Archive for writing


We Need a Hero

Last week, I pondered whether a story really has to have a villain. But I do think that a story must have a protagonist, a character who wants something and whose efforts to get it drive the story — and it helps if the audience wants them to get it. In All Creatures Great and Small (which I mentioned in that post), there may not be a villain, but we have the vet who wants to save the sick cow/pig/dog and has to overcome obstacles to do so. He has a goal that we know about and want him to achieve, and he makes effort toward achieving it. A story without a real protagonist feels unfocused, and it’s hard to get involved in it.

I started thinking about this last weekend when watching the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, On Stranger Tides (I’ve been rewatching/watching the series). It felt very different from the first three and was a lot less engaging, and I figured out it was because there really wasn’t a protagonist. There were people who wanted things, but we didn’t necessarily want any of them to succeed. The general goal was the Fountain of Youth. We knew that Blackbeard and his daughter wanted it because his death had been prophesied, and they thought this would save him from his fate. But they’re the antagonists. We don’t want Blackbeard to get eternal life because he’s a terrible person. Jack Sparrow is our main character, but he doesn’t really have a goal that drives the story. We know that he’s wanted eternal life throughout the series, but he’s been kind of shifty about it. We don’t know why, exactly, he wants it. He gives up one chance at it (but after learning the consequences that came with that chance). He’s intrigued by the Fountain of Youth, but early in the movie he learns how it works, and he doesn’t seem to want it for himself anymore. We know that eternal life would probably be bad for him, so we don’t want him to get it. He just seems to be along for the ride, kind of wanting to protect Blackbeard’s daughter (though he doesn’t seem to actually like her much). He hopes to get his ship back by cooperating, but that’s treated as an “oh, by the way.” He’s not trying to stop Blackbeard. So, most of the audience probably doesn’t actually want anyone in the story to achieve their goals, and we don’t really know what the main character wants other than to not get killed. The one non-shifty good guy in the story is the missionary, but his only goal is to keep the pirates from being cruel to the mermaid. At one point, it seems like he wants to try to save the souls of the pirates, but after seeing them in action he’s like “Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.” And then he disappears from the story without any real resolution. So he’s definitely not the protagonist.

I think some of the problem comes from the Pirates universe being grafted onto a novel that wasn’t meant to be in that universe. From what I can tell from the book description, they took the novel’s main character, who did have a goal, and turned him into Jack Sparrow, who didn’t have the same goal, but they didn’t bother giving him a new goal of his own, and then they split out the good-guy hero part of that character to create the missionary, but without giving him that character’s actual goal. As a result, we end up with a vacuum in the center of the story by removing the protagonist and his goal from the story.

This is also a good example of how a fun secondary character doesn’t necessarily make a good main character. Jack Sparrow worked in the first three films because there were other characters to be protagonists, and he worked mostly by being a wild card who could shift things around for all the characters. I think Elizabeth was probably the protagonist of the first trilogy. For the most part, it’s her goals that are driving the story — she wants to stay alive when captured by the pirates and then she wants to save Will when she finds out what the pirates really want in the first movie. In the second movie, she’s hoping to save her father, and in the third she mostly wants to save Jack and then avenge her father. If Jack becomes less shifty, he’s no fun anymore, but as shifty as he is, it means we don’t know what he really wants or why and we don’t know what he’ll do to get it, so he’s not a good protagonist.

When a story isn’t working, it often comes down to the fact that there’s no central character who wants something and is doing something about it. There are just people running around doing stuff. The final season of the TV series Once Upon a Time was a bit of a mess for a lot of reasons, but one big one was that there was no main character who wanted something and was doing something to get it in a way that gave the story a throughline. There was a character who stated a goal, but then she never did much to bring it about and we didn’t know why she had that goal, what had clued her in to the fact that there was a problem. Everyone else just reacted to things without taking any proactive action. The only characters who had clear goals were secondary characters whose goals were about subplots that had nothing to do with the main plot. From a structure standpoint, I couldn’t tell who was supposed to be the protagonist.

I’m developing characters right now for my new project, and I’ve got three potential protagonists. They do all have goals, but I’m figuring out which will be the central one so that I have a clear protagonist, someone my readers can latch onto and follow through the story.


The Process: Worldbuilding

I’ve been tracking my process as I develop a potential new book series, and I’m now in deep worldbuilding.

