Text vs Expectations

When is reading like winter weather?

I’m not sure I’m putting that right, but let me muddle my way in…

Lobo of Light, courtesy of River of Lights display

Lobo of Light, from River of Lights display

It’s always neat when someone contacts me to let me know they’re reading one of my works.  Whether it’s a newly released book or one of my older ones that this person has just discovered (thus “new” in the sense that the New World was “new” to the Europeans), something about the opening  segments of the work has stirred enough enthusiasm that the reader has gone to the trouble of letting me know.

While I enjoy knowing that something I’ve written has stirred up that level of excitement and anticipation, I often wonder what the end reaction will be.  As those of you who read my works know, I rarely write the “usual” story.  What do I mean by this?  Well, let me give an example.

Many years ago, I was doing a signing for one of the Firekeeper books.  I don’t think it was as early as Through Wolf’s Eyes, but it might have been.  In any case, a couple – I’d guess they were in their twenties – chanced by.  The young woman was interested in the books, and asked me what they were about.

I gave a thumbnail sketch, mentioning the competition for the position of King Tedric’s official heir, and how Earl Kestrel, who was the only major noble without a candidate to back, went looking for King Tedric’s youngest son, Barden, only to find a settlement destroyed by fire.  Soon after confirming that many of the settlers had died, Earl Kestrel and his group encounter a young woman who claimed to have been raised by wolves.

At this point, the young man cut in and, with an evident sneer in his voice, said, “And, of course, she turns out to be the missing princess.”   I replied with deceptive mildness (I was actually pretty peeved), “You might be surprised.”

I can’t recall if the young woman actually purchased a copy or if she let her boyfriend’s sneer divert her.  I hope she did end up reading the book.  She (and especially he) would have come in for a surprise or two.

So, whenever someone picks up one of my books and lets me know how excited they are when they’ve only read a few chapters, I always feel strange.  Unless the reader is familiar with my tendency to turn tropes sideways, he or she is probably going to not have those expectations met.  Whether this is enjoyable or not has more to do with what that reader wants than with what I’ve written.

What does this have to do with winter weather?  I don’t know how it is where you live, but in the part of New Mexico where I reside, winter weather is very unpredictable.  The worst snowstorm we’ve had in the years I’ve been here (at a conservative measurement, we had fifteen inches) was on a day where light flurries were predicted.

I think that reading one of my books is a lot like New Mexico weather.  You can definitely count on a few things, but don’t expect the plot to follow neatly along the usual tropes.  The young man and young woman who meet in chapter one may or may not (but probably not) end up in love.  The action will not be interrupted for a routine sex scene.  Fight scenes will only be detailed if something in the course of the action will add to your understanding of the characters or provide some other crucial detail.

Honestly, is anything more empty than a fight scene where you know the protagonist will be victorious?  Oh, yeah, I know what.  A car chase.  That’s pretty vapid, too.

Funny thing is, a lot of that empty action does a great job (at least for some readers and a surprising number of reviewers) of masquerading as thrilling content.  For me, it’s the equivalent to the TV weather announcer getting all excited about snow that hasn’t fallen, that may not fall, and that, in fact, isn’t really an issue until it has fallen.

I don’t mind a plot I can predict as long as I enjoy the journey.  I had the basic plots of Libba Bray’s first two “Diviners” novels accurately predicted relatively early on.  That didn’t matter, since she did some great things with characters and setting.  I enjoy a good classic mystery novel, even though the expectation is that the detective (professional or amateur) will solve the crime.  Why?  The details of the investigation, how the pieces fall together, are interesting in themselves.

However, when – as is too often the case in epic fantasy, the new urban fantasy, much military SF, and increasingly some sorts of YA Fantasy – the story is nothing more than a recombining of usual tropes, I’m not likely to stick with it beyond the first book.  In the end, I feel as if I’ve listened to the weather forecast, cancelled my plans, bundled up, and been met with heavy clouds but nothing to get excited about.

What’s sad for me is when readers are disappointed in one of my books because they had their expectations set and didn’t find them met in the text.

I guess my books are more like wolves made from light, chanced upon on a winter’s night, unexpected, but clearly recognizable for what they are.

5 Responses to “Text vs Expectations”

  1. Peter Says:

    I think that some of the appeal of “the usual tropes, presented in the usual way” is that they’re the literary equivalent of comfort food – sometimes you want to challenge yourself with something different and exciting, sometimes you just want a generous helping of the familiar.

    But I think another big factor is, if I can run further with your analogy, what kind of landscapes you enjoy looking at on the journey – if you like looking at forests out the window, driving through the desert is going to be a pretty tedious experience for you.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I think you’re right about “comfort food.” One of my sisters loves classic mysteries because no matter how crazy the elements between, she can count on resolution by the end. I absolutely agree.

      Landscapes… Have you ever driven through a desert? I’ve done a fair amount of it, out here in the southwest, and when you adjust expectations, the long view is really fascinating.

      I admit, I’ve never done the Sahara or any of those vast seas of sand and, based on having driven through featureless plains, I agree that they could get horrible.

      If we continued to play with the analogy, I’d say that I am up to the challenge of the desert and the when you can’t see the forest for the trees, it gets really dull.

      • Peter Says:

        I’ve driven through several deserts – haven’t been to the US southwest, but I drove around a fair bit of the Mexican desert (which I think is fairly similar), some of the Atacama in Chile, and a good chunk of the Arabian Desert (which is really an offshoot of the Sahara) – and I think there’s as much variety in types of deserts as there is in forests. Driving through California redwoods is very different than Canadian pines, although they’re both “woods”.

        Ultimately I think it’s down to taste (and familiarity, I suppose) – my driver in the Nafud, who could happily drive 9 hours through featureless desert, told me the absolute worst drive he’d ever done was a trip he’d made along the New England coast when he was there studying.

  2. henrietta abeyta Says:

    True Jane Dogs aren’t wolves, but you read enough science it’s that the first brave wolves allowed breeder to change how they looked, and now we have the fun domestic dogs who are some of their cousins, only that the sled dogs are their closest cousins besides the coyotes dingoes and jackals. As we both love the wolves and wish them freedom, have you heard of the COYWOLVES yet Jane?

    I Jasmine Olson don’t get scared when I hear the word werewolves. I Jasmine Olson actually think of peace or the youngest wolf pups hearing a lullaby to help them go to sleep or a party song or once in a while a ceremonial song when I hear the wolves howling together. TOTEM OR FRIEND THE WOLVES ARE DEEP IN MY HEART.

    the wolves can also inspire and heal me from how well I understand their actions Jane, I your book fan Jasmine Olson got good reasoning skills from my grandma’s talents.

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