Chances Are . . .

Just how many times a day is Law & Order on anyway?  Can’t we just give it its own network and be done with it?  Really.  I’m totally cool with that.  I’d probably even watch it.  Meanwhile, I can’t get a single Knight Rider rerun.  Where’s the justice in this universe?  Sure, I could spring for the DVDs, but should I have to?  Isn’t it odd that we have so many more hours of television available to us yet it seems like we have less and less variety.

This is my primary complaint with Syfy channel.  Do we really need another Stargate spinoff?  And, all things considered, does Caprica serve any useful purpose?  Short answer: No.  I’m not criticizing these shows (well, yes, I am, but I’m just one guy with one opinion) but it just bugs me that we keep repackaging the same ideas.  We always have, but at least we used to hide it, slap on a nice coat of paint, invent new names for old concepts.  Now that’s just not commercial enough.

Of course, the television networks, movie executives, and publishing houses will reply, “But we’re just giving the audience what they want.”  And it’s hard to argue with that.  But this is my blog and I like to throw out unusual points of view, so I’ll give it a shot.

Art and entertainment is not a one-way street.  Most artists don’t sit around in the dark, waiting to be told what to create by the audience.  I know that when I write a book I do so based on what idea seizes me, what strikes me as worth writing about.  I’ll admit I’m a brave soul.  Heck, I’m one of a handful of modern fantasy writers that has yet to write a series or even stick with a specific fantasy sub-genre.  Am I unique?  Hardly.  But it is an unusual enough position that it is worth noting.

And, let’s be straight about this, I get requests for sequels.  At one point, I have gotten these requests for all of my books.  These are always complimentary, and I’m always glad to hear them.  But sequels and series just don’t interest me.  So, yes, while I love every single fan, I’m also perfectly willing to ignore them to a certain degree.  Even when they’re offering encouraging words.

This is part of my job as a creator.  I can’t always give the audience what it wants.  Or I could, but I choose not to.  Why?  Is it arrogance?  Is it stupidity?  Is it artistic integrity?  Or is it none of the above?  I don’t know.  Honestly, at times I find it all of these things.  Couldn’t it be perceived as arrogant to dismiss the requests of people that are paying you good money to make up stories?  Isn’t it a bit stupid to deny fans the right to pay you for a product their clamoring for?  And couldn’t it be thought of as having integrity to refuse to write something I’m just not excited about because if I’m not excited, how can I expect the audience to be?

Beats the hell out of me.

My point though is that my career has had its ups and downs and my lack of a defining series makes me something of an anomaly.  Yet I’m doing pretty good.  People are still paying me to write.  Fans might like a Gil’s sequel or an Automatic Detective sequel or another adventure of Monster.  But they also seem to like the other things I write too.

In short, I’m denying the audience something, but I’m giving them something else in return.  Something that I definitely think is worth giving.  And I have fans.  (Forgive me for repeating myself on that point, but it still kind of surprises me.)  And those fans might have a favorite book, but they do still like what I write because there are people out there who like awesome things.  And I love writing about awesome things, so it all works out just super for everyone.

The problem with giving the audience what it wants is that there is no faster way to stagnation.  I’m not critizing the audience for loving familiar characters and worlds and wanting to see more of them.  But, well, that’s something that is worth mentioning.  While it might be good for an artist’s living to give the audience exactly what they request, it isn’t necessarily good for either the audience or the artist in the long run.

As a long time comic book fan, I see the cost of stagnation in a medium I used to love.  If you love Wolverine, Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, you can buy these guys out the yin yang.  If you’re a fan of the new Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, or Gravity, you’re out of luck.  And it’s true that Blue Beetle is not going to sell as many comic books as Wolverine will.  But Wolverine wasn’t a sales phenomenon out of the gate.  It took time to develop the character, his place in the world, his personality.  It took time for him to build an audience.  It’s easy to forget that the X-Men weren’t a commercial juggernaut for many years.  In today’s give the audience what it wants world, the original X-men comic would’ve been canceled unceremoniously.

The audience doesn’t always know what it wants.

Let’s just assume that many people reading this right now are fans of mine.  (Have I mentioned I have fans?)  And let’s assume that many of these fans enjoyed The Automatic Detective.  Before reading that book, did these fans wake up thinking, “I really wish there were more retro-sci fi pulp, crime noir robot detective pastiche stories being written.”  I seriously doubt it.  And was anyone asking for a story of modern gods sitting on the sofa, watching Spanish soap operas?

