Chapter Twenty Four - Audience Expectations24 August 2010
I sometimes receive letters or emails from older fans complaining that my books aren’t giving them the same buzz that they did when that person was younger. They want me go further with the books, to appeal to those readers who’ve been with me for a number of years and now want MORE. A few even accuse me of “betraying my original fans”!! Well, in response to that, I have to point out that my children’s books (hold the front page!! world exclusive revelation on the way!!!!) are written for children!!!!! Heh heh—I know how sarcastic that sounds, but, honestly, it’s not meant to me. I remember writing an angry letter to the people who make the comic 2000AD. I became a huge fan when I was 12 or 13 and collected it without missing an issue for several years. But then I started to read Watchmen, Killing Joke, Love & Rockets and others, and they went much further than 2000AD ever did. They worked on all sorts of darker, more adult levels, and I wanted 2000AD to do the same, to go on a journey with them, to appeal to the more developed teenager that I had become. “By heavens,” I wrote (and I’m paraphrasing here!!), “this reads like a comic written for 12-14 year olds!!!” The good folks of 2000AD never wrote back to me, but if they had, their answer probably would have been (and should have been), “Well, you presumptuous idiot, it is!!!!!”
Look, I appreciate each and every one of you guys. That should be clear from the amount of time I spend on my blog, updating my site, replying to your letters, etc. I know there are hundreds of other writers you could be reading, or films or TV shows you could be watching, or computer games you could be playing, instead of reading my books. But it’s impossible to cater to the changing demands of each and every one of you. I do my best on each book. I try to evolve and do different things with story structures and plot line and characters. I go to some very dark places and sometimes push at the boundaries of what is acceptable in a children’s book. But at the end of the day, when all’s said and done, they ARE for children. Older children, to be sure, but children nevertheless. I’ve been called Stephen King For Kids in the past, and have said in numerous interviews that I like to see myself as a kind of bridge to adult horror and fantasy, that I hope my fans go on to read the likes of King, Clive Barker, Raymond E Feist, etc.
But “go on” are the key words there. Most of you reading this WILL “go on” to other writers, or will just stop reading so much at some stage. Most of you WILL grow up and leave my children’s books behind and look for more challenging, darker, sophisticated material. Some of you reading that might very well go, “No! It isn’t so! I’m your fan for life, and maybe even beyond!!!” Trust me—many have said the same thing before you, and with just a very few exceptions, virtually all of those have moved on from my little world now. I’m not sad about it. I don’t feel upset or aggrieved when a fan decides (consciously or otherwise) that they’ve had enough of my books. That’s life. It’s something we all go through. We all hold flames close to our hearts for certain periods of our lives, then let them grow cold and cast them aside. I did it with 2000AD, with David Eddings, with TV soap opers, and loads more besides. I’m sure that I’ll do it again with certain writers and shows that I love now. We’re constantly changing in life, becoming new people, developing new tastes and desires. That’s not a bad thing—indeed, I think it’s the very core of being human, and the thing that drives us on to be the species we are.
I try and do a lot with my children’s books, and I like to think I do. I’ve gone places other children’s writers never went (and maybe won’t go again!). No matter how simply they’re written, there’s an air of sophistication and complexity to the books (count the number of characters in The Saga, or the number of themes covered, or genres played with; study the structure of The Demonata). I think long and hard about these, spend at least two years working on every novel, and do the very best I can with them.
But they’re still children’s books, and always will be. I know I have lots of adult fans too, and I write books for older readers which I hope will appeal to adults who have maybe outgrown the lure of my children’s books. But I don’t write my children’s books for you guys, just as I don’t write for the 6 and 7 year olds who read my books (and, yes, there are a few!!). I write for those between, those torn between the worlds of childhood and adulthood, those who go to school but are moving towards the adult world beyond, those who are ready to ask questions of the world, of life, of themselves, of the universe, who want to have fun but who also want to be made think. My books DO mature—The Saga developed a lot between Cirque Du Freak and Sons of Destiny, and The Demonata matured too. But I’m not interested in letting those characters grow beyond a certain point, because that would make the series a rough ride for the fans who started out with the earlier books. We’re all on journeys through life—but what you have to realise is that you’re going to journey with very many people along the way, and very few (probably none) of those are going to be with you all the time. For me, writers and stories are all interconnected. It’s irrelevant if, coming of a certain age, you decide to cast my children’s books aside and move on to someone else. There are places I can’t go with you, areas I can’t explore with you ... at least not in my books for children.
I did my final “real” edit of Dark Calling, book 9 of The Demonata, over the last few days, wrapping up duties on in this afternoon. I’ll have to go through it one last time, at the proofs stage, but this was my final proper edit, the last chance to change anything major. Thankfully I didn’t need to, and apart from a few small tweaks here and there, it was a fairly straightforward job.
