I promised I would avoid commenting on AQATSA too much while it was still being posted. I didn't want to be seen as trying to steer reactions or influence reviews. For an author, there are always two dangers involved when you engage with reviewers, especially critical ones:
(1) That you'll start arguing ("No, you got it wrong!") and be perceived as getting defensive or thin-skinned.
(2) That you'll fall into the trap of trying to explain things. If you have to explain something you wrote, then your writing failed. Out in the real world, your words have to stand on their own, subject to whatever interpretation or misinterpretation readers give them. ("Well, no, see, the reason she did that is..." "Well then why didn't you say that?" "I thought it was obvious!" <= Any time you as an author are tempted to say this, know that you failed.)
Anyway, now the story is over. Overall, reaction has been positive — certainly there have been some criticisms, and as usual some of them had me scratching my head but most I thought were valid to some degree.
But while I talk about reading reviews, this also brings up the third danger of engaging with reviewers, or maybe it's just a danger of reading reviews, period:
(3) The temptation to start letting your writing be influenced by criticism.
Of course some criticism should influence your writing. The criticism of your beta-readers, obviously. To a lesser degree, when you read comments by someone who strikes you as thoughtful and intelligent, then their criticism might be worth listening to. But, as I upload each new chapter of my stories, even though they have already been betaed and proofread multiple times, I always change a few things at the last moment. Usually it's just a word or sentence here or there, but sometimes it's actually a plot element, a character action, or a piece of information. And when I find myself thinking, "Maybe I should add an explanation for that thing people are complaining about..." I know I am listening to reviews too much.
So let's talk about AQATSA and what was right and wrong about it and the issues that inspired the most... discussion.
At least I didn't make her
sleep in a cupboard.
Bitch, please, like that makes you
Mother of the Year?
I had this planned aaaaall along. There were clues, for those who looked carefully enough. Once you knew the names of Abraham Thorn's other daughters, didn't "Claudia Carolina" have a familiar ring to it? And if you noticed that most of my character names have some significance, you could have looked up the meaning of the name Claudia.
There was quite a bit of (very polite) discussion concerning whether or not Claudia is a bad mother. Most people are more sympathetic to her now that they know her circumstances, but for what it's worth, one of my previous beta-readers, Miles 2 Go, really, really disliked Claudia and Archie. He thought they were terrible parents, bordering on criminally negligent. (He didn't know about the Big Reveal in book four; unfortunately, I've lost touch with him. However, I think it wouldn't change his opinion very much.)
My own perspective: I don't think Miles 2 Go is entirely wrong. Claudia has not been a great mother. She hasn't been a terrible mother: she does love Alexandra, and she never abused her sister nor would have allowed her to be abused (as Archie told her). Alexandra grew up with most of her needs taken care of, save perhaps her emotional ones.
Alexandra's attitude is largely a product of her upbringing: she grew up in a relatively safe environment, where her impulses to go exploring and getting into trouble went uninhibited, but she also grew up in an environment where she was encouraged to fend for herself and find her own answers because her mother and stepfather weren't really there for her except to provide a buffer of safety and security.
Claudia's emotional distance is largely a product of her childhood trauma, and lingering, suppressed resentment over her treatment — by the wizarding world, and by her father. Already suffering from abandonment issues, Claudia knew that even her own sister/"daughter" would abandon her eventually and return to the wizarding world, and so she built up a wall between herself and Alexandra.
Of course, the fact that she (mostly unconsciously) took this out on Alexandra is the greatest indictment against her. That and the fact that she almost pathologically avoided facing the issue she knew she was going to have to face eventually. She knew Alexandra would learn everything eventually, she knew that the longer she waited to tell her, and especially if she waited until Alexandra found out on her own, as she was bound to do sooner or later, the worse it would be, yet that's exactly what she did. Stupid and irresponsible on so many levels.
Is this realistic? I have certainly known people (and parents) who've been equally stupid and irresponsible. Is Claudia a bad mother? That's for the reader to decide.
I've said before that I am not trying to copy Harry Potter or parallel it directly, but certainly I model many characters and situations after their HP equivalents. Claudia, then, is the counterpart to Petunia Dursley. Claudia compares favorably to Petunia, I think! If I failed to make Claudia believable or sympathetic enough, it may be because of a problem that has plagued me as well as Rowling, the uneven balance between a slightly absurdist story, in which "parents" who lock a child in a cupboard throughout his childhood are just following a long tradition of Really Awful Parents in children's books, and a more realistic one in which some of the things the Dursleys did probably merited the intervention of Social Services.
