A Note About the Format of Redshirts

Many of the reviews of Redshirts note it, and the original subtitle of the book (which you can still see on the Amazon page for it) points it out explicitly, so I thought I’d write a little something about it here. It is:

Redshirts is not a novel.

More accurately, the book Redshirts is not just a novel. It is a novel with three codas.

The “codas” in this case are three short stories presented after the novel, which offer some additional perspective on the events of the novel. The novel itself is a complete story — you can read just the novel part and have a complete narrative arc, plot and character resolution and so on. But the complete experience of Redshirts, the book, includes the three stories at the end. The three stories at the end aren’t throwaway bits; the three stories at the end matter.

This is an unconventional format for a book; I’m hesitant to claim a first, but at the very least I don’t know of another book formatted this way. The closest would be novels that have extensive appendices at the end of them: Dune is one, and The Lord of the Rings (which was written as a single novel) is another. But the Redshirt codas are different in form and function than these appendices.

So why did I format Redshirts this way? Here are some reasons, some practical, some craft-oriented.

1. Because the novel was short for a modern science fiction novel. It’s about 55,000 words. As context, Old Man’s War is about 95,000 words, and the contractual length specified in my contracts for a novel is 100,000 words (we’re given leeway). Bear in mind that novel lengths are not set in stone: average novel lengths vary from genre (your average SF novel is longer than a romance, shorter than a fantasy) and from one publishing era to another — Little Fuzzy, published in 1961, was about 55,000 words, and was just about a standard-sized science fiction novel for its era. I also suspect this dawning digital age of ours is going to bring more flexibility in novel sizes. Nevertheless, right here and right now, 55k is an odd size.

When I sent along the novel, the folks at Tor didn’t blink at the length, but I personally felt there should probably be more there. But I also felt the novel was the right length for its story; I didn’t want to go in and pad it out by a third because there’s nothing that sucks worse than a novel you feel is faffing about to reach a contractual length. So I asked the folks at Tor if they would mind if I added some related stories at the end, which I thought would be interesting and would enrich the entire reading experience. They did not mind.

2. The stories at the end were stories that I wanted to tell but they didn’t fit contextually within in the novel itself. They take place after the novel and deal with the consequences of the storytelling of the novel (and no, this is not a spoiler; it’s not a spoiler to note the universe continues after the events of a story). Jamming these stories into the novel itself would have warped the novel and have dissipated its narrative drive, as well as its tone, and I didn’t want to do that. I mean, I suppose I could have done, and I flatter myself with being talented enough as a writer to make it work. But the thing is that I like the novel that I wrote, they way I wrote it, and I didn’t want to mess with it. So I didn’t. I wrote the stories separately.

And as a result, incidentally, I think the stories themselves are much stronger as well. They are better than they would have been if they were integrated into the novel, because they didn’t have to be beholden to the same tone or structure. I had room to let the stories tell themselves, not fit them into an existing structure. As a result, I think the entire experience of Redshirts as a novel with three codas is better than it would have been as Redshirts, a single, larger novel. There’s something to be said with letting stories be the size they want to be, and then putting them into the right sequence for an entire experience.

3. As far as I knew no one had thought to write a book that consisted of a novel and three separate but related short stories, so, hey, why not? I like doing things that other people haven’t thought to do yet and seeing how they work; often they work out in really interesting ways, some of which are hopefully good. As a bonus, on a metatextual level, this structure works really well for this particular reading experience, and that’s all I am going to say about that.

Or, as a shorter answer: I wrote Redshirts this way because it was the right way to write it. And why write it any other way?

One consequence of writing a structurally unconventional book is that people are used to their books being conventionally structured, so when they get to the codas, there’s a possibility of being thrown for a bit of a loop, which is something I’ve seen in some of the reviews. We’ve tried to make sure in the book design that people see they are separate stories, which helps a bit, but even so.

And naturally, this is fine and perfectly fair. When you play with format, you run the risk of people scratching their head and deciding they don’t like it or that they think it doesn’t quite work. Speaking as the author, I think it was worth the risk to get the whole experience right. I do think it works better than it would have the other way. And as a writer, that’s the goal: Get the thing as right as you can get it, before you get it to the readers.

So. Redshirts: A novel with three codas. I hope you enjoy the whole thing.

70 thoughts on “A Note About the Format of Redshirts

  1. “and no, this is not a spoiler; it’s not a spoiler to note the universe continues after the events of a story”

    Sure it is! I read every story wondering if all of creation will be destroyed by the end. It really ups the tension! :)

  2. Just to be *absolutely* clear, I think what you are saying is that what some reviewers are saying about the book “completely changing 2/3 of the way through” is actually referring to the end of the novel and the beginning of the codas. Is that accurate, or is there a major shift 2/3 of the way through the *novel* part? Thanks for any clarification.

