Photo credit: Athena Scalzi
So, as a writer, I write a lot of sequels. And because I write a lot of sequels, I sometimes worry that I'm going to write a book that someone who is new to me is not going to want to read. The reason for that makes perfect sense to me as a reader
: they're worried that they're going to get into the story late. They won't understand what's going on. They're going to be confused by events, and that's going to make them angry. Then they're not going to have any fun reading my book. I think this is a serious problem, especially in science fiction and fantasy, where so many books are sequels, or in a series, or otherwise part of a larger universe.
This is of particular concern for me right now because my new book, Head On
, is a sequel. It's the sequel to Lock In
, which came out in 2014. And while Lock In
was a successful book, appearing on the New York Times
bestseller list and having done very well otherwise, it’s also been four years since it came out. There's a very good chance that someone reading Head On
, or being interested in reading Head On
, will see that it’s a sequel and not want to pick it up.
And so this is what I do when I write a sequel: I write it as if it is not
part of a continuity.
Now, what does that mean? What it means, simply, is that I assume the reader has never seen any other book in the series, or has not read the book that it is the follow-up to. Which means that I have to give enough background information, particularly at the beginning of the book, so that the reader understands the universe. I have to make sure that they can follow the action that's going on without having to refer to a previous book. In other words, I write standalones that just happen to take place in the same universe as my other books.
So my solution is simply never to give them a reason to put down the book they currently have in their hands.
I don't think that this is particularly innovative. In fact, if you look at mystery books, you see this happen all the time. There are any number of long-running mystery series, some of them 10 or even 20 books long, where they all take place in the same setting, with the same people, and many of the same circumstances. And yet, most readers don't really have that much of a problem just picking up one of the books and following on. Now, the advantage that most mysteries have is that they take place in the “real world.” With science fiction, there is a bunch of world building that you have to include that you don't need to when you're writing contemporary fiction like mysteries.
That said, it's not that
hard, even in science fiction. In Head On
, for example, there is a prologue chapter. And I write that prologue chapter as if it is an article in a sports magazine. I do this for two reasons. One, there is a sport in the game, called Hilketa, which I need to explain anyway. But two, the sports article is meant to be a bit of explanatory journalism, both for the purposes of the book and in the world of the story. Using journalism as a device, I can give information that's relevant for the book itself and also to anyone who is picking up this book without having read the previous book in the series. By doing this, I allow new readers a way into the world that is, hopefully, painless. They get brought up to speed quickly, they understand what's going on in the world, and then they can just dive right into the rest of the book.
Is this something that every science fiction or fantasy book needs to do? I don't think so. I think it's fine if somebody wants work on the assumption that their readers are going to have spent time in the universe prior to reading the book that they now have in their hands. But for me, as a reader and as an author, I think that there's a practical issue of people not being able to find previous books, particularly in a long series. So my solution is simply never to give them a reason to put down the book they currently have in their hands. If they like the book, then they can go backwards in the series just as easily as they can go forwards. And no matter what, they are going to have a good time with the book that they have with them right now.
All of which is to say that if you pick up my new book, Head On
, I hope that you will enjoy it. I hope that you enjoy it if you have read Lock In
, because you will find your favorite characters there, doing new things and solving new mysteries. But if it's the first time that you've met the universe, I hope you’ll enjoy it too. And that, having read it and enjoyed it, that you’ll explore more in that universe.
÷ ÷ ÷
is one of the most popular and acclaimed SF authors to emerge in the last decade. His massively successful debut Old Man's War
won him science fiction's John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His New York Times
bestsellers include The Last Colony
, Fuzzy Nation
, and Redshirts
, which won 2013's Hugo Award for Best Novel. Material from his widely read blog, Whatever
, has also earned him two other Hugo Awards. Scalzi also serves as critic-at-large for the LA Times
. He lives in Ohio with his wife and daughter. Head On
is his most recent book.