Whenever someone tells me, even with the best of intentions, that they wish I would write a sequel to X, I always wonder if they disliked all my other novels.  If they only enjoyed one book, then I can see where they’re coming from.  But if they liked two or three of my novels, then don’t they realize that if I wrote a series, then one of their favorite books (hey, it’s my blog. allow me to fantasize.)  would never have existed.

But, just to show that I’m not using this as an excuse to simply write about myself, I’d like to offer a more culturally relevant example.

A movie like Iron Man 2 is supported by a massive advertising campaign.  The movie makes millions at the box office.  Meanwhile, a smaller film flounders in obscurity.  Is the success or failure of either due entirely to giving the audience what they want?  Or can we see a cycle unfolding where a constant stream of media exposure and well executed marketing campaign succeeds in creating demand?  Add to this the good will and eagerness of an audience that enjoyed the original Iron Man film, and it’s not hard to see that the audience isn’t necessarily the sole force deciding what it gets.

This isn’t a criticism of Iron Man.  I rather enjoyed the original movie, and I’m cautiously optimistic that the sequel will be good.  Though I’ll admit I’m a touch worried that it’s already strayed into the superhero movie trap of having way too many characters and plot points for its own good.  But that’s another blog entry.

I suppose my point here is that, even if one believes that all the audience wants is sequels, spinoffs, and series, that’s not necessarily a good reason to give that to them.  Because the audience is smarter, more imaginative, and more eager to enjoy an original story than they themselves realize.  And why shouldn’t that be true?  It’s not the audience’s job to be creative.  That’s the creator’s job.  If you could write your own cannibal witch love story, you wouldn’t need me now, would you?

Of course, it’s easy for me to say that because I’m fortunate enough to be successful following that philosophy.  Trust me, I know how damned lucky I am too.  Still, I don’t think I’m so fabulously talented that more people couldn’t be doing what I do.  There are plenty of talented artists out there.  Tons of them.  And I in no way want to suggest that they’re selling out or less talented for writing series, but I don’t think it’s a tremendous leap to also suggest that perhaps some writers find themselves trapped in a trap of audience expectations.

Giving the audience what it wants isn’t a bad thing, but it isn’t always a good thing either.  How many Saw movies do we really need at this point?  Sure, they make money, and people line up every Halloween to see them, almost like it’s become more of a tradition than anything else.  And do we really need a re-imagining of Star Trek?  Yes, it was a fun film that I enjoyed immensely, but can’t we do more than slick repackaging of old ideas that the audience will eagerly devour.

I suppose my complaint here is not that these films and books exist, but that they continue to dominate because the powers that be throw all their support behind them and then use this endless cycle of audience conditioning and expectations to justify stagnation and unimaginative offerings.  Perhaps the best thing about Cameron’s Avatar was that it proved you could make an original film that made a billion dollars that didn’t have to be based on anything else.  I didn’t love the film, but, for all those who criticized its originality, I can only say it isn’t another sequel or spinoff.  And that’s something I can respect.

OK-Go has managed to build a solid fanbase by eschewing conventional marketing, and instead, trusting that creative, low-budget music videos and songs that they like writing and performing will be commercially viable.  They chose to discard the traditional music label route because they found it too restrictive.  It seems to be working.

The cycle can be broken, but it’s not the sole responsibility of either the artist or the audience to break it.  Because neither is fully responsible for it, but as long as they continue to foist the responsibility on the other, they’ll always have an excuse for playing it safe. 

The creators have to trust the audience will enjoy an original idea.  The audience has to expect more than the same old idea.  Creators have to be willing to sacrifice some short term succes for long term gains.  And audiences have to be willing to take a risk on something that doesn’t come with pre-approved characters and concepts.  Otherwise, we’re just stuck in an endless loop of empty nostalgia and going through the motions, all in the name of giving the audience what it wants.

We can do better.  We just have to be willing to take chances.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Dave
    Posted May 8, 2010 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    Lee, you can do both. You can develop new characters, explore new worlds, fight new fights, and at the same time, pick a book or two to target as series books and use expanding those worlds to fill in around the chinks between your new offerings.

    Some day, and I admit that that day seems a long way away, you will have trouble developing new ideas. When that happens, it is nice to be able to decide that you can always give the audience more of what they want while you wait for new ideas to develop in your head.

    You may be this big-time, hot stuff writer, but we all know that I, who has never written a thing or submitted an idea, knows more about writing than you do.

