Thursday, September 4, 2014

TMI, Mr. Fforde. TMI.

As I type this, I'm about two hours into a 13 hour plane ride. I've achieved the rank of Peggle Master in my latest app obsession, and am working my way through my second tiny bottle of a surprisingly good Pinot Grigio.
Buy from Amazon: First Among Sequels

I'm also working my way through Jasper Fforde's fifth book in his Thursday Next series, "Thursday Next, First Among Sequels". And I'm not particularly happy.

Oh I'm happy about the trip, despite the fact that I'll likely miss my connection flight. And I'm happy that I have a row to myself, nice wine, and the rumble of jet engines to lull me to sleep.

But I'm not happy about the book. I adore Ffforde's writing, I really do. And his stories are amazingly creative, and whimsical, and funny. But having read the first 14 chapters of First Among Sequels, I'm terribly disappointed. It's just one long back story so far, 124 pages whose sole purpose seems to be to catch up the story for new readers.

To make matters worse, the plot devices for revealing said backstory are weak and shallow. In one case, Thursday, a Jurisfiction agent in BookWorld, drones on and on to her cadet trainee: explaining how BookWorld works, taking tours, going on ad nauseum about stuff that was delightfully woven seamlessly into books 1-4. In another case, Thursday takes her son to a ChronoGuard recruiting seminar, where, similarly, a recruiting officer drones on and on about time topics also covered in depth in the earlier books. The only light spot is when her son, Friday, asks, "Is this going to take long?" My thoughts exactly!

Now as an author whose first novel is still very much a work in progress, this has me thinking (or maybe it's the wine): When writing a sequel (or two or three or four), how do you catch up your new readers without boring your loyal followers to death? You can't just pick things up without some sort of transition (or can you?)? But holding the reader captive while lecturing the finer points of earlier novels doesn't work either.

So what then? In the types of writing I do daily – scholarly scientific articles, test plans, project proposals, and the like – there's always a backstory. In some cases, depending on the topic, the foundational work goes back decades, or even centuries. Now most articles in technical journals are dry and dull enough without years upon years of backstory, so deciding which elements to include and how to include them is a sort of art form. Is it necessary to mention the Wright Brothers when developing a new test procedure for jet engines? Probably not. But if adding a new term to an existing equation, discussing the original work is a good idea.

Many authors approach the issue of previous work by just stuffing a few paragraphs into the intro. Something along the lines of: Guy1 did this stuff [see reference 1], guy2 did this other stuff [see reference 2], guy3 did some more stuff [see reference 3], blah, blah, blah until it's practically unreadable.

The better authors, in my opinion, not only weave the past work into appropriate sections of the paper rather than blast the reader with a tally sheet of backstory, but they also include a discussion of how the earlier findings contribute to the current work. 

This approach isn't unique to technical writing. Look at some of the hugely successful sequels, such as the Harry Potter books or the Series of Unfortunate Events or any number of multi-book stories. The best sequels don't bore the reader with in-your-face, not-letting-you-go-until-I've-had-my-say backstory. Rather, they introduce relevant points through the actions of their characters, or the setting, or natural dialogue. Could Fforde have describe BookWorld without the tedious tour scene? You betcha! Tuesday could've whisked her cadet away on their first assignment (after a behind-the-scenes tour and in-processing, presumably) and the important details of DiscWorld would've been revealed more naturally. Ditto for the ChonoGuards and time travel – introduce the concepts when they impact the current storyline, not before.

Okay, I've had my say and I'm ready for another tiny bottle of wine. Feel free to direct me back to this post if at some point in the future my (wildly successful) sequels have you bored silly.


  1. Oh, absolutely! I agree on all points! I look forward to your impression of the rest of the book. I, too, adored the Thursday Next series ... until this one.

  2. Backstory is not story, plain and simple. Hope you enjoyed that second bottle of wine ;)