What Writers Can Learn From ‘Authority’ by Jeff VanderMeer

Authority_Jeff_VanderMeer

The first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation, challenges the division between “genre” and literary fiction. It was one of the most visceral and refreshing reading experiences I’ve had in quite some time, and I wrote about it here.

Authority is not the sequel readers will expect. It’s not another breathless nightmare in the wilderness.

Authority is claustrophobic. Instead of Area X, the novel explores the Orwellian, indoor headquarters of the Southern Reach. The setting may have changed, but reality and perception prove to be just as slippery.

Here are a few things writers can learn from Authority.

Suggest Instead of Describe

In his treatise on fiction, The Half-Known World, Robert Boswell implores writers to “suggest a dimension to the fictional reality that escapes comprehension.”

No one does this better than VanderMeer and his Weird Fiction contemporaries, like China Miéville and Jeffrey Ford. They do not supply a glossary, a map, or a timeline. They invite you to write in the margins of their books and piece everything together yourself.

VanderMeer’s world-building techniques are subtle and implicit. He invokesthe idea of a place or a creature within the reader’s psyche. He knows that explicit world-building—fully known worlds with fully known characters— is boring.

“The audience must participate in the creation of the world,” Boswell says.

Polyphony

Just finished writing the first book in a series, but aren’t sure how to start the second? It may help to think of your sequel as a response instead of just a continuation.

Narratively, the story must progress forward (even if it wanders backward in time), but conceptually and stylistically, it doesn’t have to be more of the same. In fact, good sequels rarely are.

Sequels that merely mimic the formulae of their predecessors (Taken 2, Iron Man 2, The Lost Symbol) are often doomed to fail. Sequels that provide an entirely different experience (The Godfather Part 2, The Dark Knight, A Subtle Knife) succeed in part because they explore the story from a new angle.

Authority deepens the mystery of Area X by establishing a polyphony of perspectives on the trilogy’s overarching narrative.

Don’t Give ‘Em What They Want

Writing good fiction is all about creating appetites, frustrating those appetites, and finally satisfying them in unexpected ways. The first part of that equation means getting your readers to ask questions. Instead of force-feeding you a bunch of exposition, Authority forces you to ask who, what, where, when, and why.

The next step is to frustrate the reader’s appetite for answers. It’s a hard balance to strike. On the one hand, you can’t delay satisfaction for too long (see AMC’s The Killing). On the other, you can’t give your readers exactly what they want, when they want it.

Authority strikes this balance well. For one, the entire book itself frustrates an appetite created in Annihilation, by pivoting from the forest to the office. And then, while a few of the biggest questions from the first book areanswered, they only lead to more questions.

….

AUTHORITY is due out May 6. The third and final novel in the series, ACCEPTANCE, won’t hit shelves until September, but kudos to FSG Originals for publishing all three books in a single calendar year.

Update: It looks like Jeff enjoyed the article.

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3 thoughts on “What Writers Can Learn From ‘Authority’ by Jeff VanderMeer

  1. […] Along with Authority making a number of greatest-of-month lists, I’ve additionally been blessed with some really nice critiques, together with these by Michael Matheson, the Raging Bibliophile, Nisi Shawl at The Seattle Times, The Times (UK), Pete Sutton, Rick Kleffel at The Agony Column, My Bookish Ways, Bookmunch, and Geekadelphia. Additionally, this piece about What Writers Can Learn from Authority. […]

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