The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Some Reflections on a Bad Book I Wrote

| 48 Comments

I’ve been rereading the Vlad novels in preparation for writing the next one, and, eventually, finishing the series if I live that long.  I’ve been going through them looking for guns I left on mantelpieces, so I can pick them up and have them go off together in ways that will make people go, “Wow!  He had all of that planned from the start?”  Well, and to remind myself of stuff I actually did know from the start.  Anyway, in the course of this, I just finished a reread of Yendi and had some thoughts about it that might be useful to other writers.

Yes, I still think it is a bad book (although with some moments that, in retrospect, I’m quite proud of), and this post is not intended as a platform to argue that.  Let me have it as a given and make my point.

My second novel was To Reign In Hell, and it was quite an experience.  For one thing, I decided my biggest weakness was characterization, so I wanted to write a book that simply wouldn’t work unless I nailed the characters.    It was hard, for that reason and others.  It was an ambitious project for me.  At one point, about a third of the way through, I spoke to Will Shetterly, and told him, “I should wait ten years before writing this one.  I don’t have the chops to pull it off yet.”  He said, “You’re right, you don’t.  You should write it anyway.  In ten years you’ll write something else, and what you learn doing this one will stay with you.”  It turned out to be one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten.

After finishing it, I was exhausted, beat, done, wiped out.  It felt like I’d been doing hard labor.  I was emotionally drained and, for a while, wondered if I’d ever write again (it turns out, this is fairly normal for me after finishing something; I need a few months to recover.  But I didn’t know that at the time).  Once I did start getting the itch to write again, I was still sort of bruised from how hard it had been.  Now, my first novel, Jhereg, I had thought of as a standalone.   I put in hints of backstory and foreshadowing and stuff, but not with the intention of returning to the world, only because, well, I love it when books do that.  But after finishing TRiH, it hit me that what I needed was something fun, something I could just kick back and enjoy writing without a lot of sweat or effort, to remind myself how much fun writing can be, and I realized that I already had the world and characters set up, I could just go back there and tell another story.  To make it easier, I could use the backstory I’d already hinted at, plus throw in a bit of “foreshadowing” for Jhereg (like, Vlad remarking that no one would ever steal from the Jhereg Council, stuff like that).    Because I felt a need to challenge myself at least a little, I decided to work on a different aspect of characterization than I had in TRiH, to wit, on finding the telling detail for each character that would make that one memorable.

Between these two goals—making characters identifiable, and kicking back and having fun—emerge the two problems with Yendi.  First, it’s got too many characters; some of those folk are just in there so I could practice with them, and I would probably have removed them if there’d been a well handy.  Second, it’s sloppy.  It’s just kind of slapdash, thrown out there, with a few accidental contradictions, and not much substance.  There is, in my opinion, nothing wrong with “a good tale well told,” but if that’s all there is to a story, well, it should be really well told, and that one was only fairly decent.  That is why I’ve always regretted that book, and badly wished I could do it over (which, in a way, I did: Orca is in some sense the book Yendi should have been).

I should say, I’ve always regretted that book until now.  Here we get to the point of this post, to what might be useful for new writers to think about.

Yes, because I was sloppy with that book, it has haunted me.  I cringe when I think about it, and what it ought to have been, and still remind myself not to get lazy.  BUT.   I was right.  It comes back to me that the book did exactly what I wanted it to: it reminded me how much fun writing can be, how to take joy in the process, and evil, cackling delight in imagining what I was going to do to the poor reader.  And this has stayed with me.  Of course, there are the horrible, wracking moments of where do I go? and  how do I make this work? and  how do I turn these concept into story? and what happens next?  Of course those still happen.  But underneath, since writing Yendi, I haven’t forgotten that at the bottom, I do this because I love it.

If you can keep that feeling at the price of one book that is weaker than you wish it were, well, I call that a fair trade.

 

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

48 Comments

  1. Thank you, Steven. I’m always amazed at how generous and big-hearted you are in sharing advice about writing. I think I’ve read everything you have written about writing on this blog. I’ve watched many of your youtube videos too. I find it odd, in a good way, that a person like yourself is seemingly so approachable. I think there is a stand-alone lesson there.

