Friday, October 26, 2012

The Supplemental Novella Trend

I prefer reading long books (though I still haven't been brave enough to pick up GAME OF THRONES). I want to read CALICO JOE by John Grisham, but every time I look at it, I think, "why is this book so short?" and then I put it back down. Stupid, but true. I'm not a big fan of novellas, short stories, or novelettes when they're intended to stand alone.

But, the popularity of e-books has opened the door for savvy writers to keep their readers engaged between novel releases with electronic novellas/novelettes that supplement their series - and that, I think, is genius. What makes these shorter products work for me? They have the same finished, polished feel as their parent novels, and they add to stories I already want to know more about. Here are a few examples of supplemental/companion e-novellas I've come across:

SHADOW CATS by Rae Carson
I adore Rae Carson's work. GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS was probably my favorite book I read last year, and CROWN OF EMBERS was a highly enjoyable second effort. My only complaint was that, since I purchased book two in e-book form, I didn't notice I was getting close to the end. When the cliffhanger came, I flailed right over the ledge. And then I sent Rae an angry fan tweet, because I'm a mature Twitter user.

To cope with my cliffhanger distress, I grabbed up SHADOW CATS, which is a prequel to the series told from the main character's sister's point of view (not a particularly warm, beloved character in the series, but one with an interesting perspective).

What I love about Rae's writing style is that I never feel tempted to rush though anything. Each scene is good enough on its own, I'm not flying through the pages trying to find anticipated answers. SHADOW CATS was too short, and the plot doesn't have the same richness that the longer works have. It didn't give me the same amount of satisfaction, but I still got engrossed in the moment. It didn't reveal anything extraordinary, or build on the plot. If you skipped it, it wouldn't affect your enjoyment of the series as a whole. It's just a supplement - a bonus - and her writing style is especially well suited to this format.

SHADOW CATS does exactly what it's supposed to do - it gives you a peek into another corner of the world Rae built, and an opportunity to see into the mind of another character in that world. I'd love to see Rae do more of these; I trust her in this format.

DESTROY ME by Tahereh Mafi
I'll be interested to see whether or not this was truly just a supplement, or whether this actually did feed us subtle plot pieces that we'll need to know going forward. DESTROY ME is basically a collection of scenes told from Warner's first person point of view, and it works hard to build him as a sympathetic figure without stripping him of his villain role in the story. You wonder if he's redeemable... or if you even WANT him to be redeemable. It rounds him out and makes him feel more real.

I enjoyed reading this, which is surprising seeing as how it doesn't really have a stand-alone plot (something that I normally find infuriating). It's a different style than SHATTER ME, which helps you to appreciate how well done (and complicated) Tahereh's first book was. This supplemental novella is a perfect vehicle for her style. I'd buy episode after episode from her, even if she never wrote another full length novel.

FREE FOUR by Veronica Roth
I haven't read this one, but from what I understand about it, it's a little different approach which I think has a lot of potential. She rewrote part of her previously published book DIVERGENT from the point of view of one of her other characters. It made me think this concept of a supplemental e-book would have been delightful back when the TWILIGHT series was still in progress. Remember that leaked version that was all told from Edward's point of view? Everyone I talked to said they liked it better than the version that was actually published. Part of me wonders if that wasn't part of the original catalyst for the influx of electronic bonus content.

These tiny supplements give authors the freedom to take tangents. They let us see through another character's perspective, expand the world. They keep readers engaged by reminding us that more is coming. It's an appetizer - the kind that makes you a little angry when it's done and you're still hungry. I think these little e-novellas work best in a fantasy/action type of genre - the kind of setting that would benefit from giving us a wider angle lens to look through for awhile. But maybe I'm being short-sighted. Would this be effective for writers such as Stephanie Perkins or Miranda Kennealy, especially since their books aren't exactly series, but rather stand-alones that occur in the same living space? (A little research reveals that Miranda does have a novella - the list keeps growing).

Some other supplementals I'd like to see...

* I'm a snob when it comes to dual first-person narratives, so I think this might offer a nice alternative in some future instances. Imagine using shorter episodic e-books to reformat something like the NEVER SKY series (which I love... and which, by the way, DOES have a supplement), or the MATCHED series (which I enjoyed as a single narrator but struggled with once it went dual). Maybe even the ACROSS THE UNIVERSE series, although I think it's phenomenal. I just feel like if a story is complicated enough that it demands two first-person points of view, then there might be an opportunity to grow and round things out with supplemental materials.

* The Chemical Garden Series. I was lukewarm on WITHER, (book one), but I adored FEVER (book 2). On Goodreads, I did find a "Wither 1.5" e-book called SEEDS OF WITHER, a prequel. I'd prefer to read something from Linden's point of view, given the option. In my imagination, it would probably be somewhat like DESTROY ME, which as I mentioned above, was a very smart product on the part of the Mafi.

* The SHADOW AND BONE series. A quick GoodReads search reveals that a 32-page 'companion' exists for this one, too, sooo I'm gonna have to wrap up this post and get to that.

* I know Cassie Clare and writers of her ilk have released extra content on their websites in the past. I'm not sure if these are quite the same thing, but it is very fan-friendly to offer up work for free.

* I'd like to see what the likes of Maureen Johnson and John Green would do with little e-novellas. I feel like that forum would give them an element of freedom their creative minds might enjoy taking advantage of... but then again, at this stage of their careers, they've already chosen other ways to supplement their fans' appetites (John has his vlogs, and Maureen is a tweeting machine and t-shirt designer).

What supplements would you like to see? Who has already done a good one that I left out? My theory that these novellas are best used for 'world building' is probably egregiously narrow, especially since DESTROY ME was basically a character study - how else could these be used to keep readers engaged between releases? What's the down side to supplemental novellas? Do you think they're worth the $1.99 - $2.99 price tag?

