Monday, 28 January 2013

*YOU* DECIDE!

Hello, hello, hello - and Happy Monday, my duckies! I'm posting a day early because I have a question that I need your help to answer.

Over the weekend I had a really intriguing discussion on Twitter, which involved several respected blogger-friends and Lovely Lass of Walker Books. That debate prompted me to write this post, because I would like YOU to make a key decision about the way Books #2 and #3 of THE NAME OF THE BLADE should play out.

Here's the issue. When writing a trilogy or series in which the books do not stand alone - effectively a single story broken down into multiple volumes - obviously the second and third (and fourth and fifth and however many) volumes are going to come with a lot of backstory attached. Events that happened in previous books will be directly relevant to what is happening in the book NOW, to who characters are NOW, and how you, the reader, should feel about all that NOW.

The more books in a series, the more backstory the reader needs to remember - or a new reader needs to figure out for themselves - every time a new book comes out. Sometimes it's honestly impossible to understand or appreciate anything that's going on in the book you're reading unless you know/remember/can work out at least the basics of what came before.

Traditionally, writers have two ways to deal with this.

Method One involves the writer cunningly weaving lots of threads of information about previous events throughout the first chapters of each new book in the series, and hoping that the reader can pick up on these and stitch them together well enough to grasp the significance of current events.  

The Upside of this method is that this weaving usually comes in the form of a short period of reintroduction to a story world and its characters, which can feel very comforting to a returning reader who is keen to immerse themselves in this series again. If done skillfully the writer gives you just enough time to take a deep, happy breath as your attachment to the characters reasserts itself, before punching you in the gut.  

The Downside to this method is that it necessarily slows down the first few chapters because there's no way to move on until you're confident you've flashbacked or reminisced enough to give the reader context for what is going to happen next. Many readers hate this method for that very reason. If you have an excellent memory for what happened in the last book/s, re-read them recently, or are simply the kind of reader who can whizz along happily without much context, these Getting To Know You chapters feel very much like a waste of your time. And for readers who've read many, many other books since they picked up the last volume in your series, these hints and reminders *still* might not be enough to get them up to speed on all the intricacies of your plot and characters.

Method Two is to assume that everyone who picks up your book has read the previous volumes and can remember them just fine, and to launch into the action of the new story with little or no explanation or context, assuming that the force of your narrative will drag any confused readers along until they figure out what is happening and why they should care.

The Upside of this method is that it requires no extra effort from the writer, and no delay in getting back to the action. You literally act as if your series is a single volume and continue writing as if there was no break. There is no slow, Getting To Know You period, no flashbacking or reminiscing, and your story gets a rip-roaring start.  

The Downside is that for a very large chunk of readers - those who've not read the last book/s of your series for a year or more, and may have read dozens of other books in the months since, readers who do not have the time or desire to re-read all the other books in the series, or who read lots of series and might easily get details mixed up - it is now almost impossible to follow anything that's going on. Your sucker-punch plot twist and the emotions and reactions of your characters mean nothing to them. They can't *remember* why this should shock them or make them laugh or cry. Maybe after several chapters it will start to come back to them, but by that time they'll often either have given up or have had half the book ruined for them.

So far I've been attempting to follow Method One, but I've been very aware that no matter how carefully I wove my flashbacks and reminders into the story, there are always going to be readers who will either find my opening horribly boring or simply bewildering. As I started work on Book #3 of the trilogy my eyes started to cross with the amount of information that I felt I needed to impart in a natural way to the reader, without completely bringing the action to a standstill.