    I haven’t read your Vlad books (at least, not yet), but I did read To Reign in Hell. I liked it. It was fun. And at the risk of telling you something you have probably heard a bergillion times, my favorite character was Beezelbub. He was adorable and I absolutely fell in love with him.

    I have a question for you. Is it normal not to write every day? (I guess you take a month off after finishing a novel.) I try to write every day, but sometimes I just can’t do it. I just sit there and stare at the page. Maybe I’d write every day if I thought my words were a little better, but most of them are shit. I still have a lot of fun writing them though. Anyway, thanks again.

  2. This is all very wise and true.

    But I did enjoy Yendi. It’s a fun ride. The romance is cute. You’ve written better books, sure, but it didn’t make me feel like complaining. So the price wasn’t that high! 🙂

  3. I just realized you’re one of the few exceptions to the rule George Lucas never should’ve broken: Write about what happens next—the audience is less interested in what happened before than in what happens after.

    That’s even true of mysteries. It’s the consequences, not the crime, that we care most about.

  4. Since when is Yendi a bad book!?!? Oh, skzb says so. Going to agree to disagree. But if that is the book that fueled him up to keep writing, it is kind of a hero in a way.

  5. skzb

    Henryseward: There’s no answer to that one. I think my process wouldn’t work for most people. Experiment, find out how to produce your best work. I tend to write most days once I’ve started, but sometimes only a sentence at the beginning of the project, and I try not to feel any pressure to do more; by the end I’m pounding it out like nuts. But, again, people work differently. There are some who write 8 to 5 with a lunch break, others give themselves a daily minimum word count. No one else can say what will work for you.

  6. Thanks. Still trying to work it out.

  7. I’ve always loved Yendi. Every time I begin my re-read of the Vlad books, I look forward to it. No, it’s not perfect–it introduces problems with your universe as a whole (like the business of the Dragon-Jhereg War, which Paarfi at least tried to explain in TVoA), and there are a LOT of characters–but it’s charming. It’s clever. Most importantly, it’s enjoyable in the extreme.

    And at the risk of inviting charges of heresy, I prefer it to Orca. For one thing, there’s no Morrolan or Aliera in Orca, and I am an unabashed fanboy where those two are concerned. There’s no Vlad/Cawti romance in Orca. And there’s no Norathar in Orca, a character whom we haven’t seen enough of in my humble opinion. Finally, Yendi has piles of memorable dialogue and excellent character-driven scenes that stick with you like old movies.

    As I said, I love it. And I’m glad that you have come to some level of peace with it, because this reader at least doesn’t think it’s that bad at all.

  8. One of my favorite writers of all time is the most fun for me to read when he opens the kimono a little bit and shares some of the nuts and bolts of construction with us readers. Amid this, we get a strong sense of the joy he has when writing these characters, these situations, these arcs. And if that writer had some regrets with Yendi, that’s OK with me, because the joy of writing and sharing those worlds shines through. Brightly.

  9. Yendi was fun to write? That explains why it is such fun to read. It is a joy ride that hits every mark I expect in a good story. Every year I reach for your books and Yendi is one I look forward to the most. I laugh I cheer I cackle right along with you. I don’t see one character in that book I would have axed. You created this treasure trove of major and minor characters that later helped fill out this enormous universe of possibilities. You “peopled” your world. In my opinion your “mistakes” are really just subliminal decisions for later creation of plot, character, and world building.

    P.S. now is the time to admit that a certain child turns out to be the front woman of a certain “feline guffawing” band in another story telling medium we are most likely copy-writed not to mention.

  10. Well, I was no more qualified to critique Yendi than you were to write it. But in later re-readings I often find myself recalling what Harriet Vane said about her mystery novels: “I’ve never yet succeeded in producing a plot without at least six major howlers. Fortunately, nine out of ten of my readers get mixed up too, so it doesn’t matter.” I don’t altogether approve of this cavalier approach of Harriet’s; but for Yendi, of course, this is entirely appropriate.

  11. skzb

    Pamela: That works for me!

