The sequel to Children is called Land. The book explains why the series is called The Ten Worlds, since our heroines and heroes travel from the Nine Worlds Universe to Iceland (where else?) and some of the survivors make it back. It’s going to be cinematic. Epic, actually. There’s everlasting love, but no romance; exploration of consent and abuse in uneven relationships; there’s Iceland and the Hidden Folk. Questions asked in Children are answered, riddles solved. Aha, Land also doesn’t exist, even though I officially announced it, somewhat optimistically, as a 2021 release.
It’s a grown up book. I had to grow up first.
The first sign that I wasn’t ready was deciding to send an outline to a sensitivity reader (let’s call them Mel), because I wanted to make sure I’m doing the right thing. Some of my new characters are Black-coded – dark elves. One of the reasons is that I want to make Norse fantasy less white. I worried… nah, I was terrified that I was just wasting time. That I wasn’t doing it right.
The outline featured brief history of Svartálfheim, the home of dark elves; biographies of the characters; their plot arcs, relationships, motivations. I expected help in form of resources, advice, being pointed into some direction or away from another. Some of the things I listed in not too much detail were my own life experiences in a fantasy setting, like a good half of Children. I was so scared to say something wrong, though, that I asked other authors to beta-read the outline and give me feedback on that before I sent it to Mel.
The response was my worst nightmare. The essence of the seven-page document was that I wasn’t just racist and ignorant – I was too ignorant to see how racist and ignorant I was. The book, Mel said, although not in those words, was unsalvageable. I didn’t get advice, I got replacements – a book I should write instead.
I’m going to jump ahead here, in case someone thinks I’m saying authors shouldn’t use sensitivity readers. I’ve been working on this post for over a month. Two weeks ago I re-read that feedback. It’s nowhere as vicious as it felt in January 2021. It’s sometimes misguided, some of it – unasked for, but well meant. Mel sensed something I didn’t know about myself yet.
Back then, I was absolutely devastated. I spent two months dreaming about Mel’s words. I thought about them first thing in the morning and last thing at night, as I rolled in bed, trying to fall asleep. There was a lot of denial, anger, depression. Eventually I realised I could use a few bits as inspiration, even though I wouldn’t be doing as instructed. I thought I arrived at acceptance.
It took me another five months to finish a mostly coherent draft I sent to a few writer friends. One of them, who is Black himself, told me I was too careful and made the characters flat as a result. It was a warning I didn’t hear over Little Mel’s whispers at the back of my mind: you’re ignorant. You’ll fail. You don’t even know what you don’t know. And, of course, the R-word.
One of the beta readers disliked a particular subplot – relationship between the God and the indentured servant. Little Mel laughed: I told you you’re racist! I started changing that part. The reader liked it even less. Confirmation, Little Mel gasped in delight, you’re so racist you’re too ignorant to see it! This fear built into anger as I kept adding, changing, pushing, until the exasperated reader first told me they couldn’t endorse that, then cut me off.
It felt extremely unfair. What gave this person the right to accuse me of such extreme racism? This book didn’t even exist yet! I re-read our communication, then again, until I saw it. They were telling me the relationship wasn’t working as a romance. Little Mel gave me a “romantic”-shaped blind spot, amplifying every criticism and translating it to racism accusations that were never there. I was rebelling against my own delusions.
Now I understood what happened – too late, but at least I got it. I had a much worse problem. Somehow, along the way, I became This Guy, the sort of male author demanding validation, getting angry when it wouldn’t arrive. How did this happen? When? Why…?
I stopped working on the book. I couldn’t.
How? When? Why?
It took me over a year of digging in the wound in search for the source of the rot. I was obsessing about the obsession. How? When? Why? Simultaneously, I was going through lots of c-PTSD therapy and learning why Children, which is largely autobiographical, was less funny to some readers than it was to me. Well, used to be. I became afraid of the book, knowing I’d have to re-read it before returning to Land, procrastinating so successfully I wrote and published a completely different book – Why Odin Drinks – and started working on the sequel to that.
