Should I Say More or Less?

When I wrote The Crows, I thought it was a single title mystery. It wasn’t until after the The Crows was released and I was doing book talks that I was asked when the next P.J. Benson Mystery would be out. A second book? Hmm.

As I wrote the second P.J. Benson Mystery (As the Crow Flies), and also with the third (Eat Crow and Die), I have been faced with the question of “How much information do I need to include to tell the reader what came before?” How much is too much backstory and how much is too little?

In my case, as a reader, I get upset when I pick up a third, fourth or sixteenth book in a series and have paragraph after paragraph of information about a character or a town or an earlier incident. Those paragraphs stop the action for me, and in some cases, they stop my reading altogether.

Because of my reading tastes, when I’m writing, I tend to error on the side of less. I include too little information. This has really been pointed out to me lately. When writing books two and three in the P.J. Benson Mystery series, my critique partners had read the previous books. With the fourth book (the one I’m working on now), my critique partners have never read any of the Crow books. They know nothing about P.J. or Wade or Rhodesian Ridgebacks. They have no idea why P.J. never wanted to get pregnant and is afraid of becoming schizophrenic, especially at her age. The questions these critique partners are asking me are great. They are asking the questions I’m sure any reader who hadn’t read the earlier books might ask.

Now, my job is to figure out how to relay the information that would give them the answers they need without telling too much. I don’t want to bore them; I also don’t want to tell so much of a previous book that I keep them from wanting to buy and read that book, too.

One other thing this experience is showing me is, when I have Beta readers read what I consider to be an almost ready to be published copy of this fourth book, I need to have one or two people who have not read any of the other P.J. Benson Mysteries. They will be the readers who will point out what I haven’t explained well enough.

By the way, here’s a really good article on picking Beta readers:

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16 Responses to Should I Say More or Less?

  1. Great post. So informative!
    Thanks for sharing
    Good luck and God’s blessings

  2. Hi Maris,

    You make some very good points regarding writing a series. When I wrote The Inferno Collection, I also believed it would be a stand alone. However, that novel was so successful that I also felt the need to write a follow-up. Now I’ve just finished writing the fifth book in what is now the Kim Reynolds series. Like you, I don’t want to bore readers by including too much of what happened to the main characters previously or have spoilers. But some background info is necessary and is built upon, just like with people in real life.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Jacqueline, sounds like we’ve had similar experiences. As I said, I’m glad to have these readers who are not familiar with the earlier books. They’re helping me see what I need to include. It’s such a fine line.

  3. John Clarke says:

    Hi Maris –
    I never thought of myself as a (proto-)beta reader before and thank you for providing an extra dimension to my self-regard.
    In pondering your topic-of-the month I wonder why serial book writers can’t just provide an Intro or Background account of previous action at the beginning of each new episode which might also serve as an incentive for the reader to acquire the unread books.
    This idea is endorsed with my current re-reading of Thackeray’s delightful ‘Vanity Fair’ which actually starts off with a short review – ‘Before the Curtain’ – which is nothing more or less than a pithy (and congratulatory) review of the story that follows.
    Lastly I found the blog piece you recommend to be an excellent aide-memoire for any hopeful author.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks, John. I haven’t seen any other mysteries with summaries of earlier books in the series, but maybe I’ve just missed those books. It’s not a bad idea. Now I’m going to start looking to see if other authors have done that and if they’ve been successful with that format.

      By the way, always good to hear from you.

  4. susan payne says:

    Maris, Like you, when I began my story I did not understand it would be one of 8. It was a simple love story of an NY orphan finally finding a home where she belonged. It blossomed from there as she brought more adult orphans into her life and things kept growing as they met their HEAs. But I had to introduce the beginning – I hope I got it right but by the 8th it became a little ‘crowded’ since I wanted each book to stand alone. I meant to revisit those characters and see how well I did. Thanks for the nudge.

  5. Diana Stout says:

    Love the perspective and the Freidman article is GREAT!

  6. In some instances, a short review of the previous book, reprinted on the new books’ back cover, provides a helpful kernel of what happened before.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Irene, that’s a possibility. Of course, for those who have written multi-book series, that wouldn’t always work. Maybe a short overview in the beginning, but that’s almost like a prologue. No easy answer.

  7. Lucy Kubash says:

    I struggled with this when I was writing the sequel to my first book. Now I’m on the third book in the trilogy, and I’m still wondering how much background information is needed. Good idea to have someone not familiar with the first book read the second one.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I am finding it interesting, Lucy, hearing the questions these non-fans of P.J. Benson people ask and suggestions they make. There comments are helping me focus on what I need to include for those who don’t know what came before.

  8. Diane Burton says:

    Quite a dilemma. I have 3 series. Each time I write a new book, I have to ask myself the same question. What works for me is to write too much then delete while trying to make sure the new reader won’t be lost. Good luck!