    Say, you don’t think that comment by the inestimable Ms. Vane could have been author intrusive, could it? Naw. That’s unpossible. Never mind.

  12. Yendi — cool things happen to cool characters — cool.
    Eventually resulting in cool introspective posts — cool.

  13. It’s just fun, and at the end of the day, few if any excuses are neesed for fun.

    Also, if you want reader help listing off those unfired guns on mantlepieces, I have a list of some of them somewhere, originally intended for fanfic inspiration. Hell, I’m pretty sure one is literally on a mantle in Dzur Mountain…

  14. It’s been so long since I read Yendi that I’ve forgotten any problems I had with the book and only remember enjoying it.

  15. skzb

    Doylist: In fact, I’d like to see that list, if it isn’t any trouble.

  16. Huh. I didn’t and don’t think that Yendi is either the worst or the weakest of the Vlad series. It takes a re-reading well. As for things left (or not left) on the mantelpiece, Vlad’s mother is far and away the one that makes me wonder…

  17. I liked Yendi for what it was: just a leave your brains behind adventure. Now I wouldn’t read a whole series written like that, but for a one off it works well, it’s fun and I give it a solid B+

  18. I’ll dig around for it and send you an email!

  19. I just recently re-read this one too, so I have some thoughts.

    First off, let me repeat what so many here have already said, this is a fun Vlad book to read. Every time I re-read the series (in whatever order) I’m always happy when I get to Yendi… Unlike Teckla which I kind of have to mentally brace myself for.

    I think this says something to the quality of the central character you have developed. He’s very easy to empathize with. When times are good for him (as they are in Yendi, at least by the end of things) then the reader is happy. When the going is tougher (as it is definitely in Teckla, and also in Jhegaala) it’s a little less fun because you’re reading about someone you care about who is suffering. It takes an emotional toll.

    That toll is absent from Yendi, for better or for worse. In spite of the high body count among Vlad’s employees, in spite of his getting nearly killed several times (and actually killed once).

    To me, the only nit-pick I really have with Yendi that is particular to that book, rather than the others where he works through a mystery (esp Orca) is that the “breakthrough” moment where he starts to figure out what is going on in Yendi is an intuitive leap, rather than a deductive one. Vlad finds out the SiG is a Yendi, and makes the intuitive leap (without any real evidence to back it up) that she’s behind everything, and works backwards from there to the resolution.

    That leap breaks the chain of deductive logic that is present and (mostly) unbroken in the other books.

    But that’s really just plotting. If your primary goal was to work on characterization in that one, then I’d say you came out well ahead on that score.

  20. Oh yes, and in regards to those little clues you left for yourself, I hope you haven’t forgotten about Alexx’s excellent compilation of them here:

    http://www.panix.com/~alexx/future.txt

    And a corresponding spot on the wiki that grew from those musing here:

    http://dragaera.wikia.com/wiki/Speculation:Future_Books

  21. I’ve always felt the same way about Yendi. I love the story itself…but I’ve always felt it wasn’t quite “Yendi” enough. That it needed more twists and turns so that, in the end, we, the readers, are not even sure if Vlad and Friends actually “won” or if things worked out exactly as the SiG intended.

  22. I own and have read all of your books. Now my son has read them all too. Keep up the good work.

  23. I am another fan who enjoyed Yendi more than Orca

  24. Yendi was the first Dragaera book I ever read and so I have a soft spot for it. I was immediately charmed by the introduction, the onion metaphor, and the idea of a never-ending party. I was very interested in the dueling gene-isolating lady. Three pages in I was overjoyed at the prospect of reading a dozen books about Vlad.

    And I think the main reveals in Jhereg – he’s at Castle Black, Dolivar, Mellar being a cross-breed – had significantly more impact when it was the second book.

  25. I have often thought of the onion metaphor throughout my life (having started reading the Vlad series when I was less than 20 and now I’m over 40). There are quite a few bits of your books that have stuck with me and I’m reminded of them at many times in my life.

    I think I’ll dig out Yendi and read it today. 🙂 It is such a fun ride.

    And I loved TRiH!

  26. You’ve expressed your dissatisfaction with Yendi pretty much since I’ve been a reader and I’ve never truly understood it.

