My parents wanted to me read “normal” books, not “trashy” books with Frank Frazetta covers featuring scantily-clad maidens, sword-wielding barbarians, or hideous monsters. My teachers wanted me to read Modern Literature — and they made sure I was exposed to as much as possible — although my favorites were Hamlet and Beowulf.
In college my instructors pushed Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver toward me and I read them, but only because I was required to. None of this depressing and introspective realism caught my fancy. I was made for more fantastic stuff. Oh, I read. Voraciously. From the time I was old enough to hold a book I read non-stop. It began with The Hobbit in third grade, and before I finished middle school I had finished The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But I read what I loved, not what people THOUGHT I should read. I read fantasy. (With liberal doses of horror and sci-fi.)
I read Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Michael Moorcock, Lin Carter, Weird Tales magazine, and later Tanith Lee, Robert Silverberg, William Gibson, and Lord Dunsany. I read fantasy fiction with a dark edge, sword-and-sorcery, horror, and sci-fi. I even read my share of Stephen King, David Eddings, Piers Anthony, and John Norman. I didn’t give a damn what people thought I SHOULD be reading. Still don’t. I didn’t care that most of my literary heroes were from the pulp fiction era, and that their work was largely dismissed as “trash” when they were producing it. I read their works three or four generations after the fact, and I loved it.
Today I enjoy discovering new authors who take those pulp-inspired roots and do something entirely new with them–who breathe fresh life into classic concepts. I’ve found such writers in A.A. Attansio, R. Scott Bakker, and Guy Gavriel Kay, to name a few. If somebody recommends a book or an author to me, I’ll check it out. But it doesn’t take me all that long to figure out if it’s for me. If I like it, great! I’ll spread the word about that author and his/her work. I love to shout about the things I really dig. But if I don’t care for it, that simply means that a particular piece of fiction didn’t meet my personal taste. No harm done.
Because that’s all that really matters, when it comes to fiction. Personal taste.
It’s the reason why books get published, it’s the reason why short stories get accepted, and it’s the reason why fans flock to the stores to buy the latest edition of their favorite author’s work. Some authors have artistic sensibilities that match the expectations and taste of a large segment of the public. So they often end up with best-sellers and huge fan-bases. However, most writers aren’t so lucky. Most artists in general aren’t so lucky. Most writers (let’s stick to the topic of fiction) don’t write best-sellers, don’t get million-dollar deals, and don’t quit their day jobs. Most writers simply write what their heart tells them to write, and if people dig it — great!
Writers have to follow their instincts. They have to please themselves first and foremost. As an artist all you can really do is create a piece of work that meets your own expectations of what is good, worthy, and lasting. To do anything else would be to betray yourself in the quest for “success” or “popularity,” and those who chase such phantoms have very little chance of catching them, and even less chance of creating something unique.
To be a happy reader, you have to read what draws you in, what thrills and excites you, what moves you and keeps you up past your bedtime because you just can’t wait to see what happens in the next chapter. To be a happy writer, you have to write what you believe in, what fascinates you, what MATTERS to you, and you have to say something new about it.
In the end, Fellow Writer, the only person you have to please is yourself. If you can do that–keeping in mind that writers are usually their own harshest critics–then your writing will please others. Since a writer is only capable of creating work that meets his/her own creative sensibilities, it stands to reason that those sensibilities define his/her work.
What if that internal set of standards, that “personal taste” of the writer, is very different from the prevailing taste that defines mass market success? What if a writer’s taste doesn’t match that of the public? Well, it usually doesn’t. That’s my whole point.
A writer offers something from his/her inner being, from the core of his existence, and he puts it out there–on display like a flank steak in a butcher’s window. If that piece of personal work taps into “public taste”–if it starts a landslide of interest and acclaim–if it draws in readers by the thousands and sells more copies than anyone ever imagined…
If that happens, then the writer has tapped into something far beyond his or her ability to control. Call it the Zeitgeist, the Archetypal Consciousness. Hell, call it Blind Luck if you want. Or Destiny if it makes you feel better. This is how we get our super-sensations, our Stephen Kings, our J.K. Rowlings, our George R.R. Martins. These writers were following their own personal visions — as all writers must — creating works that met their personal standards and satisfied their personal taste. What happened next wasn’t part of the original plan. Their creation was a spark that lit a wildfire.
Fiction is an art form. All art is, by its very nature, subjective.
One man’s “trash” is another man’s “treasure.”
Never let anybody tell you what you SHOULD be reading. Never let anybody tell you what you SHOULD be writing. Follow your heart. Listen to your muse. Tap the keg of your soul. It’s what writers do, and it’s what readers will do when they are free to do so.
When I wrote Seven Princes, the first volume in the Books of the Shaper trilogy, that’s exactly what I did. I wrote the novel on blind faith. I had no agent at the time. No publishing contract. No guarantee or even a hint that it would be published. No idea there would be any sequels. I only wanted to write the epic fantasy novel that would meet or exceed every standard I held for the genre. Or come as close as I could to doing so. I set out to write the best damn book that I could write, and that’s exactly what I did.
Two or three determined years later, I acquired an agent. A year after that I signed a three-book deal with Orbit. Seven Kings came next, and once again I followed my heart–my only guide except for a basic outline I had submitted to the publisher — and flexed my writing muscles in a few different ways. The result was an even better book than the first.
Now volume three, Seven Sorcerers, is finally in bookstores. The Books of the Shaper trilogy is complete. My only real goal for the series was to top myself each and every time. I can say without reservation that — three times in a row — I did exactly what I set out to do. Sorcerers has everything that Princes and Kings had, and more. More sorcery; more blood; more emotion; more depth of character; more high-stakes conflicts; more of everything that I’ve always wanted in an epic fantasy.
It feels great to have the entire trilogy out there, so people can finally read it as One Big Adventure with no delays between books. If I had never read all that glorious “trash” when I was a kid, I might never have written these books. They’re my greatest accomplishments, my children born of ink and paper, each one of them born out of love, struggle, dreams, and desire. I know they’re not going to please everybody, but what child ever does? It’s enough that those who dig the series are very passionate about it.
Call it what you will, “trash” or “treasure”, the Books of the Shaper trilogy comes from the heart. Each book represents the artistic sensibilities of a person who could never be told what to read — or what to write. I love my Tolkien, my Howard, my Lovecraft, my Smith, my Dunsany, my Lee. I love fantasy. I’ll go back to the pulp roots of the genre I adore time and time again. I’ll sing its praises from the rooftops. Just don’t tell me it’s not “real literature.”
All due respect to Ernest Hemingway, Robert E. Howard could’ve kicked his ass.
Seven Sorcerers is available now everywhere.
Win a free copy of the entire Books of the Shaper trilogy, signed by me!