When I was in college, I took a course on “parageography,” which is the geography of imaginary worlds. In other words, worldbuilding. Although we studied worlds from fictional works (mostly classics, because the course was taught in the Classics department, which meant The Odyssey, etc.), we were mostly isolating the world from the story. In this course, our focus wasn’t on what happened, but on a place where things can happen. Our main project in the course was to create a world and find a way to show that world that wasn’t an encyclopedia entry, a list of things about it. As I recall, I used the card catalogue from a reference library in a monastery school, showing the works that were readily available in the library, as well as those that were restricted so that only some people could check them out (and this was years before Hermione tried to get books from the restricted section in the Hogwarts library).

Until recently, that’s been the only fictional world I’ve built from scratch. With the Enchanted, Inc. books, I was layering a magical world on top of the real world, so the main thing I needed to know about was the real world. I took a research trip to New York and actually walked around all the areas that I planned to use in the story. I already knew the city fairly well, having gone there for a number of conferences and business trips (I worked for a company based in New York), but once I got ready to write, I explored the specific things I needed to know. From there, I just had to add the magical things and figure out how that worked. The same thing applied for the Fairy Tale books. I took a trip just to research the real-world settings, and the fairy Realm was meant to be rather dreamlike, so there wasn’t any real worldbuilding. It was what the people there made of it. I researched a lot of folklore involving the fae and pulled from that to create that world. The Rebels books were a bit more of a challenge, as they were based on a real place but in a different time. There’s a lot about New York that still exists from that time, but a lot is gone. I didn’t make a special trip for that book. I have a historical atlas of New York I used, showing the layout of the city at given points in time, with photos of a lot of the locations. I tried to be as accurate as I could be for the time, but when I needed something to be different for the story, I figured that the fact that there was magic and the British still ruled would explain any discrepancies (I had a lot of arguments with my very literal editor about this).

I did have an imaginary “secondary” world in Spindled, but it was meant to be a generic fairy tale world, so I just had to work out some of the geography, and it was mostly based on a few towns I remembered from living in Germany. I’ve had a few projects that haven’t gone anywhere that are set in fantasy worlds, but I didn’t get to the point of truly doing worldbuilding.

Now I’m really creating an imaginary world from scratch, and the more digging I do into it, the more I realize how sketchy those shelved projects were. They were essentially Generic Quasi-Medieval European Fantasy Worlds. I’m making a real effort now to work out the culture, economics, history, etc., of the places in this world that I’m going to use in this series, and that means digging into details like what the buildings look like, their forms of transportation, arts and culture, what their major holidays are, what marriage means to them, and other details like that. I’ve got lists of worldbuilding questions I’ve been putting together from various sources over the years, and I’m going through them, making up answers to each of them (based on the research I did on some of the real-world places and situations I’m using as the basis). Making up these answers makes the world get clearer and clearer in my head and gives me other ideas. I may or may not end up using any or all of this in the story, but I have been getting some plot ideas from this work, and me knowing it may inform other choices I make along the way.

I’m not trying to create something totally from scratch. It’s still basically Earth-like with some magical touches, but I hope that doing all this thinking will keep it from being the Generic European Fantasy World.

So far, I’m finding that coming up with names for places is the most difficult part. I don’t want to use real place names or use names that actually translate in a real language, but I also want the names to be consistent and sound like they really are from the same language. I don’t want to go off the deep end into full-on fantasy names that are impossible to pronounce. I’m tempted to just translate some words into Norwegian and maybe alter a few letters.

Next week, I’m going to start developing my main characters. I already have some ideas and notes for some of them, but now it’s time to really figure out what they’re like and what makes them tick.

writing, TV, movies

Do We Really Need Villains?

Before Christmas, I wrote a post about low and high tension stories and whether you really need to have edge-of-your-seat tension for a book. Sometimes you just want to go on a fun journey (literal or metaphorical) without having to worry about the hero’s fate. In the same post, I talked about the requirement that the hero be proactive and defeat the villain, while it can sometimes be really satisfying if the villain causes their own downfall, without the hero doing anything to cause that downfall.

Now I’ve been wondering, do we actually need a villain?

