aha! moment

You know the hardest thing about writing a series? The publisher would really love it if each book stood on its own. That is, somebody picks up Book Six in a bookstore and is interested enough, after reading the first few pages, to buy it.

What they don’t want is for that person to realize that there are five earlier books in the series and give up right there.

So it’s a challenge, bringing new readers up to speed without boring the loyal readers to tears. And the gymnastics required to avoid info-dumping are tiring. That’s one of the hardest things about this novel.

Then yesterday somebody said something that made a light go on.

Anybody familiar with the Niccolo series by Dorothy Dunnett? These are probably the best historical novels I have ever read; I love them each and every one. But they are not easy. Tremendously detailed, hundreds of characters accumulated by the end of the series, a writer who doesn’t coddle her readers.

I usually re-read the whole series just before a new novel came out, which I enjoyed doing — but which many would not. Then with the last book (maybe not every edition of the last book, but with one at least), she provided a one-page summary of each of the previous books. They were very well written, just enough background information to get somebody into the novel before them.

Lady Dunnett did this for her readers, sure. But she also did it for herself. It alleviated the need to build all the backstory into the first couple chapters, so she could concentrate on moving forward with the story.

I am not Dorothy Dunnett. Not even close. It feels like hubris to even consider following her example, but it also feels like an excellent way to resolve some issues.

It will take a chunk of time to actually write the summaries, but I think it would be a good investment.

Any thoughts on this? Would you find such summaries a good thing, or irritating, or would you just skip by blithely?

30 Replies to “aha! moment”

  1. Nope, no right-hand column. It seems to be at the bottom of your posts. Just when you decided all was well! Now, don’t that beat all: Right now I really am looking at the right hand column, filling in this comment.

  2. Yet another pair of observations about the right hand column. After my previous post, on going back to the main the column appeared on the right. However, just going to post a comment, but not doing it, DOES NOT bring back the column in the main.

  3. ditto for me what asdfg reports for both the main page and the comments page.

    I use IE6 but the challenge may be a blog entry that has a graphic that widened the marins of the main column so taht the RH column is not left enough space?

  4. Yeah – I don’t see a right hand column when I go to “Main” but if I click on a previous post, I get it immediately. Also when I click to leave a comment on the Main post, I also see the column immediately. I thought it’s just different formatting for the different page views. On the Main view, without viewing comments, I can find all that right hand column stuff on the bottom, after the posts end.

  5. Speaking as a reader who rarely rereads I think it’d be a good thing, lil trip down memory lane before I get into the latest,it even may get me to reread a previous book in the series.

  6. It would be a great thing! I will be honest, I am not a fan of reading the same “information” multiple times. I understand that it’s to bring new readers up-to-date, but to us loyal readers, it is a bit annoying. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame the author! It’s all about marketing and business. As a reader though, I would much rather start with book 1 and make my way down, but I guess not everybody is like me. So the idea of summaries is great. If I’ve just read the previous book, I can just skip the summary and go right to the new story, without all the “re-hashing” throughout the book. I would probably read the summaries though, just to refresh my memory on some of the supportive characters. Anyways, whatever is best for you Rosina. If you have to bring readers up-to-speed, don’t worry, your stories will be great either way :)

  7. I’d go for the summaries, because even if readers are familiar with all the previous books, this makes the whole thing portable. You could check back on an important detail you don’t quite remember even if you’re on vacation in a hotel.

    Plus, what a great way to give new readers a taste of the whole series and tempt them to buy the previous books.

    Go for it.

  8. Rosina, I love the little maps and cast of characters you provide in the beginning of each of your books. I refer the the map regularly throughout the story.

    As to summaries of the previous books, is there a risk that readers would be turned off, realizing, as you say, that there are earlier books in the series and quit right there? If I realized it was the sixth in the series, I’d probably seek out 1-5 before reading #6. I’m a re-reader, like you. Having read 1-5 already, I’ll still re-read them all before #6 comes out.

    Still, I’d love a summary of the first five — and they might be less likely to scare off new readers if they were done in some creative way (search me for ideas of HOW you would do this). Drawings with captions (scrapbook style)?

    Tough challenge, Rosina. I’ll be interested to see how you handle this (as I always am in reading later installments of any series).

  9. I usually re-read earlier books when a new one comes out, but last time, I had lent these to a friend and did not want to wait to start. So, a summary would have helped me and I would have read it.

  10. I like the idea of summaries. When I was reading the Niccolo series for the first time I just skipped the summaries, since I already knew what had happened. I was also reading them in order, not just picking up some novel that looked interesting.

    I wish the summary idea would catch on for all novel series.

