Today, I welcome the lovely Jude Starling to the blog. She has a new book out, The Goldcord Asylum, and she’s here to chat about that and, more interestingly, the idea of extra gifts in books. Over to Jude…
I have a confession that might be somewhat embarrassing for me as a 21st century self-publisher who formats her own ebooks and print editions: for years I was convinced that DVDs would never catch on. (Clearly I was a technological trailblazer.) Needless to say I’ve climbed down from that particular soapbox, and now that I have, one of the major benefits of DVDs in my eyes is the extra material you usually find on them: commentaries, deleted scenes etc. Furthermore, as novels and films have quite a bit in common as storytelling media, I’ve often wondered why this sort of bonus material isn’t more common in books. It is beginning to catch on in some areas – in a bid to win back customers from online retailers, Waterstones are producing limited editions containing ‘extras’ which are exclusive to the chain – but by and large, the practice isn’t (those lists of thought-provoking questions for reading groups aside) yet commonplace.
This is where self-publishers have an advantage. As we’re calling more of the shots, the decision to include any bonus material with our books is ours alone, and this presents a number of opportunities. I always appreciate the insight into the creative process that you often find in DVD bonus material – how someone else approaches the task of telling a story – and given the amount of research many authors put into their novels, it’s a good opportunity to share your knowledge while taking a broader and more objective view than the naturally skewed perspective of your characters tends to offer. Yes, you could always blog about these things, but not all your readers will be in the habit of reading blogs and if you include at least some of your analysis of your story with the book itself – the best of the stuff you would otherwise have blogged, perhaps – you place it into the hands of every reader without them having to note your blog URL in your author bio, think ‘Hmm, I must check that out when I have a moment’ and then remember to actually do it. Plus it seems like a nice gesture of appreciation; some ‘free gifts’ to thank people for buying your work.
So what sort of things might you want to include? The best choices naturally differ depending on the book in question, but I’ll discuss a few possibilities to get your mental ball rolling. Let’s begin with my novel Goldcord Asylum, and to give you an idea of the sort of book it is, here’s the cover blurb:
Time is running out for Goldcord Asylum. Once a progressive establishment dedicated to curing the mental problems of the inmates, now the asylum is under increasing pressure to treat and release patients whether they are ready or not. Professional pride, personal ideals, financial pressures and dark secrets compete to determine whether Goldcord will survive. In the midst of this maelstrom of conflicting interests, Ivy Squire is committed. A strange young woman, so self-destructive that she must be kept in isolation, Ivy begins to reveal her story to new nurse Tilly Swann. But can Tilly find the key to Ivy’s madness before she is dragged into danger by Superintendent Enoch Gale’s increasing recklessness?
So what we have here is a historical novel set in a mid-Victorian ‘lunatic asylum’, and a key protagonist whose condition is a mystery to the medical profession of the day. In fact, Ivy as a character was partially based on my own experiences of Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning autistic spectrum condition, and so it seemed appropriate to discuss this in one of my bonus articles. If you have personal connections with an aspect of your story this might be something to consider: it’s an opportunity to establish yourself as being able to write with authority on your subject, and allows the reader a chance to connect with you as a person. You might want to share something of how you found the experience of ‘writing what you know’ and how you balanced this with ensuring that you still wrote a novel and not an autobiography – indeed, my bonus piece briefly mentions the fact that for a long time I resisted the idea of writing about an AS character because I didn’t want to create an author insert, before eventually it dawned on me that done properly, this was not a foregone conclusion any more than it would be for an author writing about a character who shares their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or political views. A word of warning here, though: when discussing personal matters in your bonus material, remember that the purpose is to entertain and inform, not to get defensive, so don’t subject your readers to a diatribe about how Character X isn’t you in costume so how could they ever think that?! Nobody understands your art…
You see what I mean. Your extras are a gift to them; they’re supposed to be enjoyable, and while you can by all means discuss the things you have in common with your character and the areas in which you differ (again, this is all part of talking about the process of creation and how your book came to be), it’s sensible to do so calmly and concisely. That objectivity I mentioned earlier is worth bearing in mind even when talking about personal things, and the more measured you can be, the more considered your bonus material is likely to be. Remember too that you are writing for the public, so if you’ve written a YA novel about the turmoil of growing up, don’t transcribe your most personal thoughts from the secret diary you’ve treasured since you were a teenager unless you’ve really thought about the consequences of this and how you’ll feel once the adrenaline of the publishing process has worn off and the realisation’s dawned that anyone can download your adolescent ponderings along with your story at the click of a button.
You need not, however, have personal experience of an aspect of your plot for it to have potential as a bonus article for your book. The setting and cast of characters for Goldcord Asylum provided me with a couple of ideas for extras: one article discussing the history of psychiatry and what things were like at the time in which the story is set (progress that had been made and those aspects of mental healthcare in which understanding was still poor, influential figures in Victorian psychiatry and how they informed my creation of any characters in the profession, contemporary laws and codes of practice governing the care of the mentally ill etc.) and one dedicated to the subject of the patients one might expect to find in a Victorian asylum and those who exist as characters populating the wards of my fictional facility. Here I wrote a little about the sort of conditions for which Victorian doctors would be likely to recommend hospitalisation and whether the same course of action would be advised now, as well as raising the issue of those patients who would probably no longer be considered mentally ill at all. And as Ivy, like many people with AS, has a passion for bits of interesting information, I also included a trivia section at the end – a compilation of one- or two-sentence titbits that I discovered and found interesting during the course of researching the story – but I doubt I’d do that with any other novel, my reasons being similar to those governing Wikipedia’s policy on trivia sections within its pages. It was the right decision for a novel prominently featuring an autodidactic protagonist with such a strong interest in the various pieces of interesting information she picks up while reading, but I can’t see myself making a habit of doing it with other books.
What else can you include? It might be worth your time to have a look at some of the offerings in the extras sections on DVDs in your collection, because many of those ideas can be adopted or adapted to fit a novelist’s purpose. The full-length commentaries in which the director, screenwriter and/or cast talk over the film from beginning to end and share their experiences of making it are interesting but I’d imagine difficult to translate to novels (if someone manages to pull this off though, I’d be interested to see it!), but one area in which elements of this could work is the deleted scene, which you’ll also recognise as a stalwart DVD extra. If you’ve had to murder a darling (i.e. delete material you loved for the good of the manuscript as a whole), it may be possible to allow it at least some exposure in your bonus section, providing it’s in reasonable shape – it doesn’t have to be as polished as your published story, but do go through and pick up any spelling, punctuation or grammar glitches and ensure that it can be read as a coherent piece. Such scenes can be prefaced with a brief commentary (a couple of paragraphs or less) explaining context and why you made the decision to cut the material from the story – I’ve done this with some material deleted from The Right of the Subjects, the book I’ll be releasing after Goldcord Asylum, but obviously this is dependent on you having suitable deleted material that you’re sufficiently happy with. On some DVDs you can find little vignettes; mini-documentaries focusing on an aspect of the story, and as I’ve discussed here, it probably wouldn’t be too difficult to look at your story and the issues it covers and find at least one idea to explore.
The possibilities are many, and although you may have lost faith in me as a soothsayer after my DVDs-won’t-catch-on confession, I suspect that we’re going to see more of these sorts of bonus pieces in books in the years to come. Publishing is changing a great deal, and with those changes comes opportunity – perhaps you might want to explore the concept of extras in books now, thereby becoming an early adopter of the idea. Not to mention that this is a chance to haul out and dust off all that research-generated knowledge that your family are sick of hearing about – now you have a reason to share, and it can be quite fun!