My latest bit of joy has been the new version of All Creatures Great and Small that’s been on PBS. I rewatched the first season the week after Christmas and the second season is on now. This is a show that goes beyond cozy to downright cuddly. It’s the story of a young veterinarian from Glasgow who gets a job in the late 1930s working for a practice in Yorkshire, where they treat both pets and farm animals. His boss is gruff and demanding but turns out to be decent at heart (he mostly just likes animals more than he likes people), and he sometimes has to deal with difficult personalities but there isn’t really a villain in the story. The interpersonal conflict generally comes from people who have good intentions but disagree about the right way to deal with a situation or from people who have an emotional involvement that clouds their judgment. Otherwise, there’s a lot of “man vs. nature” conflict in figuring out what’s wrong with an animal and how to fix it — or how to deal with it if it can’t be fixed. There is some personality clashing within the vet practice, especially once the boss’s younger brother joins them, since he has a very different attitude about life (at first, you might expect him to be a bit of a rival to our hero, but they become best friends). The closest thing to a “villain” is a rival vet, but they aren’t trying to hurt each other. They “defeat” the rival by trying to do a better job of diagnosing and curing a farmer’s cow. Nobody’s really mean. There’s no evil at all, and it’s quite refreshing. This is a show I can just sit and watch without doing crosswords or knitting, so it keeps my attention even without all that conflict.

In fact, I find it ironic that the show that’s on before it has felt the need to shoehorn in a villain. That’s Around the World in 80 Days, and you’d think that just trying to deal with all the stuff they’re facing on this great journey would be enough conflict, but they’ve thrown in an enemy who’s trying to sabotage them. And I can’t watch that show without also doing something like crosswords or knitting because it doesn’t entirely hold my interest.

Another no-villain thing I’ve seen lately is Encanto, the Disney movie. It’s about a family in a Columbian village. The family all has magical powers they use to help the village, but one of the daughters has missed out on a magical gift and has realized that things are going wrong (hmm, where have I seen something along those lines before, the person without a magical gift who solves things for the magical people …). There’s conflict within the family, but there’s no villain, no evil person causing the problems. It’s just good people trying to do their best and sometimes going about that the wrong way. There are still a lot of emotional stakes. There’s even tension and action, all without a villain.

I’m reading a fantasy novel right now that may not have an actual villain in it. There are some not so great people, but they’re not what I’d call a villain, not someone that they have to defeat to save the day. I’m only about halfway through, so it could change, but mostly it seems like the force they’re having to fight is nature. So, it can be done (though this is an established author).

The series I’m developing does need a villain, so I can’t play with this concept here, but now I have a mental challenge to see if I can come up with a story with no villain.


The Jerk with Layers

In my reading lately, I’ve been trying to think about what it is that I really like (and don’t), what draws me in or makes me excited about a book (so that I can be sure to put this in my own books). I’ve identified a trope that I seem to be a sucker for if it’s handled well (but it can kill a book if it isn’t). I call this one the Jerk With Layers.

This is a character who isn’t a villain. He’s definitely on the same side as the protagonist, and there’s not really a question of him betraying the hero. But he’s still kind of an antagonist, someone who might be competing with the main character at school or work, someone who’s annoying and obnoxious. But then we start to get clues that he’s more than he seems, and maybe he even has something of a reason for being the way he is — his behavior or attitude are reasonable responses to what he’s been through previously. And along the way he changes, becoming less of a jerk, possibly because of learning from the hero, possibly because of getting over whatever happened in his past, maybe because going through the experience in the story brings about growth. When this trope is at its best, I start out hating this guy and looking forward to him being taken down a peg, and at the end of the book, I’m his fiercest defender.

I know that a good percentage of romance novel heroes fit this trope, but I generally don’t like it when this character is the love interest, except maybe in a series where the romantic relationship doesn’t begin until after the layers start being obvious to the other characters and he’s already changing. I really don’t like the “I hate him, but he’s so hot and I can’t resist him” thing. I recently read the first couple of books in a series with this kind of character, and he did become a love interest, but the first hints of romance didn’t start until near the end of the first book, after he’d shown layers, had put himself at risk to help the others, and had started changing, and the relationship didn’t really begin until near the end of book 2, after the heroine had a good look at the situation that had led him to be the kind of person he was and he’d gone through a lot, leading to major growth.

