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: