My point of view, Tips, Writing

Level Thinking: Extras in Books

I’m one of those readers who loves extras in books. Maps thrill me. House diagrams, particularly in classic British mysteries, make me squeal, “Oh, there’s a floor plan.” And there’s more than one book, which I wish had included a list of characters up front because, by page 50, I couldn’t keep Harry, Barry, and Barty straight. On the other side of the coin, I skip genealogy charts at the start of a book because who is related to whom might be a clue I don’t want to know this soon.

I was fortunate to hear a panel discussion a couple of years ago at a convention about the pros and cons of including extras in books. Those people on the panel were Tad Williams (Shadowmarch Trilogy) ; L. E. Modesitt, Jr. (The Saga of Recluse series and others); Julianne Lee (The Matheson Saga and the Tenedrae series); Susan Forest (Canadian young adult fantasy writer); and Barb Galler-Smith (Canadian fantasy writer).

There was complete agreement that authors needed the extras for their own benefit. Everyone on the panel had files for all their books filled with maps, charts, and character lists. There was a not-so-tongue-in-cheek suggestion that working on material like maps can give an author the appearance of working hard when really what he’s doing is having fun with colored pencils.

The panel was less unanimous about the value for supplemental material for readers. Some readers love extras, some readers skip them and get on with reading the story.

Tad Williams commented that if a reader has to go back and forth between the text and a glossary, map, list of characters, etc, the author is doing something wrong. However, he also admitted that he’s grown fonder of supplemental material helpful now that he has to read in a household that also contains small children. Since his reading time is now more episodic, he finds it a help to be able to refresh his memory when he has been away from a book for a while.

L. E. Modesitt, Jr. concluded that the author could include a pronunciation guide if she wished, but a reader will form a pronunciation of their own as they read written names. No matter what the author includes, it’s that internal pronunciation they will use. If a name is too complex, readers assign short-cuts, referring in their head to a character as “Mr. G” or “that town beginning with an X.”

A large part of this panel discussion centered on maps, and here are some of the writing tips offered from that discussion.

If landscape is important to the story, ask yourself why you are drawing your geography the way you are doing it. If you don’t know, get a good atlas and look at it for a while. Turn the atlas sideways or upside down. This may give you a new geography that works for your story. If you do this, be careful to reorient your river flow. Some reader, somewhere will know when you have a river flowing in the wrong direction or a mountain range existing where the surrounding geography would never produce a mountain range. That’s the reader who will write you a letter.

Topography maps — which show up and down — and two-dimensional maps — how far and in what direction — are completely different things, and readers need to know both kinds of information. If you send a character away to call the police, be aware of how long it will take her to get to where she can make the call, and how long it will take for the police to answer that call. If the character has to travel over difficult terrain, and you have access to similar terrain, go walk it yourself one afternoon.

If something you created becomes tedious—for example, half of the characters live on one side of a high mountain range, the other half live on the other side, and getting the characters back and forth over those mountains is a real pain—learn to work with the difficulty. This makes you face the same challenges as the people who live in your story, and creates a resonance that the reader will recognize.

Boy, do I know this one. In one of my books, a winter storm took out power, and I quickly realized I could not do some of the things I’d planned to do with the plot because those things depended on electricity being available.

Adding extras also has an economic effect on publishing. Forty to sixty percent of the cost of a book today is paper. The more supplementary material that is included, the higher the printing cost, and too much material may price your book outside the print cost range that a publisher is willing to consider. As an alternative, authors are putting tons supplementary material on web sites, or creating a CD for the supplementary material.

If you’re a fan of the Midsomer Murders DVD series, you’ll know that there is, on each DVD, a copy of the map of Midsomer County. If I had a lot of time with nothing to do, I’d print that maps large scale and stick pins in each village to show how many murders happened there. I am firmly convinced that one imaginary county has more deaths than all of the British Isles.

What are extras in books that you absolutely love or hate?

I hope you’ll come back next Tuesday, June 3 for Write the Novel: Draft Zero – The Unfinished Manuscript. Writing a novel is like a bumblebee flying: theoretically impossible, but done all the time.

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2 thoughts on “Level Thinking: Extras in Books

  1. I like maps when the story includes a journey. When I was reading Walls, by Di Cintio, I was cursing him every chapter for not including maps of where the walls were. Other material is hit and miss. A list of characters and bios is good, but really, an author should be able to introduce the characters in such a way so the reader can keep track.

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    • I agree with you that characters and situations should be memorable. Because so many people read in short, choppy time frames — like riding the bus home, or waiting to pick up their child at soccer — it’s often easy to lose track of even memorable characters.

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