Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Great Expectations

First off, thank you so much to everyone who jumped in on Monday to give me advice. After thinking it over for a couple of days, I feel much more at ease. I realize I had a big fear of ending up homeless. Maybe that sounds extreme, but it was just a fear I had. I don't have that so much at the moment now, thanks to you.

I've been thinking a lot about expectations. I used to think that the best situation was for a reader to pick up one of my stories with no expectations at all. I liked the idea of the person being surprised by the newness of the story. But, last week I started working on a sequel to the book I wrote for my nephew. For those of you who might not be familiar with this, two Christmases ago, I wrote a Harry-Potter-type story starring my nephew. It was meant only for him, but when I gave it to him, it turned out to go terribly wrong. Tears were involved. The good side to the whole situation was that my sister-in-law and her sister both really liked the book. They are big readers, and they thought it was really cool. So, I had decided to write a sequel for them, something that could be darker and scarier and more mature. Some ideas came together for me last week that excited me, and so I started working on it.

But, I had a problem.

I was including a bunch of family stories that the two women would already be familiar with. This wasn't a huge problem, but somehow it wasn't as exciting for me to imagine them reading something they already knew about. Then, it hit me. I figured out a way to present their stories without them really knowing they were their stories. Even though the sisters are the stars of the show, I'm telling the old family stories using other character names. The two readers will be thinking they're reading about other people until the dramatic turning point in the middle of the story when the fake characters names are transformed into the real ones just as we reach the climax of the family stories that everyone will be familiar with.

Instead of the readers not expecting anything, they will approach the book expecting some things. But, now I get to play with those expectations and surprise them even more. I'm so excited!

What sorts of expectations to you set up in your story? How do you play with a reader's expectations?


  1. As I write romance, it's expected there will be sex. But I don't write it. I write about the longing and the yearning. So I guess that's kind of unexpected.

  2. Well... I take fantasy as a genre and turn it on it's head and inside out.

    Fun, but can be tricky when I have nothing to compare my work to.

    I hope your sequal goes over well.


  3. With my book, I'm sure that people will hate it because it's totally not the normal perception of that paranormal element. I took it in an entirely different direction than the majority of peoples' pre-conceived notions. (Looking at it from a likely skewed perspective.)

    So it'll be interesting, if I ever get this book published, to see what the reaction will be.

  4. Anne, that's really interesting. It does make you stand out!

    Misha, comparisons are a really interesting topic. I'm the type of person who is always comparing things, for better or worse. I think if you're playing the genre stereotypes, it can be very interesting.

    Stephanie, sometimes I wonder if everyone will hate my work when I play with expectations. I hold onto the belief that for everyone who doesn't like it because it's unusual, there will be others who do like it because it's unusual.

  5. My main expectation in any book is . . . a good story. Yeah, sometimes I'm disappointed.

    So, when writing, I plan for a good story and hope to heck I deliver a good story.

    @Anne - I think the longing and yearning are much more important. Leave the sex up to the readers depraved (ha) imaginations . . . that's what I do. Once the bedroom door closes, the chapter ends.


  6. I'm not really sure if I even think about the reader much when I'm writing. Sometimes I do think, "Well, they won't see this coming" when I'm writing (like the liberties I take with Shakespeare in "Killing Hamlet" and all the jokes you'll only get if you know the original play) or the plot in "Cocke & Bull." But I don't know if I really play with reader expectations much. I'll have to think about that one.

  7. Hey, that sounds like a great way to overcome that problem! Good for you, and I hope you enjoy writing it. :)

  8. Davin, I've enjoyed seeing your happiness over this project, and I also immensely enjoyed the first book of yours, so I know this second one will be fantastic. What a great way around the problem you saw!

  9. As far as expectations go, I do take into consideration what people might expect from my stories. I just heard from a reader of Cinders that she didn't think the book had enough detail and wasn't fleshed out enough. Other readers have said the exact opposite. It's impossible to please everyone and play to expectations, which is why I think it's good just to tell the best story you know how.

  10. I like the idea of taking a realistic setting from oridnary life, where the reader expects somewhat ordinary relationships to evolve in a not so out of the ordinary way, and then interject the extraordinary, when they least expect it. That's what I hoped to do with STORY FOR A SHIPWRIGHT...time will tell if I've accomplished that...

  11. Davin, A fear of ending up homeless is not as extreme as someone may think. I was this close (my fingers are about an inch apart) last year. Sometimes it's a constant struggle to put a smile on, other times I realize "it's only money!"

    I didn't consider a reader's expectations while writing my first book. On later rewrites, I tried to make them think one way and sent them another. (Backshadowing?) Michelle read it and commented that it was misleading. I've since thought about my set-up, but have not come to any conclusions yet. I'm not sure.

    Is an intentional false expectation wrong? Is it wrong to drop some misleading clues to push the reader in one direction, then surprise them with an outcome that they never see coming? (If you were to reread the original clues, they all fit perfectly with the eventual outcome.)

  12. Charlie: "Is it wrong to drop some misleading clues to push the reader in one direction, then surprise them with an outcome that they never see coming?"

    No, it's not wrong. Some entire genres turn on misdirection. As long as the surprise is credible, it's fine. Sometimes it's better than fine. Sometimes it's fine-tastic.

  13. In fact, Charlie, YOU'RE fine-tastic.

  14. Scott M. You make it sound oh so simple!

    Scott GF B., I think you play with this quite a bit. I agree with the points in your stories that you brought up. Cocke was, I'd say, an unexpected character.

    Carol, I'm having a lot of fun, thanks. And, I'm making the story more of a historical novel than I had planned, so that will be a nice challenge too.

    Michelle, I think Cinders plays a lot with expectations. I dare say that's one of the main points of your book. It's one of the things I like most about it.

    jbchicoine, I love that too! Yeah, I think that's one of the things I love the most about my favorite authors, and I've been doing it more and more in my own writing.

    Charlie, I'll probably always have that fear of being homeless. I think I was just assuming it was going to happen in two months when I probably have a good two years if it really came down to it.

  15. Michelle: I agree with Domey. I think a lot of readers came to CINDERS with the expectation of a classic HEA story arc, and you went all sideways with every aspect of the tale. Which is where a lot of the coolness comes from.

    Also, because I didn't say it yesterday, I think there's a lot of sideshadowing in CINDERS, with references to the world beyond the castle and the idea that there's even more backstory we don't get to hear.

  16. What a great way to look at it, Scott, and Davin, too. I've thought of CINDERS in different terms. Looking at it this way opens some new avenues for me I didn't see before. And that is pretty darn cool.

  17. In the new novel I start of from the very first line by addressing everything to an unnamed ‘you’ whose identity I don’t reveal until halfway through the book. The protagonist references things that this ‘you’ will know and talks about conversations that they’ve had in the past but without actually revealing who she’s writing to. I’ll see once my wife’s read it whether or not I’ve pulled it off.

  18. I don't usually set out to play with readers' expectations, but often once I've started writing and I begin to see likely expectations, I do rather like to play on those for a while and then, eventually sock them in the gut a bit.

    In my short stories, it often takes the shape of allowing (though rarely encouraging) readers to expect some of moral at or lesson at the end of the story. And then leaving them with what ends up being a choice between (a) having no moral or lesson or (b) having a moral or lesson that most readers will find highly objectionable (e.g., killing people is the way to find happiness and human relationships).

    In my novels, the expectations game usually takes the form of setting things up so that certain characters seem to be playing certain roles or to have certain relationships, and then down the line the roles and relationships turn out to be different, casting a new light on everything that's been read up to that point.


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