Friday, April 2, 2010


I sent in another submission (yay, it's only the second and I have another point already!) this one a short sequel to A Hidden Magic called "Unfinished Business." It focuses on a couple of the supporting characters, and picks up on something funny they were doing in Chapter 17, before the balloon went up and everyone had to scramble.

My original intention was to have it be a free extra, since it occurs right after the novel, and bangs off of something that happened during that story. I was thinking maybe it could be a bonus story included in the same file as the novel or something like that. My editor told me Torquere's only done that once, though, and I got the impression it'd be like pulling teeth with a tweezer to get them to do it again. Which is understandable; I get that they're trying to make a living, and with a story which falls within their wordcount range for a short story, they'd rather sell it as a short story. I was just kind of iffy about whether it could stand on its own; I had this vision of people who hadn't read the novel buying the short and going, "Huh? What the heck's going on here?! This sucks!" and never reading anything with my name on it again. :(

Another option would've been to post it as a free story on my web site, but that gets mainly crickets and tumbleweeds, and I'd really like for a few people to actually read the story. [wry smile]

I e-mailed it to some writers I know, none of whom had read Hidden Magic, and asked if they'd please read it and tell me whether they thought it could stand alone. (Thanks and hugs to the folks who helped me! :D ) They all said they thought it could, with a few suggestions. One, which I got from more than one person, was to de-couple the story from the novel, moreso than it already was. I'd been thinking I needed to fill in the reader on what had gone before, in case they hadn't read the book, but my readers suggested going the opposite way. And... yeah, that'd work. The incident the short story is based on is funny in and of itself, and although it's more funny if you know where it came from, it's not necessary to enjoy the story.

So I did this big "Duh!" and did some rewriting, cutting some specific references to characters from the book and focusing the short more on Cal and Aubrey, the characters that particular story is actually about. It's much better now as an individual story, and I'm much more confident that it'll work out, whether a reader has read the earlier novel or not.

It's one of the downsides of sequels, though, that they should stand alone, at least enough that some new reader who grabs a sequel first won't be completely lost and has a chance of enjoying the story. It's all right if there are details and references they don't pick up on, but it shouldn't be so obvious to them that things are flashing by over their heads that they get frustrated or annoyed by it. I've always preferred episodic series over single-arc series -- with some exceptions, of course, for really well written single-arc stories -- but the need to accommodate a new reader makes it difficult from the writer's POV.

When I was a kid, someone gave me a couple of Nancy Drew books for Christmas one year (I think it was some sort of law that young girls had to have at least a couple of those, back in the seventies) and one thing that annoyed me even when I was eight or nine was the way every freaking book started with this infodump about how Nancy was this pretty titian-haired eighteen-year-old (and she never had a birthday either, although that's a different gripe) whose father was Carson Drew the famous lawyer, and how motherless Nancy had been raised by their kind housekeeper Hannah Gruen. And about her friends, the cousins Bess and George, although in the first two or three books Nancy's best friend was Helen, who was never mentioned later after B&G showed up. And her boyfriend Ned, who was about as sexless as a Ken doll. And her blue roadster. And how much the local Chief of Police loved her and thought she was just so awesome. (I don't believe I still remember all this stuff, thirty-some years later, LOL! At least I forgot the Police Chief's name.)

But they'd give you all this info, Every Single Time, right there on pages 1-2. After a dozen books it was annoying, and by the time I hit forty or so (which was pretty close to where I eventually stopped) I was ready to tear out the first pages of any Nancy Drew book I could get my hands on. I get that they had to present the information, but if your ham-handed repetition is annoying a kid who hasn't even seen her tenth birthday yet, there's got to be a smoother, less blatant way of communicating it, you know?

So all right, this is an issue writers have been having for going on a century now, at least, and I'm probably not going to come up with The Definitive Answer. But I have plans for more stories in this series, and although I want them all to be readable by anyone, I don't want to go the Nancy Drew route of dropping infodump anvils onto readers' heads at the beginning of each new book or story.

In the case of "Unfinished Business," once I'd been clued in on the basic approach, I looked at the story as an individual entity, rather than as part of a series. It's important to the series that readers have a certain amount of background on the characters and the Sentinel team and what they do, but most of that's not necessary for a reader to read and enjoy this story right here. And although the funny in the story is funnier if you know where it came from, it's still funny if you don't know, and trying to explain what was going on before in a long, telly paragraph makes the story less enjoyable, so fun is maximized by leaving that out and shooting for the slightly lesser level of funny.

IOW, shooting for "Funny" and making it (I hope!) is better than shooting for "Very Funny" and having a miss turn the whole story into a "Blah."

I've never had to consider this angle before; I've done other stories in this universe, but "Chasing Fear" and "Candy Courage" were about different characters entirely, and "Chasing Fear" is set a few hundred miles away. It's all part of the same verse, yes, but there's nothing to link the stories except for that, so I didn't have to think about reading order when I wrote those, or A Hidden Magic for that matter. Now that I've tripped over the idea of constructing a story to stand alone based on what will make it good and enjoyable, rather than thinking of the verse or the series first, writing subsequent stories about the same characters will probably be a bit easier. At least I know what I'm shooting for. :)

I know a few people who read here have written series books or stories -- how do you handle the new reader issue? Has it been difficult, or have things just sort of flowed for you? Any tips?



Bernita said...

As a reader, I've found that somewhat cryptic references to previous events made me hunt out the previous stories.

Angie said...

Bernita -- sure, sometimes mention of a sequel will make it sound interesting enough that I'll want to go buy the earlier books too, assuming I haven't already. (I'm usually pretty uptight about wanting to read things in order.)

Maybe the trick is making mentions of earlier events sound intriguing, but not dumping all the info on the reader in a book where that info doesn't really fit, and also not being so wink-nudge about the past events that the current reader (who hasn't read those stories) gets frustrated or annoyed? I've seen it go too far in both directions, so it's a matter of finding the middle road.