  3. I thought the subtitle was made of so much concentrated awesome that I didn’t care if there even were any codas. (In fact, it might have been funnier if there weren’t.) I was very sad when Tor decided not to include the subtitle. This is my sad face to prove it: :( See?

  4. Charles Stross did something similar in The Atrocity Archive, which is actually 3 short stories (well, two novellas and a short). Though in this case it was 3 sequential stories with the same characters and, frankly, you could probably have blurred the edges a little and added some extra stuff to make it all the same novel…

    Oddly enough, I have just agreed a deal with my publisher to do something similar to this – a longer (novella length) sequel to a short they published followed by a number of shorts set in the same world but using different characters in order to expand the setting out more. They wanted a novel but I am still wary of trying anything of that length…

    Sounds like a great book, I look forward to reading it.

  5. The Fat Years had what I considered a coda. The author called it an epilogue. It was written in a tone and style different than what came before, being mostly a monologue from one character. It threw reviewers for a loop as well. I plan on picking up Redshirts. I think it is going to be fun.

  6. I think Fred Saberhagen may have done something similar with his Beserker stories. Most of them were pretty short as I recall. Hope REDSHIRTS does as well, I’m looking forward to reading it.

  7. This sounds like a really interesting format. I know David Mitchell frequently interrupts his novels to tell shorter stories, or sometimes only portions of shorter stories, which are usually only tangentially related to the plot (but usually have a lot to do with theme, symbols, etc). I’ll be curious to see this.

  8. I can’t tell you how excited I am to read this book. I think this is going to be the book of the year. Well done sir!! :)

  9. For me the whole thing worked really well. I know I said I wouldn’t read the whole thing when it came in to work, but of course I read the whole thing yesterday. I’m still buying it next week. It could have all gone very wrong very easily. But you kept it together and it is quite possibly the best novel you’ve ever written. I am not unbiased, I love all the others too. Redshirts is certainly my new favorite of yours. Now I need to decompress by rereading a bunch of your other stuff for a day or so.

  10. another similar format is Cherryh’s Merovingen setting which she launched with a novel appendices, followed by a bunch of shared world anthologies.

  11. Marc Whipple:

    I am assuming that they are talking about when the novel ends and the codas begin, yes.

    Chris Salter:

    the eBook versions will contain the entire book. As will the audiobook version.

  12. I’m looking forward to reading it on my camping trip in July. I hope I can hold out that long and avoid spoilers.

    The three coda thing – so it’s a novel form of novel?

  13. SF is certainly replete with authors cobbling novels together out of smaller bits or returning to universes with shorter fiction, but I think having a short novel (or novelette? Does SFWA still recognize that format?) and 3 short stories written as a piece may be a first.

    Like Miles Archer, I’ll be dodging spoilers for a few weeks. I have to wait until early August and my birthday, but if nobody gives it to me, then it’s at the top of my birthday-book-for-me list. The sample chapters have got me very excited.

  14. Dear Amazon,

    Please break rules and send me Redshirts today.

    Sincerely,

    Slathering Reader

  15. As to the format… one thing I learned when I was giving and receiving critiques as part of a writers’ group is that sometimes it’s easy to look at a piece of writing and say, you should totally do this with it, or do it from that perspective, and sometimes it looks as though doing so would dramatically improve the piece. And sometimes taking the really good advice and transforming the story was either 20,000 times more difficult than it ought to have been on the face of it, or did not do the story any favors at all. Or both.

    Which is to say, if your instincts told you this was the best format for Red Shirts, it probably was.

    And also, thank you for this post. I love to get a glimpse “behind the story” and learn what was going on in the author’s mind as it a piece was written!

  16. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cyroburn has “drabbles” (stories of 100 words) at the end that finish the book, and handle a major development that isn’t part of the book, but continues the theme.

  17. I think this is where some of the less-than-positive reviews — and some of the positive reviews, like the pictures-of-kittens review — are getting hung up. ‘Two thirds of the way into the book EVERYTHING CHANGES,’ and similar comments make me think that the ‘three codas’ part was not quite understood completely, and was certainly not grokked. This is unfortunate. :( But I’m not quite sure how to fix that.

  18. @Sharon, yeah was going to mention that. I’d definitely consider the major development a part of the book, though (oh man, that last line…).

  19. I also came here to mention Lois McMaster Bujold, but my thought was the epilogue or extra story after Cordelia’s Honor (cleaning up the aftermath of the explosion) which makes me cry EVERY. SINGLE. TIME I read it.