What is the alternative? Well, as the lovely Vivienne of Serendipity Reviews suggested:
Lovely YA publishers, please can we have a summary of previous books in a series at the beginning of a book?
Lovely Lass asked if this would be like a 'Previously in [Series Name]' page - a sort of bare bones plot summary to refresh everyone's memory on the vital points - rather than an infodump plonked into the actual narrative of the book. Lynsey from Narratively Speaking chimed in: 
YES! A page summary would be great!... Often I don't read sequels quick enough as I feel I have to re-read first book to remember. This is the bane of my life as a blogger and reader of series. It slows me down :(
Later on Laini Taylor, author of the beloved, bestselling Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy, was asking the exact same question in her twitter feed: 
Curious, readers: who would prefer a blatant "previously" summary page at beginning of a sequel to author weaving reminders into the text?
Lovely Lass and a couple of other bloggers suggested that maybe these plot summaries could go into a press release, which is a good idea, but... I don't see/read that many press releases. Nor do most average readers, I think. And even if you're a blogger who DOES see and read them, do you really want to keep one to hand the whole time you're reading a book so you can keep referring back to it?

Most readers probably don't tear through as many books and series as my blogging friends do, but even I, an amateur voracious reader and very, very occasional reviewer, will often find myself wishing for a quick precis of books #1 and #2 when I come to pick up book #3. It's probably been a couple of years since I read the first one, at least a year if not more since I read the last one, and I might have read a hundred books since then. I have a pretty good memory for written text, but it still normally takes me a couple of chapters to gel with the series universe and characters again, and that's if the writer is sticking to Method One. With Method Two, I'm just as likely to get exasperated and put the book aside, telling myself I'll re-read the others when I have time, and then NEVER pick any of them up again.

Frankly, Vivienne and Lynsey's comments made me blink a little because... why couldn't *we* do that? If it was what a substantial number of readers wanted? Just put a single page at the front of the book with title 'In Books One and Two of THE NAME OF THE BLADE...', offer up the most relevant details so the reader could say 'Oh yes! Now I remember!' and then move on? There's normally only a week's gap between episodes of a TV programme, but many still ofter a catch-up opening practically every episode. What was stopping us from following that example? If readers didn't want to catch-up that way they could always skip it - and it would most likely free me up to write a much stronger and more fast paced opening to each book.

That's what I think. But you guys are the readers - the ones I'm aiming to please. And this is why I'm going to ask you to tell me what you think, both in the poll I'm posting here and in the comments. Based on what you say, I can go to my editor with this idea and possibly re-write the openings of the last two books of THE NAME OF THE BLADE to make it easier for you to re-immerse yourself in the universe I've created.

The poll will be open until the 10th of February. Later that week I'm having an editorial discussion with Wonder Editor, so make sure you give me something to talk to her about before then! Thanks in advance for your time and your opinions. Each and every one of them counts :)

WHEN READING SERIES/TRILOGIES I PREFER:

44 comments:

RMIvory said...

As a Homeland/24/West Wing fan I think the idea of having a 'previously on the...' at the front of a book in a series/trilogy would translate very well. If it works on TV I don't see why it couldn't work in fiction. Press releases are much more limited because as you say normal readers wouldn't have access to them. I think a page or two in the front of the book would work very well.

Jessica said...

While I was reading the start of this post, I starting thinking, "Why couldn't you have a sort of 'previously on' summary at the front of the book?" Lo and behold, you suggest exactly that.

I think it's a great idea. It means that the story can get on with plot. If you finished reading the previous book yesterday, you can skip over the summary without missing anything and if you read the first book months ago, you've got a helpful reminder.

I'm sure I've seen a trilogy that did this (I think it was a trilogy of Star Wars books but it was ages ago, so I can't remember clearly).

Zoë Marriott said...

RMIvory: Yes, it seems to me that the prevalence of this technique in popular TV shows would make it really easy to accept, especially for younger readers.

Jessica: Ha ha! Then great minds do think alike. Thanks :)

Lucy Coats said...

Hi Zoe - as I said in the Twitter debate on this, I think a summary is a great idea. Why not? After all, if someone's coming to these books a while after they're all published, and can read them in one glorious and unbroken NOTB-fest (lucky them!), then they can always skip it. The other thought I had (too late for the poll), is that another alternative might be to have a 'cast list' with a short note about who everyone is and their story so far. I always find that very useful in series like Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time and George RR Martin's Game of Thrones books. Again, readers can use it or not, as they wish. I'm actually using that method in a fantasy myth series for younger readers because my publisher asked me to. Will be fascinated to see what the poll result is.

Anonymous said...