  2. Posted May 8, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    You know what? In a way it seems to me you write nothing but sequels … well, kinda.
    Right now I’m reading “Divine Misfortune” after having read all your other novels – and it was money well spent, I’m telling you! Yet it occurred to me that all these novels are very similar, at least structurally. Half the book is spent establishing an unusual scenario and main characters who are normal dudes with a twist (be they cursed, Kobolds, Werewolves or … er … married). Then the universe threatens to explode (your universes are very unstable …) and the normal dudes show they can rise above their flaws to save everyone and everything.
    Now, don’t get me wrong – I love that stuff. These stories always feel like they finish too quickly, like you just caught a fleeting glimpse into some charmingly bizarre world that you want to know more about. Therefore the demand for sequels, I guess. And here comes my point: I’d say that you are already writing sequels – not in terms of characters or settings, but in terms of style and structure.
    Does that make sense? I guess this is somewhat applicable to every author out there (for who changes their writing style from novel to novel?), but I just noticed it while reading your books. I’m sure your next book will again feel like a sequel to an ongoing series about Normal Dudes In Awesome Worlds … just like these old pulp magazines. And that is what I’m very much looking forward to.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted May 8, 2010 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

      It’s a fair point, but I have to disagree on some of them. For example, in Divine Misfortune the universe is not endangered at all. Nor is this true of The Automatic Detective.

      But, and here’s the important point, I’m not suggesting that writers abandon stylistic choices. Rather, I’m suggesting that they can experiment more than expected. While Mack Megaton and Nessy the kobold might be similar in basic character type (i.e. “normal dudes” in unusual situations) their methods of solving their problems vary immensely. Mack is an indestructible robotic tough guy while Nessy is a meek, sensible person who can’t rely on physical power to solve her problems. In Divine Misfortune, the gods are immortal, with really not a care in the world. The only people in danger in the entire story are Teri, Phil, and Bonnie. For all his talk, there’s no evidence that Gorgoz could destroy the world or even make much of a dent in it. (Which was kind of the point for me in writing it. It’s a very non-cosmic story when you break it down.) I’m not saying that my books aren’t similar in writing style, but the plot arcs and resolutions vary quite a bit.

      Even if characters and worlds are similar, the form of the problems, the central dilemma, and the method of resolving these problems varies wildly. And that’s something I’m quite proud of. I’m not saying I’m reinventing every story, but I definitely try to avoid repetition. You might disagree, but I think it’s more diverse than you initially suspect.

      Or maybe not. Damn, I hate talking about my work. Always makes me sound pretentious. So apologies if that’s how it comes across.

      • Posted May 9, 2010 at 6:00 am | Permalink

        Why, I didn’t mean that your plots were all similar. If they were I propably would have stopped reading your books by now. What I’m saying is that there’s a certain pattern to your novels in that you spend a lot of time establishing a world and having fun with its possibilities before the old conflict-resolution-thingy starts getting serious.

        Of course it is unfair to lump together all your characters, since they differ vastly in their personalities. But all of them approach their conflicts with a certain “Don’t bother me!”-attitude, be they human, robot, kobold or god. They just want to get on with their lives, which makes them very identifiable. Also, they show a great deal of integrity, they are always true to themselves, and I admire that.

        Talking about one’s own hard work is always difficult, but you’re always honest and upright about it, which went into my cool book. Not every fantasy author will admit that what they’re cranking out comes not from a desire to produce art but to write something they find awesome.
        Well, maybe you’re sometimes just a teensy bit mopey about it … 😉

  3. Rippley
    Posted May 8, 2010 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

    I love your stories. In my opinion, you create great works of art. I might joke around a bit, see how many times I get you to write the word “sex” in a single blog, but I respect you. Or, at least, I respect your works of art. I do not know you. Your blog is a pretentious, opinionated, rant fest with mixed messages and quasi-intellectual views.

    I suspect you have a thick skin. I hope you have a thick skin, because my words are tainted with poison. While I previously stated that I love your works of art, I wish I could see a wider range of writing ability. Right now, you are my Tom Hanks. Tom’s entire career is built around him playing the same character in a variety of films. I’m not sure whether Tom Hanks had been type cast in his films, but I usually see Tom play the same character over and over again. In reality, Tom Hanks can act; he has a wide range of characters that remind the viewer nothing of Tom Hanks. But he doesn’t play those parts.

    I don’t think your stories, however varied they might be, show your range as a writer. Don’t get me wrong, this pastiche business, is good. Tom Hanks makes millions of dollars to play different characters the same way again and again. I’m always going to buy Tom Hanks movies. I’m gullible like that. But I hope someday that you will break free from the typical A. Lee Martinez story and make me think, WOW! A. Lee Martinez isn’t the Danielle Steal of modern Sci-fi/Fantasy.

    I wish you weren’t so confident that your story was written right the first time. Anyway, just my idiot view. I doubt you take the word of us lowland-ass-bangers into consideration anyway….as you said in this blog post.

