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Monday, 26 March 2012

Sequels – Do I have to read the first one?

This is a challenge for any author particularly for a new one penning their first set of stories. Think about it, you’ve done well, banged out a reasonably successful first tale. Got some credit, a fan base that will hopefully pick up your sequel but you need to grow. The second book in an ideal world will sell more than the first book. More people know who you are, you have some reviews and credibility in the market and an author with two books is not a one hit wonder.
But your book is a sequel or the second in a series or like me you want to portray it as a new story using the same characters. This makes your target readership somewhat split. You will have seen it many times with authors of substantial series. One part of them wants to play to the fan base, hinting back to in-jokes or mentioning a key element of a previous story in order to remind the reader of what fun they had in the last one, perhaps demonstrating how far a character had developed since the first story. The other part for the author, especially true of new authors, you want new readers to pick this book up and when they ask, do I have to read the first one?, you can quite categorically need to say…NO.
Think of it like a football match or rugby or any other repetitive game. The same players start the game but you don’t have to have been at the previous game to enjoy the match. You can watch it and enjoy the ninety minutes without knowing that the No 7 got sent off three weeks ago, or that the striker is top scorer this season. It helps to understand the characters and the back story, but the real essential is that you start with a fresh story and that story plays out within the time period of the game, hopefully leaving a little something that will bring the punter back through the turnstiles next time.
There are some clear contradictions in managing your fans move to the new game. Assuming people enjoyed your first outing, let’s look at the pleasing the repeat fans first
·         Characters – So we already know that Rachel is 35 and used to be in a folk band and had a boyfriend who betrayed her and she nearly died at the end. So the repeat fan might want you to jog their memory a little but will quickly realise that they know stuff and will start skimming through repeat detail. We would like our readers not to be skimming.
·         Continuing story lines – so at the end of the previous book we left a cliff hanger, we blew up the Town Hall and we need to know who survived. So yes we need to mention the old story line and connect the two books up, but we must avoid at all costs retelling the old story. The old reader has read it already and again will start skimming.
·         In jokes and character development – We want our repeat customers to feel loved, feel like they are part of the character journey. These are the things that long term successful series writers do brilliantly. Their fans want to read the whole series because the players become the story more than the game they are playing. They want the soap-opera and to feel like they were there from the beginning, so that means giving them something to chew on. If Joe and Sarah got it together in book one, we want to know how it went, we want to refer back to their first night of passion and the strains they went through.
How does this conflict with the new fan.
·         Characters – The new fan doesn’t know on page 1 that Rachel is 35 and used to be in folk band and had a boyfriend who betrayed her and nearly died at the end. As some of this information may be key to your character portrayal you will need to find a way to inform your new reader without boring the old one. The key to this is remembering how dull back story can be to read. So golden rule here is tell as little as you can get away with doing. For example in this case we can easily slip in an age note and hint at the music credibility, but summarise the boyfriend story with a brief note on her bad history with men. Job done.
·         Continuing story line – Very tricky to manage. This is the real element of, Do I have to have read the first one? We would like even our new readers to know there is an on-going story and to a certain extent it might be an opportunity to hint at what a great story it was and perhaps the reader should go back and read it, but not at the expense of the book they have in their hand. My suggestion is to bring it back in stages. Write the old story into the new with snippets of detail. So with the Town Hall blowing up, we don’t really need to know why but we could mention that Sarah is anxious about loud noises or that Lucy got out of prison early given she was banged to rights at the end of the last one. Back story again is boring, so only tell what you have to make the story work in the now.
·         In-jokes and character development – This will probably go over the head of a new reader because they won’t be able to distinguish between something that was in the first story or just a friendly bit of detail you are adding in. That’s a good thing, but you don’t want too much going over the head of a new reader. They want to quickly feel part of your new world not feel like they are missing out on something. My advice on this is that your first instinct is to not do it. The fact that Joe and Sarah had a fun first night together is kind of good in the moment of the first story, or that Rachel hasn’t got over Alex’s death. Like sometimes with a joke…you had to be there. There are occasions, with a bit of skill, we can reference old occurrences/characters but be careful of the back story rule. Mostly put yourself in the shoes of the new reader and think Do they really need to know this? If the answer is no, then perhaps its best left in book one.

In summary, the common element for both fan bases is, back story is dull, but then you can’t deny the previous story exists. So whenever you come across a need to reference the old story, keep asking yourself the question, Do I need to have read the first book? and this will hopefully encourage you to deal with it in the best way.

© S.G.Norris

Thursday, 15 March 2012

A Year On

This time last year I was celebrating seeing my first book in print. It was an amazing and scary moment. A time for realising a dream but scared that it will fall in a mass of disappointment.
It’s fair to say that being an independent author is not going to make you rich. But we know that already, but it is worth exploring what I did get out of it.
Well definitely a sense of pride that you have something of value and record out in the market place. That a stranger picks up your piece of art and takes a gamble on it.
That’s the exciting part on a simple one to one relationship with the reader.
The more disappointing angle is that for 99% of the book buying people either will never see your work or will trundle on by on the basis that you’re unproven and untried. Attracting attention is costly and time consuming and often with minimal reward. Certainly easy to be disheartened and to think it’s not worth the hassle. No matter how much faith you have in your work it’s impossible to convey that sometimes even with a bubbling enthusiasm and a ferocious sales patter.
I find it particularly uncomfortable attempting to force people to buy especially as you know if you were on the opposite side of the table, you would be pulling a face as well. People are curious about new authors, want to believe they are the next undiscovered treasure but loath to risk a purchase for fear of mediocrity. But then your creeping cynicism is undermined when someone listens, likes and buys. It doesn’t happen every day but it does happen if you keep at it.
There is little point denying it is tough so may as well just get one with accepting it. Selling books is hard work and especially paper copies when the e-book market is flooded with giveaways. At £1 a go risk is minimal at £8.99 it’s something akin to cutting off an arm.
Once you accept your position in the pecking order, it’s easier then to get on with enjoying the process rather than pressuring yourself into being a super sales man. So talk to people, talk to fellow authors. Other authors are not the enemy as they are struggling just as much as you. Share ideas, copy success and think radically. One thing I found was bigging up a fellow author results in them feeling obliged to big you up. Like a you scratch my back sort of arrangement.
A year on, I get to start the process with second book now in edit. I feel so much wiser now, confident but realistic, knowledgeable and most of all with a ready-made audience to exploit.
It’s exciting to get your first book out and I have to say realising you have done the second is even more astonishing. I feel at the next level. The pressure though still lives like a devil in the head. You have to do better than the first time. And if you are serious about the process then you are probably right. You have to do better otherwise you will fast see your career as going the way of an x-factor winner, here today, gone tomorrow.

Details of the new book to follow in the coming weeks.