(new for September 2015)
How do you challenge yourself as a writer?
There’s some things about becoming a good writer that are actually transferable to real life. This question — How do you challenge yourself as a writer? — is basically the same question as: How do you challenge yourself as a person? Some writers stumble into their proficiency. They grow up reading a lot of Westerns, and they write Westerns and their Westerns are dynamite. They’re good at all the things that Westerns are good at. They don’t really have to think about it because they’ve internalized all the stuff that makes a Western good. That writer, however, will never write the book equivalent of the movie Unforgiven. That is, they won’t become self-reflective enough to critique the genre that they love. Now note, it’s easy to critique the parts of the genre that you don’t love. Fans do that all the time. “Oh, that hard science fiction! All ideas, terrible characters.” Or: “Oh that sword and sorcery! All action, but not a word of poetry!”
When I write, I write not to a market, but to my passion. If I had known too much about other people’s analyses of fantasy, it might have given me pause that with The Way of Shadows, I was writing a sword and sorcery fantasy novel. Shadow’s Edge would probably be considered heroic fantasy, and Beyond the Shadows is epic fantasy. When I started The Black Prism, I’d never even heard of flintlock fantasy. I just thought that mixing guns and swords and magic would be awesome.
So there’s a large element of “Know Thyself” in this. After The Night Angel Trilogy came out, we had some early signs that it would be very successful, and I had the option to continue to write what some might derisively call “ninja novels” for the rest of my life. I could have made a very, very good living doing so. But to me, doing the same thing over and over sounds like just another desk job. You’d find yourself working in a novel factory rather than in a widget factory.
Now there’s nothing wrong with people who work in a novel factory. There are certainly worse things you can do with your life, and worse ways to make money. But I knew I wouldn’t be happy doing that. So instead I have consistently tried to write a new kind of novel with every novel I’ve written. I didn’t have the labels for the subgenre each Night Angel novel would fill, but I knew they were different kinds of stories from each other. And when some people liked the first book best, and some people liked the second book best, and some people liked the third book best (or, conversely, especially hated book 1, or book 2, or book 3), I felt that was a sign of success. That’s me growing and changing as a writer.
Now at the same time, the guy who writes a great post-apocalyptic thriller may simply not be the right person to write a tender romance between octogenarians. When I started the Lightbringer series, I knew that I wrote certain kinds of characters well, I wrote action well, I could write a world with little description and constantly rising levels of tension. And I wanted to include all of those things in Lightbringer. But I also wanted to do more. So those were the questions I asked myself. What “more” can I do that’s different, but that’s within my reach? Can I make a fat kid be the main character? Can I make him be psychologically realistic as the son of a drug addict? He’s insecure and a bit whiny. That’s an easy character to hate. Can I make you eventually root for him and even love him?
That’s a pretty tough challenge. And what I wrote didn’t work for everybody. That’s the risk of doing something different. People who like what you did last time may not come along for the ride. But the point of trying something that’s outside of your current abilities, or is right at the edge of your current abilities, isn’t just the thing itself. By stretching yourself, you make yourself a stronger writer, and you carry those strengths on to every project you attempt from there on out. I made mistakes in The Black Prism. I’ve made mistakes in every book I’ve written. I would do it differently if I could do it now. But the only way I could get to a level of technical proficiency where I could now go back and fix those mistakes is by attempting those challenges in the first place.
Again, the flip side of this is having the wisdom and humility to attempt challenges that you might reasonably attain. It’s ok if something new you do doesn’t work for a certain fraction of your readers. But if it doesn’t work for ANY of them, then you’ve got a big problem.