Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Question About Questions


I’ll post more on LTUE in the next couple of days as I have quite a few notes to put together. But I thought I’d take a minute tonight and update you on the latest thing I’ve been doing for Farworld.

One of the interesting things that Shadow Mountain has done with their YA fantasies is to have the author write discussion questions to put in the back of the books. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done with hardbacks before. I’ve seen it in paperbacks, and often as a website download or separate insert. I’m sure it’s been done and I just haven’t noticed, but I was a little surprised when they asked me to put together a few questions for the novel (and presumably the ARCs as well.)

At first I sent them a bunch of questions like, “If Gandalf, Dumbledore, and Master Therapass fought in a locked, steel cage death match, who would win?” And, “If you could turn one of your friends into a fish for a few hours who would it be and what kind of fish would you choose?”

Turns out that those weren’t exactly the kind of questions they were looking for. I actually had to find themes and deeper meanings in my books. Let me just pause for a moment to warn aspiring writers, do not start with a theme or deeper meaning and try to come up with a story to illustrate it. In one of his presentations at LTUE, Scott Card said something to the effect of, “If you are trying to make a statement with your story, it will be transparent to the reader and your story will fall flat. Tell the best story you can, the best way you know how, and your inner values will come through.” Except I’m sure he said it more eloquently.

So, I was actually a little nervous to go back through my book and see if I did indeed actually have any values. That would kind of stink huh? To go through your story and say, “Wow, I’m apparently a real jerk!” I also was a little afraid that kids might see the questions in the back of the book and think, “Hey this is homework in disguise.” The goal of any story I write is first and foremost enjoyment for the reader. For a few minutes, or hours or days, I want you to get lost in the world I’ve created. If I can make you laugh here and there, get nervous or a little scared, stay up too late, and especially care about the characters, I feel I’ve succeeded.

That being said, if your characters don’t have values, why should anyone care about them? Do you know what I’m saying? The characters I like the best in books struggle to do what’s right. Sometimes they make bad decisions, but they try to correct them, and in the end they lay everything on the line for what they feel is right. If the main character in a book I’m reading doesn’t have some kind of noble goal, I find it really hard to root for them. And I want to root for the main character/s.

Fortunately I was able to come up with some questions I think will work. I tried to avoid what I call kindergarten questions—where the answers are so obvious as to be really lame. I also tried to avoid questions with simple yes or no answers. Thanks to the advice of a good friend and reading teacher named LuAnn Staheli, I also tried to divide my questions so half of them were questions about what the reader has experienced or would do in a certain situation, and half were more open questions that could be discussed in general.

Here’s an example of one of my questions. Marcus feels different from the other boys in his school because of his disabilities and because of the way he can grow dim and sense things before they happen. Kyja feels different because she can’t do magic. Has there ever been a time when you felt different? Does being different have to be a bad thing? How can being different be good?

One side of me is a little nervous about having the questions. But another side of me thinks it would be interesting if some of my favorite authors had put these kinds of questions in the back of their books as well.

So my question for you is this. Are you in favor of discussion questions in the back of a YA fantasy book? Or do you think they are better left for a web site or insert?

20 comments:

Chris said...

On a complete personal, non-professional note...I'd rather books without the discussion questions in the back. For some reason it takes away from the whole experience for me. I like the last page of the book to be the last page of the book with a definite "the end" and maybe an "about the author" page. But when I see the "questions for discussion" page, I get thrown back into fourth grade book reports right away....and how much fun is that?

However, with that being said, they can be a valuable tool. I just wouldn't put them in the book. I like the idea you mentioned of having them on a website where they're accessible to book groups, teachers, parents, readers, etc. The question that you posed would be a great one to bring up with a group of kids...I'm a counselor and if I had the time, I'd love to read this book in a group setting and then go over questions like that. So the questions could definitely be helpful.

So yeah, put them on a website...but I don't expect the publishing world to go changing how they do things just for me ;)

DesLily said...

Hello: I followed Chris over to your blog, since he told me about it and I thought it would be interesting to follow your adventure into "authordom"..

