when last we left…

I’m re-reading the Hollows series by the masterful Kim Harrison. I’m trying to glean all the lessons I can from her writing, envious as I am of her immersive world stuffed with characters you can’t help but latch onto and root for heartily. Those big things she’s been successful with are very obvious, but I’m doing my best to pick up all the little storytelling tricks she uses to keep the action moving and the plot compelling. In short, I’m talking about the “I can’t put this book down” factor. Kim’s got this stuff down pat.

Chances are you’ve had this experience. You know. That feeling you get when a book has taken you so far down the rabbit hole that you just refuse to reach for your bookmark. It doesn’t matter that it’s 2am and you’ve got work in the morning, your brain is tingling and your heart is sandwiched somewhere in those pages, with those characters, and it would be too messy to extricate yourself so you just keep going. And in the morning, you wake from a paltry 3 hours sleep with a snarl at the sun and your thrice-damned alarm. You get to the bathroom and frown at your red-rimmed eyes and zombie-like expression and think, Why did I do this to myself? Then you remember. Everything you read last night pushes back in through the just-woke-up stupor and a manic grin crosses your face, going from walking dead to supervillain in three second flat.

Yeah, it was totally worth it.

Many a Hollows book has deprived me of sleep and left me a supervillain in the morning. In the interest of being able to provide this exquisite experience to others, I’m taking note as I go of specific elements in Kim’s toolkit that keep you turning pages.

Last night, I got up through the first hundred pages or so of EVERY WHICH WAY BUT DEAD, the third book in the Hollows. I was struck almost immediately by how solid the open of this book is. There are no long pauses of backstory in this first chapter. No “hey I’m going to repost all the lore because you’ve definitely forgotten it all.” Nope, no lack of faith in the reader’s intelligence here: just a straight jump into the action, picking right up where the last book left off. Any “catch me up” references are brief phrases sewn neatly into Rachel’s logical inner dialogue as the scene moves forward. It reads like true continuation of the second book – almost like there isn’t a cover and new title separating the two. Perfect.

Now, this sort of open might not be appropriate for the first book of a series, as it requires you to already be invested in the characters and have knowledge of their history for the gravity of the scene to act on you. But me, I can’t stand slow opens, especially when I’m re-reading a series like this. I hate when they stop to give you the same world backstory cobbled together with different adjectives because “what if a new reader is picking this up?” Anybody remember Animorphs? I read the hell out of that as a kid, and always gave a huge sigh and turned the page when I got to the lore-spam because it was in every. Single. Book. And there were like, what, sixty of them? Drove me crazy. It must have been even harder to write that spam sixty-some times. (Unfortunately Kim does have lore-spam too, it’s just in a later chapter of this book. I think she’s basically required to put it in there – one of the downsides of answering to a publisher.)

Sorry if you’re the kind of reader who starts reading series anywhere other than the beginning. I’m afraid I won’t be playing to your demographic. I mean I get randomly happening upon a book in your friend’s car, and flipping through a few pages and going “hey, I could get into this.” That’s happened to me. But if you want to know what the heck is going on in Havenwood, I’m afraid you’ll have to start at the beginning with THE THIEF. To mix in a movie-making metaphor, I’ve done my establishing shots. I feel that repeating them would be wasting readers’ time.

Accordingly, my goal for the opening of THE DRAGON is to make it like this first chapter of EVERY WHICH WAY BUT DEAD. I want it to feel like you could read uninterrupted straight from the previous book, with only little offhand touchstones as reminders of “when last we left our heroes” for those who haven’t read THE THIEF all that recently. This is a pretty timely lesson, as I have been debating the best way to open the book. The right narrator, in the right situation. I’ve got a few different drafts of things at present – various scenarios I’ve tested out – but it may still be something I’m not quite ready for. I mean, after all, the first chapter of THE THIEF was one of the last things I drafted for that book.

The important thing is to keep working at it, right?

Ganbatte, writer-san.

/cast iPod [Hans Zimmer – A Dark Knight]