The same only different

fog and treeHow do you choose the novels you read for pleasure? Do you seek out brilliant, original, ground-breaking work, the kind that is reviewed in literary journals, or do you go straight for your tried and true authors, the ones you know you can rely upon to provide a great read?

Apparently in difficult times such as the current economic downturn readers prefer the familiar. Fantasy readers go for series by their favourite authors, set in well-loved worlds. That’s part of the reason I find myself this year writing yet another Sevenwaters book, even though a couple of years ago I thought I would never go back to the setting of my first trilogy. When writing is your bread and butter, you can’t afford to ignore the wishes of readers, agent and editor, especially when they (mostly) agree.

I’ve blogged here previously about Heir to Sevenwaters, published in 2008. That book marked my return to the setting, characters and storytelling mode of my first series. It had been a seven year gap, during which I had written seven non-Sevenwaters novels. It felt weird to be going back. There was something intangible that readers loved about the Sevenwaters trilogy. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was, nor was I convinced I even wanted to write like that any more.

Despite those doubts, I loved writing Heir to Sevenwaters and was quite proud of the end result, which was a little different from the original series but captured at least some of the old flavour. The novel was popular, which meant the editor and agent wanted more of the same. So here I am in the early stages of a sequel, and I’m determined to set myself some writing challenges. It would be dangerously easy to slip into the mode of delivering ‘more of the same’ and end up writing books that became little more than products. They might sell, but I wouldn’t be proud of them.

How do I plan to please the devoted Sevenwaters fans while setting myself interesting writing hurdles in this new book?

Setting: Change the setting, add spice to the flavour. We’re now out of the uncanny forest of Sevenwaters and onto Inis Eala, island home of a famous school of warcraft. This allows a different kind of story, with a masculine edge to balance the female narration. We’ve kept several of the same characters and a continuing plot thread.

Voice and viewpoint: All the previous Sevenwaters novels have been told in first person with a single female narrator. While readers loved the way this allowed them to identify with the protagonist, I found it limiting in terms of storytelling. This time I’m splitting the viewpoint between two characters, one male, one female, both narrating in first person. The reader will still get the young female protagonist, but she won’t tell the whole story. The dual narration should allow added depth and emotional complexity.

Memory, secrets and lies: Nothing is clear-cut in this story – layers must be peeled back to get to the truth. One of the narrators has lost his memory. He is beset by visions and dreams – how much is real and how much imagination? When other people tell him his own story, is it the truth? Another character is hostile and withdrawn, seemingly unable to speak. Is she damaged by trauma? A third is all too ready to put words in the mouths of others. An additional complication is created by the lack of a common language between various players, including the two main characters. Nobody knows what to believe, least of all the reader.

I’ve never done a dual first person narrative before, and I have heard of some novels in which that approach only created confusion. I’m working on keeping the two voices stylistically different. My critting partners suggested putting the narrator’s name at the top of each section, so we know who’s talking. I’m not sure about this – after all, one of these characters can’t remember his own name. A solution will occur to me, no doubt.

My current medical treatment, due to continue for several months, means that I am only getting about half my usual writing time at present. My method of revising extensively as I go means this novel has not progressed very far as yet, but I’ve given it a great deal of thought. I am hoping the enforced slow-down will result in a better, more carefully crafted book. It may even be one of those novels that gets reviewed in literary journals!

Of course, the post-chemotherapy brain fog is perfect inspiration for writing from the point of view of a guy who’s lost his memory. I know exactly how he feels.

Photo credit: © Moonmeister | Dreamstime.com

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About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.

Comments

  1. says

    I forgot to mention another element of writing challenge – alternate sections in present tense (his) and past tense (hers.) Present tense seemed the only option for the guy with no memory.

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  2. Vic K says

    I am fascinated by the process you’re working through, Juliet. I’ve already admitted to being a fan of the Sevenwaters series, but I also love the Wildwood series and I’ve been keeping my eye out for Stela’s story… just hoping. : )

    I think most loyal readers will look at everything new from their favourite authors. I will confess though, I might buy the first book in a new series by a favourite author, but if it isn’t up to their usual standard I might decide against subsequent books in the series. I suppose what I’m saying is that favourite authors get preferential treatment, but the free-pass only extends so far…

    It is probably harder making a decision to buy new authors. It would have to have something really going for the concept in terms of originality for me to pick it up if it was an urban fantasy novel, say. Where as I snapped up Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind because the wonderful voice leapt out even on the cover. For me anyway the big hole in the market at the moment does seem to be in good epic fantasy novels… so anything in the genre gets at least a pick up.