I'm ancient..so questions at the end of the book don't do anything for me. When I was young and school had you read specific books, it was the teachers that asked questions. Mostly I think they directed them at the kids in a way that might show them things about their own life, or what can be learned from them. This can vary from town to town or state to state and I think it kept it more personal than it would be if the questions were "universal". I'm probably wrong about that but it's how I am thinking at the moment.

But bottom line is still that if you are trying to draw in adults as well as the young.. the questions at the back of the book is surely a turnoff. (and I do read many YA books!)

Tamra Norton said...

I think TEACHERS will love it! :) And will a kid even notice until he's reached the end? No. And then he'll likely ignore it (like he would a prologue and epliogue...unfortunately).

Personally, the questions wouldn't bother me at all. And as a mom (homeschooling mom at that), I actually like the idea and would go over the questions in the end with my kiddos.

Kerry Blair said...

Many of the books I read these days have discussion questions in the back. They're terrific for book clubs, but I like them as a reader because they often enrich the experience for me.

I suspect some young readers will skip them altogether, but they'll be valuable to the many who choose Farworld for a book report. Besides, like others said, teachers and parents will love you for it!

I love this blog, J. Scott! Every step of the journey is fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing!

J Scott Savage said...

Thanks for your input everyone. The results are evenly split so far. And I absolutely see both sides. For me, questions in the back of the book send me back to 4th grade, just like Chris said. And like Deslily said, I very much am writing this series for kids and adults.

That being said, schools are a huge part of Shadow Mountain's success, and as Tamra and Kerry point out, teachers and books groups really like discussion questions.

Assuming there is space, I will also have the first chapter of the next book in the series as a teaser. And the about the author will be inside the back flap. And if the story is strong enough, I suppose readers who don't like the questions can just overlook them.

I actually had someone suggest that I should put "questions the author wanted to ask" and "Questions we let him ask." Which would be pretty funny.

But at the end of the day, the ublisher makes the decision anyway. So what about a glossary of names and terms? Like or dislike?

Kerry Blair said...

I don't know if I dislike a glossary exactly, but I do think you should forego it for now. Just wait until the book is world-famous. Someone will come along and do it FOR you -- in 27 languages -- like they did for JK Rowling. That seems like the best way to go.

Gee, it's fun to give "advice" to the soon-to-be rich and famous. I could do this all day... :)

Chris said...

I like the glossary of names and terms. I've found it useful when reading George R.R. Martin's books (with the families), and most recently with Watership Down since the rabbits have their own language. You start picking up the language as you read the book, but you always forget a few words which can make it confusing. It's easier to flip to a glossary than to go flipping through the book.

Brian said...

Scott-
I don't think that the questions should be in the back of the book. They would be better on a website. Most people, I think, would rather think about the meaning on their own, without guidelines.It allows your imagination to answer any questions you can think of. Besides, I don't think that anyone would want to anyway. By the way, Dumbledore vs. Gandalf vs. Master Therepass: that is hilarious.

Sean Ashby said...

For me, I'm all for anything that will get teachers to included more books like this in the curriculum instead of those same stodgy old tombs I had to read as a kid!

But I definitely like the idea of maintaining as much interactive content on an author's web page as possible, too. It can take a long time between books and kids grow up fast, so I'm all for using the author's site to keep readers (and teachers) coming back and staying interested in the mean time.

J Scott Savage said...

Good points all. Sean, I got a lot of great ideas on web site content from a very succesful and smart picture book author at the conference named Rob Walton. I'm going to do a post in the next few months about how I intent to use web content to keep people coming back to the site. (In my humble opinion a key to growing your sales.)

I couldn't agree more on giving kids interesting books to read. Using SF/F in education was actually a panel I took part in.

Julie Wright said...

Scott, I am torn on this issue. As a reader and an adult, this irritates me to find in the back of books. If I was a kid, I wouldn't have read the questions (but I would read the teaser chapter and then be furious I didn't have the next book already).

From an educational point of view, I can see teachers loving this! And I think SM is being a little stiff. The Dumbledore vs. Gandalf vs. Master Therepass question . . . Hil-ar-i-ous. Tell SM they can't have the other questions unless you get that one. And we all know Master Therepass would be totally victorious.
FWIW, you have some great themes in this book. Finding "deep" questions would be a cakewalk.

Glossary--good idea. I used those all the time when I was a kid (And use them still as an adult).

