*Warning! This post is very spoiler-y. If you haven't read books 1 & 2 of my Whitewashed trilogy, you're gonna be supa confused, and you'll ruin the series for yourself, soooo... don't proceed. Stop reading. Now. K bye.*
Have you ever wondered what would happen if you saw Star Wars in chronological order? Would the plot make sense, or is part of Lucas' genius that they must be watched 4-6, then 1-3? Like most millennials, I grew up watching the films in release order. I can remember seeing Phantom Menace and geeking out over the cherubic Anakin. "This kid's gonna grow up to be Darth Vader!" That foreknowledge is both a blessing and a curse. Because of it, I caught all the Easter eggs. And because of it, Anakin's downward spiral seemed contrived and disjointed. Lucas knew Anakin would turn, and that knowledge congested Anakin's character arc, painting him as an unlikeable creep before he'd killed any younglings.
Lest this post turn into a rant about Anakin and his feelings on sand, I'll shift gears back to my trilogy.
When I first came up with the plot for my series, I always intended to write the books in chronological order. It was my then-boyfriend, now-husband who suggested I tackle the first two books in reverse. "It would be really boring for the reader to know more than Ella does in Book #1," he said. "You should start the story after Ella's memory is wiped, that way the reader discovers the truth alongside her." Book #2 would really be the beginning, and Book #1 would be the aftermath.
That idea intrigued me. Imagine how many Easter eggs I could pile into Book 1! Imagine the delight of writing *this* scene, knowing it won't make any sense until Book 2! It'd be my own private joke that readers could appreciate later. And so, when I started writing The Trace in Astronomy class freshman year of college (correct, I was definitely not paying attention), I began Ella's story post-memory wipe. The first sentence - which has since been rewritten - read, for many drafts, "The first thing that hit me was the smell." Even THAT was an Easter egg! Why did the smell of her own home strike her as unique? Because she hadn't smelled it in over a year!
Quite a few years (and drafts) later, the full story is out there. Readers can walk through Ella's confusion in The Trace, then have all their lingering questions answered in The Integer when they learn about her past. "Ahh, she'd met all these cadets before! Ooooh, she didn't spontaneously become athletic. Eeeep, so THIS is why Chron acts like he knows her!" I love hearing my readers exclaim, shout, and gasp as Ella's story slides into place, but part of me always wondered (a very dangerous business, wondering is): What would happen if someone read the books chronologically?
- Would the story make sense?
- Would The Trace be boring because readers would know more than Ella does?
- Can The Integer actually work as an introductory novel to a series?
- Is it possible for my series to flow the way I want it to in reverse?
Of course, the only way to have these questions answered was by asking someone who's read the books chronologically. But who would ever think to do that? No one, because readers are intelligent creatures. If I wanted to get my answers, I'd have to find readers who knew nothing of the plot, then hand them my books - and some instructions - and let them have at it.
So that's what I did.
I shared my idea on Instagram expecting to get a few bites. When readers came out of the woodwork to ask more about this "weird" reading experiment, I realized I should preface every Instagram post with vague intrigue and mystery if I want to get any attention. (Just kidding. Sort of.) In fact, so many readers were curious that I decided to expand my reading pool from one to three. Then, because that didn't feel very satisfying, I opened the experiment up to any reader. Three readers received the print books, while the rest were emailed eBooks. Configuring the reading outline for the print books was doable, albeit time-consuming. Figuring out how to control the eBook trajectory was a whole other monster. Here's why.
The last chapter of Book #1 works as the first chapter of #2 - BUT, the prologue of #2 comes before the last chapter of #1. Readers had to go from #2 prologue to #1 final chapter; then, #2 Part I, followed by ALL of #1, and then back to #2 with Part II.
Yes. Yes it is. I got very mixed-up while planning this and had to ask myself a dozen times whether I was sure I'd gotten my own dang timeline correctly.
Anyway, by some miracle, my guinea pigs managed to follow along, though I did get lots of "Wait, so I do it THIS way, right?" messages. I sincerely applaud every eBook reader for having the patience to keep up! If someone asked me to jump from book to book on my Kindle, I'd be like, "Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. No thanks."
Now, you probably want me to get to the point. How did it go? Were readers able to keep up with the plot? The answer to that was a shocking, resounding YES. The books work in reverse order! I'm as amazed as you are.
To streamline the results in a readable way, I'll do a list of pros and cons. There was a general consensus to this, though a few readers felt differently.
In conclusion, every reader at least enjoyed the series, and most would agree that #2, The Integer, is their preferred book. I'd have to agree. The Integer not only goes far more in-depth with the characters--it's also my second stab at a book, which means my writing is stronger. If I follow the same trajectory, Book #3 will be the best!
Overall, I'm happy with how this turned out. My hypothesis was that readers would feel disconnected from #2, having not read #1 first, but no one complained of this. I also suspected #1 would drag, and while the beginning did for some readers, most appreciated knowing more than Ella. My Easter eggs in #1 were noticed, and the side characters (Ethan, the cadets, One) were viewed in entirely different lights.
This being said, I stand by my decision to write the books in the order I did. Following Ella's emotional journey properly is crucial to understanding her character arcs, and the shock factor is entirely lost when the reader knows 1) Ella's memory was wiped; 2) Grifters aren't evil; 3) Sanders/Leader/Eugene Andrews is the real villain; 4) One is an individual Tacemus; 5) the reason behind the cadets' behaviors; and much more. While it's cool to know Ella's backstory before she does, that perspective does ruin what I wanted to do with this trilogy.
To all my readers: thank you so much for sticking through this convoluted experiment. Your feedback was enormously helpful in scratching that curious itch. Now I can rest assured knowing that, somewhere out there, people actually know how my story works in a chronological order. It was a weird itch to have, but authors are allowed to be weird. (We are. Don't argue.)
P.S. In case you thought I was lying about everyone commenting on Ethan, I present this reader feedback:
You heard it from them first. Read my books, because Ethan is amazing.