After teaching literature, philosophy, history, and religion for more than a decide, Brian Staveley began writing epic fantasy. His first book, The Emperor’s Blades (forthcoming from Tor on January 14, 2014), is the start of his series, Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. Tor.com has been good enough to release the first seven chapters as a teaser. Brian lives on a steep dirt road in the mountains of southern Vermont, where he divides his time between fathering, writing, husbanding, splitting wood, skiing, and adventuring, not necessarily in that order. He can be found on twitter at @brianstaveley, facebook as brianstaveley, and Google+ as Brian Staveley.
When it comes to exposition, the question facing a writer at the start of a book is: “How much of this shit do I really need?” There’s no right answer, of course. Too much can destroy the plot’s momentum, while too little can leave the reader feeling as though she’s watching a bunch of stick figures carom around inside a poorly glued up diorama. Every author makes her peace with the balance, and by the end of the novel, when that balance has generally shifted toward all-out action, the challenges of exposition are largely forgotten. Then, if you’re writing a series, you start volume two, and the question becomes, “Do I really need to do all that shit again?”
After all, book one has (hopefully) laid out the various hairstyles and tattoos, explored relevant cliffs, cities, and islands, and outlined the necessary political alliances and enmities. By the end of book one, we know who’s crushing on whom, why so-and-so refuses to wear dresses, and that the fearsome warrior with the menacing eye only has one testicle. The end of book one, however, is not the same thing as the start of book two.
As I kid, I did a good portion of my reading in school, a thick book balanced on my legs beneath my desk. Algebra and history, English and biology, it didn’t really matter. Every color-coded block on my school schedule should have read, simply: FANTASY. Given the number of school hours per day, I was able to cruise through quite a few books a week, moving seamlessly from one to the next with almost no pause. As a result, I used to chafe at the opening chapters of sequels. “I already know all this,” I’d grouse to myself. “I just read it in French class.”
Now, in my mid-thirties, I have a different perspective. Between writing and parenting, home repairs and trying to keep myself in some vague semblance of physical shape, I might read a book a month. Maybe three, if I’m lucky. It could well take me years to read an entire series, and sometimes I find myself staring at the opening pages of a second (or third, or fourth) volume, squinting in perplexity, muttering, “Who?”
Unfortunately for the author of fantasy, there’s no way to please both middle school and middle-aged Brian. Launch straight ahead with the plot of a second book, and my slowly atrophying brain will balk. I haven’t read the final Wheel of Time book yet, for instance, because I feel like I need to study up before diving into it. However, if a sequel takes too much time reviewing crucial characters and events, my smug, twelve-year-old self will be griping that it’s all just a bullshit rehash.
The best an author can do, when embarking on a sequel, is to understand her options, which are basically three:
- Screw it. This is, perhaps, the purist’s approach. All the information is there in the first book (at least, it had better be), and a dedicated reader can go find it if necessary. This strategy used to be much, much riskier before the internet saved us all. Now, I can go look up chapter-by-chapter summaries of the more famous books, and even when it comes to lesser-known works, I can usually find the information I need if I petition Google politely enough. Of course, it still puts the onus on the reader, and sometimes, as a reader with a shitty memory, this irritates me.
- Last Week, on LOST… You can (and some writers do) open a sequel with a synopsis of the last book. In some ways, this is an elegant solution: readers who want it will read it, those who don’t, won’t. The only trouble is that the synopsis is essentially the manure of the literary world. They’re necessary (for agents, editors, book buyers, book sellers, etc), but they’re rarely pretty. I have yet to see an anthology of them. No one’s knocking down the door to publish “Best American Synopses of 2013.” Putting one at the start of a novel is sort of like making everyone smell the shit before they look at the rose growing out of it.
- Bootleg. The word comes, of course, from the old smugglers’ practice of slipping bottles into their boots, and it’s essentially what you’ve got to do if you don’t like options one or two. The trick is to sneak enough repeat information in to keep the reader happy without doing so in such a way that the authorities (read: my twelve-year-old self) start sounding the alarm. This is the most popular method, but it may also be the most difficult. Every reader has a different memory of the first book, and detail that proves helpful for one will irritate another.
As I put the final touches on The Providence of Fire (the sequel to The Emperor’s Blades), I find myself going back to those first chapters over and over, sticking in a reminder here, cutting out another one over there. I take the task seriously because somewhere there’s a kid in algebra class with a book balanced on her knees, and I know damn well she’s going to be paying attention.