Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Sophomore Slump II: Why We Have Fan Fiction

06.08.11
by Daniel Abraham

I was going to make this just a comment in Ty’s post, but I think it deserves it’s own headline.

In a comment, “TheTick” said:

Your typical player of sports who the mainstream media says is having such a slump is almost always facing stiffer competition with less help and more responsibility.

John Simm: Daniel's to play Daniel Abraham in the VH1 Where-Are-They-Now reenactments.

My take on the “sophomore slump” for writers — and especially for those of us writing series — has more to do with reader’s expectations than the actual quality of the books.  When the first book of a series comes out (or the first episode of a television series, or — memorably — the first chapter of a book like Lucius Shepherd’s A Handbook of American Prayer), I get all excited.  I start preparing myself for the ride that I’m on.  The thing is, my idea of where things should go and author’s idea are wildly unlikely to match up perfectly.

I remember watching the first season of Life on Mars — the real one with John Simm — and actively rewriting the show as I watched it to the point that I don’t remember the *actual* show as much as my self-built private version.  The creative forces on it didn’t go where I wanted to, and so I was disappointed.  After the first episode, I had already pointed myself in a direction similar to, but not precisely aligned with where they were actually going.

The books are the same.  Just to take an example, in The Dragon’s Path, I introduce a minor character — Clara — who gets to be the center of a couple of chapters.  If her role expands in the second book, some folks will feel disappointed.  If it doesn’t, there will be some folks who are disappointed.  Over in Carrie Vaughn‘s Kitty Norville series, Kitty forms a serious romantic attachment with one character rather than another, and the partisans of the guy what didn’t get the girl are always going to feel that discomfort.

It’s a fine line, and some ways it’s not fair.  As an author, I’m asking readers to invest in the world I create, believe in and care about the people in it (oh, and pay me while they’re at it), but I don’t want them to take any control.

I think the sophomore slump is all about reacting to the real necessity of making narrative decisions, and wrestling with the fact that they can’t all be the decisions that all the readers would have made.  Readers aren’t monolithic, and there are going to be some who would prefer I’d done it the other way.  No matter which way I go, there will *always* be folks who would have preferred the other way.

Which, I think, is why we have fan fiction.

Fan fiction is where the readers can appropriate the world and characters and tell the story they way it is in their heads.  When I was talking about re-editing Life on Mars, I was basically making a little fan fiction version of the show for an audience of just me.  It was a freaking good show not because it was better than the real one, but because it was tailor-made to push my buttons.  I know.  I was the tailor.

So I’m worried about Caliban’s War and The King’s Blood, but not because I don’t think they’re cracking good books.  I think they’re better in some ways than Dragon’s Path and Leviathan Wakes.  But part of what makes them good books is that they make decisions.  They change their respective stories.  Things happen, and there will always be readers who would have made a different choice.  There’s literally nothing I can do about that except tell the story I’ve got as well as I can, accept that there will be a few grim reviews of the second books, and start writing The Poison Sword and Dandelion Sky.

6 Responses »

  1. I’m trepidatious about Caliban’s War, but not because of any direction that I expect to continue. I loved Miller, I loved the tone of his chapters, and I’m afraid (with, I expect, good reason) that that tone will not be present in the second book. Still, I’m sure I’ll enjoy it.

  2. Yup. You hit the nail on the head.

    When I crack open a new book or click PLAY on a new show, I have a blank slate carefully prepared and in place. I don’t like to see previews, mostly, because they help align the expectations and don’t let me get involved. (hmm…that may explain previews)

    Anyway, like you I find that when the author/director steers the plotline in a different direction than the one I was imagining, *I* become disappointed at their lack of creativity. Fair? Absolutely not.

    Thanks for the post, Daniel. Definitely a point of view that I’d considered before but never have I seen it so succinctly put.

  3. Hey, this might be as close to famous as I ever get!

    You have the idea of what I was trying to convey exactly right. The ‘sophomore slump’ resides in the viewer/reader/pundit. Not that there’s never been a writer whose second book in a series sucked.

    I think this is one of those things where I’m differet from the readers you refer to. I didn’t finish Leviathan Wakes or The Dragon’s Path and then try to guess or plan what happens next. Not that I don’t want to know – I’m highly anticipating both sequels – but I want to know where YOU take the characters. It had never occurred to me to be ticked at a decision the author made for his characters. I will sometimes get a burst of creativity from reading a really good book, and start working on the story ideas I have floating around, but I’m not rewriting the books I just read to meet my view of the world.

  4. I think of it in terms of Time Invested / Payoff. If I read the first book, and invest x amount of hours, I expect to get a certain payoff while reading and at the end. Now when I hit book 2, I have invested 2x hours, and expect an even bigger payoff than the first book.

    In a series, I expect each book to build on the last…

    I consider it a sophmore slump if the writer has failed capitalize on the emotional investment I got from the first book. (as in the second is at the same level as the first)

    ***this is only refering to books of a series***

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