Watson likely stories

Authorial intent and reader drives

Some people say the author is dead; what is this intent you speak of? Other people eagerly seek out DVD commentaries and interviews, thus demonstrating their hunger to know the intent. Other people say, yeah, okay, I can see your intent, but I don't care, I'm appropriating this!

This theorizing is relevant to working authors in one way: it reminds us we have one shot at communicating what we want.

Yeah, I'm alive and I have an intent, but since I can't hover over your shoulder explaining everything in my stories, I need to bring my craft up to the highest level I can. I need to sweat and fuss, and then let go. But even if I do that, even if I do the best job I possibly can of sharing what's going on in my head, the reader is still an active participant, still the one that does the work of decoding. (Lots of fun technique uses that to the writer's advantage!) What happens in my readers' heads isn't entirely in my control.

Ars Draconis is the first experience I've had with reader interpretation varying greatly from mine.

I set out to write genfic. I wanted a close partnership story between Giles and Buffy, but I also wanted to put that partnership under stress by making Giles much stronger than he was before. Buffy has been the hero unchallenged; now there's another hero standing alongside her. How does she cope? How does Giles cope with the cost of becoming a hero? I have already told you (more or less) how the sword is activated; the next chapter will show it happening. How do they all deal with the side effects? There's also an undercurrent of one of the character issues I am apparently fascinated with as a writer, the issue of the strong and capable person who chooses to serve someone else.

Nobody reads as closely as the writer does. I knew as I went that the hints might or might not be picked up by my readers. Hints are clear in retrospect; they need to be there or the reader feels cheated, but they might or might not be understood the first time through. The red herrings make it harder. It's a game we play with each other, writer and readers, for our mutual pleasure. But still, I pay way more attention than you do, perforce.

I didn't set out, intend, consider, want, or imagine that people would read Giles/Buffy into that story. But they have. Just about everybody who's written to me about it has. (With one exception, who wanted Ethan, to which I will only say: I know what my final scene is. And no, this isn't me saying it's a G/E story, 'cause it isn't, just that Ethan... argh. Never mind.) Smart people, some of my very favorite conversationalists here, have read it that way.

So what's going on?

Item: The writer's subconscious affects stories in surprising (to the writer) ways. Giles/Buffy is my OTP for a number of reasons, some of which are factors that drive the story in Ars Draconis. It should not surprise me that the undercurrents show up there. I might really have been writing G/B all along. I knew I'd written some moments of UST along with the friendship. Don't we all have moments like that with people we don't really want to have relationships with? Moments of mmmm that we don't need to follow up on?

Item: Fans sexualize everything. I do not exclude myself here. Two core drives: we want to spend more time with beloved characters, and we want to make real the relationship subtexts we see. (That was the practice's origin, anyway. It's now something more than that: it's a habit. Fans pair characters played by good-looking actors without needing subtext any more. But that's another essay.) We make them real by expressing them in sexual contexts, even if it's a teen-rated smooching context. The reasons why are complicated. I find the biological drive sufficient explanation, so I don't want to look further just now. Let's just accept that we sexualize.

Item: Fanfiction readers are appropriation-prone, more so than most readers. That's what drives them to read and write fanfic. They are more willing to read their interpretations into what's on the page.

Item: Readers bring expectations to stories. All readers, not just fanfic readers. It's fanfic, which means shippiness can be reasonably expected. It's fanfic written by me, which means Giles/Buffy can be reasonably expected.

Result: The "gen" label I've stuck onto the story is overwhelmed.

If the story were a completed thing, I'd take notes and move on. I think it's only a problem because the story is a work in progress. The feedback has the potential to affect how I write the rest of it. Competing urges: please the crowd! Do the exact opposite! Become all neurotically worried about how it's being read and find one's self incapable of writing the next installment!

In other words:
"Wow, I guess I'd better write mumble and mumble as a couple or my readers will be upset."
"Oh dear. People seem to be reading RL as gay! But he's not! I know. I'll marry him off."
"Holy crap, what have I been writing? What if I meant to do that? If I write what I want to will people hate it? Arrrrrrrrrgh!" <---- writerly neurosis of the sort I am prone to

So how should I react?

There's an Oblique Strategy I love: Honor thy mistake as a hidden intention.
Writing is too difficult a task to be entrusted to the conscious mind.

What does that mean? Nothing I'm going to reveal specifically here. I'm going to follow my plan (where I have one), write to reach the climactic confrontation I've wanted to reach all along, end with the decision I've been seeing in my head all along. Everywhere else, I'll follow my nose. If it turns out my subconscious has had a plan that my stupid conscious self hasn't realized, I'll run with it.

