Usually, I would post this in a review roundup…


… but I want to talk about it a little. The blog linked below doesn’t list the reviewer’s name (at least not where I could find it) but the Google Alert that directed me there said it was written by one “David Marshall.” Check this out:

There’s a fantastic market for spin-offs, sequels when one story arc has finished, and prequels. And those prequels can go back as far as you want into childhood. Hey, you could even write some for the YA market. Get them hooked on your heroes young and they’ll follow in lockstep into the adult serial. It’s a trail of breadcrumbs to riches. That means never starting at a beginning because, by our definition (on our contract terms to be negotiated) there’s no such thing as a beginning, just a point of origin tetralogy.” So poor unpublished Harry Connolly looks at the dollar signs written into the contract for his first novel, acts on what the publisher says, changes the title and sells his second novel.

“Poor unpublished Harry Connolly” pretty much describes me when I was doing the last polish on Child of Fire. I would have made “Poor” my first name and “Unpublished” my middle if I could have afforded the courthouse fees. But I couldn’t. I was poor.

Of course, now that I’m published, I’m as rich as a Wall St. con man, and I’m famous on the internet. The review I linked to above is a pretty positive one, all things considered, so why comment on it? There are lots of reviews out there. What strikes me here are two distinct points the poster is making (roughly speaking):

1) That I published Child of Fire, which is not the beginning of Ray’s story, for a big wad of cash, with any existing prequels held back for even larger wads later on, and

2) That I structured Child of Fire as a thriller for commercial reasons but I could have written something more satisfying (which I read to mean “not a potboiler” and “more art/less formula”).

Formula!! ::clutches pearls and faints::

Let’s break it down! (Detailed blathering, including the bad-literary version of Child of Fire behind the cut)

1) Where’s Book Zero???

Child of Fire is book one in the Twenty Palaces series. The cover says it’s “A Twenty Palaces Novel” and it’s my first published book, right? So yeah. Book one. But Ray and Annalise appear on the first page with their animosities at full power. Ray betrayed her. Annalise wants him dead. I, the author, committed backstory. A lot of readers double-checked the cover; was this really book one or was it book two?

I haven’t made a secret of the fact that there was a Ray Lilly novel before Child of Fire. That book was difficult to write, extremely personal, and as a result I was tremendously invested in it. I wept openly while I wrote one of the final scenes (something that I think only affirms my masculinity, I’ll have you know. Ahem.)

But Book Zero wasn’t the first book, either. There was another one before that, which took place in the same setting and featured characters and incidents that form the foundation of Game of Cages. And there were the short stories, too. Several of them.

One thing I can promise you, though, is that I didn’t trunk them because I was hoping to cash in on them later.

In truth, they just weren’t good enough. Book Zero affected me powerfully, but no one wanted it: the plot is low-key for sixty pages and then turns into super-powered craziness, and the action is too over the top. The book before that one? A real mess. That one is never going to see the light of day in any form.

You know? I kinda don’t care. Someday I expect to revise Book Zero and put it out into the world, but there’s no rush. And I really really don’t care that some people think my first novel reads like a sequel. I think it’s a standalone story with characters who have an existence before this book and after (well, the lucky ones get an after). Everything necessary to understand how these characters got to this point is in there, and the rest is mysterious. I like mysterious. Others like exposition “context.” They like paragraphs of narrative voice describing the world building (provided the world-building is cool).

Me, I’d rather jump in blind and piece it together. That’s what I call fun. “Two killers drive into town,” seems an excellent opening to a book AND a series.

So! Book Zero isn’t on the shelf because prequels are so lucrative. It’s on the shelf because it’s not good enough. Maybe someday I’ll be able to clean it up.

2) Writing Thrillers: Rent-Seeking Behavior, Tragic Waste of Talent, or Both??

Have I mentioned the reviewer said I was talented? Yep. Talented. Said it twice, in fact. Why bring it up? Oh, no reason. I just like to point out the word talented.

But there’s this idea out there that writers looking for sales ditch their writerly instincts to write “potboilers,” and you know what? That’s not wrong. Some writers do that, no question. I’m just not one of them. When I sit down to write, what comes out of me is a type of story I love: the supernatural crime thriller.

Now, I happen to believe we can write thrillers so they evoke complex, subtle and uncommon emotions (that’s how I interpret the reviewer’s call for more satisfying stories), but the traditional evocations of a thriller “crowd out” those rare effects. A writer working on a straight literary novel can spend all the time they like capturing a certain feeling: say two siblings listening as their Mom’s will is read. A thriller writer who wants subtle or complex emotions in their book has to squeeze them in around the expected evocations: the dangerous chase scene, the moment when the protagonist turns the table on the antagonist, the slow build that changes safety into uncertainty, and so on. You know, the thrills.

