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New fantasy series: follow-along

I recently went back to the forums of Holly Lisle’s online Novel Writing School, where I was somewhat abashed to discover I’m somewhat of a poster girl for the courses (well, I did get a three-book deal out of the manuscript I put through How to Revise Your Novel!). When I mentioned I was using the How to Think Sideways writing course materials to help me with the new series I was planning, one of the moderators thought that students would find it interesting to hear what I was doing. However I don’t just use Holly’s materials, and I thought it might be confusing to students on the course if I talked about my own methods on the official forum. So, if you’re here via a link from the HtTS forums (and even if you’re not), welcome!

Starting today and for the next few months, I’m going to be blogging every Friday with an update on my series’ progression. I’m not going to go into detail about the plot, characters, etc because I want to keep those under wraps until they’re ready to share with the world, but I’ll be talking about my process and the resources I’ve been drawing on over the past few weeks to kick this project into lumbering but relentless motion.

I don’t have an official series title yet, so I’m just going to refer to it as “Island and Empire” (I&E for short), because the setting is one thing I do have nailed down: an island city-state on the edge of an empire. The first book does have a working title, Eye of the Sun, the significance of which will have to remain a mystery for now since it’s central to the story. Sorry!

Stage 1

This is the stage that Rachel Aaron calls “Step 0” in her essay “How I Plot a Novel in 5 Easy Steps“. Because before you can write a book, you need to decide what it is you want to write and make sure it excites you enough to power you through the slog of writing a novel (or harder still, an entire series).

I like to use a mixture of technologies – iPad and keyboard, but also old-fashioned pen and paper
I like to use a mixture of technologies – iPad and keyboard, but also old-fashioned pen and paper

I’m not one of those writers who has a flash of inspiration that sparks a story. No vivid mental images for me, no epiphanies, no roads to Damascus. Nope, for me it’s more like being an archaelogist—I dig around in my brain for ideas and then piece together the fragments into something that makes a coherent narrative. Also, I’m quite a left-brained person, so most of my development work is in the form of written notes, whether neat bullet points or page after page of stream-of-consciousness debate with myself. Thus, every project begins with a notebook—my Project Journal—where I explore ideas before I even begin to plan the actual book.

I start with the big picture: what genre do I want to write, and more specifically, what kind of book within that genre? Upbeat or gritty? Action, romance, mystery? What’s my market: fans of writer X, readers who are looking for Y? I throw in a list of elements that excite me about writing this kind of book—the tropes that are core to the atmosphere I want to evoke. For those of you doing HtTS, you’ll recognise this as drawing on Lesson 2: How to Discover Your Writing “Sweet Spot”.

Because I write fantasy and because series still sell well in fantasy (and good fantasy worldbuilding is a commitment of effort that practically demands multiple books), I’ve also been drawing on Lesson 1 of Holly’s How to Write a Series class. This is definitely going to be Big World (empire, remember!) with Consequential Time, probably a Bulletproof (Core) Cast because I don’t want it to get too grim—but I’m not certain at this stage whether it’ll be a Linked Sequential Series or some kind of Standalone series, because that depends on the plot(s) I come up with.

In addition to Holly’s classes I’ve also been reading Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland. I make no bones about the fact that I want to write books that sell well (without selling out!), so I used Farland’s exercises to analyse what’s successful in my genre, what those books have in common and see if I could blend some of those elements into my own work—and build on the ones I’m already intending to use—to hit a wider audience. Naturally I cherry-picked the ones that appeal to me and omitted the ones that bore me; you have to write what you love, first and foremost, even when you have a market in mind.

Having worked through all of the above, I’ve boiled it down to a handful of bullet points that define what I’m aiming for with this project. Since they’re too generic to constitute spoilers I’ll list them here, exactly as written in my Project Journal:

  • Secondary world epic(ish) fantasy
  • Multiple PoV
  • At least one young male protagonist with whom the core audience can identify*
  • Awesome world
  • Action
  • Humour
  • Camaraderie
  • Badassery!

(* I shall no doubt have multiple protagonists of various sexes and orientations, but truth is, I love writing dudes so this is pretty much a given anyway!)

With Stage 1 complete, I can move onto specifics—but you’ll have to wait until next week for that!



Hey, Anne. So glad to see you journaling (not my favorite noun-to-verb conversion, but convenient) your process. This will help so many writers–and, if Holly’s experience is anything like “normal,” it will remind you of things you thought you’d never forget.

You do write cool dudes. :)TX