You Own What? Or: Oh, I don’t THINK so!
Today my blog is home to Patti Ludwig, one of the many talented people at kelley Armstrong’s Online Writing Group. But instead of me going on, I’ll let Patti introduce herself.
My name is Patti Ludwig, I live in traditional writerly fashion with a cat, in the Pacific Northwest. I have written some articles for an e-newsletter that is now defunct, and short stories in a variety of genres for two online author boards. As senior moderator for one board’s writing group, I do a certain amount of blog-type musing on writing concerns in semi-public there.
I have various longer projects “in development” but there’s no point looking for me at a bookstore or online publishing concern.
So, I was reading Sharon Lee’s blog “Eagles Over the Kennebek” on the subjects of “who ‘owns’ the characters in a fictional series” and “how do you feel about it when a series comes to an end?”
(Grabs cup of coffee and visits with the cat while reader zooms over to read the other blog and the comments on it.)
Okay, your turn to get an iced drink and scream into a pillow or otherwise vent at the “fan-girl” arrogant stupidity, while I type this up.
Ownership really boils down to this: Who gets paid for creating it? Right, then, THAT’s the owner of the intellectual property. As surely as DRM means that if your electronic book reader gets zapped in some fashion, then you have to re-buy a book, or if your house burns down with your dead tree copy, you have to re-buy the book; you are the consumer of a creation, and you are only renting it to enjoy, from the writers, film or TV makers, or artists whose works you own in reproduction.
Let’s just talk about written series, to keep the qualifiers under control, shall we?
To me – and feel completely free to agree with me on this – any attempt at coercion of the authors is anathema. It’s bullying, and it leads to Stephen King’s “Misery”. Right up there with torturing kittens, gang; seriously uncool.
You know what happens when fans bully their authors? Reichenbach Falls, that’s what. And the less than stellar stories of Sherlock Holmes that were written afterward.
I’d kind of like to imagine that certain series whose quality fell off were victims of this phenomenon, but sadly, most of them are the authors’ own doing for whatever their necessities (Why yes, I am looking at a certain necromancer-vampire slayer, but also a particular land of puns and magic, and at least one series of mysteries.)
This actually leads into the other topic the blog above goes into, or at least the comments on it. How do you feel about a series ending? Is it better to end on a high note rather than to produce zombie clones of previous novels, or better than changing the main characters so much that they are not recognizably the same people who hooked your readers into the series in the first place? Growth is fine, – better! it’s needed if you’re not going to get “Mary Sue Fights Vampires Mark 2”, but is it “growth” when the attitudes, morals, and methods of the “hero/heroine” have taken a 180 degree turn?
You can certainly do that to your characters if you’re writing anti-heroes and how they got there, or dystopian fiction, but if that’s your plan, I want to know in advance. Don’t sneak up on me with it or I’m going to blow up, throw the book across the room, and tear the pages out of it.
Now, I’d accept it, if reluctantly, under one other condition – and if you’re going this route, you better have your basic story arc mapped out and in the hands of a literary executor in case you die before you get to the darkest point, or I’m going to spend our next incarnation hunting you down and beating you with wet noodles. That’s if you start with a “typical” main character and make him or her go through a dark period in order to bring them back out the other end with some kind of improvement. They can have new weaknesses or hard, evil, mean moods or behaviours rarely, but by golly, I’m not reading fiction to get the same “the world sucks and you better get used to it” crap the news services dish out constantly. Paksenarrion comes to mind here; she had a very bad period, and came out the other end with new strengths.
This ties in with “the author owns the characters and fictional universe,” because I’m not actually telling the author not to write it. I’m saying that if they do, I’m voting with my bank account, NOT to buy & read it. Anything more than that or a “meh, it’s not my kind of thing any more, but if you like dark crap, knock yourself out” review is bullying. Driving the author to tears? Can we say “definition of bullying”?
Now, before I blow a gasket, let’s move on to how I, as a reader, feel about series that come to an end.
Crappy answer, isn’t it? But this is why: It’s too complex and individual to answer in a witty one liner, kinda like “how do you feel about theft?”
If the author has already planned out an arc and ends it in a way that’s consistent with their previous material, I’ll (this DOES assume I’m enjoying them to this point, okay?) re-read, sad not to have more adventures with those people, but I’d rather that than… Reichenbach Falls, or “Mary Sue Fights Vampires Mark 28”. But I respect an author who either has that much of a plan, or looks at her body of work and says “that’s it. That is all that Mary Sue has to do or say. Time to let her retire and go to write someone else with New! Different! Adventures!”
