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How To Write A Series

When I did Holly Lisle’s How To Revise Your Novel course last year, she offered to provide a free bonus course for graduates, and it was “writing a series” that got the most votes from students. Which is ironic, since the bonus from her other course was “How Not to Write a Series”. I think the problem was that, despite Holly’s protests that series are a recipe for the dreaded Three-Book Death Spiral, publishers and readers still ask for them, so we writers need to know how to deal with that demand.

I confess that I wrote my Elizabethan novel with a series in mind. The premise is just too big to fit into one book (well, maybe if it were a honking great quarter-million-word tome like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell). So, unsurprisingly, I’ve been asked about ideas for sequels. It’s been a godsend, therefore, for this course to come up just in time for me, when I’m planning Book Two.

So far I’ve done the exercises for Week One of the four-week course, and I’m relieved to say that I appear to have got it right so far. Or rather, the way the story and characters evolved during my earliest attempts at revisions were what put me on the right track. The first draft was OK but it really didn’t have the depth of character motivation needed to power a series, even a short one. I realise now that I had to go through that process of evolution, blindly following my instincts, even though it led to a train-wreck almost beyond my ability to fix. Otherwise I would have ended up with a lesser novel, entertaining but probably not all that compelling.

Next time, I won’t be stumbling in the dark, thank goodness. But no wonder so many writers take many years and many failed attempts to get published. There’s so much to learn, and whilst there are no shortcuts as such, there’s no shame in learning from the pros. The “How to Write a Series” course might only be confirming that I’ve done the right things in Book One – but if/when I design a new series from scratch, I’ll feel more confident of knowing what I’m doing. Like all Holly’s courses, I strongly recommend it to any writer who wants to get published. And don’t we all?

Find out more about the course at Holly Lisle’s Novel Writing School.

Book One – Done and Dusted

On the last day of January 2011 I made my final edits to my manuscript, ran a spellcheck over the whole thing (teaching my computer some rude Elizabethan words in the process!), and exported it from Scrivener to create a final draft. After that it was simply a matter of composing a couple of emails and hitting the ‘Send’ button.

I’d be lying if I said that last step wasn’t scary. My finger hovered over the trackpad button for several seconds before I summoned the courage to do it. But I had to admit to myself that I was just delaying the inevitable, and that any changes I went back and made would be tinkering, not fixing.

So, my book is out there, waiting to be read by agent and publisher. I expect it will be a few weeks before I get a reply, so I’m throwing myself into my next project to take my mind off the wait. I’ve closed down the Scrivener project file and word-count spreadsheet for Book One, effectively shutting the door on that manuscript until I have a need to work on it further. I don’t quite have the post-partum blues that some writers report – after all, I’m about to embark on another set of adventurers with Mal, Coby and friends – but it does feel odd to put aside the work that’s obsessed me for the past four and a half years.

Time to move on…

Book One of…: the enduring power of trilogies

Ever since George Allen & Unwin decided to publish The Lord of the Rings in three volumes, the trilogy has ruled the fantasy genre to the point of becoming a cliché. Admittedly fantasy didn’t invent the trilogy–it goes back at least as far as the Victorian three-volume novel–but it certainly picked it up and ran with it. So why has the form persisted for so long?

Part of it is the Western obsession with the number three, particularly in relation to story structure. From The Three Little Pigs via the three caskets in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice to the structure of many jokes (An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar…), the three-step story forms a pattern we all know and take for granted. Setup. Complication. Resolution. The three-act structure of Aristotle, now enshrined in scriptwriting dogma.

Is it something the publishers are doing? After all, we read so much about author X getting a three-book deal. Well, yes, publishers like to pin a writer down with multi-book deals, because a lot of work goes into establishing that author’s brand through jacket design and so on, and if the first book turns out to be a massive hit they don’t want their star to be lured away by another publisher with deeper pockets. But multi-book deals are the norm in most genres, regardless of whether the books themselves are standalones (as is usually the case in mainstream, romance, etc) or part of an open-ended series (a favourite in crime/mystery, ever since the days of Sherlock Holmes).

So if it’s not the publishers per se, who is driving the desire for trilogies? My feeling is that it’s the readers. Publishers want to buy what sells, because they’re in business to make money – and what sells most reliably is trilogies. Or tetralogies. Short, finite series.