    • Elizabeth
      Posted May 9, 2010 at 1:42 am | Permalink

      Same thing with Jack Nicholson as with Tom Hanks-he was constantly playing himself in everything and then he did About Schmidt that made everyone go “oh wow, the man can act” and had not Adrian Brody done the Pianist, he probably would have gotten that Oscar for it.

      While I would love to see Lee write sequels, at least his books are different enough on the first read that I never noticed anything similar in terms of characters or in style, unless one counts the funny.

  4. Elizabeth
    Posted May 9, 2010 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    I think you are not pointing out what goes into making a Hollywood film/show/whatever on the business side.

    There are plenty of artists out there who make incredible cool new and inventive stuff however most of the business world, for all of their gambling on the stock market, are very wary of risk. So when you do get the new stuff, either there was a change in management or something took off without any support from bigwigs.

    Which means that Saw MCLVIX is going to come out because it sold well once while a smaller horror film that would do more than slash and gash will not get made.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted May 9, 2010 at 2:19 am | Permalink

      It’s true that it’s the nature of business to try and find safer ways to make money, and that can be stifling toward the creative process. And I don’t want to say that the business people are wrong for wanting to make money. That’s capitalism, and while I’m not exactly a free market idealist, I do believe that capitalism has its perks.

      However, sometimes the business side can create its own self-fulfilling cycle, and that’s just my point. I don’t really have anything against movies like Saw. I even respect that in this age of bloated blockbusters, low budget films like Saw can prove themselves viable by being profitable. But it’s also too easy to phone it in, not take chances, and then blame a conditioned audience for your lack of risk taking.

      I’m not saying I have an answer to this problem. I’m just pointing it out. If there’s a solution to it, I haven’t figured it out. Other than a radical shift in the creative, business, and audience expectations that I just don’t see coming.

      • Elizabeth
        Posted May 12, 2010 at 1:15 am | Permalink

        We could outlaw gambling on the stock market so they feel they have to take risks somewhere else…

  5. Zovesta
    Posted May 9, 2010 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    “Let’s just assume that many people reading this right now are fans of mine. (Have I mentioned I have fans?) And let’s assume that many of these fans enjoyed The Automatic Detective. Before reading that book, did these fans wake up thinking, “I really wish there were more retro-sci fi pulp, crime noir robot detective pastiche stories being written.” I seriously doubt it. And was anyone asking for a story of modern gods sitting on the sofa, watching Spanish soap operas?”
    Well, maybe not all of them, but I sure as hell did. I mean, we go to the library one a week, right? The week before I found yours I was in an extreme bat-craze and I was wishing that there were some books with kobolds in them as protagonists and wild characters. And whoop-de-doo, next week there was Too Many Curses. One of the best moments in my life that I can remember, mind.

    I have to sort of agree with you on this, or at least expect your opinion. Though all of your books that I have read so far have left an opening for a sequel. At least Too Many Curses and Gil’s All Fright Diner have – Curses in particular.

    … >_> But I’m still writing a fanfic-sequel to Too Many Curses, even if you won’t.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted May 9, 2010 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      Go for it. I’ve been waiting for someone to write some fanfic based on one of my stories. Maybe it means I’ve finally made it. 😉

      • Zovesta
        Posted May 17, 2010 at 8:29 am | Permalink

        Woo-hoo. xD Great, now there’s another thing that’ll bother me while I try to finish my story.

  6. Posted May 9, 2010 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    I suspect (nay, trust) you already do this, but…

    Be it standalone or sequel, write whatever the heck you want to write. Follow your bliss.

    Fans. Wow. Maybe someday I’ll understand that kind of phenomena.

  7. Mark jaeger
    Posted August 15, 2013 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    Dang it! I really loved company of ogres, monster, and Gil’s all fright diner. Those characters deserve thousands of pages each (in my opinion) Don’t give up on them!!! I love the humour in your books. Have you read jig the dragonslayer?

  8. Christopher
    Posted July 10, 2015 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the majority of what you’re saying, I will always have a soft spot though for the characters that truly had me rooting for them in the end. I mean I’m not their Creator, other than fan fiction i really don’t have a say in where they go next. But in my imagination I see my favorite characters like Luka (divine misfortune), Earl and Duke (Gil’s), and Never Dead Ned (Ogre Company) going on many more hilarious and enthralling adventures. Part of me I suppose desperately wishes this desire would be shared by the one man who can make these imaginings any sort of reality, which would be you my good sir…. But you’re right, if your heart isn’t in it they won’t be the characters i truly enjoyed. Disappointing as it is I wish you the best of luck and hope you’ll reconsider a sequel someday to one of your masterpieces (particularly one that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed!)

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