Friday, July 22, 2022


Of Reader Reactions and Lessons Learned

This is the thirteenth of fifteen posts dealing with surprising things I learned in the course of writing a science fiction series.

Learning to write a complicated Overarching Series brought with it hard lessons I didn't expect to have to learn like reader expectations not being what I hoped for and getting back up after getting iffy reviews or criticism. When the dust settled after the fallout, I also discovered there are unexpected rewards that might make up for any disappointments. We'll talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly you might have to face while writing an Overarching Series in this chapter. 

When I went into writing my first Overarching Series, I had a lot lofty aspirations and weird ideas about producing something so groundbreaking, so electrifying and life-changing, it would be talked about in hushed whispers even after I was dead... Yeah, okay, so maybe that was stupid. I was and still am a novice in this genre and with this type of series in general, but I will admit that, even though I've now got two very complex Overarching Series under my belt, I still go into these particular projects with the hope of coming out with an authentic magnum opus.

Underneath the silliness, I did actually go into Arrow of Time Chronicles with a few unwavering intentions. I deliberately didn't want the series to answer all the questions it posed. The first thing I wanted to embed within the series arc was the unspoken commentary that nothing ever really changes and sentient beings rarely reach a pinnacle of peace and solidarity, regardless of how advanced they might become. Even if you leap forward into the future, most things still work the same way (especially the way so-called intelligent entities fight about every little thing and politics rules every community, whether certain members of it want it to or not). I had a scene in Book 3 where representatives of all the cultures from all around the galaxy are in the same room arguing about the best way to handle a situational conflict that faces them all. That heated conversation was viewed with confusion and surprise from the perspective of a young, mischievous girl, her differently-abled friend, and their unique pets while in a well-chosen hiding place. It's one of my favorite scenes in the entire series for its humorous narration on timeless sociology mores. Did readers get what I was going for with these vows? I doubt it. But it was important to me anyway.

Related to the previous unspoken commentary in the series arc was the second series question I wanted to remain ambiguous. From the start of the series, I knew I wanted to instill the sense that the threat of war is always on the horizon, that wars never truly end, and, when a new threat ultimately presents itself, we'll always realize that it was actually there all along, something left over from the previous war, waiting to resurrect and implode. However, after the series was published, one reviewer commented that, "This novel concludes the series, but a large, threatening thread is left dangling."

We've had in-depth discussions about cliffhanger endings in this manual, but what this reviewer was referring to wasn't a cliffhanger in any sense of the word. My story and series arcs were all resolved completely. She was referring, more accurately, to what I call a "possible reemergence ending". Basically, in the final scene, the conflict or opposition reemerges, implying that at some point the bad thing that happened in your story/series will happen again in the future. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water… Readers tend to love or hate these kinds of endings, but if a possible reemergence ending fits, each author has to decide whether or not to take the risk and use it.

In my case, I admit I waffled about including that reemergence epilogue for a long time while I was outlining and then writing the draft of the final book in the series. I finally did decide to go with it because I didn't break the implicit compact that's built into the offering of any book to a reader, which is to satisfactorily tie up every loose end--series and series arcs. I also didn't give anyone a "lady and the tiger" ending, which I passionately hate myself. A little more about that:

Frank R. Stockton's book, The Lady and the Tiger, in which he leaves it up to the reader to decide which came out of the door--the lady or the tiger--is the inspiration behind what writers dub a "Lady and the Tiger" ending. While some love this kind of ending, few would call this type of resolution anything but a cop-out. All loose ends must be tied up adequately in your story and this kind of ending denies that, refuses it, kicks the reader in the face. I personally believe these kinds of unfinished stories are written for the sole purpose of making the author and/or select readers feel superior about knowing something other, lesser minds don't and can't grasp.

Not providing satisfactory resolutions violates the contract between the writer and the reader, forcing him to do without an effective tie-up of some or all story threads. I also suspect some authors do this because they simply want to leave the resolution of the series arc mysterious and unanswered. They either don't have a good enough resolution planned, or they want to encapsulate the mystery indefinitely. For an example, we never did get a straight answer about what really happened to Mulder's sister in X-Files, not in nine seasons and a couple movies (nor did I get the definitive answer in the miniseries that aired in January 2016).

If the author is never going to answer a nagging question, why invest anything, especially time and passion, in the story? Leaving a story thread dangling isn’t something an author can do without making readers furious, perhaps enough to ban your books for life. They’ll feel cheated, and rightly so. Don’t underestimate the damage a vengeful reader can do to your career. (Have you read Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne?) Seriously, to write a story is to promise the closure and/or resolution of unanswered questions. Authors should never cheat their readers, bowing out before actually finishing and avoiding the provision of an ending complete with answers to all burning questions.

