Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Expanding the World of Your Novel

NB: Many writers wonder what to do with their extra material and how to make their work live on beyond the pages of a novel. And on that subject, I'm thrilled to have this guest post from Matthew Pearl, the New York Times bestselling author of THE DANTE CLUB, THE POE SHADOW and THE LAST DICKENS. His latest novel, THE TECHNOLOGISTS, will be published on February 21.

In our day and age, a writer's work is never done, even—make that especially—once you've finished writing.

When my first novel came out in 2003, it was my impression (accurate or not I can't say) that many books and authors did not yet have websites, much less websites of depth beyond a cover image, summary and an order link. That's changed. In fact, now you might feel you have to be push your resources to earn reader's attention with extras, because we're all trying.

How do you most effectively expand your universe beyond the borders of your book covers? It's about looking for ways to capture the mood of your book in a creative entity separate from and complementing your book and to do it in ways that don't require an unrealistic amount of work from your reader.

A scavenger hunt might be fun and creative, but is probably asking too much.

Keeping Things Fresh

Since my newest novel, The Technologists, out February 21, is noticeably different than my previous ones in at least one way (in that it trades literary history for technological history as its story source), I wanted to freshen up my approaches to exploring the book's outer “universe.”

First, I decided to do a book trailer. Of course, this is common now. Again, sometimes that makes it harder because the novelty has worn off and conventions calcify. Besides, I had no previous experience with one and wasn't even sure where to begin. My vision became clearer through a strange happenstance that connected back to my first book.

While searching for something else online related to The Dante Club, I came upon an “opening credit” sequence a college student had done for my book as a class assignment. Much to my surprise, I was blown away! (You can see it here.) It also gave me a much better idea of what I'd want for a trailer of The Technologists. I contacted the creator of the short video, talented motion designer Jessi Esparza, and after agreeing to work together a few months later we have this finished trailer:



We used photographs from the nineteenth century including from those early days at MIT where the novel takes place to make it authentic as well as fun.

Of course, if you're trying to appeal to readers you might want to give them something to read. For The Dante Club, I included “lost chapters” on my website. Some readers (and me) have their fill of violence with what's in The Dante Club's published version, but others have a higher tolerance and I send them to that page on my site to read the scenes of murders I had cut out.

I carried over the idea of additional chapters in similar ways for my second and third novels in the form of “Secret Chapters” (chapters that take place between two specified chapters in the finished novel) and “Extra Chapters” (a standalone story set simultaneous with the events of the novel) for The Poe Shadow and The Last Dickens, respectively. These were all web only treats on my own sites, but my publisher also reprinted one of the “Secret Chapters” at the end of the paperback of The Poe Shadow, so sometimes your expansions sneak back into your book.

Putting Your Characters to Work

One problem: those extra chapters for my first three novels would interest those who already read the novel. Looking to avoid that limitation, this time I decided to do something a little different. I wrote a prequel to The Technologists that could stand on its own two feet but also lead a reader of that prequel to be interested in the novel by carrying over its mood and style.

The result: a novella called “The Professor's Assassin” set twenty-eight years before The Technologists. This my publisher has made available for download at the usual places for only 99 cents (when writing “99 cents” I find you also must write “only”). Why not make it free?, I asked my publisher. I'm told that many people are less interested if it's free than if there's a small charge! I'll leave the logic behind that to the (micro?) economists.

In addition to this novella, I wrote a few other prequelly shorter stories, set a few years before the novel begins, available for free at my website (which I guess makes them less interesting), each one tracing a bit of how the characters got to where they are by page 1 of the book.

With a variety of approaches and styles, universe expansion for a book hinges more than anything on two things: the ideas, obviously, but especially the willingness of the author. You might be surprised how often I encounter authors who resent any work on behalf of a book outside the writing of the book.

That Elusive Balance

Make no mistake about it, all the extras that go into the expanded world of a book require work. Sometimes even simple things, like composing suggested topics for book clubs, require a fair amount of hand wringing, and other side projects that sound so innocuous—writing an article tied to the topics covered in your book, for instance—can end up momentous tasks without very concrete results.

Even when the hard labor is shifted away from you toward other capable hands—as with a book trailer or website design, if you're not doing it yourself—there's a fair amount of working hours involved overseeing and directing the process.

The reluctance to commit oneself to such extras is understandable. So much work goes into writing a book, and there's likely an intimidating amount of work awaiting you elsewhere assuming there's another book you're supposed to write. Writing a novella, spearheading a book trailer, getting a website together, all can be enjoyable. And grueling.

Personally, I find finite non-book projects a welcome break from the long, exhausting, monomaniacal marathon of novel writing. And of course, it's all ostensibly to the benefit of the book to enhance the experience of the reader. But I can relate to the feeling that a full plate is being piled to overflow.

How do you contribute more and more to the external life of your book without taking away from your writing? This dilemma will continue to be the writer's burden—and blessing—as avenues for exploring and promoting continue to increase away from the printed page.