    I first picked up Phoenix in 1990; I was twelve years old. I remember walking into Kenny’s New Agency in Doylestown, PA (opened in 1943) and asking the manager (whose name I regretfully have forgotten) for a swords and sorcery analogue to the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which I had just finished. He pointed to Phoenix, saying it had just hit the shelves and, although he hadn’t read anything by you before, it’s supposed to be like Zelazny. I found out later that the owner of Kenny’s had read To Reign in Hell some years before and had mentioned Zelazny’s forward to the manager I was dealing with. Very cool, ’cause I had finished all of the Corwin focused books of Amber at that point and loved them.

    Well, shit. That sounds awesome. So I read Phoenix, which I don’t recommend as a starting point to anyone else as an introduction to Vlad. Starting at this major transitional period in Vlad’s life however, made me appreciate Yendi so much more; which is why I bring it up.

    I opened Phoenix and realized that it was the fifth in a series and, after subsequent research, also realized that I wouldn’t be reading the first four anytime soon since I couldn’t talk my parents into an hour long trip to the bookstore in the mall on the basis of, “But it won’t make sense!” Their response? “Deal with it. You should have thought of that before you bought the fifth in a series instead of getting Kenny’s to order the first!” I suppose they had a point, just not one I was willing to accept at that time without a whole lot of bellyaching. I loved it. Snarky characters, witty dialogue, Verra-be-damned this and that irreverence and yet incredibly tight, as most of your books are and have to be following the particular constraints (pro, 17, epi) you’ve imposed on yourself. However, I was starving for the backstory after finishing it. All three of Vlad’s separations (family, friends, Jhereg) meant far less to me upon that first read since I hadn’t formed a connection with all those characters in previous novels.

    I went back and ordered everything. Proceeded to read Jhereg which answered a lot of questions but was not Cawti focused. Then To Reign in Hell (which, along with Dzur, I still consider your best works). Then I got to Yendi. Yendi satisfied that need for me to understand why Vlad could make the decision he made in Phoenix and how much he sacrificed by doing so. We also get to see MorroIan and Aliera cut loose. The wrap up cracked me the fuck up; still does. Flat out loved it; still do. Sethra’s punishment of Younger? So cool. In my opinion, this is the novel where everybody represents their benchmark, that moment when they are most themselves. It is a wonder of characterization, and lays the groundwork for how certain characters change in the future. My second (and all further) readings of Phoenix are so much more poignant because of Yendi.

    It is kind of analogous to the way I judge studio releases from a band. 1st effort – you’ve had 10 years in your parents garage to come up with something cool and meaningful. 2nd effort – “Oh shit, that’s due in less than a year?” I think you can tell a lot by an artist’s sophomore effort, and while, technically To Reign in Hell is your sophomore effort (I think) Yendi is sophomoric to Dragaera and still has that wonderful raw, unrestrained, passionate feel to it that strikes a more emotional tone than “the perfect novel” you may have wished it to be.

    The only bad thing about Yendi to my mind is its nickname, Yentl which evokes memories of Streisand that I just don’t want evoked.

    I’m glad you’ve finally gotten over it.

  27. Yendi is the worst book in Vlad’s series? Never. (Personally for me, the worst noves – okay, not the best ones – are Athyra and Jhegaala; and not from the technical side, but speaking about their aftertaste only; the best ones, again personally favoured, being currently Jhereg, Phoenix, Issola, and Hawk.)
    Yendi could be better? Well… yes, technically it could.
    Yendi should be written better? Well again, maybe.
    Lots of books written 20+ years ago could be better, and some of them should be done that way – after someone will persuade Devera teach the chosen authors how to leap 20+ Real Years earlier and back again of course after the task is done. Our world, or at least its literature segment, became much better that way, I do not doubt.
    I do however doubt that Devera concerning her heritage would favour her would-be role as Goddess of Better Literature.
    Pity.

