What Writers Can Learn From ‘Authority’ by Jeff VanderMeer


ANNIHILATION, the first book in Jeff VanderMeer‘s Southern Reach trilogy, was a thrilling challenge to the division between science fiction and literary fiction, and one of the most visceral and refreshing reading experiences I’ve had in quite some time.

I wrote about it in February, and I’m far from the only one who loved it. A movie is already in development.

Now, mere weeks after ANNIHILATION’s release, the second volume is upon us.

AUTHORITY is not the sequel readers will expect. If you’re hoping for another breathless adventure through the wilderness, you’ll be surprised. AUTHORITY is claustrophobic, confining itself primarily indoors. Instead of Area X, the novel explores the Orwellian headquarters of the Southern Reach, full of secrets, lies, and the truly strange.

You’ll watch footage from the first mission, visit the border, and learn a lot more about the expedition members from the first book and the scientific experiments performed over the past few decades.

The setting may have changed, but reality and perception prove to be just as slippery as in ANNIHILATION.

Here are a few things writers can learn from AUTHORITY.

Don’t Give ‘Em What They Want
Writing good fiction is all about creating appetites, frustrating those appetites, and then–eventually–satisfying them in unexpected ways. The first part of that equation means getting your readers to ask questions. Instead of force-feeding a bunch of exposition, AUTHORITY creates knowledge gaps that lead to suspense when the reader asks who, what, where, when, and why.

Take Twin Peaks. Who was Laura Palmer? Who killed her? Why? And what’s the deal with her mother’s visions?

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 represents the frustration of an appetite (MOAR AREA ECKS!) by pivoting from the forest to the office. And then, while a few of the biggest questions from the first book are answered, they never come when–or how–you might expect them.

Suggest Instead of Describe
In his treatise on writing 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, or a labeled map, or a historical timeline. They invite you to write in the margins of their books as you try to piece their stories together.

VanderMeer’s world-building techniques are subtle and implicit. He invokes the idea of a place–or a feeling–within the reader’s psyche. Explicit world-building (i.e., fully known worlds and fully known characters) are boring.

“The audience must participate in the creation of the world,” Boswell says, and the techniques VanderMeer used in ANNIHILATION to create atmosphere and suspense are just as effective in AUTHORITY.

If you’ve 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 need not be more of the same. In fact, good sequels rarely are.

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

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


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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