Yep, the "Previously in Name of the Blade" is definitely a good idea!

-Hobbitlass

Anonymous said...

Added to my comment above: I also agree with Lucy Coats that the "cast list" is a good idea.

-Hobbit

Zoë Marriott said...

Lucy: Ach, that is a VERY good idea! It might be slightly longer, but it might also feel more *natural*. I'll make a note! Thanks.

Hob: Thank you, dear :)

Alaiel Kreuz said...

I vote for the summary page, I think it's a great idea that will be appealing for most people and help us all remember what we need to know.
Plus, if the reader has an amazing memory then she/he can skip the summary and begin the book straight away.

I really hope publishers will seriously consider this. Great post, Zoë! :D

Alaiel Kreuz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vivienne said...

I'm just pleased someone actually took notice of what I was asking! LOL it only took a day for everyone to catch up.

I want a summary page so badly. I am struggling with two books at the moment and I can't for the life of me remember what happened. I just want to be able to refresh my memory without wondering if what has been weaved into the story were things that happened in the previous book or had just been added. It all gets too confusing. Jenny Colgan has a summary page at the front of her book Christmas at Cupcake Café and it worked beautifully.

Eleanor said...

I've never read a book that had a summary page before. I have read Fanfiction where if the author hasn't updated for a while they'll post a short summary before continuing which I've found very helpful.

I read over 100 books a year so if a series is released annually I'll have read lots of books in between! Reminders most definitely required.

Zoë Marriott said...

Alaiel: Whereas there really is no way to skip the inf-heavy first chapters of a book if you already know what happened before. You're forced to plough through! Good point.

Vivienne: I think perhaps, with so many series on the book market at the moment and so many continuing storylines to keep up with, this issue has just reached critical mass. Not only is it humanly impossible to re-read each series everytime a new book comes out, it's probably humanly impossible to remember everything that's happened. And clearly subtle exposition reading is of limited use too - it's not enough for a lot of people, while driving others up the wall because it's slow and they've seen ten other authors do the same thing this week alone. So maybe we'll start a revolution!

Eleanor: Sounds like professional authors could stand to learn a lesson or two from fanfic :)

Anonymous said...

Please, please, the summary page! Or,the cast of characters! Anything but that careful rephrasing of stuff we know already. Yes, new readers and those who've had a long time between books need something to get them up to speed, but once all the books are out, a reader who enjoys them will read one after the other, and there are few things as tedious as hearing the same info, over and over. V e r y s l o w l y, as the writer is trying to look casual.

Laura Mary said...

Well it’s always good to try something new – sounds like a really interesting concept

I read a lot of series, and find I like different approaches from different authors!

I do find that when re-reading Harry Potter the ‘recap’ paragraphs in the early books can be a little frustrating - I find myself skim-reading for a bit. But I still think the opening chapter of the Half Blood Prince is genius! Having a long series can force you into more and more creative ways of recapping events (I wouldn’t trade Snape’s account of the last 7 years in Deathly Hallows for anything!)
Having said that, when a writer is recapping purely because they know they have to, it becomes a chore and must be hard to do with any real passion. Like you say, it can compromise the way you want to start a book.

I remember struggling to keep track with Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom series – there were 7 in all with long gaps between each release. I ended up ‘saving up’ the last two books until I had the time to read the series straight through. Recap chapters wouldn’t have made sense in that series though, the series took place over the course of one week – why would you re-cap what happened yesterday? So maybe summary pages would have been ideal there!

I’m rambling again Zoe!

I haven’t voted because I think you should do whatever feels right for your book! :-)

Laura Mary said...

...Yeah, if you spot the deliberate mistake above you get a cookie...

*hangs head in shame*

Zoë Marriott said...

Anon: That made me sputter with laughter. That's a perfect summing up of why we need to look at new ways to do this, thank you.

Laura: I never pay attention to deliberate mistakes :) And you can still vote - I need and want your opinion, honestly. You raise a really good point about the exposition in Garth Nix's Keys to the Kingdom books. I had that same problem with them and haven't picked up the last couple for just that reason. Here's a secret for you: my trilogy takes place over a week too. I set that as a challenge for myself, since my high fantasy stuff generally takes place over months or years. So this makes the summary page an even better option.

