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Lives Of Their Own

In her post of yesterday, Becky Miller asked a frightening question: Can a writer get locked into a world, a series, or a genre because of reader expectation? Or will readers trust an author they love and follow her as […]
| Jan 26, 2011 | No comments |

In her post of yesterday, Becky Miller asked a frightening question:

Can a writer get locked into a world, a series, or a genre because of reader expectation? Or will readers trust an author they love and follow her as she ventures into other lands, with other characters? For example, can J. K. Rowling ever write anything besides Harry Potter?

Are we as readers so demanding and narrow-minded that we would actually lock an author into a category and refuse to let him out? Maybe we are. Robin McKinley has written things besides fairy-tale adaptations, but I can’t really be bothered to read them. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a book about Father Christmas, but what Middle-earth fans want to read that? I can be totally riveted to a series by a contemporary author and really not give a hoot when he tweets about some other book he’s working on.

I am eclectic sort f person with an eclectic lot of story ideas, so frankly, this whole concept is scary to me. But then I thought, you know, maybe it’s a compliment when a reader doesn’t want to let you out. When, if you want to write in some other genre, you have to do it under a pen name.

Because the best books, and the best characters, and the best worlds, take on lives of their own. They’re not about the author at all anymore.

It’s just possible that nobody cares what J.K. Rowling writes if she doesn’t write about Harry Potter because she has faded so far back into the woodwork that readers don’t even think about her; they just think about Harry. And really, that’s an amazing compliment. Someone she cobbled together out of ink and imagination has become so truly alive to readers that he eclipses her. As for J.R.R. Tolkien–shoot, everyone knows that Middle-earth is real.

The best authors write book after book and series after series, and they all take on their own lives. Eventually, they work magic so many times that we say we love the author, but of course, we don’t even know them. We love their work for its own sake.

So maybe it’s not really about demanding readers. Maybe it’s about good writing–really, really good writing–and its power to transport and transform readers until they don’t want to leave the lands and people they love.

E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor (with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore) of The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ, which will release in spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Rebecca LuElla Miller

When I was a kid, I read Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books. Then I discovered he also had written an Island Stallion series. I eagerly dived in but found I missed Alec and the Black. But I was not one to start a book and then quit. As I persisted, I soon came to love the new character (whose name I don’t remember) and the new horse (also a name I’ve forgotten — but perhaps that’s because there were fewer of these books). What’s my point? Once I gave the new books a chance, I loved them just as much. Mind you, it was the same genre, but in a different setting, with different characters (until Farley wrote a book that brought both the Black and the Island Stallion into one story!).

I think that’s the way I want to write. Not locked to the same world with the same characters. I love the world I’ve created and the characters I’ve lived with for four books, but I don’t want to write only about them.

I wonder if writers get locked in by their own fears. Will Rowling write something other than Harry Potter if she thinks the readers might not like it? In fact, reader demand would have nothing to do with the issue, but only the author’s self-imposed doubts that she could create something that would engage readers. Or she could be unwilling to put something out that would “tarnish her legacy” if it doesn’t live up to Harry Potter (and can anything really match that success?)

In the end, I think the successful author has to do what the pre-published author has to do — write a story they want to write (and for the Christian, the one God wants them to write) no matter where it’s set, who the characters are, or what the genre is.


Rachel Starr Thomson

Becky, I think you’re totally right that sometimes it’s our fears that lock us in. On a FAR smaller scale, I found that good reception for my first two fantasy books made it incredibly difficult for me to step away from “the critics” long enough to finish the trilogy without having a nervous breakdown. (OK, that’s an exaggeration. But it was hard.)

Personally, I want to master the art of writing the same way I want to live–with power, love, and a sound mind.

Marc Schooley

Hey Rachel,

I agree. This happens all the time, maybe even more so with actors. I know one thing, though: having read most of an excellent non-fiction book entitled “Letters to a Samuel Generation,” I’d be eager to read something in a different genre by this same author. Any suggestions?

Rachel Starr Thomson

Oops–I missed this for a couple of days! I’d be honoured if you’d check out my fantasy trilogy. http://www.WorldsUnseen.com . Most of my other (published) work is devotional.

Rachel Starr Thomson

Oh … and thanks :).