Friday, October 12, 2012

The DAMNED UTD is One of the Best Books I've Ever Read

I read a lot of books, usually young adult fiction because it gives me the highest percentage of reader satisfaction. Too many times when I read "grown up" books, I end up feeling frustrated with my experience due to any number of factors: slow pacing, unexpected explicitness, etc. (I'm a PG-13 kind of girl and get sad when things sneak up on me.) With YA, I feel like I have a good handle on predicting what I'm going to get and knowing when I want to take a reading risk.

All that being said, in my new quest to learn about soccer, I took a chance on a grown up book: THE DAMNED UTD by David Peace. There were red flags everywhere that this was NOT going to be my thing (if you find a copy, open to any page at random and count the number of [bleeps] you find, I'd set the over/under at six; might make for a fun drinking game).

This book fascinated me on a few different levels. For one, I guess I'd call it historical fiction. It's a novel, but it's told through the half-crazed mind of a real-life soccer player turned coach. I have no idea how much of it's true and how much was contrived for dramatic purposes. I also have no idea how much of it I didn't understand because I'm still learning what soccer is. But the way the story was woven together was so compelling that I knocked it out during a sick day while lounging in a giant beanbag chair gulping down medicinal teas instead of napping.

What made THE DAMNED UTD such a page-turner was the complexity of its structure - it flicks back and forth in time and switches between first and second person without changing narrators. The 'present' is brought to you in the first person ravings of our coach as he starts his new job. The 'past' shoves you inside his brain/body/soul, using second person to explain how he became the insecure disaster that he is (and possibly asserting that you, fair reader, might have done the same). 'You' feel his career ending injury. 'You' feel his need to be loved and accepted. 'You' feel the hubris that pushes him to take the job coaching Leeds, his bitterest enemy, while the first person makes you wonder whether or not he's destroying the team on purpose.

The first person made me hate him. The second person made me love him. The tension between the two was stunning.

This story both delighted me as a reader (and made my eyes bleed a little), and it also challenged me as a writer. Could I put together a complicated framework like this? Would I ever, ever, ever be brazen enough to try writing in second person, let alone good enough to pull it off? This is not a short book, and Peace kept a level of half-crazed intensity throughout the whole thing. At one point, I asked myself aloud, "How many drafts did this take!?" And then I coughed and had some more tea. It's an excellent book to have with tea, even if our narrator is slogging back tumblers of juicier stuff, usually with a tobacco chaser.

My recommendation to any aspiring writer out there: See if your library has a copy of this book, or if they can at least locate a copy for you (I bought it for $9 on e-reader with no regrets). Even if you care nothing about soccer and are put off by harsh language (like me), pick it up and look through it enough to see the brilliance of how it's put together. I've not found another book quite like it, and the snug fit of the puzzle pieces was more than worth the risk for me. Just... don't say I didn't warn you about the language. If you imagine it in a polite English accent, it somehow makes it better.

Soccer and being in on the joke

A little over a year ago I decided to like soccer. I was stupid about it. I'm still stupid about it, but I know enough now to feel like I'm in on the joke, which is really all I ever want out of life.

One of my co-workers is a distinguished white-haired English gentleman. In my very early soccer days (like, when I was still figuring out what 'injury time' was), I made conversation with him by asking, "Which team do you support?" He shook his head with a laugh and told me to guess. "I don't even know the team names," I protested. So he let me off the hook and told me he supported Chelsea. He said it as though it should have meant something to me, but I didn't get the joke.

A few months later I started to get it. Last season (maybe every season) Chelsea was a white-hot soap opera of a mess. Their team captain was taken to court on racism charges. Their highly paid scorer developed a tortuous mental block and couldn't hit anything but the goal frame (I decided to name him Sad Fernando because, well, he looked sad). Their thirty-three year old coach always wore the same clothes, regardless of the weather... until he was fired mid-season. Their oil-baron owner reminded me of George Steinbrenner on steroids and their general aura reminded me of the Hollywood Lakers. An odd match indeed for my distinguished Uncle Chelsea.

Midway through the season, I'd decided to try cheering for Everton - a scrappy team from Liverpool (birthplace of the Beatles) that seemed stuck in perpetual underdog status and tended to play some American players (not to mention their uniforms are COLTS BLUE). I mentioned it to Uncle Chelsea in passing. He shouted at me. "EVERTON!? What are you mad!?"

The more he teased me, the more attached I got. I loved it enough to drag myself out of bed pre-7am on Saturdays. There's very little in life I love that much. VERY little.

European soccer holds a tournament each year that reminds me of our NCAA March Madness - the best teams from each country qualify to compete against each other in the Champions League. Chelsea took its drama on the road, traipsing around Europe until they inexplicably won the whole thing.

That's right - Uncle Chelsea's team was crowned Champions of Europe in the year of our Lord 2012 A.D. He didn't say a word to me about it. As far as I know, he didn't say a word to anyone. He just hung up a new decoration in his office.

So I, um, improved it for him.

It took him a little while to notice. When he did, he stormed into my cube and slapped the post-its down on my desk, having done a little redecorating of his own. I could not have been more delighted. Those post-its are still hanging on my cube wall, simultaneously taunting and motivating me.

Weeks and months passed. The London Olympics came and went. A new season began. Chelsea's still in first place, as tabloidy as ever.


A couple of weeks ago, Everton was in second.

Uncle Chelsea came into my cube, pointed at my prominently displayed post-its and declared, "Well, we know who's in first, don't we."

And even now, as I pass his office on my way to the parking lot, he'll shout, "EVERTON ARE GOING TO LOSE THIS WEEKEND!"

Half the fun is being in on the joke; the rest is having others willing to share it.