Ferret said...

I would be all for a page giving 'previously on...' but I go for interweaving and hints as well.
But my trilogy could be started anywhere - indeed the second vole could come first, and the first come as a prequel...

Cathryn said...

Like other people are saying, I don't see why you shouldn't have a summary page - after all they do it on TV, and there's often a lot more plot to remember in a book.

I'm torn though because, although lots of recap at the beginning of a book can be annoying, when it's done just right I really enjoy it - it can feel like a sort of 'hey, welcome back'.

I guess in that case a summary page could give you the best of both worlds - you've got all the detail for those who need it, but you can still weave in a few references to earlier events in the text - but with no obligation to make sure you've included every single pertinent detail.

Zoë Marriott said...

Ferret: In future that's the kind of trilogy I might aim for!

Cathryn: I know just what you mean. That welcome back can be great, and I think even if you *did* include a summary page, you'd never be able to get away from re-introducing character and referring back to what happened before. Because that's the point of an ongoing story, right? I think the Previously In... would just relieve the burden of having to unload every bit of information straight away.

Laura Mary said...

Ohh - just had another thought...

I quite often find when it's done on tv shows it can ruin the episode to come! It's like 'hey, remember that character from last series, who you thought was dead? Make sure you remember them cause you'll never guess what's coming up!!'
So no surprise when Formerly-dead turns up again in that weeks episode.

I guess that's the challenge - finding the line between nudging people towards the important points and highlighting them in fluorescent marker pen with a side note of THIS IS IMPORTANT!!!

Funder said...

Delurking to say that "previously in the series" summary chapters are not uncommon in fantasy. I love them and voted for them.

Zoë Marriott said...

Laura: Heh! I don't think you'd have enough words to go into that kind of detail, so not a problem!

Funder: Mostly they end up going into a prologue though, which is controversial. I think labelling it 'Previously...' would help.

Q said...

I LOVE THIS IDEA. I remember the last book in the Inheritance cycle had a direct summary at the beginning, which was VERY helpful. (I didn't make it through the book anyway, but that was for different reasons.) I often find myself putting sequels off indefinitely because I don't really remember what happened in the previous books. Lately, I've taken to only reading standalones because I know I won't have time to reread past books before a sequel.

You'd just have to be careful with a short summary, because readers will know that the information you choose to include has some bearing on the plot. For instance, I really don't like it when TV shows tell me that an old character is coming back in the summary. I'd rather be surprised.

Phoenixgirl said...

I like the Previously In... idea too. Tanith Lee did it in her Unicorn books, and it worked very well - heck, Tolkien did it in LotR!

Zoë Marriott said...

Q: Very good point. It's a bit different for these books, though - the whole trilogy takes place over a week so there really aren't any 'old characters' to spoil about :)

Phoenix: If it's good enough for Tolkein!

Ruth Warburton said...

Oooh controversial, but I'm going to go against the crowd here and say... I don't want a summary!

Ok here is my reasoning... with TV shows they are largely live and fast moving, and if people have to take time out to do research to catch up you risk totally losing the audience. Whereas with books you can - if you want - take 5 minutes to do a quick google/look it up on wikipedia/author's website/whatever. The information is there and it's not usually that hard to find.

Secondly - I don't mind being at sea. You generally need almost no information at all to keep up with a series, unless it's really very tightly plotted.

Thirdly - on a purely selfish note I would HATE to have to write that summary! Anyone who's written a synopsis knows how &*(&ing difficult they are to write and how dense they are to read. How do you say everything that's important in books one and two in an interesting and not-crass way?

I don't think I do much summing up in my books bar the odd remark here and there - I generally trust to the reader to figure it out and if they can't, like I said, there's always the interweb.

But I'm definitely interested to note that I'm in the minority here :)

Ruth Warburton said...

"You'd just have to be careful with a short summary, because readers will know that the information you choose to include has some bearing on the plot."

