Thursday, February 09, 2012

Watch Your Back...Story

What I'm reading: Contest entry #7 of 8

I've been reading books for a contest lately. A fair number of the books I've been given are part of a series, or at least connected books, which is the most common in romance. This means they'll have characters who have appeared in previous books, but aren't the "stars" of this one.

Most of what I write falls into this category. The only exception is Hidden Fire, which is a true sequel to Finding Sarah. Randy and Sarah are the protagonists of both books. On the other hand, the new book (still untitled, but I'm working on it. Ideas still welcome!) is set in the same town, with many of the characters readers met in the first two books, but the hero and heroine are brand new. They've never appeared before. This is unusual in series/connected romance books, too. (Have I ever mentioned that I didn't know the "rules" when I wrote Finding Sarah and Hidden Fire, so I didn't really set things up for a series.)

I did take one secondary character from Finding Sarah and give her a book of her own, but then when I got the rights back and switched publishers, I had to sever her ties to Pine Hills. So, although Colleen from Nowhere to Hide actually started out in Pine Hills, through the magic of fiction, she sprang forth with a new place of origin. (If I decide to request the rights back, I just might change the book and give her back her history with Randy and Sarah.)

My Blackthorne, Inc. series falls into the "connected book" category. By the time I started writing them, I'd learned enough about the genre to know I needed to keep my options open. Thus, readers meet Dalton in When Danger Calls, but he's secondary to Ryan, the hero. In Where Danger Hides, Dalton gets his own book, and in the upcoming Rooted in Danger, it'll be Fozzie's turn. Danger in Deer Ridge features Grinch, who created a few problems because I inadvertently mentioned that he had a kid in When Danger Calls, so I had to work with that.

But back to the books I've read for the contest. Some of the authors handle the requisite back story very well, and although I'm meeting characters who have already had their stories told in other books, their history doesn't intrude. In other cases, the author stops the forward motion of the book to explain who everyone is, and gives the reader all sorts of information about what happened to them in "their" books.

Of the two approaches, I'm definitely on the "don't tell me if I don't need to know" side of the fence. Sometimes the cast of characters gets huge, especially in an ongoing series, and authors use the "family gathering" technique to put everyone on the page. That makes me want to stop reading. A reader has enough trouble figuring out who the main players are, and we don't need the supporting cast in chapter one. Or two. Or even three.

If you're writing a series, my personal advice would be to ask yourself the same questions you should be asking yourself every time you deal with back story.

1. Does the reader need to know this?

2. Does the reader need to know this NOW?

As far as I'm concerned, if you're bringing in characters from a previous book, telling me Sam walked in with his wife, Judy is plenty. I don't need to know how they met, or that he rescued her from terrorists, or that she's a chocoholic. SHOW me when it becomes important. Does Judy freak out when a large, tattooed man approaches her. If so, then that's when you can mention it (or, better yet, have Sam explain it to someone else).

I've read books by well-known authors who have told me so much about what happened in book 1 while I'm reading book 2, that I have absolutely no desire to go back and read the first book, because I already know what's going to happen.

It's a constant struggle for me, regardless of whether I'm writing a true series (I hope to write the second Mapleton Mystery), or connected books. To further complicate things, I decided to release Danger in Deer Ridge BEFORE Rooted in Danger came out. This meant readers were actually reading book 4. Since Grinch is the hero of Danger in Deer Ridge, I had to make sure I didn't reveal much of what happened to Grinch before that book without giving readers a feeling that they've missed something.

How do you feel about series books? Do you read out of order? What are your preferences for handling back story, as a reader and/or a writer?

Want to go to Florida? Come back tomorrow. Jason was there last week, and he's got some more great nature shots.

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Anonymous said...

Hey, that makes a lot of sense. By giving little bits and details of the other book (Like her freaking out when a tatooed man walks by) will get the reader curious about the other book, and then they will want to find out why. I never thought about this as being a kind of marketing tool. If you give away the ending just because you already know it, you could be losing potential future sales. Great advice!

Cyrus Keith said...

That's a balance I try to make on my books as well. I want each book to stand as a complete story, but I aklso don't want to tell all of Book One all over again.

Nice post, Terry!

Terry Odell said...

James -- back story should be an IV drip, not a stomach tube. I think it holds for multiple books as well as each individual one.

Cyrus - agreed. And it can be tough to do. Tougher to do well.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Interesting post. Since I write two mystery series, I try to write each new one as a stand-alone, which means giving past information in a new way that won't be boring to new readers.

Loretta said...

Great tidbits, Terry:) I enjoy series, and no, I never read out of order...I love the flow:)


Karen C said...

I love series and prefer to read in order (except when I find a new to me author and have to catch up!). I also prefer to have any back story as I need it.

Kathy said...

Thanks Terry for the informaiton about series. I always wondered how an author decided to write a series. At what point do you decide that this is the first book and there will be two or three more. Yes if you give a hint as to one of the characters fear based on a previous book then it urges you to find that first book and read it too.

Terry Odell said...

Marilyn, yes I prefer not feeling "left out" when I read a book. On the flip side, however, is the "insider feeling" a reader can get when they know what happened in the previous books. Balance, balance, balance.

Loretta, I've been know to stop reading when I discover I'm not reading the first book in a series.

Karen - sometimes catching up on a huge back list can be daunting. And it's different when you read them back to back rather than months (or longer) apart if you're reading them as they're published.

Kathy -I think most authors hope there will be more in a series. It's getting publishers to see it that way that can be a problem. My Blackthorne, Inc. publisher doesn't do mulit-book deals, so I wrote each one as a stand alone in case another publisher wanted them.

Shelley Munro said...

I totally agree with you. I don't need to know/meet previous characters unless they have a bearing on the story. If they add to the story, fine, but don't confuse the reader with a host of names. This form of promo doesn't work! I won't buy the previous books, if I haven't already read them.

I'm also judging a contest at present and running into this problem.

Terry Odell said...

Shelley - I wonder why some feel obligated to include so much of what went before when it has little bearing on the story. But then, the editors must think it's important. It looks like many of us don't, however, based on the comments today.