Does that sound like a formula? I know there are formulas out there, but I don’t have one. Sometimes I wish I did, so wouldn’t have to sweat these damn books so hard.

Now, I imagine I could have written Child of Fire as a non-potboiler. I could have made it more of a literary novel. Ray and Annalise would have driven into Hammer Bay looking for the guy casting dangerous spells. When they met Charles Hammer, instead of weird violence, they might have talked to him. He might have shared his troubled past, and how he’s still trying to measure up to his father. Annalise would have divulged her own difficult relationship with her dad, and they would have bonded. When Ray mentioned the fires and the dying children, Hammer would have gone into denial and thrown them out.

They’d have met people in town. Mrs. Farleton would have been attracted to Ray and spent a long afternoon with him in his motel room. She’d freak out when he mentioned that he’d been in prison, and rushed out to her car. Ray would see her re-engage with her husband and her church with renewed vigor, and he’d know that she considered him a terrible mistake, and what’s he going to do with that information? Cynthia would have slept with Annalise out of boredom, and casually mention that there’s a monster living in their house.

Ray and Annalise break in and meet the extradimensional creature, which looks and acts like a child with some sort of congenital deficit. It’s trapped in the house, doing menial work for the Hammers (reading the future) like an imprisoned illegal immigrant. It complains about the work, about missing home, and how none of the food here tastes right. It misses home and can never return. Ray offers it a toadstool pizza and it accepts knowingly, then dies.

Cynthia sells the family business immediately and buys a house in the San Juans for her and Annalise, but after three months she wakes up to find that Annalise is gone with all of her things. And then, I don’t know, someone walks into the sea.

Okay, that’s the joke literary version, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be done and done well, especially if the writer put more work into the complexity of the relationships than I did while typing up those joke-agraphs.

But that doesn’t interest me. Just because I try to squeeze in complex feelings around the thriller trappings doesn’t mean I don’t love the thriller trappings, too. You know that moment when the protagonist sees something terrible is going on, and sees a phalanx of powerful enemies lined up against them, yet still decides to fight for the right thing anyway? Yeah, you know it, and maybe you love it as much as I do.

So I just want to say that I wrote this potboiler because I love pots that boil. I’m happy to have the pre-empt deal Del Rey gave me, and I’m trying damn hard to be worthy of their investment, but that doesn’t mean I designed this book as a commercial endeavor. Honestly, I wrote Child of Fire because everyone rejected Book Zero and I was furious with myself for failing so thoroughly on a project I loved. Add to that the failed filmmaking project and other difficulties, and I said: “Fuck it! I’m a fucking failure, and fucking failures write whatever the fuck they want!”

And I did.

I’m glad the reviewer enjoyed the book, though, even if he did consider it a mere guilty pleasure.

8 thoughts on “Usually, I would post this in a review roundup…

  1. What a great rejoinder! So, just two quick thoughts:

    I really did enjoy Child of Fire. Frankly, I did not expect to, but I was very pleasantly surprised.

    Reviewing is difficult. Could Child of Fire have been better? Yes. Without making any major changes to the narrative, I can conceive of many ways in which it could have become “my kind of book”. Since my taste is probably not the mainstream common denominator and because I usually avoid spoilers, I chose not to discuss the book in detail. It’s unfair to people who haven’t yet read it. You sold the book as it stood so it would be gratuitous to make suggestions after the fact.

    Welcome to the world of publishing. In my attempt to boost sales, I have already ordered the next volume.

    If you would be interested in exchanging views, you have my e-mail address.

    Best wishes


  2. Rob Smith

    I like to see civil discussion about reviews. One thing about entertainment, whether it be books, movies or music, opinions rely heavily on taste. One of the things that turned me on about this novel was the obvious untold back story between Ray and Annalise. I love that I have to “figure” things out in regards to their relationship and the world they inhabit. No handholding the reader.

  3. Responding to reviews is usually called the ABM (“Author’s Big Mistake”) because the author usually comes out looking the fool. I tried my best to avoid accidental foolishness, and stick with the deliberate kind.

  4. Drew

    I thoroughly enjoyed Child of Fire. Possibly the most engaging “urban fantasy” sort of novel I’ve come across since a bookstore employee suggested I read Jim Butcher. And now, this blog will join my list of regular reads. Looking forward to more.

  5. Drew, thank you! That’s very nice to hear.

    And if you don’t mind me saying so, please do let people know you enjoyed it. Online, in person, whatever, it all helps keep the series alive.

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