    On the technical side I have moved away from third person POV into first person POV in my most recent novel. I do find it quite limiting in some ways and I have been resisting the temptation to add another narrator just so I can complicate matters. However I do find first person does offer me greater access to internal emotions than when I write in third person. So for me at least, it does offer a certain kind of freedom…

    I would never presume to offer writing advice, (I mean seriously – underline the ‘never’ there!) but I can say that I stopped reading Patricia Cornwell when the Scarpetta novels moved into present tense. Something about it just grates no matter where I see it… that said, I can see it making a lot of sense with narrator who has lost his memory. I look forward to seeing you pull it off beautifully.

    Vic K.

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  3. Danielle says

    Juliet, I wouldn’t worry too much about getting a review in a literary journal – quite often, the books reviewed in those publications end up boring me to tears. I have never had that problem reading one of your books!!! I will most definitely be grabbing your next offering the minute it hits the shelves :-)

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  4. says

    Vic, some perceptive comments there! My reading bugbear is the use of second person – it turns me off very quickly even when the author has a good justification for using it.

    If any of the techniques don’t seem to be working I’ll have no hesitation in ditching them. I had not thought I would ever use present tense, but earlier this year I wrote a Sevenwaters novella for an anthology (to be published in 2010) and in that I used a combination of past and present tense sections in an attempt to help the reader deal with a very big time frame for the story. I hope it worked!

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  5. says

    Danielle, I’ve stopped worrying about reviews! This book may contain a bit of stylistic experimentation but it will be sufficiently like the previous Sevenwaters novels to appeal to my loyal readers, I hope. :)

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  6. says

    As a consumer of books, sometimes in fraught times the “comfort reads” e.g. books by familiar authors, offer just that. I often find that I’ll pick up a new author at the library or a friend will give me a copy, then I’ll get hooked on them. So I can see where your editors are coming from a business perspective. But I’m super happy to hear you are risk-taking in this new novel, and I look forward to seeing how you handle the multiple viewpoints, which is something I struggle with.

    Sending good vibes across the oceans to your health as well.

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  7. says

    I use the Force to choose my books. I look at the shelves until something prompts me to pick it up. Almost never fails, but the depressing thing is that so few shout at me to pick them up. It’s a great way to get new authors, like Dave Duncan and Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Another common practice is to read anthologies where you know some of the authors, and you discover the others. Sometimes I like a series so much I refuse to go back if the author starts writing more, for fear he’ll ruin what I liked before.

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  8. says

    Your process with this new-old story world sounds fascinating, Juliet. I love that you’re playing with tense, and the protag who’s lost his memory intrigues. Can’t wait to see what you do with all of this.

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  9. says

    I will, of course, read anything by Juliet Marillier! I have several other favourite authors, too, who so far haven’t let me down. However, one or two old faves have slipped to the bottom of the list because I didn’t like the first book of a new series so didn’t buy any more. Even so, I’ll go back and look again when they bring out another new series.

    The quality of the writing and the development of characters is important to me. A good story can be wrecked for me by poor writing or inadequate research. OTOH, a story that isn’t particularly original but has good character development and fine writing will often grab me.

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  10. thea says

    I love first person, and when it’s done well, I get sucked into another world. Done not quite so well, and i’m experiencing irregular heartbeats – that means the pacing is off. If you’re reading a book in third person and with every turn of the page you feel like you’re swimming underwater or your fingers are sticky with molasses, that means the pacing is off. A book can have every other element just right, but I believe pacing is everything.

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  11. says

    Juliet, thank you for this fascinating post! I just wanted to take this chance to say what a huge, huge fan of yours I am. I adore every chance I get to step into one of your magical worlds.

    And even just reading your brief description I can already hear how right the present tense would be for your protagonist without a memory. Beautiful–and I can’t wait to read the finished book!

    Sending good writing and health vibes both your way!

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  12. says

    Wow, this sparked some interesting discussion. Thanks to all who sent good wishes.

    Marc, what you said about not wanting to read a favourite author’s later work in case he or she can’t match up to what you’ve loved resonates for me. I remember a family member’s bitter disappointment with the last book in Patrick Tilley’s Amtrak Wars saga, a series he had been completely engrossed in. After waiting a very long time for the final instalment, the reader felt utterly let down by the way the author chose to complete (or rather, not complete) the story.

    But sometimes a series just keeps on getting better.

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  13. maureen says

    I actually prefer the unfamiliar but then again I usually sit down in Barnes and Noble and read the first chapter of a book before deciding if I want to read through the rest. However, I will continually accumulate all the Juliet Marillier reading material possible. :)

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