What I've learned:
+ I'm deeply grateful that people have cared enough about one of my stories to have opinions about where it should go. Love!
+ [sneaky] Figure out what I did that got this sort of response. Do it again.
+ I'm going to find a way to ignore you so I can write a story that does what I want it to, trusting my own instincts and artistic drives.
+ This is one of the many pitfalls of writing serials.

How do you cope, oh serial writers?
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Write what you want. I'm sufficiently sophisticated to read what I want. This is not a relationship of equals - you are the writer, I am merely along for the ride. It's a fast-paced ride, with lots of tasty detail & protagonists to care about. Whatever, whenever, I'm just a cheerleader! (When I'm not the peanut gallery.)
Heh, that's a really interesting way to put it. I hadn't thought of it in terms of equality or otherwise.

I feel a bit dorky: I love writing teh fanfics because I get feedback! From real people! And now I'm saying, "Woah? That feedback? Woah! Brain exploding!" I'll adjust and continue on plodding, no worries.
+ [sneaky] Figure out what I did that got this sort of response. Do it again.

I didn't exactly read that story as B/G, BUT it hit every single reason why I ship B/G. Maybe I wasn't the only one? Does that make sense?
When I first read Ars Draconis, I knew it was a genfic, but only because you said so from the very start. I found the story to be heavy on the b/g side, and I'm not sure it was just wishful thinking on my part. I didn't even really know your work too well at that point. But, like Blood Oranges, I think you can have a great genfic that has some b/g undertones. There is something in their canonical relationship that exists, whether I will it to be there or not. Joss has said that he wants us to feel like the characters could all be in love with each other. I think with these two characters, there is a certain intimacy that isn't just there because we think they're pretty. Not that this in any way goes against what you were saying. I'm just tossing in my 2 cents.
I think all three of these things can be going at once:
- There can be shippy subtext, put there by me and by the authors of the canon material.
- You can be reading wishfully.
- I can be writing shippily without entirely intending to consciously. (Or I could be inept. Insufficiently skilled if you wish to be polite to me.)

And I note that B/G grabs me hard because of subtext in canon, of stuff that I saw in the on-screen interactions of those two. This isn't one of those cases, in my opinion, where fans are plugging two people together who never sparked in the original. (Or maybe I should say, where plugging together would require mutating the characters beyond recognition. Giles and Fred never met in canon, but one could imagine them having a lot to say to each other if they did.)
(Or I could be inept. Insufficiently skilled if you wish to be polite to me.)

Fuck that. We can discuss your strengths and weaknesses if you like, but your writing could never be considered inept.

Your skills are head and shoulders above 99% of the writers out there.
To be honest, I rarely had that much feedback on any of the longer serial fics -- usually, a core of four or five friends, with another ten people I knew were reading. ;-) Only once or twice did I have a letter of comment which made me say, "Whoa, I need to address this," and always it made the piece stronger, made me articulate what I meant.

It's been interesting, however, to have three or four people first-read my original project chapters. On the finished OP, very early in the process each of my three first-readers "picked" (or connected to because of their own aesthetic preferences) a different character or pairing, and their revision comments always privileged 'their' character or pairing.

To conclude: It matters WHO is feeding back, in my experience. ;-)
Perhaps because HP readers review more than Buffy ones, I can say that I have had the experience of having lots of reviews brought to bear on my work. 'Ladder' got 25 - 40 reviews per chapter, and many of them were anxious for me to have the characters shag 'now!' In fact, a few reviewers even 'punished' me when things didn't go the way they wanted quickly enough (I'm talking about at an archive that uses a rating system). It's hard to ignore pleasing the audience, but I think you have to to be true to your own vision as a writer. The readers who were really upset that things didn't move quickly enough seemed to stop reading by chapter 15, and the rest - the ones who got it or were willing to wait to see where I was going - ended up being there for the long haul.
This is absolutely fascinating. I'd read nothing of yours prior to Ars Draconis, and that I only stumbled upon because of the Remix Redux. Now, I think, though I can't quite remember, that I read the remix first, which probably influenced my assumptions about the nature of the original. And I know I totally missed that you had it listed as a genfic - there's so little genfic out there that I tend to live with the default assumption there's a ship in it some where.

The funny thing is that I am not a reader who would be reading B/G shippiness into a fic. I'm intrigued by the relationship between Giles and Buffy, as it is complicated and layered, but I'm more into the whole father/daughter vibe than the romantic relationship vibe. At best I'd categorize myself as a B/G agnostic. As in, theoretically, even if it isn't a ship I'm naturally drawn to, some B/G should exist that I would respond positively to because it is just that well written, right? However, when I do read a story that ships B/G, it never works for me. Well, at least not until A.D. And now I find out that it may not count! Just a tich ironic. :-)

So yes, I came in with assumptions, but as I read it, I wasn't motivated to look for ship moments. The two things I can think of that stand out as me seeing a B/G vibe was a) the early on scene of Giles being able to pull the sword free (but I'm sure without rereading that there's probably wiggle room for it to be a non-romantic love, eh?), and b) the fact that Giles' clothes were becoming more and more colorful, which I read as being not unlike the way males of many species have the colorful plumage meant to make them more attractive to the female. I'm sure there were other things, but it was late April when I first read it.

