Can Anybody Write a Book?

A couple of weekends ago, scouring Twitter, I came across an interesting Tweet by a fantasy writer named Sara Scarlett:

I’m going to both agree and disagree with her here. I think that if somebody’s response to your news that you finished a book is “anybody can do that,” they’re an asshole and they are downplaying your achievement. That said, I think the truth of the matter actually is that anybody can write a book and it does writers well to embrace that fact.

First, we need to define some terms. When I say “anybody can write a book,” I don’t really mean any particular human on the planet. Some people, due to physical or mental limitations or educational deficiencies, won’t be able to read a book, much less write one. So, for “anybody” in this discussion, read “anybody who wants to and has a minimum skill set to do it.” That said, the “book” we’re talking about is defined pretty expansively – it doesn’t mean “good,” it doesn’t mean “best seller,” and it doesn’t mean “beloved by a small but passionate fan base.” It means a book – a collection of tens of thousands of words that tells a story. Leave quality judgments out of it.

With that said, it should be pretty clear that anybody can write a book. There’s nothing about writing a book that is inherently difficult – you put words on a page, you do that some more, and, eventually, you have a book. What matters most when it comes to writing is that you actually sit down and write. Orders of magnitude more people will start to write a book than will finish it, but there’s nothing mystical about the ones who finish – they just keep working. The same is true for any art, really – for most folks, it’s more perspiration than inspiration.

There’s another question, somewhat related, that I’ve seen elsewhere on the Internet, which is “can writing be taught?” This seems like a question with an obvious “yes” answer, but it hints at something deeper about creative endeavors. You can learn the skills necessary to do just about anything, but you still need the creativity to be able to do something interesting with it.

One time, my wife and I did one of those “drink wine and paint a picture” things, which we really enjoyed. I immediately analogized the blending of paints to create certain colors and effects with the way you blend and sculpt sounds on a synthesizer. I was enthusiastic that I could add this creative element to my arsenal – my wife even got me some painting supplies for Christmas. I never did anything with them. Not because I wasn’t excited by the process, but because the creative spark never came. I couldn’t figure out anything to do visually, the way I get ideas for stories or rhythms and melodies pop into my head. But could I bear down and crank out a painting? Sure, but would anybody care about it?

Ultimately, that’s why someone saying, “oh, anybody can write a book” can sound so hurtful. It’s usually said by someone who’s never even tried to do it, much less accomplished it, to someone whose passion, creative drive, and tenacity resulted in a work they’re proud of. They probably gave up time with friends and loved ones while working on it. They bled for it (metaphorically – I hope) and this is the reaction they get?

You know what? Fuck those people. It’s probably true that anybody can write a book. It’s also true that most people won’t even try. You did and you succeeded. Take pride in that and move on to the next one. Keep on working.

Getting Creative In Court

Lawyers, in general, write a lot in their work. I write even more, given that I specialize in appeals and other sorts of post-conviction cases. Over the two-plus decades I’ve been doing this, I like to think I’ve developed a good skill with words, with creation of sentences and paragraphs that convey meaning and argument while still being a pleasant read. The days of legal writing filled with “heretofore”s and meaningless Latin phrases (seriously, if you see any sentence with “inter alia” in it, cross it out and tell me how that sentence is any different) are long gone, thankfully.

Still, there’s only so much creativity you can squeeze into legal writing. For one thing, you’re limited by the realities of the facts in your case (particularly in an appeal) and you can’t really beef up the plot or characters of you brief to make them more persuasive. For another, you have to consider the audience. The truth of the matter is that judges (and their clerks) are busy, have countless things to read on a daily basis, and are interested in being persuaded as quickly and clearly as possible. An appellate brief is no place to play with the form of words and sentences, to be coy about meanings, or to roll out mysteries for readers to ponder.

That’s one of the reasons I started writing fiction, especially fantasy. What better escape from the horrible facts of real life cases than worlds where I get to make up anything I wanted to? Strange new worlds! Interesting creatures! Cultures and histories never before imagined! This is where my creativity gets to thrive, not in court.

Right? Maybe not, if I could draw anything beyond a stick figure.

Third Planet Sci-Fi and Fantasy Superstore is a comic book and related merchandise business in Houston. From the Google Street View image you can see that it’s a wide, one-story building next to a busy street. You may also notice that it’s next-door neighbor is a high-rise Crowne Plaza hotel that towers over the place.