Every now and then the therapy became so painful I couldn’t even read, much less write. I tried not to think and talk about what had happened. I couldn’t. How? When? Why? I always detested this sort of authors. How blind can you be? Month by month, the therapy untangled the knots, straightened the twists, even removed Little Mel. (Little Bjørn was still around, which wasn’t much better.) What was clear, though, was that apart from Little Mel turning “bad romance” into “racism and ignorance” inside my subconscious, I had nobody to blame but myself. The person I apparently was. How? When? Why?
Taylor Swift’s planned 2020 tour, Lover Fest, was going to be celebration, joy, and polish, just like the glossy pop of the album it was promoting. When lockdown cancelled everyone’s plans, she found something else to do. In July 2020 her “quarantine record,” folklore, was released. It was recorded in complete secrecy, Swift being 100% in control, to the point where the label found out about it hours before release. As a consequence, no CDs were available in stores for two weeks. And that was one of the smaller risks Swift has taken.
Taylor Swift is an industry. If she takes a wrong step, it can cost millions of dollars and will never be forgotten. She could have spent those months posting videos of her cats. Instead, she recorded an album unlike anything she’s done before, releasing it without any promotion except one video she’s written and directed herself. There is a reason why one of her early records is called Fearless. folklore was self-publishing on unprecedented scale. Swift took all the risks and, deservedly, reaped all the rewards, from critics and fans alike. folklore became the best selling album of the year.
I couldn’t shut up about how much I loved everything about her and her work. I was blind to the fact that I was doing the opposite. It wasn’t about this one reader’s approval. I needed everyone to validate Land. I was so scared of making one wrong step that I tried to write by committee, dragging its unwilling members into the conference room kicking and screaming. My lack of awareness is the best proof that I wasn’t capable of writing it. Which, in a twisted way, proves Mel was right.
Land is, or will be, must be a brave book. It needs a brave author. Ironically, among many other topics, it’s about miscommunication and not hearing the other person. I missed the first reader’s warning and became so careful I destroyed everything, ending with the reward I deserved, i.e. none whatsoever. I told other people “there’s no award for The Most Average Film of the Year” a million times. Land isn’t even average, it doesn’t exist. I haven’t even made cat videos to make up for it.
Good vs right
I had cold feet a few times whilst working on Children. I was mostly scared of aggressive homophobic reactions. I didn’t let it stop me, though. I knew what I wanted to say and how I wanted it to sound. The most validating review the book received isn’t even very positive. However, the reviewer points out all the things I wanted to express, even though he doesn’t like some of them. I re-read this review many times, always beaming with pride. I did it.
My mindset was very different when I started working on Land, because I wanted to badly to do it right. Mel aside, I became so fixated on one person’s dislike of one thing that I would change everything, so scared of accidental racism that it never dawned on me the problem could have been something else. “It’s me – hi – I’m the problem, it’s me” Queen Taylor sings.
Re-reading Mel’s feedback was another lesson. I never explained this or that was my personal experience. Mel had no reason to assume I was good at what I was doing – I only sent a summary, no actual text. A sensitivity reader’s job is to point out everything potentially problematic. I still think the agency Mel works for should employ a sensitivity reader to read sensitivity readers’ feedback, but assuming I was ignorant was the right thing to do in this particular context.
I became This Guy not because I was arrogant and self-entitled – I was scared and insecure. I needed to hear “you’re doing it right.” I set out to write a great book with Children. With Land I wanted to piss some people off, which I will. I haven’t realised I wanted everyone else to be pleased so hard that I attempted to force them to be. Which, ironically, was supposed to be Magni’s main arc until he refused to be that person.
(I told you those books are self-therapy.)
…Ready for it?
I’m going to sound like a total cliche, but it’s true: I have done a lot of self-reflection and growth since then. I have learned things about myself I’d have preferred not to. A year ago I couldn’t have done it better. My best wasn’t good enough. In my desire not to cause anyone harm, I caused harm, also to myself. I hope I don’t do it again. Queen Taylor said it best: “long story short, it was a bad time; long story short, I survived.”
I think I’m ready now. First, I will have to re-read Children – I will be posting my thoughts on my ko-fi (for subscribers only, partly because I don’t know whether I’d really like everyone to read those). I’ll re-read the July 2021 – I haven’t changed a word since then – version of Land next, then all the research material. Once that is done, I’ll start again with a new goal.
Write a great book.
And never let anyone live rent-free in my head again.