I have always believed that to be a complete author you need to try something new with your writing on a regular basis. In fantasy, where series are frequently the norm for any writer and have been for me, lo these many years, the temptation to just keep writing in the same world is very strong. Think about it. If readers love a series, they want you to write more. If readers are buying the series, the publisher wants you to write more. If the books are successful, you know that if you write more they will find a ready audience. And with epic fantasy in the Tolkien mode – such as Shannara – you have already done much of the heavy lifting by creating major elements of the world about which you are writing, including descriptions of the background, history, and characters from previous books, along with a working schematic of magic, and you can pretty much count on an expectation of more of the same.
But no matter how much your readers love a series, eventually you risk becoming stagnant and predictable. You abandon so much of what got you where you are – the challenge of creating something where nothing existed before. Writers need that challenge if they expect to grow and expand their knowledge of their craft. They need to wonder if they can do what they are setting out to do rather than relax with the understanding that they have done this before, so it will not be all that hard to do it again. It’s called pushing the envelope. It’s called evolving. Writing is an ongoing education. If you are paying attention, that education demands that you study and learn from others.
For me personally, the start of a new series is energizing and so much fun. I have a blank slate before me. I have nothing written on it yet – everything is possible. What will I write this time? How will the story and the characters develop? Should the story be told in first person or third? Who will be my protagonist, and what will be his or her flaws? The list goes on, and the story takes further shape with every new chapter and unexpected realization about what it is that I am writing about that lies beneath the surface of the main story.
But here is the rub. No matter what my expectations for a new book, I know by now that my readers will not automatically flock to read it. They are loyal, gracious people, but they do not follow me blindly no matter how much they love what I do. They might have loved my previous books, but will they really love this new stuff? Maybe, maybe not. They will not simply decide to love your new work out of hand and may well decide they don’t need to bother with you until you do more of the work they already know they love.
I know this from harsh experience. After the first three Shannara books, I wrote three Magic Kingdom books. They found an audience, but it was much smaller than the one for Shannara. It took ten years and three more Magic Kingdom books for that audience to expand to where I wanted it to be. It still lags. Then I wrote Running with the Demon, the first of three books in the Word & Void trilogy, which I still think is the most accomplished work I’ve ever done. Demon sold tepidly. I was so bummed – I cannot begin to tell you. I loved that book! How come the readers didn’t? I wrote the other two books. Nothing improved. Only after writing the Genesis of Shannara series – which involved relating events subsequent to Word & Void, did the books begin to find a larger audience.
Frustrating doesn’t begin to describe it. But there is not much you can do about how people react to something new other than to keep marketing it and suggesting they give it a read and wait for them to come around to your way of thinking
So now I am going through all this once again with Street Freaks. Okay, this time, I lowered expectations and just said, Que Sera, Sera, baby. The same by-now-familiar pattern emerged. Street Freaks sold poorly out of the gate. But this time there was one important difference, and in concluding this endless blog that is what I want to talk about.
What was different was the unexpected nature of the people who liked the book. Street Freaks is in many respects a YA, even though – like all my books – it was marketed as Adult. It was also more of a science fiction thriller and not much of a fantasy. So I was really coloring outside the lines. And the effect of this was apparent almost immediately. When I toured with the book last October 2018, the crowds at the venues I went to visit were appropriately large and very much all Shannara fans and their friends. But with this book I found readers in the wildest places and oddest circumstances.
Let me give you a few examples:
The owner of a liquor store and the owner of a mailing center next door both decided to read Street Freaks and talked to me at length about how much they enjoyed the racing parts and how they used to drive dragsters when they were younger. These were men of a certain age who I would never have expected to read this book. Yet they did.
A woman I got to talking to in a store who, when I told her what I did for a living and who I was, revealed she had just finished Street Freaks. Again, she was not someone who had read me before, but she thought the book looked interesting and picked it up from her daughter. She didn’t say a word about the racing parts, but loved the offbeat love story involving a human boy and a synthetic girl.
A man who told me he didn’t read fantasy admitted he saw this book on his son’s desk and got interested in the concept of genetic manipulations and advancements. He read the book and asked me if I was going to do another. I wanted to laugh and show him the sales numbers, but I told him instead I would consider it.
Ingram Distribution asked my Web Druid, Shawn, just last week, if he or I have been doing any publicizing of Street Freaks. We hadn’t. Well your sales number took a jump over the past three weeks. For no obvious reason.
Because of these types of unexpected support, I live in hope that eventually Street Freaks will be judged for what it is and not for what it isn’t. Readers will give the story a go and some, at least, will like it enough to decide it was worth their time. They won’t do it because I told them to, way back when. They’ll do it because the book merits it. But you need patience and conviction and a willingness to accept the challenge of failing. The day you are unwilling to risk all of these is the day your evolution as a writer stops dead in its tracks.
Not because readers will cease buying your books and reading them. Not because it is wrong when working in a series to write the same basic thing over and over. It is wrong because it indicates you have stopped growing. And when that happens your craft goes static and might never again be quite so exciting and unexpected and fresh to your readers.
So will I write another Street Freaks book? Not right away. Got to give that puppy time to mature. What I will do is something new. Because I want the challenge and excitement that can only come with something entirely new, I will sit at the keyboard this Fall and begin to write the first book in a new epic fantasy series that will publish in two years.
Let me tell you something. I can hardly wait.