Monday, February 22, 2010

You Can't Package Yourself With Your Book

Not too long ago, I had an interesting conversation on Verla Kay’s writer discussion boards about the book The Dust of 100 Dogs. A fellow writer loved the book, but I didn’t, and each of us were presenting our reasons why. It was a great conversation.

Then the other person said something really interesting. He said that the answers to some of my questions were in a Q&A in the newest paperback. I’d already seen that section and it hadn't changed my opinion, but right then something else in me went ‘huh.’ Was there a need for this Q&A section? As in, had these questions been asked so many times that the author and publisher found it beneficial to publish the answers?

If so, what does that say about the book? Does it say that the book was so widely popular that readers were clamoring for more information? Or does it say that the information in the book was incomplete, and this Q&A section was a way to fill in the blanks?

Personally, I think it’s both in this case. The Dust of 100 Dogs is definitely a compelling and popular book, and the readers loved it enough to ask about the missing information rather than toss the book aside. Which is great! I love it when books incite that kind of curiosity.

Of course, that begs the following question. Does this mean you should create a Q&A for your book?

My answer: NO. Absolutely not. Just because it worked for one book doesn’t mean it will work for all books. Especially for writers with no publishing track record. When we write down our stories, we have to make sure that all the necessary information gets into the text. Otherwise, we run the risk of confusing the reader with plot holes, unanswered questions, inconsistent character behavior, etc. Providing the reader with a list of explanations in a Q&A isn’t likely to keep him from putting the book down (because those are always at the end, and the reader may not make it that far), so we need to consider a Q&A, interview, or other appendix-like piece as a bonus. Not necessary, but something fun that will enrich the story.

We, as writers, have to do more than hook a reader. We have to keep him. In most cases, we get one shot. If we blow it, not only will that reader avoid the rest of our books, he will likely tell others to avoid us, too.

So, in addition to hooking an editor or agent, we also have to think about how we are going to hook *and keep* our readers. Here are some ways to do that.

-Any questions raised in the beginning of the story must be answered by the end.
-Established behavior in the characters must remain consistent throughout the story, unless a large enough (and believable) event can explain the changes in that behavior.
-Any definitions introduced in the story must remain consistent and coherent throughout. This includes the rules created in world building, as well as keeping the setting consistent.
-New characters or changes in the setting shouldn’t pop out of nowhere in the end. The reader needs some kind of subtle preparation, at the very least.
-Keep the plot consistent, and make sure your characters have valid reasons for doing what they do. Hint: ‘they need to do this because it gets them from point A to B’ or ‘because that’s how the story goes’ are not valid reasons.

How do we know we are doing the items listed above effectively? The best and easiest way to tell is when your critique partners give you feedback. Do they have questions? Did they find something confusing? Did they misunderstand certain parts of the story, or a character’s actions?

If you find yourself saying ‘that’s because of xyz,’ or feel that you need to 'defend' your story, STOP. Write down what your critique partner is saying and then go through your manuscript to see if you can figure out how she got to where she did. Then figure out a way to fix it and give it back to her to see if it clears things up. If it does, great! If not, try again.
Lather, rinse, repeat. :)

Who said writing a book was easy, anyway? :)


Lenore Appelhans said...

I'm one who loved it, and I didn't even notice the Q&A, but now I am going to go read it.

Sometimes, when a book is as clever and high concept as D100D, I don't feel like I need to have every little detail put out on a plate for me.

I did an interview with AS King after I read the book too (she answered in character as Saffron) and that was almost as fun as the book itself.

TerryLynnJohnson said...

I just bought this book so am very intrigued to start reading now! Some good points here, excellent post.

Bish Denham said...

Another excellent post, Tabitha. Now I'm curious about Dust of 100 Dogs.

Kristi Faith said...

great post! Awesome info to print out and keep handy :0)

Marcia said...

Now I'm curious to read this, too, and would like to get a copy with the Q&A. A further question I'd love to analyze is whether a high-concept book is more likely to be "allowed" into print with holes still in it.

Tabitha said...

Lenore - that's great you loved it! What you're saying is very similar to what the writer on Verla Kay's was saying. He didn't need the Q&A, either, but enjoyed it. And for me, the Q&A still wasn't enough. It's so interesting how one book can be received so differently. :)

Terry - it's a fun story! I think that if I had the ability to turn off the critical parts of my brain, I would have enjoyed it more. But, alas, I can't. :)

Bish - if you get the chance to read it, you should. It's definitely fun and clever. I just think the author needed to go a few steps further...

Kristi - thanks!! :)

Marcia - I definitely think high concept gets more leeway than other books. The hook in high concept is usually so strong that most people can overlook any flaws in the story. Unfortunately, I'm not one of them. :) I can't seem to turn off the critical thinking part of my brain. I'm always analyzing and trying to be a better writer. :)

Christy L Richardson said...

Good advice, Tabitha. I'm currently reading an author who needs to follow it. :) But who am I kidding? I should not be casting stones to glass houses, I need to follow it as well.

BK Mattingly said...

I haven't read it yet, but I like the answers to be written in the story generally, not as a Q&A.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I'm printing this one for my writing folder. Thanks for the good info! :-)

Sherrie Petersen said...

Great points to remember. I'll be keeping those things in mind as I edit my book.

Danyelle L. said...

Very good point. I think sometimes we forget that the readers are going to go to a slightly different world than the one we see in our heads due to a difference in perspective. Very great advice on handling questions from the Betas. :)

Tabitha said...

Christy - LOL! Yeah, we all do. :) I make myself remember that when I read a published book with unanswered questions. :)

Bethany - same here. Everything we need should be in the text, not on an author website or in a appendix-like thing in the book.

Shannon - so glad you liked it! :)

Sherrie - thanks! These are points I keep in mind, too. I keep a small checklist next to me when I'm revising, and these points are on it. :)

Danyelle - exactly! Everyone has a different perspective, and that's going to change the story for each reader.

A.S. King said...

Sorry I'm late to this discussion, but an FYI. The Q&A in the book was there since the first printing and hasn't changed in the five printings that followed. It was my first interview ever (!) and was not at all in reply to any questions anyone received about the book, as it was due at the time of galleys--about October 2008. Long before anyone read it.

I realize that this kinda kills my book as an example for your argument here, and I'm sorry about that. :) I don't know of any books that add Q&A after a few people have questions. Most publishers aren't really reactive like that, from what I see.

In looking back, there isn't a thing I'd have changed about the book. Most readers didn't have any questions after reading. And many enjoyed the Q&A as an added bonus, which is why I think my publisher added it.


Tabitha said...

Thanks for clearing up when the Q&A was added to your book! I got that info from another writer and took it at face value. I'll double check it next time. :)

Your book may not be the perfect example for my post anymore, but it still somewhat fits. I've seen Q&A sections added in later editions, but I never see it as a reactive thing (didn't mean to imply yours was, either). I think they see it as a way to get more info to the reader, which is a good thing because it shows reader interest.