In any case, it bothered me tremendously that the reviewer left my series feeling the way she did, although I knew when I added the reemergence ending that it was a risk. I pointed out to her the truth about what kind of an ending this was, and she did agree I didn't actually leave any of the story threads dangling. Nevertheless, she didn't revise the review she put up everywhere. So I have to live with that and some readers might be turned away from the series unfairly as a result. Sucks, but there's very little I can do other than see the bright side that, luckily, other reviewers put a positive spin on the potential reemergence by saying the ending gave them goosebumps and startled them with new possibilities.

Being misunderstood can and does happen, especially to writers. As I mentioned in the Introduction, I told my husband and son one fateful day of wanting to write something like Star Trek (a series I love in all its many iterations) with a Clumsy Girl on board the spaceship. In truth, I didn't really want to write another Star Trek wannabe. I went out of my way to avoid having Arrow of Time Chronicles end up like any other science fiction saga that was popular. I wrote me, which by definition is probably different than almost everyone and everything else.

One of my first readers of the series had little experience with the genre. Star Trek was actually the only sci-fi program this reader I'll call Bob had ever seen and he hadn't read any other books in that category. Because he was expecting the same premise and story he would get from that sci-fi program, I think there was ultimately no way for him to find a way to like my series, which actually made him a great critique partner because he saw things from a perspective I didn't get from any of my other critique partners. I highly recommend that all writers try to get a first reader or critique partner who doesn't read in their genre by choice just to allow the work to be viewed from every conceivable perspective. As much as I initially hoped to bring Bob onboard and make him a believer, he'll probably never delve any further into this genre in large part because he just didn't get what I was trying to do with mine, even if he found my attempt well-written. Oh, well. Apologies and gratitude, nevertheless, Bob. No hard feelings.

I considered adding a subtitle to this section of the chapter along the lines of "What Else Can You Do with Bad Press?" At this time, all the reviews I've received for my sci-fi series have been between 4 and 5 star ones. However, the lowest ranking review (which still rated 4 very impressive stars) that bothered me most taught me probably more about writing in this this genre than anything else. But, dang, if it didn't hurt more than any other review I've ever gotten in more than two decades of being a published author. Woven in with great comments about the final book in the series, loving and worrying about the happily-ever-after of the characters, fascination with the suspense events that unfolded and resolved satisfactorily, and looking forward to more from an "amazing author", I received a comment that bit the big one. The tactful way to say it is that the reviewer felt the showdown was rushed.

Sigh! Science fiction, like most other thrilling genres, is supposed to be packed full of action and adventure, thrills and spills, awws and oohs. I felt I met that criteria in spades throughout the series, but final battles are hard to write and I doubt too many authors would tell you otherwise, regardless of their popularity or skill. As a writer, you do your darndest to provide readers with lots of hairpin twists and turns, emotional exhilaration and suspense along with nail-biting, whipsawing action. And, as an author, you'll doubt yourself every step of the way, too. Maybe I didn't add enough complications or drama, maybe I didn't raise the stakes and withhold the prize long enough. I've learned to always question my showdowns, always layering the clash with multiple tiers of heightened tension and potential for failures, throwing more obstacles than I'm comfortable with in the way of steady progress toward the story goal, and withholding the ultimate achievement of success until the reader feels like he could collapse on the floor, little more than sweaty pulp, from the tenterhooks of anxiety he's been hoisted up on. I've learned not to be content with stimulating tour-de-force but to take it up a further notch to heady blood-rush. And, maybe most importantly, I've learned to be grateful for positive reviews and not to dwell too much on the negative.

Learning to use the good, the bad, and the ugly reviews not just to take center stage on your dartboard is a skill--a grace, if you will. Accept that you can't please everybody and that not everyone will understand what you're trying to do. But, at least in my case, I still found that the outcome of my efforts were worth every bit of the sweat, blood, and tears I poured into it because I could always remind myself of the burning purpose I felt when I first wrote my series.

It's never easy to pour your heart and soul into something only to have the public throw rotten tomatoes at it. Remember the  purpose that compelled you to write the series in the first place. Learn to take the good from the bad. 

Next week, we'll take on the wonders of writing in this genre in a slew of random musings.

Happy writing!

Based on Writing the Overarching Series (or How I Sent a Clumsy Girl into Outer Space): 3D Fiction Fundamentals Collection by Karen S. Wiesner (release date TBA)

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 140 titles and 16 series, including the romantic science fiction series, ARROW OF TIME CHRONICLES

1 comment:

  1. I like the term "reemergence epilogue" for that kind of ending. Nice coinage! It struck me as quite true to real life, in which nothing really definitively "ends." The purpose of art is to give life experience a shape it doesn't usually have in practice.