I’m also not crazy about this character being the main character. That’s the Jerk Genius thing that’s been so popular lately, with the Iron Man movies and all the various Sherlock Holmes retellings (including House). I think this trope works better when he’s not the protagonist so that there’s a main character I actually like at the beginning of the story.

It’s easy to tip this over into the “woobie jerk” kind of character, where it feels like the writer is making excuses — you can’t blame this poor, misunderstood person for being a jerk because his life was so sad (even more annoying when his life isn’t all that sad, especially when compared to the protagonist, who isn’t a jerk). I think it works better if the character doesn’t seem to be consciously making excuses, if his behavior is an unknowing reaction to his situation, not a “poor, sad me.” When the character (or writer) makes excuses, the change doesn’t feel genuine or is surface-level.

I guess this character is similar to that character who has room for growth that I also like, but I think the main difference is that with that character, the layers are front-loaded, so you get the sympathy for the character before you see any of the areas where the character needs to grow. If the character has sharp edges that might make them look like a jerk, we see the reason for those edges first, so we understand the bad attitude or behavior better.

These are not meant as any kind of writing rules or how-tos. These are just my preferences of what I like. I don’t think I even represent the mainstream.

It’s hard to come up with good examples because the fact that there are layers to the jerk is usually a spoiler, but I think the poster child would have to be Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. He comes across as a real jerk at first, and then we get glimpses that there’s more to him, then we learn his side of the story, then we see him more in his comfort zone and learn about him from his family and employees. He changes in his behavior toward Lizzie, and he corrects where he went wrong. I think he works as a romantic hero for me because the novel isn’t structured like a modern romance novel. Lizzie isn’t all that impressed with him until she learns a lot more about him, so there’s no “I hate him, but he’s so hot.” And he’s offstage through most of the book, just popping up here and there, so we don’t have to sit through a lot of him being a jerk. He’s also not as big a jerk as some of the other characters.

I’ve generally found this trope to involve male characters, but I think Cordelia in Buffy the Vampire Slayer fits. She’s the snobby Mean Girl of the school who torments Buffy and her friends, but she’ll join in to help fight against monsters. We later learn there’s some bad stuff going on with her at home, so there are layers, and she ends up changing rather dramatically over time.

Even though I’ve realized I like this character type, I haven’t really used it in my own writing. The closest I might have come is Rod in the Enchanted, Inc. books and Flora in the Rebels books, but they’re very mild on the jerk scale. Now I’m looking at the book I’m currently brainstorming and trying to decide if there’s room for this kind of character. I tend to write nice people I like, and if I’ve figured out the layers of a jerk, once I start liking them I have a hard time really writing them as a jerk. Maybe I should make an effort to lean into it, since it’s fun to watch someone you disliked at first get a bit of a comeuppance and then grow. I need to try to write a Mr. Darcy.


The Process: Brain Dump

Before the holidays, I was giving updates on my writing process as I develop a new series. I’ve returned to that work this week. I’d been doing a lot of research reading to figure out what my world would be like, then once I got ideas, I began focusing my research on those areas. After completing (I thought) my research reading, I went back through my notes to pull out the things I wanted to use and organized those into categories.

This week, I did what I think of as a Brain Dump. This is one of my techniques for dealing with Shiny New Idea Syndrome, when a new idea that feels like a perfect book that will totally change my career pops up while I’m slogging through a difficult part of another project (often while I’m proofreading or doing revisions). To keep the Shiny New Idea from taking over my brain and being a distraction, I do a Brain Dump, writing down everything I know about that idea. Usually, that Shiny New Idea that I want to dump the current project for amounts to about three sketchy paragraphs, and I realize it might give me one good scene and possibly the kind of description that would go on the book cover, but it’s nowhere near ready to write. Knowing this makes it possible to get back to what I’m supposed to be doing without that idea distracting me. In the rare case when I end up with pages and pages and each idea inspires more ideas, I might actually work on it.

But this Brain Dump has a different purpose. It’s a way of pulling together all the ideas and research and seeing where I stand. I wrote out everything I knew or could think of about the world, the characters, and the plot. That made it very clear what needed a lot more development and what’s pretty sketchy. I found that although I have vivid mental images of my main characters, they actually need a ton of development to become characters I can write about. I’ve got the main society of the story pretty well fleshed out, but the rest of the world is really sketchy, and events in the rest of the world play a big role in the story. The protagonist has personal stakes and goals, but those are going to be affected by larger events. I need to know where these events are happening and what’s making them happen.