I'm interested in A.D. and wanting to read it because it is a good read - a complex, plotty fic that has character development - and the mix and balance of those two parts is so nicely done. I love a good, plotty gen fic. I've silently wondered why there is so little Buffy & Giles-centric genfic. So, hey, if A.D. was always meant to be gen, then w00t! I'm a happy camper. If you decide to shift the nature of it, I'm still on board for that, because I'm confident that the it will work without overshadowing the overall story you are telling.
I know I'm late responding to this, but I kept the tab open in my browser for three days because authorial intent is something that is a bit of a hot-button issue with me.

Re: Ars Draconis: This is probably not what you really want to hear, but I thought the B/G-ness of A.D. was fairly explicit, but I also thought it was the sword making it that way; I thought that Buffy was Giles's impossible love, but neither of them knew it - as far as they knew they were just friends - but the Sword Knew Better, so to speak, and was changing Giles in ways that would please Buffy. I think it was the line where Buffy thinks about how this new Giles isn't safe anymore that did it for me; I read it as her reacting to him on a far more physical level than she ever had before, and it was directly related to the sword.

As for the more lit crit stuff . . . I don't believe the author is dead, but I believe that authorial intent limits interpretation so much that we should almost pretend that he/she is. Because while it is, on one hand, true that the author reads his/her own stuff very closely, that can often lead to an issue of missing the forest for the trees (or not seeing some of the trees quite right either). I have often had people point things out to me in my own work that I had never noticed; I might have noticed it eventually, but not without a good deal of time and distance. So what the author intended matters, but in the end not as much to me as many authors might hope. I have no patience for idiots like Ann Rice who think her word is law or some BS, because it's not.

This changes when the author and the readers interact, either in DVD commentary or online or in other ways. I hadn't thought of it in that context before, but I think that most serial writers would say that their readers absolutely affect their work. Others (myself included) have just decided not to publish serially. I used to, and then I wrote A Deeper Season and swore I never would again. I hadn't formulated the decision in any particular way - except that having WIPs floating about that will never be finished makes me itch - but it's possible that this is part of it: Writing something all in one go and then posting it means that it is somehow more completely mine. Because obviously, as an author my own intention matters a great deal to me, even if, as a lit crit person, I could care less.

This, by the way? Is the reason that there tend to be bitter divisions in lit departments between the creative writing majors and the literary theory folks.
Insightful commentary.

The Anne Rice stance seems ridiculous and counter-productive to me. Readers do the work of decoding. This has to be obvious any time you read something that was written long ago (Shakespeare) or for a culture not your own, and you need notes along with the text to explain contemporary jokes, or cultural norms.

I like this: Writing something all in one go and then posting it means that it is somehow more completely mine. An incentive to attempt to finish things before I post them. On the other hand, I missed something big about what was going on inside AD that I ought to have spotted myself. Hopeful thinking, perhaps. I want to write more gen than I've been writing.
An incentive to attempt to finish things before I post them. On the other hand, I missed something big about what was going on inside AD that I ought to have spotted myself.

To me, this is why God gave us beta readers. I find it pretty much essential with a piece of long writing to have someone (either a co-writer or a line editor) reading as I go so I don't miss something big like that, as well as someone to give a big picture view at the end. In the case of A.D. I think most beta readers would have said to you, "Uh, you realize you have some pretty clear B/G happening here, right?" But if I remember correctly, both parts were tag-fics, yes? And therefore unbeta'd.

Finishing a fic before posting is helpful on a few levels, the main one being that it assures your readers that you aren't going to flake out in the middle. Not that you flake, of course, but many people do and an eternally unfinished monster WIP is annoying to readers. And it usually makes for a tighter story, since you have the ending written when you post the beginning, so you can eliminate the stuff you don't know if you need or not (JK Rowling is a case in point here: There is so much in the HP series that is unnecessary, and I adamantly believe she would have found a way to eliminate a bunch of it if she'd not been publishing serially - or at least she wouldn't have been able to argue with her editor about needing it all there). I find I need some audience during the process, especially if a fic is very long (I can't write with the door totally shut, as Stephan King says), but a few people will do just fine for that. And, as I said, it makes the story exactly what I wanted.

So that's my pitch for finishing before you post. On the other hand, isn't writer-reader interaction part of what's so fabulous about fanfiction? Yes, in my opinion. So is it a problem, necessarily, that the readers influence the writer? Not at all, so long as you're comfortable with it.