I think this is very VERY true. Often the details you forget are the "sleeper" details, stuff that seems inconsequential at the time but has huge significance later on. How do you convey that important detail without effectively putting in a big red arrow saying "THIS IS IMPORTANT GUYS!! START FIGURING IT OUT NOW!"

Zoë Marriott said...

Ruth: I think my issues are stemming from the fact that the trilogy is *insanely* tightly plotted. The whole thing takes place over one week and there are universe-altering happenings in each book - new characters being introduced, new family secrets being uncovered, new worlds being opened up. Stopping all the action for the 1st person narrator to sum up what happened to her yesterday in her own head just feels very unnatural in that context. But I do think that with a year between book releases the readers are going to be lost without a memory refresher; and as an author who doesn't rate a wiki page or any fansites, I'm not sure it'd be that easy to get the information quickly and conveniently if *I* don't provide it. So why not provide it, in the book itself, especially since so many readers are specifically asking for it?

Ruth Warburton said...

Oh blast - I just tried to post an answer and I think I lost it! Sorry if this appears twice.

I was just saying that makes sense Zoe, and I think I was partly thinking would I want a plot summary in my books, and the answer is probably no, but I don't think it's needed (or maybe it is? Perhaps readers would disagree!)

I can totally see if there's a very knotty plot with details people need to know to keep up, it's worth giving a helping hand!

Zoë Marriott said...

Ruth: Nope, it only seems to be here once :) The task of writing the summing up does feel a leeetle intimidating, I admit, but in a way that makes it seem like a challenge that I can take on and possibly defeat. Whereas when I think about trying to do the exposition the traditional way, THAT gives me the bellyache. But basically, if it turns out that I can't write a decent summary page, that sort of solves that question, doesn't it?

Sarah said...

I have had this discussion before with other bloggers and would absolutely love having a short summary at the beginning of a book. That way if it's been a year since I read the last book (& if it has that means I've read at least 200 other books since then!) I don't miss out on important information. Usually it doesn't take too much to jog my memory but if no back story is included then I can end up getting lost and frustrated.

My first choice would definitely be a summary page so you can get straight to the action of the second book. If you're not doing that then I'd have to say my second choice would be method one, yes the recap may slow the story a little but otherwise I know I probably won't enjoy it as much.

I wish I had time to re-read all the books I wanted to when the next book came out but with the size of my to read pile it's just impossible!

Zoë Marriott said...

Sarah: Thank you! That is very helpful :)

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say, regarding the 'people could research the previous story on-line'. Not everyone has access to on-line, or at convenient times. Better to have the info on a page in the book, right at hand, for those who need it, and those who don't can just flip past.

Someone mentioned 'prologues': I don't think that's quite the same as a short summary. Usually they go on about general backgroundy stuff.

Kristen Evey said...

Ooo, I absolutely LOVE this idea. I definitely vote for a summary. It solves ALL the problems. For instance, I'm typically the type of person who, when finding out a book is going to be a trilogy, waits until the entire trilogy is released and then devours them all back to back. This makes interwoven backstory in books 2 and 3 very tedious and boring. I would MUCH rather jump right into the story.

On the other hand, there are certain books/authors/trilogies I want to start reading as soon as the first book is out (not naming any names, but there's this one about a Blade I'm particularly excited for). In that case, a summary page would be perfect because I still want to be thrown right into the action, but I can't remember all the details when it's been a year since I read the last book.

I think one of the best things about a summary page is the reader can always skip it. It's not part of the actual story. It's just a, hey, here is what you may have forgotten.

Now that you're bringing this up, I am BAFFLED as to why nobody (myself included) has thought of this before.

Zoë Marriott said...

Anon: Thanks for that - those are really useful remarks :)

Kristen: I was a little bit baffled by that too - but then it wasn't me that came up with the idea, it was the exasperated blogger-pals. Maybe it's a bit of a blindspot for most of us because we haven't seen it before and we just think we have to keep doing things the way other writers/readers have done before us, ploughing through all that backstory.

Nonny said...