  28. Orca is the longest Vlad book by far and really has a lot of meat on them bones, plus of course we get the stunning revelation about Kiera. Other than that observation, I can’t say that any book is better or worse than any other; to me ir’s one long life story and I am hooked. We all know what a liar Vlad can be when he needs it; this and his fallible human memory go a long way toward explaining any seeming contradictions. Plus Vlad is still uncovering the truths of Dragarean history, so the earlier mistakes are his, not necessarily the author’s.

  29. I thoroughly enjoyed Yendi. The abundance of characters, and the hints at Things To Come only served (at least for me) to paint the picture that Yendi was just a glimpse at a much bigger world. It made the story feel lived-in, and thereby lent some gravity to the story that was delightfully counterbalanced by the characters’ seeming to “let their hair down” and be themselves to a degree that they may not have in other Vladiad novels. While it doesn’t pack the literary punch that some of your other novels do, I find that re-reading Yendi is an exercise in fun-having, and there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. Well done, sir.

  30. Being overly critical of your own work as an author: $.05

    Realizing your “bad” work made you a better author: priceless

    Yendi is one of my favorites, I know I’m not the first to say this but still, I feel I get to know Vlad and what makes him tick mostly because of the chaos around him and how he deals with it. Yendi is a great example of chaos. There are plenty of other things I could say but I want to avoid sounding like the fanboy I am.

  31. I always thought that’s how Yendi was supposed to be, like a Yendi, tricky and with things you wouldn’t understand unless you’re a Yendi.

  32. I like how this thread just turned out to be lots of people saying they love the book.

  33. I’d read Reign in Hell (which I liked, but found a bit exhausting from everyone running back and forth around heaven on foot…) before Yendi, but Yendi was the book that made me a fan (I’d somehow missed Jhereg initially). Your enjoyment in writing it really shines through – it was just great fun to read with characters I wanted to spend time with, and I think it is still my favorite of the series – it’s one of the few books that after 30 years I still recall exactly when and where I purchased it, because I enjoyed it so much (and went right back and hunted across town for a book store that still had Jhereg…).

  34. Look at it this way: a master criminal defense attorney watches the videotape of her very first trial, when, fresh out of law school, she defended a person accused of criminal trespass or some other petty offense. From her perspective 20 years hence, she watches her younger self utter some howlers and make a few other boneheaded mistakes. It causes her to cringe. BUT. She won her first trial. The jurors, who were not trained lawyers, thought she did pretty well. And, part of the reason she is so good now is because of all the trials she has done, and learned from. Including that first one she just watched.

    skzb is a bit like the lawyer in my example. And most of us are like the jurors. Maybe we can’t tell the difference between a good book and a great book, a good trial and a great one.

  35. I just spent most of the spring and summer reading all of your books from the Vlad Taltos series, and then the Khaavren romances (after which I found myself emulating the speech patterns of the characters involuntarily, especially at work). Jo Walton’s ‘What Makes This Book So Great’ led me to the series. The library in the city I call home (Eugene, Oregon) is excellent and well supplied with Steven Brust on their shelves. Hurray! I enjoyed the experience immensely and am more than a little distraught that I’m reaching the end. I may reread them again very soon, and only wish I’d encountered them earlier in my life when I was better at remembering the books I read. Now I read like most folks watch tv: during dinner, almost as a consumptive behavior, taking it in as quickly as I can.

    Regardless, you have a fine brain and I’m glad you wrote all of the books that you did.

    Cheers!

    Your birth year is the same as my dad’s, who introduces me to many of the cooler things I read and enjoy. It is a pleasure to be able to share your books with him.

  36. skzb

    Ha. I love it when people read my books at dinner–that’s my favorite time to read, too. Seeing food spatters on books I’m being asked to autograph always delights me. Thank you!

  37. The true and revealing question, skzb, is “How do you feel about dog-eared pages?”

  38. skzb

    On my books? I suppose I should care, but I really don’t.

  39. So I was intending to leave a reply on another matter but I glanced over this post talking about Yendi, couldn’t remember which book that actually was (despite having read it, at the very least, three times over) and looked it up on amazon real quick to find this wonderful synopsis:

    >>
    Vlad Taltos tells the story of his early days in the House Jhereg, how he found himself in a Jhereg war, and how he fell in love with the wonderful woman, Yendi, who killed him.
    >>

    Dunno, I found it oddly amusing.