Part of it is setting. A great fantasy story depends, more than anything else, on great world-building. And building a whole world takes a lot of the writer’s investment of time. Why throw all that hard work away and start again from scratch? And yet… Terry Pratchett has built his career on a single setting, the Discworld, without ever writing what could be called a trilogy in the usual sense. Every Discworld book is pretty much a standalone, even though it may be a sequel to one earlier in the series or at least feature some of the same characters.

However Pratchett’s books are small-scale, focusing on individuals and usually satirising one specific topic, be that football, the early days of cinema, or whatever. The true home of the trilogy is epic fantasy. And perhaps now we approach the crux of the matter. Epic fantasy is, thanks to Tolkien and his imitators, the most high-profile sub-genre of fantasy. Generally set in a secondary (i.e. invented) world, it uses a broad canvas to tell sweeping tales of adventure involving multiple cultures and/or sentient species. Even for a writer who doesn’t waffle or get sidetracked by his huge cast of characters, it takes a lot of words to describe such a story. Usually at least 250,000 of them and often a lot more. And it’s at this point that publishers balk at the page count and want to publish the story in three volumes.

The trilogy has become such a staple of the genre that it’s the go-to structure even for writers like me who prefer each book to have a self-contained plot. I have a manuscript on submission and have been explicitly asked “how a second and possibly a third book in this series might pan out”, so I have to at least consider making it a trilogy. I have no problem with that – the novel deliberately leaves some plot threads open because the background conflict is way too big to resolve in one book – but I do cringe ever so slightly at the thought of “Book One of (insert pretentious series title here)” appearing on the cover.

So, how do you as a fantasy reader, or writer, feel about trilogies? Love ’em? hate ’em? Classic or cliché?

The Final Strait

As predicted, once I got past the dreaded midpoint of my story, I was able to romp through the next several chapters making light edits. Those have now gone off for beta-reading, leaving me to struggle with Plot Point Two, or “The Second Doorway” as James Scott Bell calls it in Plot and Structure. This is when the excrement has truly hit the rotating device and our heroes must pull together to overcome the villain’s dastardly plot.

On the one hand, the general outline of this revised version is much the same as the previous one; it’s just the details that have changed. Trouble is, the devil is in the details. A scene that made sense last time around might be totally out-of-place now that X hasn’t happened in quite the same way. Also, as I get better at controlling a large cast of characters and remembering what they all ought to be up to at any given moment, it gives me new ways for them to interact and new possibilities for complicating Act Three.

Finally I have the problem that my hero is immobilised at this point and effectively unable to act, so I need to move the story forward quickly through the eyes of the other characters without it seeming too implausibly convenient.

Hence it has taken me the best part of the week between Christmas and New Year to navigate my way through a mere two and a half chapters, even though I’ve obviously not been at work. Hopefully, once everything is set in motion, I can again rip through the action and finish these revisions in a timely manner. Admittedly I don’t have a formal deadline, but I’d like to have them done and dusted so I can start planning the sequel. It would be good to kick off the New Year as soon as possible with a shiny new project!

New Year’s Resolutions

Finally, after five years, my New Year’s Resolution isn’t to finish my novel. Well, OK, it’s to finish another round of revisions on my novel, but that’s because I’ve been asked to do them by a publisher – yay!

My resolution this year is to write a sequel to this novel that’s as good as the first. It’s the latter part that’s daunting, of course. The first one has four years’ worth of layering in of character and plot, so replicating that process in a quarter of the time could take some doing. On the other hand it is a sequel, after all, so the main characters come ready-made. That means all I need is a great plot. Easy-peasy, then…

Famous. Last. Words.

Midpoint Blues

I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t done any writing at all this week. I’ve reached The Chapter From Hell again in my rewrites, and I just haven’t been able to get my head around it.

I’m not sure if I blogged about it last time around, but there’s this one chapter that gave me trouble when I first came to write it, and which is still the hardest part of the book for me. It’s just past the midway point of the manuscript, and centres on a major revelation that powers the rest of the plot. I need to get the revelation itself just right, so that the reader knows what’s going on even though my protagonist is struggling with truths he isn’t really ready to face, and I need to get his reaction just right as well – appalled and scared but desperately trying to rationalise events and keep his act together – otherwise he loses credibility.