  20. Sorry, I guess that’s Shards of Honor. I gave away my stand-alone copy (like a fool) and had to replace it with Cordelia’s Honor and now I’ve lent THAT out, too, so I can’t check what the epilogue is really called.

  21. My only problem here is I don’t know whether to get the book in hardback so I can get you to sign it when you come through LA, or get it as an eBook so I can READ IT SOONER.

    This is a serious dilemma. I don’t think I can justify the expense of buying two copies. :(

  22. The book sounds even *more* interesting now! But I live in the UK and I CAN’T GET IT YET!! I wonder if I should emigrate…?

  23. @James: I was going to have him sign the back of my Nook in silver Sharpie. I was going to have him sign eight times–once for each John Scalzi book in my Nook.

  24. This possible reviewer confusion makes me wonder: Why did you (or more likely, Tor) decide to drop the subtitle from the cover? Also, is the coda structure indicated at the front of the book (title page, TOC, etc.)?

  25. Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint is a novel followed, at least in my MMPB copy, by three related short stories (plus a preview chapter from the sequel).

  26. That might be throwing some reviewers for a loop.

    As for other books that have oddball formats, I read a novel back in the 90′s(?) that was based in the “Shadowrun” role playing game world, where it was really a collection of short stories written by different people, that showed different characters doing their own thing in short story format, and then the last short story used all the characters introduced previously and tied them all together into a single short story.

    It was… interesting… but it did throw me off a bit until I got to the end and saw where they were trying to go with the format.

  27. Margaret says: May 31, 2012 at 12:57 pm
    “I also came here to mention Lois McMaster Bujold, but my thought was the epilogue or extra story after Cordelia’s Honor (cleaning up the aftermath of the explosion) which makes me cry EVERY. SINGLE. TIME I read it.”
    The coda, or epilogue is called “Aftermaths.” I’m with you on the crying.

  28. So what’s with this standard size business in the first place? How have we come to accept this idea? Couldn’t novels be the length that they should be and then be priced accordingly? I suppose it isn’t linear though. A 60,000 word novel probably can’t be economically priced at 60% of the price of a 100,000 word novel. I also suppose that publishers would rather spend book tour and promotion budgets on books that bring in more money. If you bring an editor a story he really likes that is 150,000 words long. Will he publish it, or insist that it be a series which is now 50,000 words too short?

    I am reminded of a book dealer who once commented at an SF con about the way some chain book stores have several discount shelves at the front sorted by price. I think she compared it to walking into a book store and asking for a book based on its color.

  29. Okay, this did it for me. I hadn’t planned to read it, because it didn’t sound like my cup of SF and I have too many other books piled up waiting for attention. But I really like the idea of this format and look forward to seeing how it works structurally, as well as in terms of a satisfying story. I went to my library system’s web site, found that the book is on order, and put a hold on it. I’m number 9 on the waiting list, so there are clearly some other Scalzi fans in my county.

  30. I have a soft spot for unconventionally structured novels, only because they are so rare and when done well, create a neat reading experience, where the story is more then just the sum of the plot. (When it’s done poorly, it’s just a mess though. I really wanted toe like Hopscotch, which says it can be read in any order but in fact is just kind of boring no matter which way you read it).

    I’m doing something similar with my novel-in-progress. There’s a subplot that was and is great fun, offers interesting perspective on the events of the story and a different view of the main character, but having it in the novel brings the story to a screeching halt. So I decided to cut it.Reading the cut plot over a while later, I realized I had half a novella that could work as a stand alone side story, so I’ll be publishing that novella first as a promotional taste, about 6-8 months before the novel comes out.

    Part of the fun with flexible modern formatting and distribution is the ability to experiment with story structure. John, have you ever considered writing a Bradbury-esque fix up novel? A bunch of little short stories that build into a larger tapestry story?

  31. Speaking of letting the story be what it wants to be vs. publishers’ constraints, I’m currently reading Peter Matthiessen’s (non-SF) novel “Shadow Country.” I loved “Killing Mr. Watson,” couldn’t get into “Lost Man’s River” in spite of a couple of solid tries, and never looked at the third one. Turns out Matthiessen had seen it as one story all along but was persuaded by his publisher that it would be too long, so he let them have the first part, which was published as “Killing Mr. Watson,” and continued to work on the others, releasing each in turn as he was able to put them into publishable form. He was never happy with the results, though, so he reworked the entire trilogy into one fairly large book, which is “Shadow Country.” I’m not far enough into it to judge the success, but I’ve got to admire a writer who felt that strongly about his story and did a massive amount of work to tell it the way that felt right to hm, and only because *he* wasn’t satisfied with the original. Nobody else, as far as I know, was clamoring for a reworking, but he couldn’t let it rest until he did it. The geeky writer/editor in me is looking forward to examining the changes he made and trying to figure out the purposes.

