve tweeted about him before; he’s such a refreshing character and one we don’t see nearly enough of in mainstream fiction. Heck, in _any_ fiction, and that’s probably part of it.

    Most others are afraid to write about characters with disabilities, or when they do, either don’t do their research or gloss over the details of life with a disability. Jesse is such a great character because he is so vibrant; yes, he might not be able to do certain things or he has to do them differently, but that doesn’t mean he can’t kick serious ass. He’s not a stereotype. (And I’m sure he’d make some snarky comment about that if he were “here.”)

    As far as for Evan not “deserving” him? I think this fan (emphasis on the origin of the word, “fanatic”) simply wants Jesse for herself. Personally, I just wish Evan could finally get her shit together and realize (as Jo apparently has) that they’re made for each other, and move in/marry him already!! Hopefully we’ll see that happen when you do get around to the next book!

    (Which I am eagerly waiting for.)

  14. I think you’ll find this is a member of the genus ‘crazyfan’. She would hate any female character that gets to be with Jesse while she does not. She may also go through the books and substitute Evan’s name with her own, but I wouldn’t like to assume anything.

    You should wear your crazyfan on your sleeve with pride. It’s a sign you’ve ‘made it’ – like being an answer to a quiz show question or receiving Evan’s face in 4’x4′ cross stitch.

  15. Pingback: California Dreamin’ — Songs my characters love | lying for a living

  16. Wow, where have I been?! I look away for a couple of days and Cousin Tater’s skipping back in time to get funky with the Joads, be drowned, and have her dildo cooked. Who wants to read 50 Shades of Grey when they can read the comments on Meg’s blog posts. 😉

    And shouldn’t that be: The Tater Tots of Wrath?

  17. Pingback: 2012: the blog year in review | lying for a living

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