Third Planet is suing its neighbors because . . . well, because there tend to be a lot of assholes staying there. According to a third (!) amended petition filed in state court, hotel guests frequently make use of the hotel’s open-air balconies and fire escape to “throw all manner of projectiles off those landings and onto Third Planet’s roof and parking lot. It goes on to describe one particular day:

On or about March 3, 2019, matters escalated to a new level of destruction. Hotel guests, residents, tenants, patrons, customers, or visitors launched at minimum fourteen large metal-canister fire extinguishers from the Hotel onto Third Planet’s roof and parking lot. The canisters landed on the roof with explosive impact. This caused significant compromise to the structural integrity of the roof. In sum, the roof was irreparably damaged.

The next paragraph simply says: “Then came the rain.”

Pretty compelling stuff, right? Nonetheless, according to the petition, the defense “has previously filed special exceptions, complaining that it could not sufficiently understand the claims and allegations against it.” So what does Third Planet’s counsel do? They write a comic book to lay out everything.

Over the next 13 pages, the comic tells the story of Third Planet, its bowling champion owner TJ Johnson, and the store’s history in Houston. As for those flying fire extinguishers? Well . . .

The whole complaint is here, with the comic part starting at page 6. It’s a bold brilliant move and, without knowing anything about the actual legal merits (property law is not my specialty), I hope Third Planet wins and wins big.

Bold as it is, Third Planet’s resort to visual aids in a pleading is not unprecedented.

A comment to the Volokh Conspiracy post that brought this to my attention pointed to an article from the ABA Journal in 2012 where a lawyer did something similar in federal court.

The case involved the United States’ antitrust complaint against numerous publishers for fixing ebook prices and an attorney wanted to file an amicus (friend of the court) brief taking issue with some of the Department of Justice’s positions. He originally filed a 24-page motion with a 29-page proposed amicus brief attached. The court said he could file an amicus brief, but it could be no longer than five pages.

Which he did, taking a more comic strip approach:

The comic complied with all the usual formatting rules for pleadings in that district (font size, margins, etc.), but that didn’t keep the US Attorneys working on the case from dealing with it without a lot of effort (and the settlement they were seeking was eventually approved). Still, it was pretty clever (you can read the whole five pages here).

Like I said, making your argument in pictures is a pretty bold gambit (easier to do when you’re not actually representing a client). If it works, it’s brilliant. If the judge takes offense, thinks somebody’s diminishing the process, it can be a disaster. Come to think of it, probably for the best that I steer my wilder impulses into fiction.

Widows of the Empire – Coming November 10!

So remember when I said I hoped to see the end of a particular tunnel by the time July rolled around?

Well, guess what?

Widows of the Empire, book two of my Unari Empire Trilogy is finished and I’m shooting to release it on my birthday, November 10! Of this year!

Okay, so not quite finished, but the main text is done. Needs formatting and a couple of final flourishes, but, barring tragedy, you’ll be able to reach more of Aton and Belwyn’s adventures as the Unari Empire begins to come apart this fall.

When the Character Has No Deep Dark Secret

There’s been a lot of press recently about the 20th anniversary of the release of Shrek and its impact on the culture. One of the most memorable parts of the movie is when the main character explains that ogres are like onions, as they have layers. It’s more than a nice message about not judging people for their looks, though. It suggests that fictional characters are supposed to be the same – they should have layers that peel away the more time we spend with them. Some of them, maybe most of them, wind up with deep dark secrets that motivate their actions or hold them back.

So what happens when you find a character that has no layers at all? The surface they project to the world is exactly who they are. How do you handle a character like that?

A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is, in one way, a movie about Mr. Rogers. With a title like that, how couldn’t it be? But in a more accurate way, it’s not about him at all. The main character is a (fictional) writer sent to do a short puff piece on the children’ TV legend. Cynical, bitter, and having just had a drunken punch up at a wedding, he’s the one with layers.

