Sounds like everyone made good use of their time off! A couple of us have been working on unfinished novels and a couple more have been editing finished work, but we still had brain space to tackle a few difficult questions yesterday.
Over Spring Break a question about finding an editor turned into a discussion about knowing when your work is ready to be put out into the world. We continued that discussion in the meeting yesterday and managed to tie it to another question, how things become canon in a work of fiction, sparked by J.K. Rowling doing that thing she does. There were lots of opinions and zero easy answers, but we did light on a few important things to keep in mind.
Relinquishing control is one of the hardest trials a writer will face. Once the work is out of your hands, it’s up to the reader to interpret, and you may not always like what they see. We experienced this in our workshop sessions, and we enjoyed the opportunity to clarify certain elements or passages in our stories and ask how we could make them clearer to a first-time reader. It pays to take the time to get that feedback and to make sure plot holes are filled in and the subtext is coming through, because you only get one chance to make that first impression. Once a book is published, it must speak for itself. We don’t get to blame readers for our mistakes or omissions, and we don’t get to go back and change the story or fix mistakes we didn’t catch in time—at least, most writers don’t.
Many writers do an enormous amount of background writing that just doesn’t fit into the central story. None of this is wasted writing—plot holes are more easily avoided and characters and settings feel more real the more the writer knows—but it can be hard to let thousands of words go unread. One way to soothe that angst is to release all that supplemental material in separate books: worldbuilding can be marketed as histories, codices, mythologies, or other interesting collections, sometimes framed as texts referenced in the original novels. J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and J.K. Rowling are some of the most famous examples of writers who have done this, and there are many more. Those scenes that didn’t make it into the books or were only written to explore another facet of the created world can end up as short stories published elsewhere, in magazines, anthologies, or, if there’s enough material, in a full collection. Writers can also insert bits of trivia into interviews, fan Q&A sessions, newsletters, etc., and that’s where things can get a little weird.
Often these tidbits can be charming, interesting but inessential to the core of the work, and harmless: Ursula K. Le Guin’s pickle barrels, for example. Sometimes they’re used to fill in plot holes or address questions left unanswered by the text, which only works if every reader manages to stumble upon the interview and can feel a bit sloppy to readers who feel it isn’t canon if it’s not published, or at least not in publishable form. And sometimes they’re used to correct assumptions about characters who’ve been assigned a “default” identity by readers in place of explicit defining characteristics in the text. There are a lot of arguments both for and against Rowling’s tendency toward diversity after the fact, and there was disagreement around the room as to whether the age range of the books or the purpose of the books gives her a pass for neglecting a lot of representation, but the fact that Rowling keeps trying to amend her books shows that she thinks these things are important, and that should matter. Anyone writing from a place of privilege is bound to make mistakes no matter how much care they’ve taken to make their stories diverse and reflective of the real world, but it matters how they address those mistakes: whether they get defensive or dismissive when criticized for a homogeneous worldview or called out for falling back on stereotypes or bad representation; whether they blame readers for missing some crucial subtext or accuse readers of looking for reasons to be offended; and whether their work becomes more sensitive or more explicitly diverse as they continue writing.
Where Rowling seems to have an advantage is that her work has moved so far beyond the original books that relying on the books alone seems almost primitive. She’s written or had a consulting role in the movies based on her books, giving her more control over casting than many writers have, and she’s used that on occasion to make her work more diverse on the screen than it was on the page; she has an online platform, Pottermore, where she can publish some of that background information the books were lacking; and she routinely uses social media and interviews to share information about characters that, for one reason or another, she didn’t see fit to include in the novels, the stories, the supplements, or the movies. Because of her level of fame it’s almost impossible for fans to miss those updates, which means she’s capable of updating the canon whenever she pleases without writing anything. She has more control over her already published work than most writers will ever have in terms of how it will be interpreted by fans for many years to come, but still, many fans are left wondering why she doesn’t write more books instead of letting so much information dribble out in the most unsatisfying way imaginable, regardless of how effective her methods are.
As a group we discussed the phenomenon of the series, how the books exploded in popularity and how that world changed over time as new books were released. We pondered whether churning out a new book every year meant sacrificing worldbuilding, something that can take a lot of time and care, for the sake of success, which might have waned and lost momentum had the books been released on a slower timetable. We’ve been encouraging each other to share work with critique partners both in and out of the group. Where were hers? We wondered whether, faced with the same opportunities, we would have opted to write faster or with more care. Choosing the fast route didn’t hurt Rowling’s success, and the books don’t totally lose their charm in the face of even glaring flaws and inconsistencies. In fact, while the flaws worsened the more the world expanded, the flawed aspects of the novels may be completely unrelated to what charmed readers in the first place. The cultural phenomenon of Harry Potter is proof that a book doesn’t have to be everything in order to be compelling, but how often does a book have that kind of effect? The publishing industry and the reading community are notoriously fickle and unpredictable, and the argument for writing faster and publishing sooner and the argument for taking your time and making sure you’re offering your best work can sometimes be one and the same.
That’s all for this week. Next meeting will be Monday, March 25th at 5pm. We’ll be continuing the diversity discussion—the importance of writing to reflect the real world, the care required, and much more. If you have an opinion on any or all of this yesterday’s discussions, a favorite writer whose supplemental work delights or frustrates you, or another discussion topic you’d like us to tackle, chime in down in the comments!