If we do get “Mary Sue Fights Vampires Mark 28” chances are that I stopped reading them around Mark 4. Oh, there are exceptions; one of my guilty pleasures is a perfectly dreadful set of westerns that include way too much of the same expository material about the “bridge crew” and their weapons or martial arts, with side trips into Science Fiction and romance; but on the whole, unless there’s something special about these zombie/clone books, I’m voting monetarily to end it. No buyers = no publisher contract. The author may write them, but is unlikely to achieve more than vanity press self publication by that point. Too many books and too little time to waste on this or a slow and horrifying shift from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, for my tastes.
When the author “sells out” or loses focus or interest, (I’m thinking of a set of blue eyed white quadrupeds here) it gets exasperating, and you start weighing how much you “have to complete the set” or “love this author/series” against the cost of substandard product and the hope of a return to the quality that attracted you to it. It’s a really personal and fluid equation, and I tend to come down on the side of “if it improves, I’ll buy again, but until then it’s check it out of the library or put in some time at bookstore checking if it’s worth my limited cash.” Often even then, it’s going to wait for paperback or even used paperbacks before any more money leaves my hands.
In the case of Author Existence Failure, I experience considerable frustration, but what CAN you do? “He died, man.” Even if he left an outline and a literary executor (yes, Jordan is a perfect example) it may still not be completed as the author envisioned. (See? What’d I tell you?) It may be satisfying – I can’t get into the Wheel myself, so I can’t tell you if that co-writer is doing a really competent job – but is it authentic? At its best, I’d say yes, it probably is, but at its worst… Anything Pern after Todd McCaffrey started getting co-author status is fanfic to me. Not very good fanfic, either. “We have a problem, there is a scientific solution in the past, we will send someone back in time to get it and write lots of scientific jargon while we do so. The heroes will get verbally if not physically beaten up for being right and not abiding by what the PTB think is right. The end.” Given that kind of option, I’ll *try* the “co-written” or “authorized successor” versions. *If* they work for the rules of the universe that the original author set up, and they aren’t formula or flogging some agenda of the new writer’s choice, if they have the “feel” of the original, I may continue with them. If they don’t, they go off my “read/buy” list. End of discussion.
Writer’s Block or Publisher Rejection are essentially the same for me; the author is still there, still (probably) writing, but they’ve left a plot and characters hanging. Sometimes, the author has gotten the story from A to say J, but for some reason, the characters refuse to move on to K, or even L, so it can get to Z. For some authors, this is something they can work around, they can write side stories, or later volumes, coming back, working toward the blind spot. That can be annoying for the reader who prefers the saga in chronological order, and leads to spoilers, but… if that’s the only way you can get the story out, that’s what you’ve got to do. Sometimes even that won’t happen. “You got a tumour there, not a kidney stone. You’re not going to pass it, and we can’t operate.” What can you do? Do you castigate your friend (because, to me, someone who writes a series I get invested in IS a friend) for not being able to go running with you, or do you accept gentle walks around the mall instead, since that’s what they can manage? It’s still good time together.
When the publisher orphans a series, that makes me furious with the company, but I will bow to their financial necessities You should too, however angry you are, and this is why: Publishers are in business. Business, people! There to make money! They have to balance “we’re not getting sales that pay back the money invested in these books already, do we go bankrupt publishing the rest of them, or cut our losses? Should we hang onto rights to the ones already printed, in case the next different thing the author writes goes ballistic best seller and we can re-print for a sack full of money?” Usually they’re going the latter route, and who can blame them? Really. If your paycheck depended on not throwing good money after bad for a miniscule fan base, wouldn’t you put your hands behind your back and say “Uh-uh, I’m not throwin’ nuthin!”?
You know how you fix that? You make waves. You get other people to read the existing volumes. You blog, review, buy, book-push. Get that author and that series into the spotlight. Tell the publishers and book stores how you feel. Like Star Trek, you might manage to squeeze a few more instalments out of the studio, and possibly the author will realize the analogy and be able to finish at least one volume on a note that leaves the readers saying “well, I’d love more, but… if it has to end here, I can live with it.” It may not tell the whole of the story the author wanted, but compromise is a fact of literary life. Don’t like it? Make a new solution – and clue the rest of us in!