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Monday, March 4, 2013

Short Stories That Expand Universes

On Saturday, I stumbled across a treasure trove of new short stories penned by one of my favorite authors, John Scalzi, creator of the imaginative, award-winning Old Man's War series. This episodical short story collection is dubbed the Human Division Series. [Click to view on Amazon]

What's this? A virtual smorgasbord of new Scalzi stories for my Kindle to gobble up? (It promptly inhaled the first seven, saving room for the second helping soon to follow.)

Curious? Here's the series description:

John Scalzi's new thirteen-episode novel in the world of his bestselling Old Man's War [series]. Beginning on January 15, 2013, a new episode of The Human Division will appear in e-book form every Tuesday.

#1   The B-Team
#2   Walk the Plank 
#3   We Only Need the Heads 
#4   A Voice in the Wilderness 
#5   Tales From the Clarke 
#6   The Back Channel
#7   The Dog King
#8   The Sound of Rebellion
#9   The Observers
#10 This Must Be the Place
#11 Problem of Proportion
#12 The Gentle Art of Cracking Heads
#13 Earth Below, Sky Above

According to a few of the reviews, it's better to read the series in order, because each book helps lay the foundation to further build more of the series.

Brilliant, I say!

Might this be the way future authors could build an audience prior to the release of full-length novels, and then feed and increase that audience in-between novel releases? I think it has some intriguing possibilities. And it seems it would be far more effective than blog posts, interviews, virtual guest appearances and any of the myriad other social media outlets authors use to attempt to reach more potential readers.

It's a "Build it and they will come" proposition.

So as a Scalzi fan I was delighted, but I also saw some real benefits for the writer side of me. Below, I jotted down just a few:

Four Benefits for the Reader
  • Not having to wait a year or more for a fix from your favorite author
  • Allows a method to learn more about a much loved universe or characters
  • Provides an invitation to explore other POVs or offscreen action from the main novels 
  • Lets the reader enjoy reading more stories in the preferred author's style and voice 
Four Benefits for the Writer
  • Allows a way to intro and expand on a fictional universe without resorting to copious backstory dumps
  • Keeps the ideas, concepts and conditions of the universe and/or characters in the fan's thoughts in between novel releases
  • Provides a creative outlet for all the world-building contained in the authors head that might otherwise never make it into print
  • Introduces a new stream of income in between advances to keep the utilities paid

Of course, it will be a bit trickier for an aspiring or pre-published author to do this in the same big way.

First of all, a new author is starting from scratch to build a fan base and not tapping into a pre-existing mob of ravenous fans. On the flip side, occasionally offering a few of the early series titles for free can help grease the wheels to attract readers. Keeping the price low--as with Scalzi's .99 stories--is another plus. 'Tis better to sell 1000 copies at .99 than three at $2.99. (I also believe 'tis better yet to give away 10,000 copies at $0, though some may disagree.)

Second, authors would have to take care in how their stories are crafted so they don't become spoilers for major surprises and turning points in the main novels. Setting the series before the opening of the main novel, or writing them around a different group of characters or locations in the same universe is a way to help avoid this pitfall.

Third, it's doubtful a new author will have a powerhouse like Tor behind them to design professional covers and end product. Let's face it, kicking out poorly packaged, improperly edited work is not going to help writers grab that brass ring. Better to spend a little time and investment producing the best possible product than throwing something together with a "it's good enough because it's cheap [or free]" attitude.

The biggest drawback to this idea is the element of time. How does a writer write, revise and edit a novel while working on several side pieces? Well, the same way an author writes posts, blog tour articles, and tweets while at the same time carrying out all those activities. It may just be a matter of deciding what has more priority--social media or companion stories.

What are your thoughts? If you're a reader, would you enjoy reading a companion series set in one of your favorite author's universes? Would you be interested in discovering new authors and their universes in the same way? If you're a writer, have you ever attempted or achieved something similar to promote your work? Would you consider it?


4 comments:

  1. As a reader, absolutely I'd love to spend more time in my favorite universes! I'm doing that with The Books of the Raksura by Martha Wells. I've inhaled all the shorts on her website, read the fan fiction she links to, and I'm already impatient for the planned novellas.

    As a writer with a giant universe in my head and lots of interesting side things happening that don't fit into a book plot, I really like this idea. I need to explore it some more and look for the best ways to use it.

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  2. If I love an author, I'll devour everything they write, and when you could be waiting a year or more for the next novel, shorts can fill the gap. As a writer, I love having shorts available too, especially as I've been able to release a short between my two novels. While as a new author, my shorts may not have the impact of an established author, it's giving me a bigger backlist quicker than writing novels, expands my potential reach to readers, and giving them a cheaper option to test me out. This is why my first short is still free, and why I've gone for three anthology calls this year. As a new author, getting several shorts out seems a winning tactic to me. I'm also doing short stories for some of my secondary characters because some readers expressed an interest. It hasn't impacted on my novel writing especially - in fact, my word count is higher because I can get a couple of shorts written while waiting on novel edits, or while they're out on submission, or with a CP.

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  3. A lot of indie authors are doing things like this. I've done this in a small way with some of my books, but plan to do it (hopefully) more effectively with my new series that is releasing this month. For me, with all the life drama that keeps me from writing more than a novel a year, this is very appealing. I can work on shorter stuff in between, and yes, hopefully keep my work in front of readers better. So yeah, I agree. (grin)

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  4. I think this is a great idea and I'd love to do this as a writer. I just wish I was better at short fiction (and much, much FASTER at writing, PERIOD). It's particularly useful for those story ideas that may not completely fit the "brand" or lend themselves to full treatment as a novel, that kind of thing.

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