  32. Well this works fine for me. If I EVER had a complaint about your books it would be that I am sad they are over. Although the endings are not abrupt which can happen in any length book, I always feel like I just got into the world when they end.

    Full disclosure: I like Stephenson so most likely it is just my taste in books in general.

    Either way, I am looking forward to getting Redshirts

  33. Always Coming Home isn’t a novel either, and doesn’t claim to be one. It did OK as far as I know; certainly lots of people read it. In that case, the longest story is broken into three sections, with other material interspersed. I’m not sure if the three parts add up to a novel-length story or not.

  34. Wasn’t Always Coming Home originally published with an accompanying audio cassette?

  35. Come on, I can’t be the only person who thought from the beginning that the “three codas” thing was intended as a Star Trek pun, can I?

    (three=tri. Think about it.)

  36. Artist exercises creativity within his chosen medium.

    Sorry, what exactly am I missing here?

  37. For the record, I was not phased at all by the shift from novel end to coda beginning. It all made sense to me. (And I loved it.)

  38. John, no arguments there. I still have a soft spot for The Dispossessed, but it’s just not as satisfying as the “future archeology” of ACH. Even though I usually hate big infodumps, and it’s essentially one gigantic infodump that includes stories for flavor, somehow she makes it work. But then, she’s a frakkin’ genius.

    Derek, I hadn’t noticed. Damn that’s good. Scalzi must be suitably punished and/or rewarded for that, but I’m not sure which or how.

  39. The 55,000 word format doesn’t really deter me. In fact I think I rather like it. It makes a book that you can chew through fairly quickly for some good entertainment, and nibble on during summer on the beach. A nomvella.

  40. I remember you talking about the low word count in Redshirts when you read the bit during the “Fuzzy Nation” tour. If I remember correctly you mentioned the codas but I can’t recall if you had planned them out already or were in the process of planning how they would work with the story in order to hit your word count. Already pre-ordered the Kindle edition and I’ll be buying a copy when I hit your book signing in June.

    I shall also endeavor to find you some “unusual” varieties of Kit-Kat since you were so enamored with the white chocolate ones in Canada.

  41. Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game?

    Though in that book the three short stories at the end were ostensibly written by the novel’s main character, so the ‘related’ bit of ‘separate but related’ isn’t really the same as in yours.

  42. I realized today that I have been thinking of the book as a novel with three codas all along, because that’s how I first heard of it. In reading the reviewers who were totally flummoxed by the structure, I had already come to the conclusion that Tor’s (I have been assuming) decision to drop the subtitle was a significant tactical error. Knowing that going in might have prevented some of those negative reactions.

    In fact after I read the undead Montalban review, I took a nap. During the nap, I dreamed I was a bookstore ninja, putting “A novel with three codas” stickers on the cover, with “Novel starts here” and “Novel ends here” stickers on the appropriate pages inside. I skipped the stickers bounding the codas on the theory that it let me ninja more books before I got kicked out of the stores.

    Nevertheless, my pre-existing knowledge of the structure has allowed me to sneer at reviewers who were gobsmacked by the transition at 55,000 words. Until you pointed out that the codas thing is gone from the cover, I hadn’t realized that gobsmacked is a reasonable reaction to that sort of surprise.

    Althought, I have to say, I thought of Cryoburn, also. Never, ever expected a major plot development in the drabbles, although I loved it when it happened. Once I picked up my gobsmacked jaw off the floor, of course.

  43. Derek at 4:39pm helpfully suggested this:  
    (three=tri.   Think about it.)
    *groans*
        Dude, that hurt.   *dopeslaps self repeatedly*  ouch  *slap* ouch ouch  *slap* ow ow ow ow
    Perhaps others connected those dots as you did, but I sure as hell missed that pun.  

     

    I’d like to request that in future such puns be accompanied by a brightly-colored bus-sized word balloon so’s I don’t get run over crossing the street.  TIA, HTH, HAND etc.  

  44. Gibson & Sterling’s THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE is the closest thing I can think of — I haven’t got it in front of me to check page counts, but as I recall, it’s basically a novelette, followed by a long novella, followed by a somewhat fragmentary short story (in which a minor character from the novella is the protagonist, and the protagonist of the novelette appears as a minor character), followed by a collection of vignettes, some of them related to the MacGuffin and characters that link the three longer stories and some of them only indirectly related. Apparently a lot of people hated that structure, but I thought it was pretty awesome.