So, I have more work to do. Fortunately, I’d just bought a book a few weeks ago that should be a big help in structuring what the rival society looks like, and that will shape what’s going on elsewhere in the world. It will also affect the development of some of the characters. Once I have that all worked out, I’ll need to start doing serious character development.


Conventional Wisdom

Some of my recent reading and viewing has made me question the conventional wisdom about writing. The things I’ve enjoyed most have violated the “rules,” while I find that stories that do what editors say they want are much less satisfying.

One of the bits of advice is to “put your characters in a tree and throw rocks at them, and then set the tree on fire.” To keep tension high and pages turning, your characters should be in constant trouble. Things should never work out well for them, and if something they do works, that outcome should land them in even bigger trouble. They shouldn’t get what they want during the course of the book, until maybe the end, unless what they want is actually bad for them.

I’m reading a couple of books right now, one that follows this advice, and one that doesn’t. Following this advice is why I’m reading two books. I realized I can’t read the “characters in a tree” book at bedtime because it stresses me out too much, so this is the book I read in bits and pieces when I have reading time during the day. The main character in this book starts in a bad situation, gets out of that situation only to land in another bad situation, and everything that looks like it might help only makes matters worse. The main character is up against impossible odds and going through terrible things. It does make for an exciting book, but I have to admit that I’m not finding it very fun to read, and though you’d think this would make for a page turner, I can only bear to read a few pages at a time before I have to put the book down.

The other book isn’t really throwing rocks at the characters, but it may actually have higher stakes and deeper conflict. If the characters fail at their assignment, it could affect their futures, but they’re learning that if they succeed, it might make things worse for society. They do have some personal struggles, so things aren’t entirely easy for them, but we move in and out of those parts instead of things getting worse and worse. The “worse” part is more about that dilemma of what to do. I’m tearing through this book and only putting it down at night when I can’t keep my eyes open, even though it’s not as obviously tense as the other book. It’s by an established author, so I don’t know if that dilemma would count as enough tension for a major publisher to buy it from an author without a name.

The other conventional wisdom, something I hear often from my agent and from editors, is that the main character needs to have agency. The plot needs to be driven by the decisions the main character makes, and these decisions should be what leads to the defeat of the villain and the conclusion of the book.

But a while ago I was watching a miniseries based on a Victorian novel, and although it violated this in a big way, I found it incredibly satisfying because the villain got a huge comeuppance she brought entirely upon herself. The heroine did nothing but stand her ground and hold true to her personal ethics. She never actually tried to oppose the villain. I often find that it’s far more satisfying when the villain brings about their own downfall than when the hero defeats the villain. In this case, it was a lower-conflict situation, not really a “vs.” type of conflict. The villain wasn’t truly evil. She just wanted something and thought the heroine was in the way, but everything she did to try to get the heroine out of the way just made her own situation worse and backfired. Ultimately, circumstances shifted so that she suddenly needed the heroine to get what she wanted, after she’d spent all this time being terrible to her, and the moment in which the villain realized this was an outright fist pump of triumph moment of awesomeness. The villain bringing about her own downfall and having to eat crow was far more entertaining and satisfying than if the heroine had been trying at all to stop or defeat her.

This was based on a Victorian book, so I’m not sure you could get something like that published now, with a heroine who doesn’t have a goal other than getting through life and maybe having a little happiness and who has very little agency. I guess you could compare it to the Cinderella story, where Cinderella is just trying to survive, maybe go to a ball, but she’s not really trying to bring down her stepmother. It’s the stepmother who ends up making herself look bad to the prince.

I’ve been trying to think of ways to pull off this kind of story in today’s market because it really is so fun when the villains defeat themselves. It’s also reassuring, serving as a sign that evil doesn’t pay and that it will cause its own downfall. That doesn’t mean things are easy for the hero. They can only win by not giving in or giving up, and they may go through some tough stuff along the way. I wonder if you could make the hero fail, but then the bad guys are still defeated because they brought it upon themselves.

I think there may be a disconnect between what people want to read and what editors like. I’m sure that reading tons of manuscripts of varying quality skews your tastes. You’d be drawn to things that make you sit up and take notice, that are more intense. Quieter books don’t stand out so easily unless they have something else going for them.