  11. My initial reaction to finding a book that is part of a series is to put it down and do the required research to track back to the first one in the series, and then read THAT book, followed by each book in the series, in carefully researched order (I’ve come close to getting the books in the wrong order, as it is actually rather difficult, in general, to find the order of books in a series, in which case, a list/summary at the end of the book showing the series order would be of great help).
    I’m also one of those people who is obsessed with re-reading an entire series before taking on the latest release.
    Based on my reading habits, I would most likely find them neither especially useful nor overly irritating, they would just be one more thing to read, or not, after I finished the book.

  12. I think summaries would be great – I tend to be a re-reader, but agree with whoever said that the summaries would make the current book you are reading “portable”.
    I also like to be able to easliy see the order that a series goes in,and would also tend to go back and find the preceding books if the one I like the look of -so to speak, was No. 6 in a series.

  13. I like the idea of the summary for people who are new or don’t want to reread. I personally don’t mind rereading; in fact, I enjoy it. There are so few books that live up to my expectations so I almost have to reread them! Your books are among the best. Sadly, I cannot say the same about Dorothy Dunnett’s books. They have never inspired my interest. I think it is because there is not a strong female protagonist in the first few pages.

  14. Dear Rosina, I’m another reader who will reread the whole series before I read the new book, but I still would find the summaries helpful. There’s so much in each book (one of the reasons I like them!) that even if I’ve just read them I would find a reference at the front of the book handy in case I get any incidents confused chronologically, or can’t remember what happened to certain characters. If I was a first-time reader I would find it even more helpful! I already much appreciate your dramatis personae and maps. By the way, do we get to find out what happened to Nicholas Wilde in this last book?

  15. I rarely, if ever, pick up a novel that is mid-series without having read the prior novels first (I say rarely because I did just start the “Sharpe” series mid-way through). Maybe that’s why I don’t like the summary approach: if I know the series, it irritates me and I skip over it, and if I’ve forgotten most of the previous novel, I prefer for the backstory to be integrated into the opening chapter(s).

    I was trying to think of examples where that integration has been particularly well done – John Marsden’s “Tomorrow” series and the Harry Potter novels do it rather effectively, I find. Pat Barker also does a fantastic job with it in her “Regeneration Trilogy”, which is probably a better example as it’s a far more complex series than the other two.

  16. Hi Rosina
    I’m much like Michelle. If I am reading a book or have just finished reading a book and find out it is part of a series, I get very annoyed. Only from the point of view of ‘why did I not discover this sooner?’ and if it is a book I’ve really enjoyed I will go out and read the previous ones in the series in correct sequence.
    Every time a new book in the Wilderness series comes out I just love going back and reading all the previous ones first. Quite often there are little things that I hadn’t exactly forgotten but must have slipped to the back of my mind. It’s nice to be reminded.

    If you put summaries in your books, I would probably read them regardless of whether I had finished re-reading the previous books or not. And I am sure if summaries really do bother some people, they can just quickly flick past those pages.
    My suggestion would be to do the summary as a sort of reflective letter or journal entry by Elizabeth or Nathaniel or….

    I also agree with the other contributors who sometimes find it difficult to know what order books have been written in. Usually there is a page at the front of a book with something like ‘by the same author’ and a list of the books they have previously had published, but I have found that these aren’t necessarily listed in the order they were published.
    (oh my goodness, I have just realised that I really must be an ‘order’ oriented person. I love maps. I love family trees. I love lists. I love spreadsheets because they make lists easy. You get the general idea)

  17. I’m re-reading “To Lie With Lions” right now!–I first read a Dunnett book because you were so positive about her, and am now fantastically in love with all her books.

    I don’t ever read the recaps/summaries. If I feel like I need a refresher, and it’s an author I’m loyal to, I’ll just re-read the entire book preceeding the new book, or even the whole series, if it’s a book I’m desperately looking forward to and want to get the most mileage out of that I can. With a really good book, complex or not, it can stand alone. The first Diana Gabaldon I read was not the first book in the series, it was the second; but it was soooo good that I went out and started from the beginning the next day.

    I feel like (for what my very non-professional opinion is worth) you’ve always done a good job of getting “newbies” up to speed without giving ridiculous amounts of back story. And I notice that. Because it is very irritating.

  18. There are so many books out there that I want to read, I don’t go back and re-read something I’ve already read. Every time I think about picking up an already-read book, I end up reading something new — though I never say never.

    Just as I don’t like to come into a TV program or movie halfway through, I feel the same way about books. I either want to be there at the beginning or not there at all. A summary would not entice me to read a second, third etc. book in a series — however, if the book appealed to me, I would go back and find the earlier ones and start at the beginning.

