I know, I know. Just stay with me on this.
I’m a big fan of Mumford and Sons. I first heard them in an Irish pub somewhere—on the stereo, not live—and was immediately drawn in by their sound and lyrics. I recently picked up their third album, Wilder Minds, and I’ve really been enjoying it. Obviously I like some songs more than others; “Ditmas” is currently my favorite . If you’re not familiar with the band, they have a very cool sound: mostly acoustic, with a banjo and rarely anything more than a kick drum for percussion. That all changed in this new album, and based on some of the reviews I saw, some people weren’t happy about the change. The album definitely sounds more “rock” than the folksy style they had before, but I think you can still hear the soul of the band there. Apparently plenty of people disagree with me. At first, their unhappiness made me think of the stories about when Bob Dylan went electric. This got me thinking, though. As a fan, I completely understand wanting to hear more of the music you love from an artist. But expecting the same thing in perpetuity isn’t really fair or realistic. As people, we grow, we change, we mature, and our view of the world changes to reflect that. Since artists are ultimately expressing themselves, it’s only natural their art will change and grow with them. You might not be growing the same way, or in the same direction, or at the same speed. That means you might drift away from the artist, and that’s just part of the deal. It’s certainly happened to me. At the least, though, you always have the earlier works.
This also got me thinking about my own art (my books), since I’ve got a healthy ego and everything ultimately comes back to me. If you think you detected a bit of sarcasm in that last line, you’re right, there is just a touch of it. As some of you know, I’m working on the fourth book in the American Faerie Tale series. No, you don’t get to know the name or what it’s about. Not yet. If it goes out on schedule, I’ll have been a writer for just about two years. Now, I’m not noting that to brag. Okay, I’m not noting that JUST to brag. I’m now a little more than a year into this professional writer thing, which gives me some perspective. I also recently got another bad review—one which mentioned a criticism another review had noted—and these things together got me looking back. To summarize the criticism, it revolved around the lack of female characters in The Stolen, or the lack of agency with those it did have. And the truth is, that’s a fair criticism.
The Stolen was my first book. I finished the first draft for it about five years ago, give or take. Then I spent a few years editing to get it to where I was happy with it, and then it went to Harper Voyager for their open submission window. Up to that point, I’d pretty much been writing in a vacuum. I didn’t have beta readers. I wasn’t part of a writing group. I wasn’t into social media. My involvement in the world of books, and geekery in general, was me reading books (or rather listening, as I’ve been focused on audiobooks for a while now). It wasn’t until I started venturing out into the world, so to speak, that I saw the tropes and stereotypes that I’d taken as the norm. Kameron Hurley does an excellent job discussing these stereotypes here. More importantly, I saw why giving into these isn’t just bad (in many, many ways), but also limited me as a writer. This is where, for lack of a better term, I checked my privilege. I want my books to be filled with powerful characters (of all genders) that have agency and that readers will love. I looked back and, like many authors, saw all the things I could’ve done to improve my first book. By this time I’d heard from Harper and was preparing for the release of The Stolen. I should note that I’m very proud of The Stolen and its characters, I truly am. I believe it’s the best story I could’ve written at the time, but I also think it’s just a good story. I love the characters in it, with all their faults and flaws. But could I write a better story now? Better characters? Absolutely! And I think I have. But then, I’ve been writing much more intently since The Stolen was finished. So, since I can’t go back and change my first book—and frankly, I wouldn’t even if I could—I did the only thing I could do: I looked forward, took those lessons, and applied them to my next book. Isn’t that the goal of every artist, or really, every person: to grow, to learn, and to improve ourselves? I think I succeeded with The Forgotten and continued that progression with Three Promises. I’ve never made any secret of the fact I struggled with Caitlin in the first book. Looking back, I think I tried too hard. I was so focused on writing a (cringe warning) strong female character, that I lost sight of just making the best character I could. She doesn’t have much screen time in The Forgotten, but I think she’s improved in that story and even more so in Three Promises, as have all the characters. When I wrote Wraith, the protagonist in The Forgotten, she came to life for me, and all the hard lessons I learned from writing The Stolen paid off.
Lest you think I’m trying to dissuade you from picking up The Stolen, if you haven’t already, I’m not. As I said, I think it’s a good book and a good start to the series, with good characters. There are things in it I know some people won’t like that I’m entirely happy with. But anyone who really thinks they can write something everyone will love is deluding themselves. Even Harry Potter got one star reviews. That being said, I also recognize it’s my first book, and I’m a stronger writer now. I see the places I can improve and strive to do just that in the next book. I’m sure at some point I’ll look back on The Forgotten and Three Promises the same way. What’s more, that’s kind of the point of a first book in the series. And here’s why I wouldn’t change The Stolen even if I could. It isn’t just me that’s growing and changing, it’s the characters themselves. Caitlin isn’t the same in Three Promises as she was in The Stolen. None of the characters are from one book to the next, and neither am I.
All this brings me back to where I started this post. In the years since my first book, I’ve grown, as writer, as a person, and as an artist. Consequently, my books (and the characters in them) have changed to reflect the changes in me. So if you find yourself reading a book that you really don’t like, perhaps passionately, take note if it’s the author’s first book or the first in a series. As a writer, I ask you to give the next book a shot. We’re all of us ever changing, ever growing. You never know where the author might be when you pick up that next book. It might just turn out to be exactly what you were hoping to find, or never thought you would. If, however, you so passionately disliked the book that you refuse to ever touch another by the author, that’s your option and I respect that. If The Stolen was that book for you, or any of the subsequent books in the series, I humbly thank you for your time (and money) and wish you well on your journey to find a book you love. There are tons of them out there, and I’ll be noting some of them below.
I can’t speak for every writer, obviously, but when I sit down to write a story, I want it to be the best it can be. I want it to be the book you can’t wait to tell everyone you know about. For some people, I’ve done that (woo hoo!), for others, well, not so much. But I’ll keep trying. Some people will think I’ve succeeded, some will see it as an abysmal failure. And they’ll both be right.
As promised, here’s a list of some great books you can check out (in no particular order). These writers, like myself, are new and growing with each new word they type. You might not like them all, but then again, you might.
Darkhaven by AFE Smith
A Fairy-Tale Ending by Jack Heckel
Desert Rising & The Obsidian Temple by Kelley Grant
Grey by Christi J. Whitney
The Ark by Laura Liddell Nolan
Ignite the Shadows by Ingrid Seymour
Belt Three by John Ayliff
Unexpected Rain by Jason LaPier
Hero Born by Andy Livingstone
Stealing into Winter by Graeme K. Talboys
The Machinery by Gerrard Cowan
Supervision by Alison Stine
Detective Strongoak and the Case of the Dead Elf by Terry Newman
The Day Before by Liana Brooks
The Brass Giant by Brooke Johnson
Dark Alchemy & Mercury Retrograde by Laura Bickle
Superheroes Anonymous & Supervillains Anonymous by Lexie Dunne
The Iron Ring & Iron and Blood by Auston Habershaw
The God Hunter & Devil in the Wires by Tim Lees
Stonehill Downs by Sarah Remy
Among Wolves by Nancy K. Wallace
Graynelore by Stephen Moore
Thorn Jack & The Briar Queen by Katherine Harbour
Veiled Empire by Nathan Garrison