My column goes live every month around the 14th. That means there’s a fair chance that as you’re reading this, I’m in an undisclosed location conspiring with fellow writers and editors to plan a new project connected to a certain piece of intellectual property I dare not name. (If I did, the owner of the franchise would have the legal right to subject me to the Chinese water torture and/or the death of a thousand cuts. It’s all spelled out in my NDA.)
Until the owner of the property announces the project, which won’t be for a while, this puts me in an odd position. It’s a safe bet I’ll get into conversations with fans of the franchise. They’ll share their hopes and speculations about its future, and it would be the most natural thing in the world for me to respond by sharing what I know. But I won’t be able to.
My point is not that fiction writers are dishonest. (We are. Lying is our job. But that’s another discussion.) It’s that there’s often a substantial lag time between when we work on something and when the audience sees it. It’s fresh and new to them, but we’ve long since moved on to other projects. If the publication of a story, the release of a movie, or the airing of a television episode defines the present, then fans live in that present, and writers, in the future.
This can affect us in other ways besides obliging us to sit on secrets for months or years at a stretch. In my case at least, it can produce a certain detachment. People expect me to get excited about seeing my newest novel turn up in the bookstore, and I certainly do take pleasure in it. But I’ve written so much material since that I don’t feel as connected to that newly published work as one might suppose. Emotionally speaking, I’m more invested in what I’ve done recently, and on balance, that’s good. To do my best, I need to be psyched about the task at hand.
The interval between when the writer finishes a work and when the audience experiences it can even give rise to suspicions of encroaching dementia. Occasionally, a reader alludes to characters and events in my stories, and I blank on what the heck he’s talking about. If it’s a story that appeared a decade or two ago, that’s not so disturbing, but sometimes it’s a piece that appeared recently, and that makes me feels brain-damaged.
But maybe I’m not quite ready for assisted living. Even if the story in question came out yesterday, I’ve probably written more, sometimes much more, than a hundred thousand words of material since. Combine that with the fact that I’ve cranked out millions of words since I started back in the 1980s, around 40 novels and scores of short stories containing God knows how many characters and scenes, and it may be understandable that once in a while I can’t call some particular bit of business to mind.
The present/future dichotomy can affect fans, too, and in a way that’s more unfortunate than any effect it has on writers.
Browsing online forums, I’ve often seen fans of a particular series post what they’d like to see in terms of character development or storylines. Then, when the franchise goes in a different direction, they bemoan the fact that the creators don’t care about their opinions.
To be honest, the writers probably don’t care as much as those disappointed individuals would like. Ultimately, creators have to follow their own vision. Otherwise, they’re all but certain to turn out crap, and even if that weren’t the case, a few people opining on the Internet are just a few people opining on the Internet, a tiny fraction of the audience for any successful series. When one immerses oneself in the world of fan sites, it’s easy to forget that, but it’s so.
That said, though, creators of popular entertainment are in the business of pleasing the audience, and I suspect that few of us are truly completely indifferent to the opinions fans express. The problem is that the fans are often telling us what they’d like to see in stories we’ve already completed. It just isn’t possible to give them what they want when we’ve already committed to a different path.
I suppose that really, this column is a plea for understanding. If a writer seems less excited about his new work than he ought to be or even weirdly ignorant of what’s in it, or if he appears to care nothing for the opinions of the fans, we hope people will understand that actually isn’t true. It’s just that, as befits purveyors of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, we’re operating a little farther down the time stream.
Richard Lee Byers is the author of more than 30 fantasy and horror novels, including a number set in the Forgotten Realms universe. Look for his eBook supehero series The Impostor, his eBook collection The Q Word and Other Stories, and all the rest of his work on Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Follow him on Twitter (@rleebyers), friend him on Facebook, and add him to your Circles on Google+. Follow his blog here.