That was hard enough the first time around. And now I have rewrite it, incorporating the new magical elements I agreed with the publisher. I will be so glad when I get this done and can move on to the fun stuff!

Another round of revisions

This week has been mostly an “up” week, thankfully. I did get an agent rejection on Saturday, a rather bland “did not quite ‘click’ with us” letter, but owing to progress on other fronts, I’m not in a tearing hurry to get an agent right now.

The progress in question is that after a month of batting emails back and forth, discussing possible changes to the book, I got an reply from the publisher saying they want to see the full manuscript – yay! Even better, they want synopses for the first book and a sequel, to form the basis of a possible two-book deal.

On the one hand this is fabulous news, because I can finally forge ahead with all the ideas that have been brewing for the past month. It’s also scary, though, because the pressure is now on to implement those changes in a way that makes the manuscript irresistible. If I do all this work and they still turn it down, I will be gutted. Not because it is wasted work, but because getting this close, especially with the level of enthusiasm and encouragement expressed so far, gives one a certain level of expectation that is perhaps unwarranted.

As for a sequel, I do have something in rough draft, but it will need changing as well to match the first book – and being something of a discovery writer, I’m not certain what those changes will be. Luckily I have access to a free Professional Plotting workshop through Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel course, which I hope will help me build a solid foundation for the sequel.

Finally, I need to come up with a new title that really markets the book. Like most writers I hate trying to title my work, particularly novels. Somehow, my short stories come ready-made with titles; novels, not so much.

I’ve already triaged the revisions and set myself a deadline of the end of December for getting the manuscript finished. The synopses can wait a bit longer if necessary, as they won’t be needed until the publisher has read the book, but obviously I’d like to get everything done ASAP so that we can move the process along.

I foresee a month of manic brainstorming ahead…

Inside-out character development

Since I’m at the beginning of a new project, I thought it would be a good time to record and share some of my processes. First up – character development, because you can’t have a good book without great characters!

If you read enough how-to-write books or do courses, you’ll come across a number of methods of character creation. The worst, IMHO, is what I call the “Dungeons and Dragons” approach, whereby you detail all kinds of trivia up front: height, build, eye colour, hair colour, distinguishing marks, and so on. Boring, boring and usually irrelevant at the planning stage of a novel. Usually. Sometimes a character’s physical appearance is important to the story – I knew I wanted Coby Hendricks in A Mirror for London to be blond so it’s less obvious she has no facial hair (since she’s disguised as a boy) – but often it really doesn’t matter too much. And whilst you do need to know these things during revisions, so you can ensure consistency, for the most part they can be allowed to develop as you write, or at least emerge out of the process of developing the character’s personality.

Most instructions do move on to character personality and background, of course, but again it tends to be a highly structured “fill in the blanks” exercise, because this is far easier to present. Sometimes it’s almost as specific as the D&D method, particularly in books aimed at writers of any kind of fiction: where did he/she go to school, what does the character’s bedroom look like, describe his/her first kiss. A lot of these are simply useless to writers of SF&F, where characters often don’t go to school and may have few personal possessions – and who cares about first kisses unless you’re writing romance???

The better questionnaires focus on character motivation. Holly Lisle’s “How to Think Sideways” course is like this, posing questions like “What’s the one thing this character would sacrifice anything for?” and “What one event made him/her a better person?” – but I still find these too specific and structured. My Muse freezes up and says “How the heck should I know? I only met this person a couple of days ago!”

So what’s a girl to do? I find that my characters only come alive when they start talking (preferably to one another), so I’ve hit upon a technique which exploits that. In my planning notebook I write a first person monologue from the point of view of the character I’m working on, letting it meander from topic to topic like a stream of consciousness. It’s totally unstructured, but that lets my Muse throw in ideas unfettered by someone else’s opinion of what makes a rounded character.

And it’s working! I had been toying with various names for my svartalf protagonist and unsure about which one to choose, but the monologue brought the issue to a head in no uncertain terms. My name is Ember she wrote because although I am black as coal on the outside, I burn within. (I say she wrote that – obviously it was me, but I was merely transcribing the images pouring out of my right-brain.) At that moment she came alive for me, and everything else, including her personality and motivation, fell into place.

Anyway, if you’re struggling with character development, give it a go. Make it a friendly conversation in the pub after a few beers, not an interrogation, and the characters will tell you all about themselves. Probably in more detail than you ever expected – or wanted!