Mr. Rogers is . . . well, he’s Mr. Rogers. He’s kind and patient and he cares about this guy’s well being. The writer is an investigative journalist, so he (and, by proxy, the audience) thinks that some dark reveal is just around the corner. Surely Mr. Rogers will curse like a sailor in private or abuse his staff in petty ways or something like that. Nope. All we see of him is that he’s a nice, kind guy and that’s all there is to it. Not at all like this:

That made Mr. Rogers great guy. It doesn’t make him a great character to build a movie around. That’s why he’s not the lead in the movie that’s practically named for him.

There’s an interesting comparison here to the Showtime series Kidding, which stars Jim Carey as a children’s TV icon named Mr. Pickles. He is very much the main character of this story and, as expected, he has layers that the series digs into as it goes along – he suffers from a kind of stunted development, his marriage dissolves after the death of a child, etc. It’s funnier than it sounds (in a very dark way), but it has what you’d expect out of a central character.

Which is what makes A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood such a nifty work of leger de main. It is undeniably Mr. Rogers’ movie (as played by Tom Hanks, again, how could it not be?), but it can’t be about him, right? So let another character be our focus, our entry into that world, and let the rest seep in around the edges. Which it does, in spades. Bottom line is, a movie about Mr. Rogers that isn’t really about Mr. Rogers has no business working as well as it does. It’s something to consider when planning out stories.

And I have to say, every time I think of Mr. Rogers this is actually what jumps into my head. I blame my brother, Todd, who does, indeed, play the bass:

What Makes a “Heist” Story, Anyway?

One of my semi-regular podcast listenings is The Rewatchables from the folks over at The Ringer. In each episode they take a deep dive (sometimes too deep – the episodes can tend to sprawl) into a movie that they can watch over and over again. It’s good fun if they’re talking about a movie you’re familiar with.

Recently, they did an episode on the 2006 film Inside Man. Directed by Spike Lee and starring Clive Owen, Denzel Washington, and Jodie Foster (among others), it’s about an elaborate bank robbery that’s about much more than money.

What really got me thinking, though, was the introduction to this episode, where they talked about “heist” movies and how great they were. No argument from me – but is Inside Man really about a heist? What makes a heist, and therefore a heist story, anyway?

Maybe Inside Man fits, if we’re just going by dictionary definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary defines heist as “a hold-up, a robbery.” Far be it from me to disagree with the OED, but at least when it comes to storytelling, “heist” means something quite different than “robbery.”

I should say here that when I think of robbery I’m thinking of it in the legal sense that I deal with everyday – that is, the taking of property from the person of another by use or threatened use of force. Other thieving is something different. Think of it this way – if I go into a bank and point a gun at the teller, I’m committing a robbery; but if, as an employee, I secretly steal money without anybody noticing, I’m committing embezzlement. Both felonies, but quite different from one another.

The distinction, for me at least, comes down to brute force. A robbery can be elaborate and kinetic and exciting – think the beginning of The Dark Knight – but, at the end of the day, it’s “your money or your life.” It’s simple, effective, and brutal. “Heist” conjures up something more clever, more deeply thought out. It’s about getting the object of the robbery without the violence. It’s a better, more elevated, kind of crime, if you will.

I’m thinking of things like The Thomas Crown Affair or Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels. Those movies are about the scheming to pull off the job, not just rolling up with guns and forcing people to do your bidding. To be sure, sometimes the scheme goes sour and the heist goes bad, so I suppose it’s a question of intent. If the thieves are trying to get away with it without using violence, it’s a heist. Otherwise, it’s not.

There are also things that don’t fit in either category. There’s a new(ish) Neflix documentary called This Is a Robbery about the 1990 theft of the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston in which over $500 million worth of art was taken. On the one hand, it involved a clever ruse – the thieves posed as Boston cops and got in by saying they were responding the report of a break in. On the other hand, they tied up the two night security guys pretty violently, so there’s that. Is that a heist story or not? Honestly, I’m not sure.

As I’m writing this I’m watching/listening to a 2017 in-studio performance by Monobody, a band whose music is really hard to classify. In one of the interview breaks the guitar player talks about genre labels as a necessary label, since they help people talk about things like art. But, ultimately, they’re meaningless when considering whether any piece of art is enjoyable or not. So whether I think a story is a heist story or not is irrelevant.

And I’m completely will to admit I’m full of shit about this. Such is life.