I think a summary is a great idea. I may add that I am disabled and have brain damage from medications that I have been on to treat my disability. Unfortunately, this means my memory is very poor, and if it's more than a month or two between reading books in a series, I frequently forget what happened. Something like this would be very welcome.

Zoë Marriott said...

Nonny: I sympathise with this so much! My dad has very similar problems with his memory. He relies on me, when he's reading a sequel to a book or watching a film sequel, to sum up what happened for him before so that he's not lost. Hopefully that means I've got the skillz to pull it off in writing, too :)

Cherie Rosemin said...

Hmm. I'm kind of against the summary at the beginning, although I suppose it's a really good idea.
I think I'm just against it because of the link to tv, though.
I prefer the thing that manga does - a paragraph on the back explaining the general storyline and then large references to the last book in the paragraph that also explains what happens this time round.
It's never been a problem I really have, though, but I like the conveyance of backstory through the first couple of chapters. It seems more...personal than a brief summary, if you know what I mean.
I suppose it depends on what works best for the individual book.

batgirl said...

For what it's worth as a datapoint, I started reading Jo Clayton's interlinked fantasy series by picking up book 3 in in a trilogy. I kept up because it began with a cast of characters and plot summary.
My artistic preference is for interweaving, but that isn't always natural. I know when I was reading serial stories in magazines (lo these many years ago) I always enjoyed reading the Previously... snippets, and seeing how they changed with each instalment. (That's fairly geeky, I guess, but it was interesting to see what info was dropped and what retained or added).

Jesse Owen said...

I think a previously page would be a great idea - like you say it's used in TV and does wonders to jog the memory.

In a press release would be helpful but then like you say you'd miss out on everyone who doesn't get them and when books in a series tend to come out with anywhere between 6 months and a year to come out I think a summary page would be useful for everyone :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Cherie: Those manga backpanels assume that everyone has read the previous manga though - they're pretty spoilery. I wouldn't be happy to risk spoiling readers that way.

Batgirl: If geeky is wrong, I don't wanna be right. I've enjoyed reading that kind of summary too!

Jesse: Yes, it's no good going to the trouble of writing a summary if only about 2% of readers will get to see it on a press release, is it? It needs to be there in the book and then people can chose, for themselves, whether to read or skip.

Megha said...

I just recently finished Insurgent (Veronica Roth) and I had picked it up before, but because I read Divergent AGES ago, I couldn't remember what happened. So I remembered that Veronica Roth had written a blog post about what happened in Divergent, so I guess you could do that too... But, not everyone stalks writers' blogs like I do (hehe :P Just kiddin'! Kinda...), so the people who read less keenly, or don't actually go check the blogs of writers' might not know what happened in the first book. I really like the idea of a summary, because if TV can do that, so can we!

Also, in Veronica's blog post, she wrote she didn't want to summarise what happened in Divergent in the first few chapters of the actual book, because it wouldn't seem natural in Tris's voice, and that makes a lot more sense. And it makes the book better, if everything sounds natural, because that's what makes the writing GOOD! Honestly, I would much rather read a summary first, than have the hints of what happened in the previous book IN the first few chapters of the next book.

When I first picked up Insurgent, which was when it first came out, I just read a page, got confused and left it, because even though it's AMAZING, it starts right in the middle of action, and there isn't even a hint as to what happened before. But reading the summary online made the book so much better for me, and I was hooked right from the start, because it started straight from Tris's genuine point of view, instead of summarising.

Either way you decide to do it (online, or in the book), I would LOVE a summary! Hopefully if you do this, we may be able to start a trend in books where this is common practice and I just know books will end up being so much better this way! :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Megha: Fantastic. That's exactly the sort of feedback that I was looking for - thank you.

Alicia said...

I've been saying forever that I'd love a summary page at the beginning of the next book in a series! I often don't remember important plot points between books. Some I don't mind reading over again before the new book comes out, others I just want to see what happens and would really rather not re-read the previous books, or I just don't have time. A summary page would be perfect to refresh my memory and then allow me to jump into the new book without the story being slow as the author weaves in what happened previously, or I'm trying to remember what in the devil happened before.

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