Monday, February 23, 2015

MaddAddam and why the first book is (almost) always the best

Welcome to my series on speculative fiction! For it, I will be focusing on three different series of books, highlighting three different lessons that readers (and writers) can learn from some of the best science fiction writers in the business. Since whole series are taken into account, I won’t be focusing much on plots, but rather on what unique lesson we can learn from each series as a whole. This time we’re rather spoiler free, since this is a series I don’t want to ruin for anyone.

Oryx and Crake
MaddAddam, otherwise known as Orxy and Crake

Confession: One of my favorite TV shows is CBS’s Survivor. It wasn’t always. I am not a reality TV aficionado and I was not someone who watched the earliest seasons of the series. But when I realized that it combined three of my greatest passions - tropical locations, tight editing and people taking strategy games SUPER seriously - a new obsession was born.

But since I’m a bit of a Johnny-come-lately fan of the series, some of the discussions about it have the tendency to baffle me, particularly ones about which season was the series’ best. For a large number of people, there is no topping the first season. It was too important. Too revolutionary. It set the groundwork for all subsequent seasons and all that follow have merely been echoes of it. Holding any other season up next to it just undervalues how important and shocking the first season was.

Even if I don’t understand these arguments vis a vis Survivor, I do get where they’re coming from in relation to books. The first book of a series has a kind of magic to it. It introduces the main characters, the elements the story is governed by and, most importantly, the setting. It’s undeniably true that many people read sci-fi and fantasy for the world building. And when you’re just scratching the surface of the world, there’s a sense of a new adventure around every corner.

Consider a few examples: The Hunger Games is at its most compelling when we don’t yet know the rules of the arena and are experiencing the horror along with Katniss for the first time. The Giver is extra potent because we don’t know what the next thing Jonas reveals about his world will be. They’re very much like that first season of Survivor - startling, revolutionary, instantly memorable. And in both cases, they’re the strongest novels in their respective series.

I’ll quickly list a few more series I consider to be examples of this phenomenon: Redwall by Brian Jaques, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, Wicked by Gregory Maguire. Even series in contemporary settings fall victim to this. Think of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables or Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.

Now, don’t get me wrong. All of these series followed up their first books with strong material. Some people may even pick some other book as their personal favorite, but my point is that sequels in a series have to work extra hard in order to equal their starting books.

So when I say that Orxy and Crake is brilliant, but its sequel, The Year of the Flood is still better, you know just how hard Margaret Atwood worked on that second book. She beat the odds. The following is my list of rules Margaret Atwood taught me for “how to improve on a first book.”

1) What fell flat in Book 1, ditch for Book 2
In Oryx and Crake, you’re stuck looking at Atwood’s post-apocalyptic world through the eyes of a strange outcast, known as Snowman. Through introspection, Snowman reveals to the reader “how the world went wrong” and we learn that once upon a time, he was known as Jimmy, an ordinary boy born to privilege who let himself be lulled into a false sense of security, even as the world was crumbling.

I say you’re stuck with him because Jimmy isn’t an entirely pleasant person to be with. He wins your sympathy, but I don’t think I’ve ever met a reader who actually liked him. But the world and the tragedy of his life is fascinating enough that it’s still a great book.

Then The Year of the Flood starts, Jimmy is nowhere to be seen and hallelujah! Though everyone in the series is damaged and filled with shades of darkness, by The Year of the Flood, there is someone worth rooting for. When Toby enters the story, wearing a pink spa jumpsuit and carrying a shotgun, there’s such a strong sense that this is someone who deserves to survive. And in that moment, the fate of humanity feels more real. If Toby dies, what’s the hope for any other half-decent person?

And as the series shapes up to be her story, it’s pretty clear that going forward, Atwood knew to focus on the character who had the gravitas to carry the plot. Jimmy is still there. He does stuff. But since he doesn’t have Toby’s power as a character, his role is diminished.

In this particular case, the weakness was a character, but this could be true of other elements too. Leave a boring setting. Axe a metaphor that isn’t working. There’s no need to repeat the same mistakes twice.

2) But for goodness sake, don’t get rid of what DOES work!

Just as Jimmy’s story is told alternating between the present and the past, so too is The Year of the Flood. In fact, this book expands on the strange story telling devises, working in sermons and hymns around the characters' memories and real-time struggles. It’s part of what makes this series so layered and beautiful.

For me, this is one of the reasons the later books in The Thief series are a bit more hit and miss. Whalen Turner very bravely switches up her view point during the series. Sometimes it pays off. But when she got to the fourth book and, for the first time since Book 1 returned to a first person narrator, I couldn’t help feeling that first person perspective is her ace. The first and fourth books share that perspective in common, and that sharpened focus made her stories far more potent. When she wrote in third person in Books 2 and 3, the story felt flatter.

It’s a delicate balance, choosing between what should stay in a book and what needs to grow. There’s not a cookie cutter solution for every series and author, but both questions - what should change, what shouldn’t - need to be considered during the creative process.

3) Give people that “explorer” of a new world feeling all over again

Even with the improved character conflicts of The Year of the Flood, Atwood might never have topped her first book if she hadn’t found some unique ways of developing the world she’d set out in the first book. As it turns out, there is much we missed from Jimmy’s perspective. The books almost feel part of different worlds, the characters come from such different spheres. As a result, that adventurous sense of discovery that makes first books so irresistible is still on offer for Book 2.

Another series that excels at this are the Harry Potter books, the evidence for which is in the titles. There is never a book title that directly references anything that came before it in the series. Even by the time of Book 7, no one has ever heard of a “Deathly Hallow.” Rowling kept her series chugging by making sure she had something new to tell us each book.

On a smaller scale, Divergent also checks this box. In Book 1, we meet the Abnegation and Dauntless factions, with just a few scenes involving Erudite. Book 2 takes Tris through both Amity and Candor and fleshes out the rest of the Erudite section. It’s really well balanced and one of the reasons that, for me personally, Insurgent is the best of the series.

In theory, if you can do these things - rework what doesn’t ring true, play up the elements of your book that people love and give the reader more world to explore, you should be well on your way to surpassing your first book.

Just good luck doing any of this in practice!

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