On Leaving Things Unsaid

Twice in the past couple of weeks, while channel surfing, I’ve come across Fargo, the 1996 Coen Brothers classic right at that point where there’s enough left to make it worth watching the rest, even if it’s not the beginning. For what it’s worth, that point – both times! – was after Jerry’s unsuccessful parking lot pitch to his father in law, after which he has a little freak out in the parking lot.

Fargo is one of my favorite movies and I’ve seen it over and over, but I still get new things out of it. These two times around one thing jumped out at my writer brain that hadn’t registered before. It has to do not with what was on screen, but what wasn’t.

What drives the plot of Fargo is that hapless car salesman Jerry Lundegaard needs money and is willing to do just about anything to do it. He tries to scam his wealthy father-in-law to “investing” in a parking lot development deal. He’s running some kind of game with the GMAC finance people, too. And, of course, there’s the eventual plot he hatches to have two goons kidnap his wife (who’s wealthy father will then pay an inflated ransom to get back) that ends with a lot of dead bodies.

We know all this. We see the machinations, see the wheels turning. One of the best scenes in the movie is after the kidnapping when we hear Jerry on the phone calling his father-in-law to tell him his wife has been kidnapped. Only he’s not on the phone (the shot starts with him off screen) – he’s rehearing the call he’s going to make, getting his scheme down pat. We hear him fend off the GMAC guy on the phone. And we see him deal with the two goons.

What occurred to me rewatching recently is what we don’t see, what we don’t learn. For a start, we have no idea how much money Jerry needs. It must be substantial, as he’s only going to pay the goons $40k initially on the kidnapping, while setting the ransom at $1 million and that’s only one of his many ongoing schemes. Still, we don’t know a number. Nor do we know to whom Jerry owes a substantial debt. It could be a bank, the result of a failed legit investment or business, or it could be gambling debts that he owes to the mob. Again, we just don’t know.

I think this is a pretty brilliant bit of storytelling. Typically, story gurus will say, you should give your main character a clear goal that they struggle to achieve through the course of your story. But sometimes the rule needs to be broken and I think Fargo is one of those places. If we know how much Jerry needs, the story shifts from being one about a scheme spiraling out of control to one about whether Jerry is going to succeed. If we know why he needs the money it shifts our perception a bit and we’ll be more invested in Jerry’s success. We probably don’t want the mob to break his legs, right?

What all this does is keep us as viewers from getting too close to Jerry, from caring about him succeeding. I think it’s a conscious choice by the Coens to keep us from empathizing with him, as you normally do with a main character. You could certainly try to produce a story where the readers or viewers try to empathize with a guy who gets his own wife, not to mention half-dozen other people, killed as his scheme goes off the rails, but that would be a different story than Fargo. This also allows the moral center of the film to be Marge, who doesn’t even show up until about a third of the way in (coincidentally right after I found the movie on TV these past times).

This isn’t the way to go for most stories. Certainly if you want your main character to be viewed as a hero, even a flawed one, you need to let readers know why they’re doing what they’re doing. But sometimes that’s not what you want. Sometimes you want the guy who sets in motion the disposal of a dead body in a woodchipper to just be a bastard through and through. Who needs to get on board with that?

On Horror . . . IN SPAAACCCEEE!!!

I love a good dust up over genre boundaries. Whether it’s sci-fi versus fantasy or prog rock versus anything, I get sucked into these things. Part of it’s a genuine curiosity about where the lines are drawn. Part of it, honestly, is see what can be some spectacularly wrong takes.

So it was that, last week, I was drawn to a Twitter dust up of an interesting opinion – can you have horror is space?

It started this way:

The first response seems about right:

Makes sense, right? I mean, it’s a movie where a monster – which happens to be an alien – kills victim after victim in a single locale – a spaceship – forcing the hero to pull it together and kick ass. It’s a horror flick. It’s sci-fi.

Not to the original questioner, who followed up:

I’m not sure I’m convinced, mainly because I think “horror” is both a genre unto itself and also a type of story.

Let me make an analogy to progressive rock. At its inception, prog was a descriptive term, a generic label for all kinds of music that was pushing the boundaries of what was contemporary rock at the time. When the genre’s popularity tailed off it wound up giving birth to a particular idea of music defined by a handful of stereotypical features – long songs, focus on instrumental passages, mythical/literary lyrical topics. Later on, newer bands influenced by the original wave of prog started making their own music in the style of those original bands. Thus, “prog” became both a descriptive term and a style.

