Just over a week ago, at WisCon, I sat down for lunch and an agent took his time talking about how and why my book was worth representing. Yes, I've already told you I signed with Kristopher O'Higgins, and we know how the process works, right?
It's just that the impact of that statement is much larger than it seems.
We spend a lot of time working on our worlds, our stories. Strengthening them is a continual process of trial by fire. "Killing our darlings." Seeking out critique and criticism. The author bares her soul and says "tell me what is wrong with this."
I don't know any authors who don't care about the worlds they create. In order for us to spend the time we do accomplishing what we do, we have to care, at least on some level. I can tell when I don't care - those are the stories I put down and never finish, the characters I delete. We spend hours and hours on research, and on development of characters, cultures, environments, etc. etc.
After all this, it feels as if we live there. And when you live in a place, surrounded by it, it can become hard to judge. The whole process of critique is geared to help us gain distance from our worlds, to see them through others' eyes, and to identify flaws they might have, etc. I used to have a terrible time whenever I wrote a story set in Varin because I would write as an insider and give insufficient grounding to people who were less familiar with it than I. Too many characters, they would say. Too many different places, people, categories, etc. My first solution was to create lists, to help people. Then I realized lists might disambiguate, but they created distance, so I stopped using lists and started using personal character judgments to decide what was important. And I looked also as an author to make sure the number of characters/alien concepts in the cardstack didn't get too high.
Critiquers started finding fewer problems. But the impact of those original criticisms of this world, its size, its complexity, never went away. (Be careful, don't spend so much time on world that you lose character or plot...)
The result is that now, even as I write Varin with my improved skills, filtering its complexity through culturally grounded characters - and even as I believe in it, deeply, deeply - I often feel I have no reliable sense of its merit. I have one thousand years of history in a place that doesn't exist, and I can say to myself, "this moment is important; it deserves to be written," yet as I write it I don't know how others will see it. I know the setup; the development of the story often surprises me, as do the themes that emerge, but I know all the punchlines. Ask me, "What will readers find unique about this?" or "Where will readers feel wonder?" or "Where will readers laugh?" and I have no idea.
The longer a world like this has grown inside you, not even yet an iceberg because so little of it has seen the surface (special thanks to Dario Ciriello who published "The Eminence's Match" in 2010), the higher the stakes are. You can get so you're almost embarrassed to talk about it, because you're so convinced that everyone is too busy with their own projects to care, and after all, it's all in your head! I spoke with Ann Leckie at WisCon about her experience of the world she created in Ancillary Justice, and I felt an incredible sense of kinship with her because she expressed some of the same feelings I'd had. I look at her success, and cheer, and hope, and wonder if this place I have cared about for so long will be worth it.
This is a long process, and far from finished. But to sit down just for an hour and hear someone tell me yes, it really was worth it, means so much. (Thank you, Kristopher!)
If you believe in your world, don't lose hope.