I’m fascinated to see what the reaction from fans will be to book 9. Much of it is radically different to what I’ve done in the other 8 books, or in The Saga. Being a Kernel book, it’s closest to Demon Thief than any of the others, but it’s very different to that book too. I certainly don’t think it’s my most entertaining book. In fact, I’m sure it’s not!! The first third re-introduces us to Kernel and mostly tells us things we already know from books 7 and 8, and the middle third is VERY trippy!!! Only the final third really burns with a purpose—I move the action up several notches and we’re back on more familiar, welcome territory! I think everyone’s going to enjoy the final third, but I honestly have no idea how they’ll react to the rest of the book. As I said, I don’t think it’s out-and-out entertaining in the way that most of my books are, but I found it an intriguing book to work on, and I’m hoping fans are intrigued too. It raises all sorts of questions, about the origins of life, intellect, the development of souls and civilisations. As I think I’ve said before, the book was inspired largely by a mix of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Stephen Hawkings’s A Brief History Of Time. I think it’s important that we question our place in the universe, and wonder about how we started and where we might be going. Such concerns shouldn’t just be the realm of sci-fi or science fact, so I’ve introduced them to the horror show of The Demonata. Whether that was wise or not, only you guys will be able to decide. I’ll be awaiting your verdict with even more curiosity than normal!!!!
I like throwing readers a curved ball when I’m working on a long series. I did it with The Lake of Souls in The Saga, and I’m doing it again here. If Dark Calling was a one-off book, I’d be VERY worried about it, but since it’s part of a long series, I’m not too concerned. The way I figure things, even if readers don’t like that unexpected middle third, it’s only one third of one book of a ten book series—it they like the other nine and two-thirds of the series, they’re not going to complain too much about a handful of experimental chapters!!! I think success should free a writer up to try new things, not tie them down to a particular path. Unfortunately, for many writers success proves to be a trap. It’s one that I can understand, having experienced a degree of success myself. When you do something that works, just about everyone wants you to keep on doing it. Fans want more of the same. Publishers want more of the same. Your agent wants more of the same. It can be hard to take a risk and try something knew, when everyone around you is urging you to give them more of what has worked already. You don’t want to let people down. You’re nervous of creating something that nobody likes, something that will lose you your fan base, your publishers, your future. The temptation to go the safe route and stick to what you know is almost overwhelming, and many writers give in to temptation, and do so happily.
Not this kid!!!! I’ve always liked to play around with genres and stories, and I’m going to go on doing it as long as I’m in the game. I think it’s important to keep your readers entertained, and I always try to. But every so often you need to go in a new direction, or try something outlandish. Stories have a life of their own, and if they want to spin off in a wild new way, you should let them. It’s important to remember that most industry “staples” started as far-out, risk-taking ventures. When I wrote Cirque Du Freak, nobody wanted to publish it!! There were no other books for children like it, and publishers didn’t think stores would stock it… they thought teachers and librarians would ban it… they couldn’t see children taking to its morbid themes or morally ambiguous characters. As time has proven, they were wrong. BIG-time wrong!!! CDF has become acceptable. Other writers are being touted as “the next Darren Shan”. In retrospect it seems like a solid, mainstream book. But in the beginning it wasn’t. It was risky, bizarre, unfashionable, experimental. Nobody knew if it would work, because there hadn’t been anything like it before. That’s the thing about experimenting—sometimes it might not work, but when it does, it can lead to farm more excitement than a run-of-the-mill industry “staple”.
Hand on heart, I don’t think Dark Calling is as infectious or gripping as Cirque Du Freak. It’s an experiment which, as I said above, will hopefully intrigue, but I doubt it will stoke the fires of fans in the same way that Lord Loss or Wolf Island did. But, what the hell—it’s a Darren Shan book, it’s trying something new, it’s serving up ideas many of you won’t have encountered before, and I like to think that most of you will appreciate that, run with it, enjoy it for what it is… and then tune back in for Book 10, which I think every single one of you will get a HUGE buzz out of!!!! For me, that’s the secret to a REALLY exciting career—a nice bit of experimentation, mixed in with a big dollop of crowd-pleasing action. I think I did that neatly on The Saga, I think I’m getting away with it on The Demonata, and hopefully I’ll carry on mixing things up this way for many long years to come. There aren’t many new types of stories left to be told, but there are millions of new WAYS of telling them, and I always want to be searching for fresh ways to take readers off on fantastical fictional tangents. I’m not ready to settle into the role of a reliable old institution just yet—and hopefully I never will!