20 comments:

Mr. D said...

Making scenes available to readers that you cut out is a cool idea. Reminds me of those DVDs that contain edited scenes from movies.

Rashad Pharaon said...

Love the idea of secret chapters. Adds resonance, a final echo. As for contributing to the external life of a novel, I don't particularly view this outside work as tedious. Half an hour here and there snowballs into considerable results. Rather than setting specific times to do it, like you would for writing a novel, maybe you should throw yourself on a sofa with your laptop (don't try this with a desktop) and enjoy it! Thank you for sharing your post,

Best,

Rashad.

Matthew MacNish said...

Great stuff! I think the time to innovate in literature is certainly here. Even if you don't have skills as an illustrator or game designer, there are plenty of ways to get creative with storytelling.

Stacy Beauregard said...

Rashad it's not so easily done for those of us who put the P in proscratination.

Matthew Pearl said...

Stacy, I fit that category too. I think "extras" can also be a productive (?) way to procrastinate from your other work!

Bryan Russell said...

I'm going to offer free donuts. I mean, who doesn't like donuts?

phyllis sweetwater said...

This is great advice. Sometimes I write my extras at the same time as the novel (if time permits) to give myself a breather and it helps solidify my novel. I'll write a scene in another perspective, a parallel universe, or completely out of context just to get to know him better. There are many books that stick in my head because I just want to read a little bit more.

Matthew Pearl said...

Bryan, donuts are a good idea and less work than a short story. Actually, you might be surprised by how many contests are unlawful because they would be considered lotteries! Book related contests would be a good post for this blog, actually, by someone who knows more, if Nathan hasn't already done it.

Bryan Russell said...

Plus, you can have jelly filling in donuts. Much harder to squeeze jelly into a short story. Especially a digital short story.

Cossette said...

Thank you for this post! Those are a lot of good ideas, and frankly they sound like fun to me. I would much rather be expanding the world of my book than pounding on doors trying to market it cold turkey. Since I write fantasy, I have to do a lot of background writing which won't be in the novel just to build the world on a solid framework so I don't contradict myself. Using that to help build the external life of the book would be relatively easy.

Mira said...

I love your trailer. Gave me the shivers, but there wasn't actually anything scary in it.
Nice job.

Great post. The idea of a prequel is a good one, and I liked following your thinking about how you arrived at that idea: what might work, what might reach readers, etc.

I also really love the creativity of this. There's the social networking and promotion aspect, but these are also new ways to creatively play with story and character. It will be so interesting to see where this all goes.

In the future, a novel may have a different form than it does now.

Thanks - interesting topic.

Emma Cunningham said...

The first thing I always advise authors is to put bonus content on their website. It's probably the number one reason fans visit the same author page again and again. They miss the characters once the book is over!

Kristin Laughtin said...

Great post! I'm not much for book trailers in general, but I love when extra content is available: extra chapters or novellas, alternate viewpoints, character discussions, soundtracks, and so on. Oddly enough, it's one of the things I most want to do when/if I'm published someday! And it's something that keeps me going back for more as a reader, so obviously it's effective.

wendy said...

Thanks for these helpful tips, Matthew. I love doing the 'extras' and have a website and a trailer for my unpublished masterpiece. Speaking of which, loved your trailer - very compelling and so professionally done.

PPC Meso said...

Thanks for letting me know about "Book trailers". I had not heard of them before and it was a real "head slapping" moment for me. "Of course!!!"

If I ever write a book I will have to make at least one and maybe several versions. One official, one by a "fan", one parody, one highly critical with extended crazed ranting, and one that also has a ho-hum review.

And I think writers should think about getting a web site and domain name BEFORE their book is done. It will help motivate you to finish the dang thing and web sites that are older tend to get more traffic. But that is a whole other topic for discussion.

Natalie said...

Great ideas. Now I know what to do with 40 pages I cut - make it into a novella/bonus content. Interesting ideas here for how to add to the reader's experience. Thanks for this post

Andrea Wenger said...

Why do readers prefer paying $0.99 to getting something for free? Because if you don't value your work, why should they?

Robena Grant said...

I'm not a big fan of trailers, but I love the extra chapters, or the scenes that end up on the cutting room floor. Those fascinate me.
Excellent topic and advice. Thanks.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

This is all great advice. I like the idea of secret chapters. I especially like the idea of prequels, because they give the readers a better sense of where the story is coming from. And if you've already written the original novel, in a sense it gives you a framework for the prequel.
I have been wondering about what to do with all the "extras"; I have several pages of random lines and scenes that I cut from my manuscripts, because I couldn't bear to just delete them forever.

Susie said...

This was such an interesting post, thank you. I am going to add some of my best deleted scenes to my website (once the book is out though, after all, they were deleted for a reason!) I did already post my preface, which I learned from this very site was a good thing to cut from my book! :-)

And congrats on your success!

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