James Dashner said...

Scott, I think questions and a glossary are the 2 brightest ideas since Tommy invented the light bulb.

But maybe that's because my new book has them.

You da man. Thanks for buying everyone dinner EXCEPT for me the other night.

J Scott Savage said...

Well, James, that might be a reason not to use them right there. :)

I figured a guy soon to be as rich and famous as you could buy his own dinner. In fact, I kept waiting for you to buy for all of us.

For those of you who don't know James, he has a great new book coming out in two weeks called "The 13th Reality." It's going to be awesome.

DesLily said...

At times I have used the glossary. Sometimes, when it's an unknown book to me the glossary holds enough information to make me decide if this sounds to my liking or not. I'd much rather a glossary than questions.

Worldbuilder Robin said...

I agree with your comments on wanting the main character to have values. Not having them is one of the biggest problems I have with the Artemis Fowl and (to a lesser degree) the Spiderwick Chronicle books. In the first Artemis Fowl book (I admit I haven't read any of them since), there's literally no one that can really be considered the "good guy." The main character is deliberately establishing himself as a criminal. Everyone else is trying to take him down for their own selfish reasons.

In the Spiderwick books (and again, I have to admit I've only read the first one and haven't seen the movie), the kids literally hate each other. Why? Well, because they're brothers and sister, of course, and what siblings could possibly actually get along? Sigh.

Okay, enough ranting about a barely related topic. Umm, no opinions really on the question thing. I can see both sides, too, and haven't really run into it myself.

Lauren said...

Hello.
I am a 14 year old girl who is no where near publishing any book whatsoever.

But anyway, I guess you probably would like some kid's opinions, right? So here's the way I see it.

For a kid's book, I don't think discussion questions are really necessary. And I know that when I was littler, I would never have used them. If you are deciding between a glossary and discussion questions, definitely choose the glossary. I'm sure you have some Farworld vocabulary in there that people will keep forgetting. In fantasy books, a glossary is always helpful. You could even have a word origin thing, and make it interesting. You know, like in The Return of the King where it had a footnote for the word sharkey saying it was derived from the orcs...I always thought that was so creative...

By the way, I came over from Anna's blog...I'm not just a random teenager...

J Scott Savage said...

Lauren,

I absolutely want your advice! You are my target audience. And I really like glossaries too. But I am a pretty serious SF/F nerd.

Jeff

Anonymous said...

I absotlutely hate, abhore and refuse to answer those pesky "have you ever felt this way?" questions. It feels like I'm reading a Sunday School teacher's manual. Sorry. It just does. Aren't there any better ways to get the reader to evalute how they fell about something than to ask these over-asked questions. "Have you ever felt this way?" questions are asked so often these days they come off cliche. Have you ever felt that way, Jeff?

J Scott Savage said...

Anon,

Actually there are many other ways, and I used a lot of them. Just in a quick overview of the questions I wrote, we have "What do you think he means?" "What might he have been trying to prove?" "Have you ever assumed . . ." "What did she get back?" Remember, these questions are not for adults, they are to get kids talking and thinking about a book as more than just a story. Basically encouraging reading comprehension skills.

In general, younger readers (meaning middle grade) are very focused on the world that revolves right around them. YA readers tend to be more focused on discovering the wider world. And adults tend to be most focused on interactions between people.

Taking the advice of a long time librarian and reading teacher, I tried to keep about 50/50 on questions relating to the individual, "What would you do if . . ." and questions relating to the world as a whole, "Why do people . . ."

Why do you think I might do that? :)

Thanks for the input.

Anna said...

Hmm, looks like I'm a little late. Even Lauren beat me! I would probably choose the glossary over the questions, but I still think the questions would be cool. But then again, I probably go more for stuff that has information about the world I just entered. I'm a fantasy/sci fi zealot, and that's my favorite genre, and I want to know as much as possible. But either way, I would want something in the back to look through. The Leven Thumps glossary is cool and handy, but I know most of everything that is in it, so it's a little boring. Glossaries would be more interesting if they just had random facts about things and places....and stuff you already know too. Wow I didn't mean to say that much! There it is though. Random thoughts right off the top of my head. I'll probably change my mind later.