    I do think, though, that a summary might be helpful in order to refresh my memory of previous books. And, if I didn’t need to read it, I wouldn’t have to (though I would consider it a part of the book and would probably read it anyway).

    Lynn S.

  19. I like the idea of summaries! This gives readers the option to skip ahead if they don’t like to reread info.

  20. I like the idea of the summaries. I re-read all the previous books each time a new one comes along, but it would be nice to be able to start the new book where the last left off instead of having to go through the all the backstory.

  21. I like to re-read at least the book right before the new one. However, the summaries would be helpful to clue you into what details are important for the new book. Go for the summaries. :-)

  22. I think the summaries are a great idea. I would enjoy reading them because they’re more to read and becase it’s always interesting to see what other people consider the most important information. However, I would probably read them after I’d read the book. At the moment, with most series I read the new book and then re-read the series sometimes up to and including the new book. One of the reasons I do this is because I read the new book pretty fast the first time because I’m desperate to know what happens next. This has its advantages — I mostly only have a hazy recollection of the detail and can enjoy putting it together properly the second or third time through.

    I would be really interested to hear the thoughts of people who started the series half way through? Is there anyone who did that?

    My guess is perhaps not as they are nice large books and I would surmise that most people who enjoy reading large books are keen on series and would make an effort to track down the first book before beginning one further into the series.

  23. I think the summaries are a great idea. I would enjoy reading them because they’re more to read and becase it’s always interesting to see what other people consider the most important information. However, I would probably read them after I’d read the book. At the moment, with most series I read the new book and then re-read the series sometimes up to and including the new book. One of the reasons I do this is because I read the new book pretty fast the first time because I’m desperate to know what happens next. This has its advantages — I mostly only have a hazy recollection of the detail and can enjoy putting it together properly the second or third time through.

    I would be really interested to hear the thoughts of people who started the series half way through? Is there anyone who did that?

    My guess is perhaps not as they are nice large books and I would surmise that most people who enjoy reading large books are keen on series and would make an effort to track down the first book before beginning one further into the series.

  24. Love the idea of summaries! I don’t always have time to do a reread and a little refresher at the beginning of the new book would be very welcome.

  25. After a lil more thought,( I tend ta post quickly with the first thing that pops into my head, bad habit)the wilderness series is a longer series then most(?)so I could see that it would be a challenge bringing people up to speed. Of course being the final(?);) book in the series ya wanna be as faithful to the characters as you would the readers cause after all the series is as special to you as it is to us. So..good luck with that. :)hehehe.

  26. For me personally if I knew that the new one was one of a series, I would hunt out the others and wait!! But that’s just because I like to read a series in order – that’s just my little thing. But I guess a summary would also whet one’s appetite for the others. I have read and reread your series often – them and the Outlander series!

  27. I, too, love reading series novels (and for me, the longer- the better!) I hate picking up a new book and realizing that it is not the first in the series because I then must FIND the first in the series (I refuse to read out of order.) I think there should be some law out there that says publishers must list the books of a series, in order, on the inside cover. From a marketing standpoint, it seems more beneficial to include a list. I don’t know, maybe I’m crazy, but if I can’t even figure out which book is first in the series, then I’m not going to buy any of them just because I don’t want to miss out on any of the story.
    Okay- I’ll get off my soapbox . . . back to the main topic.
    For me, summaries would be great as a refresher (though I’d love to, I don’t have time to re-read prior books in a series.) I like the earlier comments about writing the summaries in an interesting format. Though helpful as a reference, the character lists at the beginning of the books are a bit intimidating (sorry). They make me think “Wow- what am I getting myself into here?” I realize I will be meeting dozens of characters when I crack a new book, but getting all the information up front is a bit much. A straight summary of each novel might feel the same way. I really liked the letter idea- especially since you’ve used letters quite a bit to let the readers know about details that are happening to other characters outside of the main plot. I don’t know if you could really dedicate one letter to each book, though. It might be difficult to get all of the important information into a letter. What about diary entries? I know many of your characters keep diaries (in one form or another.) You could put in excerpts of these from different characters- or maybe from one character who has been there through it all (ahem- Curiosity, maybe . . . )
    Anyway, this has turned out to be a much longer comment than I expected. Sorry about that. Hope my 2 cents helps spark some ideas. Keep writing & thanks for listening to all those voices in your head : )

  28. Keri (and everybody) –All these ideas are very intriguing, and I’m mulling it all through.

    The point about the character list being daunting is something I have to laugh about, at least a little. With Homestead the character list was at the back of the novel, and I heard from more than a few irritated readers who wished they had known it was there before they finished. I suppose there could be a table of contents in the front matter for Book Six directing readers to the character list at the back of the book. that might help. Heck, the summaries could go back there too.

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