Horror is kind of like that. There definitely is a genre of horror stories, but there’s also the fact that horror stories can be told in all kinds of different settings. Some may involve supernatural elements, some may not. Some may be set in modern times, other may have a historical setting. Relevant to the discussion here, you can also have horror stories set in the future and, yes, in space. They may be sci-fi (or fantasy), but that doesn’t keep them from being horror stories, too.

In the end, that’s one of the cool things about speculative fiction. Whether sci-fi or fantasy, it’s more of a setting or milieu than a story type in itself. Either genre can support stories from romance to mystery to satire to daring heist caper. Given that, it doesn’t make any sense to say that being a sci-fi story precludes that same story from being a horror story, too.

For what it’s worth, the final vote tally was like something out of one of those “dictator for life” elections somewhere:

Oof.

The Proper Calibration of Stakes

Every story – well, nearly every story – is about characters trying to accomplish something. Depending on what kind of story it is – comedy, weepy family drama, thriller – the stakes are going to be completely different. Dude, Where’s My Car? is an appropriately low set of stakes to use to move the plot along in a stoner comedy. In a serious character piece, not so much (although now I’m thinking of it as a long form commentary on existential dread and maybe?). Every story needs the right stakes.

In sci-fi and fantasy stories are often told against big, bold backdrops – starships that travel between alien worlds or weird fantasy worlds sprawling with orcs fairies and all the rest. As a result, it can sometimes be too easy to let the stakes get too big. It’s worth remembering that as the stakes spiral out of control, it can impact the story you’re trying to tell and the reactions readers or viewers are going to have. The bigger the stakes, sometimes perversely, the lower the dramatic tension.

What is generally regarded as the best of the Star Trek movies? Wrath of Khan, right?

Think about what the stakes are in that movie. It doesn’t have anything to do with saving Earth or the Federation. It starts out with Kirk not going gently into retirement and slides into a mano-a-mano (or shipo-a-shipo, I guess) fueled by revenge. Yes, there’s the whole Genesis device stuff, but even that isn’t the kind of universe shattering stuff the drives the plot in later movies (why is the Enterprise always the only Federation ship in the neighborhood?!). It works so well because it’s about a few people, doing desperate things.

Which makes a lot of sense, because lots of old Trek episodes were just like that. Most episodes revolved around getting one of the main trial – Kirk, Spock, & McCoy – out of trouble. Occasionally the entire Enterprise is at risk, but never (that I can remember, anyway) was there a “we have to save the galaxy” episode. Even the later series that had some big bads – the Borg, the Dominion – used their galaxy-spanning threat sparingly.

Lots of the other Trek movies fall into the trap of making the stakes saving the entire fucking galaxy (or Solar System, at least). Superhero movies tend to do this a lot, too. The problem is that once you’ve put the entire world/galaxy/universe at peril, how likely is it that our heroes – be they Avengers or Starfleeters – to fail?

Another example where keeping the stakes low really helps is The Wolverine, the second stand-alone flick featuring the beclawed X-man.

It takes a break from the usual huge stakes of the X-Men movies (the mid-end-credit scene sets up precisely that – the need to save the world – for the next flick) and tells a story that focuses on Wolverine’s history and demons. The action is great, the story flows, and it never really goes beyond Japan. You get the sense that all this happened without any real impact on the outside world – but it story works precisely because it’s so personal and contained.

This all came to mind while I was reading Lindsay Ellis’ Axiom’s End a little while back.

It’s a pretty good read and that’s largely due to the fact that for a long time it’s first contact story doesn’t have the hugest of stakes. What’s interesting is how the human main character and the alien she starts to help have to learn to communicate with each other and how to deal with the baggage each of them bring to the table just as members of their particular species. There’s some danger involved, naturally, but the stakes are fairly limited. That is, until about the last third of the book, where a threat to the Earth materializes. That doesn’t ruin things, but I was a bit disappointed.

I can’t say I’ve done a lot for reigning in stakes in my own work. Both The Water Road and the Unari Empire trilogies have pretty high stakes, if you consider the fate of nations to be high stakes (most would). They seemed natural for those stories, though, and since neither of them take place in our world, there’s no inherent need for any particular endings. Moore Hollow is considerably narrower and more personal, which is what I wanted from the get go, so that worked out well there.

