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.