    I think in many ways Orca might be my favorite of the Vlad series, not by a huge margin, but I judge books primarily by how good they are when I re-read them and as such I’m heavily biased, at least when it comes to long series, towards books near the end since the hero is usually considerably more competent by then (or if he isn’t I’ve stopped reading). The book also feels a little, well, simpler, or perhaps cleaner is a better word.

    What I actually meant to write about originally was this website’s robots.txt file which for some reason is preventing everyone (including google) from showing pages from this site in its search results, which seems a bit of a shame, and also means that when you ask google for ‘steven brust’ you get the amazon page first and then see:

    >>>
    The Dream Cafe (Steven Brust)
    dreamcafe.com/
    A description for this result is not available because of this site’s robots.txt
    Learn more
    >>>

    Is this some kind of moral stance against search engines displaying site summaries or something?

  40. skzb

    No, not a moral stance. I’m really frustrated about it, but I don’t know how to fix it. I’ve asked Corwin and Felix and I think they’re working on it.

  41. Ah. I don’t know the exact details of your setup but it’s probably a literal text file named “robots.txt” which you could just delete if you don’t actually have any special requirements for how web crawlers view your site.

    I assume you’ll figure it out pretty quickly but if for some reason it’s more complicated I’d be happy to help if you wanted to get in contact with me via the email on this comment.

  42. skzb

    Thanks. I think it’s more a question of Corwin or Felix getting around to it. I do not, in fact, have full administrative privileges here, by my own wish—I cannot be trusted with that kind of power. 🙂

  43. Funny, that’s what I keep trying to tell my boss at work!

    On an unrelated note, I’m sure this has been asked (and answered) a billion times, but well, I’ve never seen the answer: What’s the difference between “a dragon” and “a dragonlord”? They seem to be used fairly interchangeably so is it just a respect thing?

  44. Your robots.txt is located in the root directory and says:

    User-agent: *
    Disallow: /

    (dreamcafe.com/robots.txt)

    That means all non-human controlled scripts, programs etc are forbidden from automatically reading all pages for any reason. It won’t stop anyone who doesn’t care, but it prevents Google or other legitimate search engines from spidering the site. All you admins need do is delete it.

  45. skzb

    Well, “dragon” with a small d refers to the animal. If you mean a Dragaeran of that House, it is less respect than formality. Referring to someone as “a Dragon” would be casual.

  46. Oh, yes, I definitely meant the Dragaeran. There’s a scene right at the beginning of _The Phoenix Guards_ where Tazendra says something like “Of course I didn’t attack him, he was only a Dragon and I’m a Dzurlord”, which seemed like a slightly odd combination unless it was basically an insult or something.

    Which raises another question: people refer to Dzurlords and Dragonlords but there’s no such thing as a “Tiassalord” or an “Athyralord” right? Is this just a turn of phrase or is there some actual meaning behind it?

  47. skzb

    “Dragonlord” “Tiassa Noble” “Athyra Noble” “Dzurlord” It has to do with the culture and history and translating terms that can’t really be translated and still trying to make it all sound good.

  48. > people refer to Dzurlords and Dragonlords but there’s no such thing as a “Tiassalord” or an “Athyralord” right?

    Seemed there are only Dragonlord, Dzurlord, Hawklord, and – rare but possible – Phoenixlord.
    Tiassa, Athyra, Yendi, and Lyorn are nobles.
    Issola and Iorich, too, but they seemed to represent lesser nobility.
    Orca feels something like landowning servicemen, not ancestral nobility (Gentry-like).
    Jhegaala, Creotha, Vallista, and Tsalmoth are merchants and craftsmen (something like Third Estate).
    Teckla are not COUNTED as ‘nobles’, but they have their titles: as an Easterneer Vlad could became Teckla, too, and Fenarian Prince Miklos definitely was.
    Jhereg have their titles but don’t called ‘nobles’ in cases other than as speech figure.
    There also are ‘imperial titles’, and funny thing is that Vlad as Count Szurke became ‘more noble’ comparing with the majority of Jhereg Council (at least all of them shown in the main plot).

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