As usual, there’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to figuring out how high the stakes should be in a story. Sometimes saving the universe is just right. Sometimes, all you need to do is have the characters make their way from Point A to Point B, having some fun and adventures along the way. Like anything else, it needs to be carefully considered to figure out what works best for the story you want to tell.

The Real Here or Somewhere Else?

A great thing about writing fantasy and science fiction is that you can set a story wherever you like, be it a far flung future or a galaxy far, far away. It can be a place that never existed or that exists but not in the form it does for your story. The possibilities are endless. But sometimes you want to tell a story in what, for better or worse, we’ll call the “real” world – the one that exists when you’re writing your story (or sometime before). If that’s the case, should you set it in a real place or make one up?

I grappled with this when I wrote Moore Hollow. It’s set in the “real” world, to the extent that zombies exist in the real world. The main character, Ben Potter, lives in London and visits family in Leeds before and after he travels to West Virginia. He rents a car at Yeager Airport in Charleston! All real places.

But when it came time to set the main part of the book, I was caught. I originally intended to set the story in one of the real counties deep in coal country – Mingo, McDowell. I thought that would help the story by giving a real sense of place, to ground the more fantastical elements.

The problem with using real places, of course, is that it limits your story somewhat. I needed some specific locales for Moore Hollow, places that, it turned out, didn’t really match the lay of the land any particular place in southern West Virginia. Thus, Vandalia County and its county seat, Jenkinsville, were born. All of a sudden I had unlimited freedom to fit the landscape to the story I wanted to tell.

We tend to see that kind of thing a lot in TV shows, as they cobble up settings as the show goes on. The best example, probably, is The Simpsons, which has for years given Springfield all the things it needs for the stories they tell, whether they really make sense or are found in a single location in the real world. Need a nuclear power plant? No problem. An ever burning tire fire? Have one of those, too. A city with a minor league baseball team but big enough to host a thriving entertainment industry (you think all those Krusty shows beam in from Hollywood?)? It’s got everything you need!

You get the point – when you’re making up the location as you go along, you can give it whatever the story needs.

There’s a price to pay for that kind of flexibility, though. The story you’re telling might feel more divorced from reality than you’d like.

By comparison, I just finished reading another of the Dresden Files novels. In no way is that series set in the real world – unless there are wizards, spirits trapped in skulls, and all manner of fantastical beasties out there that manage to stay off social media in 2021. That said, it is set in the very real place of Chicago and benefits for it. It adds a gritty reality to the stories that helps the “he’s a PI, but a wizard” concept really take off. If they’d been set in a fictional city that was, for all intents and purposes, Chicago, I don’t think it would be the same. Not that everything is scrupulously “real,” but then, neither is the setting of any literary novel that takes place in the real world.

Ultimately, I decided to create Vandalia County in Moore Hollow because no real place had all the things I wanted the place to have for the story. For future stories in that universe (a sequel novel and sequel-to-that novella have been drafts), I’m leaning toward trying to set them in real places, whenever possible. I might not be able to hold myself to that, but I want to try. One thing’s for certain – the decision about where to set your story has consequences. Think them through and do what’s right for your story.

What Do Artists Owe to Their Fans?

Some artists create for the sheer joy of it, to make themselves happy, without any intention of sharing their creations with the wider world. I’ve talked to writers who do that – they write a story, polish it like you would for publishing, then set it aside and start another. Most of us, however, plan to release our creations on an unsuspecting public. Writers want readers. Musicians want listeners. Actors want audiences, either in person or otherwise.

In short, we want fans.

Which sets up a weird sort of feedback loop between artists and their fans. Fans are attracted to what an artist has already done, but the artist may want to move on and do new things. Does the artist owe anything to those fans? If millions of people buy your first book or record, do you owe them a duty to continue making things they like?

I don’t think so and I hope not, but I’m seeing that kind of entitlement playing out now that Steven Wilson’s new solo album, The Future Bites has dropped.