The Process: Research

Here’s another post about my writing process. Previously, I talked about how I decided I wanted to try writing a “world” series, which would involve a number of semi-standalone stories set in the same world.

If you’re writing a “world” story, though, you need to have a good world, a place where lots of interesting things can happen. Most of my books have involved a ready-made world. There was the New York of Enchanted, Inc., which was the real world with a magical layer added, so it was obvious what I needed to research. I just needed to figure out the magical stuff, and that’s all made up. For the Rebels books, I was using the Gilded Age New York, and I needed to figure out my alternative history and what adding the magic and steampunk touches would involve, but it was still obvious what I needed to research.

For this new thing, I wanted to do a more traditional secondary-world fantasy, so I wasn’t sure what I needed to research. I had a vague idea of what the world would need to be like to tell some of the stories I wanted to tell, and I knew some things that needed to exist in this world, but beyond that, I wasn’t sure. So I took the things I knew needed to be there and started my research reading.

I have two kinds of research when I’m writing a book, idea research and detail research. The idea research comes in the planning stage, when I’m looking for ideas of what might go into the book. Even when I’m making things up, I like to ground my books in some kind of reality. I think that gives them that sense that this could all be real. With a secondary world, it’s about plausibility. I like finding fun little details in the real world and spinning off of them. This kind of research is mostly about reading a bunch of stuff to fill up my brain, and then my brain will digest it all, synthesize it, and create something out of those raw materials. You may not recognize any of the source material in the finished product. It’s like the ore going into the smelter to create iron and steel, which is then made into a washing machine or a car. You can’t see the car in the ore, but you can’t make a car without it.

The detail research comes when I’m actually writing and I need some particular fact to make sure the story works properly. In my previous books set in real places, that usually means a lot of maps and things like “when was this building built?” I have no idea how it will work in an imaginary world, since no one will be able to say “Aha! There’s no bus route serving that location!”

For a couple of years now, I’ve been doing this idea research reading. I started broad, then found a couple of details that intrigued me, so I narrowed in on those topics. Along the way, the world gradually began forming in my head, which gave me more ideas for how the stories might work, which gave me more topics to read about. There have been a lot of branches and rabbit trails along the way — ooh, I could use this, but then I’ll need to know more about that and that. I have about three and a half spiral notebooks full of notes I’ve scribbled down when I’ve found something I think I might use. I’ve learned a lot about a weird variety of subjects.

Now I’ve decided that I’ve done enough reading and it’s time to start putting it all together. I’ve been rereading my research notes and jotting down notes about what might go into my world and how I might use this information. It’s interesting seeing some of the things I was researching at the beginning before I’d narrowed in on a particular place and time I wanted to work with, and I can see the point when I found something that made me decide what the basis of my world would be. There was a very clear moment of “okay, this is what I’m basing this place on.” This process is probably going to continue for a few more days. It took me a day’s work to get through one of the notebooks.

Meanwhile, I’ve also been watching documentaries on these subjects. That’s a good way to get mental images for settings and clothing. The fun thing about a secondary world is that I can pick and choose from the real world and also make things up. If I like the women’s clothes from one period and men’s clothes from another, I can do that. Or if I like parts of the clothes but dislike other parts and the hairstyles, I can do that, too. But that means looking for a variety of sources to decide what I’m going to use and then get the images settled in my head so I can describe them in words.


The Process: The Idea

I’m in development mode for a new series, and I said I’d share some of my process for this, so here we go, starting with where the initial idea came from. I’m not going to get really specific about the content of what I’m working on. I’m just talking about the process. After all, I don’t want to spoil the books for readers, and I don’t even know what will end up in the books.

This idea, like most of my better ideas, came from wanting a particular type of book, with no idea about things like plot or character. With Enchanted, Inc., I wanted a chick-lit type book with magic in it, or else something like the Harry Potter books, but about adult things rather than about school. With Rebel Mechanics, I wanted a steampunk book in a Gilded Age kind of setting, with adventure and airships. In both those cases, it started with something I wanted to read, and then when I couldn’t find it, I decided to write it. It took me a while to figure out the specific stories I was going to tell with that kind of book.