I haven't discussed Archie's role much, though some reviewers have pointed out that Archie could have done more to establish a closer relationship with Alexandra. That is certainly true. I see Archie as being like Claudia — not a bad guy, but kind of a half-hearted parent. Ironically, if Alexandra had been needier and more insecure, it would have made Archie more protective and more affectionate, and they would have been closer, but Archie was never quite sure what to do with this hard-headed, mischievous girl who didn't seem to need him, and whose own mother didn't seem to think more was needed. Archie didn't exactly step up to become a father figure, but he did his limited best. He could have used a little mentoring in the "stepfather" department, and a little more encouragement from Claudia.
Where will things between Alexandra and her erstwhile parents go from here? You'll have to wait until book five...
"My mother is a cat!"
I knew this twist would not sit well with everyone. One of my betas really did not like it at all, which left me a bit concerned that it would be a shark-jumping moment for some of my readers. Admittedly, it's one of the most "out there" things I've done yet. (Yet. >:D) But it was planned since book one, and I've been planting the clues all along.
Somewhere about halfway through the writing of Alexandra Quick and the Thorn Circle, I settled on who Alexandra's real mother was, and then started working the clues in. Everyone noticed that Lilith Grimm showed up on Alexandra's birthdays with Galen and figured there must be some significance to this, but most people assumed Galen was a "he" and speculated that Galen referred to the Roman physician. Nobody, apparently, thought of the admittedly obscure mythological Galenthias.
Maybe I was cheating by shortening her name. Had Lilith just called her "Galenthias," I'm sure people would have guessed that the "cat" was a transformed person, though possibly not that she was Lilith's sister or Alexandra's mother.
But the second clue I dropped was at the beginning of book two, when you found out Diana's middle name. Diana Alecto Grimm. You've just found out the Grimm sisters are twins, but there are three Furies, aren't there?
If most of my characters have Harry Potter analogs, then Hecate Grimm may be a sort of amalgam of Lily Evans and Alice Longbottom. And maybe a bit of Bellatrix Lestrange...
Adults Are Useless
Adults are Useless is a trope I've been hitting kind of hard, isn't it? It seems every adult in the story has fallen under criticism — even Ms. King, for refusing Alexandra's request to come live with her and Julia. Other than Claudia, though, it's Dean Grimm who gets the most flack, for doing a poor job of handling Alexandra, for not doing more to protect her (or at least telling her what she's doing), etc.
I didn't intend for the adults to appear incompetent or outright stupid. I tried to avoid some of the more egregious problems with Rowling's story, where crucial information was withheld for plot reasons, by giving the adults motives for not telling Alexandra things. Diana Grimm is angry and carrying a grudge and doesn't think she should take any shit from a teenager, even if the teenager is her niece. Lilith Grimm feels much the same, even if she is (usually) more controlled than Diana.
To be fair to Dean Grimm, she did tell Alexandra that she was sending Ms. Shirtliffe and Miss Gambola out to look for the thing in the woods. Alexandra assumed that the Dean wasn't doing anything else, and she didn't ask. Alexandra tends to make great leaping assumptions like that, and think she's the only smart person in the room.
But could a lot of trouble be avoided if any of the adults sat down and told Alexandra what's what, without condescending to her? Well, yes. But Dean Grimm is an authoritarian who has trouble pulling the stick out of her ass, Diana Grimm more so, Abraham Thorn is used to being evasive and telling only what he thinks other people should know (and that's as little as possible), Henry Tsotsie just wanted to get this troublesome white girl the hell out of his territory, and so on.
I think the problem in my story is not so much that Adults as Useless as Adults are Assholes.
It may be that I overplayed this. It's another factor that's hard to balance when you are writing under the influence of certain conventions (a series originating in children's books where Awful Adults are the norm) as well as the inconvenient fact that teenagers with adults realistically involved in their lives have a much harder time going on adventures.
Like a 14-year-old girl
Some people thought Alexandra showed remarkable maturity and character growth in Book Four. Some thought she remained an arrogant, immature, ungrateful little brat.
I thought she was — at different times — both.
I would kind of laugh at how each chapter, if she did something brave and mature, people would cheer, and if she did something foolish and immature, people would groan and ask why she keeps acting like that, and I wondered How many of you remember being fourteen?
Now, I'm not saying my characterization of Alexandra (or fourteen-year-old girls in general) is perfect. Nor that how I see my character is how everyone else should see my character. It's natural that people will slap their foreheads when the main character does a stupid thing. "Oh, Alex, won't you ever grow up?"
But honestly, what I remember of being fourteen is that I thought I knew every-fucking-thing, and there were times when I did, in fact, have quite remarkable moments of insight. And other times when I was an unbearable little shit who had no idea how close I was coming to being strangled. I don't think that's atypical for fourteen-year-olds. They can be mature and really smart one moment, and then turn around do the most amazingly stupid shit the next. Alexandra is, in many respects, more level-headed than most kids her age, or at least, she takes things more seriously, out of necessity.
