As part of the Undead Pets blog tour, I am pleased to welcome , author Sam Hay onto the blog to talk about world building and keeping a firm grasp on continuity for the whole series.
Sam Hay is the author of the Undead Pets series, published by Stripes. Her latest book - Hour of the Doomed Dog is out now.
Sam grew up in Scotland and worked as a journalist for BBC television before turning her hand to children’s books. Since then she’d had more than 20 books published. She lives in Wales with her family - and lots of pets!
When I started writing Undead Pets I didn’t think it would be any different to writing a single stand-alone novel.
I’d need a strong set of characters. Tick!
A well-drawn setting. Tick!
And an exciting plot, or six, or seven. Tick!
It wasn’t until I started writing book two that it hit me. Like a slap in the face with a mouldy bath flannel!
WHAT ABOUT THE CONTINUITY!?
Continuity? Huh? It’s a big word. It’s a big issue.
I suddenly realised I’d have to make sure everything made sense across all the books. The characters, the plot details, even the lay-out of the main character’s bedroom would have to stay the same in each book.
I felt slightly sweaty at the prospect. It was like becoming an Eastenders’ scriptwriter!
Apart from the zombie pets - (there’s a new one in each book) - there are about half a dozen main characters that appear in most of the books. Then there’s another dozen or so background characters that make brief appearances. As well as mysterious Uncle Charlie who gives Joe the magical Egyptian amulet that turns him into the protector of Undead Pets.
Every character had to have their own back-story, personality, siblings, friends, enemies, jobs, hobbies, quirks, funny stories, likes, dislikes...
Phew! If you mess-up the continuity anything could happen!
For a reader, a long running series can be a bit like climbing a steep mountain up a reassuringly, safe track. You know there will be something new and exciting with each new stretch of the climb, but you don’t feel you have to constantly watch your feet in case you fall off a cliff! But if the author starts
messing with the continuity, getting the details wrong, confusing the back stories or making characters behave in a way that is completely unbelievable, then suddenly that cliff edge can get closer...
Mind you - here’s another potential pitfall - you also have to keep surprising your reader and holding their interest. So seeing the cliff edge is okay. Diving off it, not so good!
Plus the world you create has to be big enough to adapt and allow for different plot developments and new characters to come in. The same group of characters in the same setting, doing the same sort of stuff, is going to get pretty dull by book two, let alone, book eight!
So you need to be able to inject new blood. It might be a new neighbour moving in. A holiday friendship. Or visitors to school...
Maintaining interest over eight books also means lots of different settings. But they have to be believable. Much as I’d like to have packed Joe off to search for Uncle Charlie in the Amazonian rain forest, or have him boarding the first manned mission to Mars, I’m not sure it would have fitted the lifestyle of an average ten year old!
And that’s another thing that felt essential for these books. It had to feel real. The reader had to believe this story could happen to them. A lot of Undead Pets fans have told me it’s one of their favourite things about the series - that the world Joe lives in feels just like their world. Yeah, I know zombie pets keep popping up and haunting Joe until he helps them solve their problems - (doesn’t that happen to everyone?!!!). But apart from that, everything in Joe’s world is normal. Joe hangs out with his friends. He goes bowling and biking and plays computer games. He argues with his big sister, gets fed-up with his little brother and embarrassed when he has to dance with his gran! His family have barbeques, go shopping, row about the washing-up and attend family weddings. Joe’s even got an annoying cousin.
Sometimes continuity can be your friend. Something that happens in one book can help set up a plot for the next one. But there’s another trap lurking here. The plots can’t be too dependent on one another - because not everyone will read the books in order! If you’re constantly having to remind your reader what happened in the last instalment to make sense of the current one - it begins to make your brain hurt.
Luckily there’s always a team involved with publishing a book - and if the author muddles something up, the editor will normally spot it, or perhaps the illustrator or proof reader will notice...
Actually - between you and me - there was a tiny ‘so small you’ll miss it, if you blink’ continuity boo-boo in the Undead Pets series. We spotted it at the last minute and fixed it! Well, just about... Mind you, one of these days I’m expecting someone to collar me in the supermarket - just as I’m reaching for something embarrassing - like a box of donuts, or an enormous pack of curl-wurlys, and shout ‘Hoi, Sam! What was that thing you did in chapter 7...”
AHHHH! I’m already sweating.
Continuity Do’s and Don’ts
DO remember who is related to whom! Consider painting a full size character family tree on your dining room wall. Useful for weddings, funerals and family barbeque scenes.
DON’T forget your background characters. Remember their siblings’ names. What they like to eat. Their hobbies. And when they last went on holiday. Consider making a Top Trumps style set of playing cards to remind you!
DO keep track of where you set each story. And DON’T forget the layout of your main character’s house, otherwise bathrooms move around, kitchens change size and everyone appears to have swapped bedrooms! Consider drawing floor plans.
DON’T forget the funny anecdotes. If something hilarious happens in one book, chances are you’ll want a character to mention it in another book. Unless you’re planning to wipe your characters’ memories - Men in Black style. Consider paying your friends and family to act out these funny anecdotes so you can keep a handy video record by your desk!
Thanks Sam for an excellent post!
Hour of the Doomed Dog is available to buy now.