In this case, the initial idea was perhaps a bit more mercenary. As you might recall, I had a bit of a meltdown early in 2019 in which I was prepared to give up writing entirely. I was frustrated with the fact that my books just weren’t selling and my income was steadily decreasing. After giving myself permission to quit, I realized that there wasn’t anything else I wanted to do, and the idea of getting a real job that would require going to an office was so horrifying that I figured I’d be willing to tolerate not making much money and dealing with the business side of writing that I hate. But if I was going to make a go at this, I needed to do much better financially.

The trouble I have is that in my most popular series, the Enchanted, Inc. books and the Rebels books, the publisher controls the first books, which limits what I can do for promotion. Almost all promo revolves around getting people to try the first book, and then pick up the rest of the series. With these books, I can’t control the price of the first books, which limits what I can do for promotion, and I can’t do anything to drive people from those books to the rest of the series. I can’t get the publishers to add the other books to the list of books by me in those books or get them to put links for subscribing to a newsletter. I just have to hope that people who read those books go looking for more. If they buy them on Amazon, Amazon might recommend the rest, but I have zero control over this. By the way, this is why I’ve been holding off on doing a fourth Rebels book. I’m close to getting the rights to that first book back, but if I put out a new books, that will increase sales, not enough to make me any more money, but enough to delay me getting the rights reverted.

So, I was thinking that what I need is a new series I control from the start. I was looking at what seems to be successful, and romance is the big seller in the independent publishing world, perhaps because the kind of series they can do there.

There are several different kinds of series. There’s the saga, which is one long story chopped up into book-sized chunks, with each chunk possibly ending in a cliffhanger. You see a lot of this in fantasy, like with the Song of Ice and Fire series. You have to read this kind of series in order, starting with book one. Otherwise, it would be like opening a book to chapter 10 and beginning to read there. It would make no sense.

Then there’s the episodic series, which follows the same cast of characters, but with a new story in each book. There might be subplots that span from book to book, generally focused on the characters and their relationships, so the series will make more sense if you start at the beginning and read them in order, but you could probably follow the plot of an individual book if you happened to pick up a later one in the series first. You see this kind of series in mystery, where the mystery plots are self-contained, but you may also be following the development of the main character’s personal life.

You may also see a hybrid of this, where there’s a big-picture overarching plot for the series, but each individual book tells a complete “episode” of the story. You still probably need to start with book 1 and read them in order, but each book has its own beginning, middle, and end. I’d put the Harry Potter series in this category. There’s the big-picture plot of the fight against Voldemort and Harry figuring out his destiny, but each book is a complete story of Harry dealing with an aspect of this fight, often defeating a minion of Voldemort. I’d put most of my books in this category, as well.

What romances tend to do is a “world”-based series. There’s some kind of setting or situation that involves a group of people, and each book is about a different person within that setting or situation. The main characters from one book may go on to be supporting characters in later books, and the supporting characters from other books may take their turns to step up and have their own books. If you read the whole series in order, starting with book one, you might get a better picture of things and get all the references, but you can jump into the series at any point. Any book could be a first book, and then you might want to go back and read the rest. This kind of series is sort of a best of both worlds situation. There’s enough continuity to keep you wanting to read more of the series — will that character you like ever get his own story? — but not so much that you have to start at the beginning or read all the books.

This kind of series is ideally suited to romance, since the happily ever after ending means there isn’t much story left for the characters after they get together. This way, you can shift the story to another couple while still showing what’s next for the previous couple. You don’t see a lot of this sort of thing in other genres. Mercedes Lackey has done a couple of fantasy series that are kind of like it, where there’s an established world and organization within that world, but each book is about a different main character dealing with that world or organization. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are sort of a hybrid of the episode and the world series. The series is about the world, but each book may deal with a different aspect of that world. There are the books about the city watch, the books about the wizards at the university, the books about the witches in the mountains, the books about Death, and various one-offs about other things. Over time, this built out into multiple miniseries within the series. You could jump into that world at just about any point, but it helps to start with the first book in a particular miniseries. Sometimes the different miniseries cross over, so that the main characters from one series will appear as secondary characters in another series. The more books you’ve read in the overall series, the more details you catch, so it rewards rereading. The first book you read will take on new meaning after you’ve read more books.