But in fairness to her, she got jerked around a lot in this book. I think most fourteen-year-olds would freak out a bit given what she goes through.
I was trying really hard to make Alexandra believable, not completely stupid, not completely grown-up, and acting in a manner consistent with her character as well as being, you know, fourteen.
Hopefully most of you thought she was bearable and believable. If not... well, she has been getting a little more mature with each book. And I saw AQATSA as Alexandra's OotP: she went through the worst of her pissy phase in this book. (And hardly any caps locking!)
That's not to say she won't still do foolish, reckless things in book five. She is still, after all, Troublesome.
Alexandra's Love Life, and That Gay Thing
Actually, I got less flack for this than I thought I would. No one actually thought shipping was taking over the story — if anything, I think some readers wanted to see more of it.
Alexandra and her friends, as I have said, are teenagers. They're going to act like teenagers. And Alexandra has already proven that she's, well, not exactly timid about deciding what she wants (or doesn't).
I actually had a few reviewers who accused her of being fickle/unfaithful. Sorry, Alexandra also isn't the sort who's very readily going to buy into the idea that anyone has an exclusive claim on her, unless she explicitly promises such. She all but told Payton as much. If you're going to call her unfaithful on the basis of one confused kiss with Brian before she'd technically "broken up" with Payton, well, let's just say a Harry/Ginny ending is not likely in Alexandra's future.
But hey, only one person on DLP called her a slut. :P
A few people thought that the Stuart subplot was too contrived as a device to prevent the boinking. Meh, maybe. I still feel I might have executed it a little bit better, but like the Max/Martin thing, it just came to me and it made sense, so I added it. It wasn't "necessary" to the story, but it was fitting.
I was rather more worried that people would think I was going for Gay Ally Cookies, which certainly was not my intent, but that raises another concern whenever I use tropes that I know are, well, tropes, and sometimes tired ones at that. If I know a particular plot device has an unfortunate history and/or implications, should I dump it?
Well, I have already committed Dead Gay Boyfriend. Sometimes I do things even knowing that I'm going to get flack for it.
Do I look like a gorram storeria dekayi to you? I don't even like crickets!
I always think my stories are full of plot holes. The things people point out are usually not the ones I was worried about.
Like, how did Alexandra not notice for two years that Nigel had fangs?
I actually have several No-Prize explanations for that, but mostly I did it because I thought the idea was cool, and dramatically fitting. (And yes, I planned it since Nigel first appeared. People have been asking me since book two if Nigel was ever going to do anything besides sit on his warming rock.)
I was far more worried about Alexandra's plan to get into the tunnels. I went through several different versions of the final chase, including trying to work out a way that she might Apparate/be Apparated down there, but none quite suited. Hence, her brilliant plan. A few people commented on the ease with which she got into tunnels that had supposedly been sealed off. My view on it is that the tunnels under Charmbridge were never meant to be sealed off and are almost impossible to make completely inaccessible, but I admit, that's a bit handwavey. Could Dean Grimm have put much tighter wards and alarms all over the place? Maybe — of course, she could do the same thing with all the exits out of the academy, or just put some sort of local Trace on Alexandra. (Merlin knows she needs one!) Once again this boils down to the fact that if adults actually monitor teenagers as tightly as they could (and possibly should), it becomes very hard to write teenagers being able to get away with anything. I hope I didn't take too many liberties, and I commented several times on the difficulties the teachers would have in actually implementing a "lockdown" on the school, but I concede that I have probably let Alexandra get away with more than she should with surveillance-happy wizards on her case.
Some readers thought her being able to weaken the wards around the school was another instance of teacher ineptitude. I tried to build up Alexandra a little more this year, showing that, while she's no Abraham Thorn (yet), she's talented and powerful, she had been specifically studying wards, and she used an obscure kind of magic that was only supposed to let one particular being through. But if it's not believable that Alexandra could do what she did, well, my bad. This is also part of the whole final climax that I was not 100% satisfied with.
(One of my original alternative scenarios was that she somehow gets Larry Albo to Apparate her down to the sub-basement, bringing the Nemesis Spirit with them. But the holes and the difficulties in making that scenario work were even greater than what I settled on.)
I could go on (and on, and on), but I can't really cover every single thing everyone said while reviewing, nor do I want to respond to individual reviews.
Except you, YUI. I am so sorry you've got a mad hate for Alexandra Quick and that it vexes you so that people like my series. For what it's worth, though, I like G. Norman Lippert's James Potter series too. ;)
So go ahead and hit me with questions and comments. I'll answer any question that isn't a spoiler or giving away too much information. Bearing in mind that as I said in the beginning, what's written in the books should stand on its own, so any explanations I give here are, well, as canon as you think they are. ;)