  45. Since this is supposed to be about structures and divisions and codas:
    Consider Buttercup’s Baby, the story fragments collected in the back of The Princess Bride 25th Anniversary edition [0-345-43014-X]. Although Ballentine touts BB as “the long-lost sequel” to TPB, the relationship between the two is rather more complicated. Goldman notes that various fragments mess with the reader’s head, because the author is “playing with time” to revisit earlier portions of the narrative – not unlike a coda.
     

    **spoiler alert**    (minor, topic=BB)
    First chapter has the blatantly unfortunate title <rot13> Srmmvx Qvrf </rot13>. Similar garment hues at work, or mere coincidence?  You decide!  

  46. “…dissipated the narrative drive.” is just a great play with words. Will Coca-Cola now make a dilithium soda to help you power through any future threats of writer’s block?

    Also, like Dan above, I’m a huge Stephenson fan, so Scalzi’s books always seem to end too soon. Regardless, I’m very excited to get my hands on Redshirts.

  47. @ Sean “I’d definitely consider the major development a part of the book, though”

    I should have said it was not part of the novel. The novel could have stopped there and been successful. But rather than being afterthoughts, I suspect the novel was carefully plotted to build up to the drabbles at the end. (Trying to avoid spoilers).

  48. “and no, this is not a spoiler; it’s not a spoiler to note the universe continues after the events of a story”

    …unless you’re James Blish, Doc Smith, Stephen Baxter or Olaf Stapledon, all of whom made the same discovery as Iain Banks – that it is just as expensive to write a novel set in one room in a house in London as it is to write a novel in which forty-mile intelligent spaceships blow each other to pieces with antimatter bombs in a titanic struggle for the fate of the galaxy – and went for it full throttle.

  49. I love this line:
    “and no, this is not a spoiler; it’s not a spoiler to note the universe continues after the events of a story”

    I tried my hand at writing a bunch of short stories that each ended with with the universe blinking out in one way or another, usually through some mistake or misunderstanding of my protagonists. I had about a dozen & I think 8-10 were pretty good story ideas that just needed someone with talent to make them good stories. I don’t see knowing how a story ends is necessarily a spoiler if the trip there is entertaining.

  50. Hindsight’s 20/20 and all that, but would it have been reasonable to put a brief authors note in between the novel and the codas explaining why the structure was like that?

  51. Orson Scott Card’s The Worthing Saga is a novel followed by several short stories that expand upon or retell events in the novel from different points of view. I think it worked very well. The book wasn’t originally conceived or published in that format though; most of the shorts and the novel were published separately first.

  52. I see everyone else thought of Cryoburn already. I didn’t find a “major development” in the drabbles, although curses for making me reread them and cry.

    The Revolt in 2100 omnibus was similar, one main novel and several connected shorts, although not originally written that way. Still, the collection was the first non-serial appearance of the works (that I can tell) and If This Goes On was reworked, so it’s apparent RAH thought of it as a whole.

    Given that we seem to be grabbing at similarities, it’s at least an unusual format even if not strictly unique. Interesting to see how restrictions spur creativity.

  53. it’s not a spoiler to note the universe continues after the events of a story

    This is even funnier after I’ve read the book. (At lunch. It’s a good thing no one here can fire me.)

  54. Hello! It’s exceedingly late to post a comment to this post, but the comment box is still enabled and it will not be denied!

    Reading this book was both an incredibly enjoyable and incredibly vexing experience. It actually reminded me a lot of fanfic — not in the basest sense of appropriating existing characters to tell new stories, but in using existing characters to delve into an already familiar story and examine it. In the back of my head was the awareness that in this book you were both writing about writing, and writing about the experience of writing for a science fiction series, which comes really damn close to what you were in fact doing at the time — and yet, thanks to your talent and skill (this is the vexing part), you pulled it off. And then you had to add the codas, which added weight and emotional heft to the book that I’m still depacking (and you even pulled off the one about SPOILERS! a sci fi writer blogging about, among other things, his sci fi TV series. Seriously. :P END SPOILERS

    Congrats, you have my respect and admiration. And now I feel rather guilty for still not reading the signed copy of “Fuzzy Nation” I bought back at the Seattle booksigning…

    Cheers!

  55. I was going to post something here about how I love Redshirts and about how I just reread it again because I saw the announcement about it being put to film. But then I saw to leave a comment I have to “leave the things I think.” And I don’t like to leave my thoughts behind.

    But if I had to leave one thing, it would be that Coda 2 is a story that grips my heart and speaks to me directly and I’m so greatful that you put it to text, Scalzi.

    From me, and for others like me, Thanks.

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