I thought it might be fun to do a fantasy series like that — create a world, then have a bunch of mostly self-contained stories within it. I have a lot of story ideas I haven’t managed to fit into any of my other series, and this could be a place where I could use them all. That was what kicked all this off. I came up with the mystery series idea around the same time and started writing that one first because this requires so much more research and development. I’ve spent the last couple of years doing research and the occasional bit of brainstorming. I’m not sure how well that totally self-contained stories thing is going to hold up because there may be a framing story to set everything up and provide some link between stories. I’ll know better how it will go once I get into more details.

In a future post, I’ll look at how I go from wanting to write a type of book to figuring out what the story will actually be.


A Break Before Revision

I’ve been battling a book that I thought I had all planned out. There are scenes I’ve been imagining for ages, even before I decided I was going to use this plot for this series. But it’s been a bit of a struggle because there was something about it that just wasn’t working. I even got to a point where I couldn’t go forward because I had no idea what should happen next, so I tried something I’ve never done before and wrote scenes out of order. If there was a scene from later in the book that I thought I could write, I wrote it even if I didn’t know how I was going to get there. I wrote the “interview” scenes in which they talk to the suspects without knowing which order they were going to go in.

And the more I wrote, the more aware I became that there was a fundamental problem with the way I was handling this story, but I couldn’t think of how to solve it.

Monday night, I figured out exactly what that problem was and how to solve it — when I was less than 7,000 words away from my target word count (though a lot of those words aren’t going to end up in the book). It’s going to require some rewriting and restructuring, but the moment I changed that idea, the story fell together in my head. I tried writing one of the pivotal scenes in the way it would go with this new structure, and it was perfect. So, that’s what I’ll do.

The original plan was to finish the first draft this week, then take the long holiday weekend as a vacation of sorts, then after the holiday do the first round of revisions. With the revision I have in mind, there’s no point in making myself write to the end when the beginning is going to change, and I think a break before I start rewriting would be a good idea. So, I’m taking the rest of the week off as a bit of a holiday, and I’ll get back to work on Monday. The nice thing about working for yourself is that you get to decide when to take holidays. I don’t really like Monday holidays because they throw off my whole week. I’d rather start the weekend early, so that’s what I’m doing.

I don’t have big plans. I want to do some housework, sleep, read, and generally relax. I’ve been pushing through for the last month or so, telling myself I’d get a break after this draft, and I need that break. The next round of the book should be a lot easier. I hope!


Review and Revision

I got to the halfway point of the work in progress on Friday, so I figured it would be a good idea to go back over that part over the weekend, since it’s easier to rewrite half a book if something’s gone wrong than it is to rewrite a whole book. I was okay with the parts I read over the weekend. Then Monday morning I realized I’d made a big goof.

I’d made the villain do something that was convenient for my plot and nice and dramatic but that made no sense, that was counterproductive to the villain’s goals, and that was out of character for the villain. I’ve spent the last couple of days rewriting to fix it, and I think that’s actually going to make things easier going forward. The tricky part has been keeping the things I like in the new context.

I go back and forth on whether to plow through a book then do rewrites after I’ve written the whole book or to revise as I go. I generally learn things near the end that change the beginning, so there’s no point in rewriting the beginning until I know the end. On the other hand, it’s easier to rewrite a chapter or two than to have to fix a whole book. I’ve compromised by doing chunks. I don’t try to revise as I go, but I’ll go back and revise halfway through, or perhaps a quarter through a longer book. If I get stuck and feel like the book’s not going well, I’ll stop wherever I am and review things. But this book is a good case study for taking a look every so often even when I feel like it’s going well because it hadn’t occurred to me that the villain did the murder the wrong way until I re-read it. And even then, I didn’t realize it until I was writing out what the villain and the other characters were doing at the same time to make sure it was all lining up, and then I had that “wait a second, why would he do it that way?” moment.

I initially got into the “push through the whole book” habit because when I first started writing, I tended to write the first couple of chapters over and over but never finished a book. I had to make myself plow through the whole thing without revising in order to finish a book. By now, I figure I know I can finish a book, so editing along the way is okay. I still have a moment of guilt when I go back, though.

I think I’ve got it fixed now, but I do have to consider how it affects the rest of the plot going forward. And now I need to write the second half of the book (well, a little less, since I’m now closer to the 2/3 point). I’ve told myself that if I have a draft finished before Labor Day weekend, I get to take a long holiday weekend to rest, relax, and reboot, so I’m motivated to get it done.