Wilson came to prominence as the leader of Porcupine Tree, a band that wasn’t even a band at all in the beginning (just Wilson and his studio toys), but slowly built a good following in progressive rock and related circles. They hit a major turning point in 2002 with In Absentia, when the band leaned hard into metal influences (to give you some idea, Wilson produced several albums by Swedish metal band Opeth and has a side project with Opeth’s main man called Storm Corrosion).

While Porcupine Tree was gaining momentum, Wilson had his musical hands in a lot of other areas outside the prog world. His collaboration with Tim Bowness, No-Man, explores melancholy pop and electronic influences. Blackfield, a collaboration with Aviv Geffen, works in more direct pop/rock songwriter mode. Then there’s Bass Communion, which is all about expansive electronic drones and noise. And that’s not to mention all of the remix work Wilson’s done for classic albums by King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and others.

It was not surprising, then, that since Wilson shuttered Porcupine Tree and struck out as a solo artist that his output there has covered a lot of ground. Aside from most of his first solo album, Insrugentes, however, it has been fairly rooted in the prog/rock world, stuff his fans from Porcupine Tree could sink their teeth into. Building on that fan base, he has wound up as a pretty successful solo artist.

Things started to change, a bit, with his last album, To The Bone. By his own admission it was inspired a lot by the artier pop of an earlier era, folks like Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. The album sounds very much like you’d expect from Wilson, but a little sleeker, and little friendlier. There was even a straight up joyous pop song complete with Bollywood dancers!

At the time, some fans grumbled. He was selling out. He was turning his back on “real” music for more ephemeral pop success. Those criticisms were accentuated by The Future Bites, which leans hard into electronic music and that kind of moody, atmospheric pop. Stuff like this:

To me it still sounds very much like Steven Wilson – his melodic sense, his production details – but it’s not The Raven That Refused to Sing. I happen to dig the sort of stuff he’s working with here, although I’m not as energized by his take on it as I have been by others. I doubt I’ll be listening to The Future Bites more than his earlier work.

Which is fine. Slavish devotion to an artist isn’t a whole lot of fun (to quote another favorite of mine, “not everything everybody does works all the time, son”). It’s certainly no worse, though, than people who take it as a personal insult if their favorite artist changes course and starts making a different kind of music.  I mean, it’s one thing to say, “hey, this isn’t for me” and walk away. It’s entirely another thing to go online and rant about what a talentless hack somebody has now become. This musician isn’t trying to hurt you, man.

Is Wilson aware of this backlash? I’m sure. Does he care? Not a whit. As he explained in a recent interview with Bob Lefsetz:

The only thing I think about when I’m making new music is just getting myself excited about it. That’s all I think about. I’ve had this question come up in various different forms, ‘do you think about your fans when you’re making music?’ and I really don’t. And it’s an incredibly selfish way to go about your career, but I think it’s what an artist is.

Frank Zappa said something similar, once (I’m paraphrasing), that he made music for his own amusement and if others want to come along for the ride, that’s great. I think that’s about right. Artists should be aware of how their work is going over with their fans, but catering to them can be dangerous and lead to stagnation.

To bring this around to writing, the question of reader expectations comes up most often with regard to George R.R. Martin and his quest to finish the next volume of A Song of Ice and Fire.  It’s been 10 years since the last book – what’s the fucking hold up? At one point, Neil Gaiman produced the ultimate response to this kind of complaint, from a reader who asked if it was “unrealistic to think that by not writing the next chapter Martin is letting me down”:

Yes, it’s unrealistic of you to think George is ‘letting you down’.

Look, this may not be palatable, Gareth, and I keep trying to come up with a better way to put it, but the simplicity of things, at least from my perspective is this:

George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.

This is a useful thing to know, perhaps a useful thing to point out when you find yourself thinking that possibly George is, indeed, your bitch, and should be out there typing what you want to read right now.

People are not machines. Writers and artists aren’t machines.

Again, I think this is about right. Fans, presumably, are attracted to the work of artists that they’ve slaved over and only let go into the world when they were right. They don’t do half measures and they follow their muse. Don’t you want whatever else they produce to come with such loving care? So, in the end, what do artists owe their fans? To continue to be the artists that made fans fall in love with them in the first place. That doesn’t mean doing the same thing over and over. It means following tangents and muses and keeping themselves entertained, since that’s what led to the art you came to love in the first place. Even if it means honking some people off.