novel writing

How (Not) to Write a Series

The Herbert West Series began with an obsession-driven novel, The Friendship of Mortals. When that was finished, I didn’t want to say goodbye to the main character so wrote another really long book set in an entirely different location with different supporting characters. I decided that book was too long (230K words, as I recall), so chopped it in two, making an instant trilogy. But the story kept going in my mind, so I whisked the title character to yet another location and reunited him with two characters from the first book. Fine, except now it was no longer a trilogy. I thought “tetralogy” sounded lumpy and angular, and “quartet” was too musical, so I settled on “series.”

Except that suggests a procession of books with no intended conclusion, and my story has a definite conclusion at the end of the fourth book. True series have more uniformity: same genre, same point of view, similar challenges for the main character. Whereas mine started as a kind of horror story and evolved (some would say devolved) into a mere adventure with supernatural and symbolic overtones. And while the pov is always first person, there are 5 (or maybe 6) different narrators. Each one delivers their own experiences with the main character. His name changes at the end of the first book, but references to the previous name are frequent enough (I hope) that the series title isn’t confusing.

Then there’s the numbering. Books 2 and 3 of the series are also Volumes 1 and 2 of what was a single book (Islands of the Gulf) until the big chop.

Are you confused yet?

If not, consider also that the series has a two-book sequel of sorts (well, it will be two books once I publish the second one). And there’s a short story collection, half of which is “spin-off” stories from the series.

The about-to-be-published book (She Who Returns) will be the finale of this saga. Although it takes place half a century after the first book (The Friendship of Mortals), it revisits some of the places, characters, and situations of that book, as a kind of farewell gesture.

In retrospect, I should probably not have called the four books a “series.” Maybe something like “A Herbert West Book” applied to each one would have been enough. And I should have rigorously reduced the middle book and preserved the trilogy.

“Shoulda, woulda, coulda.” Too late now. The books–all 6 and soon to be 7–are what they are.

She Who Comes Forth book chapter heading with moon glyph

Chapters: Short, Long, Titled?

I must admit to a cavalier attitude toward chapter divisions. In several of my novels, I assigned them without much thought and didn’t bother giving them titles. Numbers were enough. When I started reading a lot of ebooks, though, I realized that chapter titles make it easier to navigate within an ebook, because they remind you of key incidents in case you need to go back and check a detail. The 19th century convention of providing a mini-synopsis of each chapter in the table of contents would be helpful for the ebook reader.

I used chapter titles in She Who Comes Forth and will do so in my current WIP.

I wrote She Who Comes Forth chapter by chapter, but while writing the first draft of my current WIP, I didn’t give chapters much thought. When I turned the handwritten manuscript into a Word document, I stuck in asterisks and blank lines between scenes, but I don’t want to have as many chapters as this would produce. Really short chapters may be right for some books, but not this one.

As I’ve worked through the first 40% of the second draft, I took a stab at adding chapter breaks. Both where the breaks happen and the chapter titles are subject to change. In fact, I really should have saved this task until the work as a whole was closer to completion.

It seems natural to insert a chapter break right after a conclusion of some sort, such as the end of a party, an outing, or an argument, at the point where something is figured out or resolved. With this approach, if you picture the plot of a story as a series of waves of different heights, chapters should end in the troughs.

The problem with this is that it may create a series of letdowns for readers. After a conclusive chapter ending, something new and intriguing is needed at the start of the next one to re-inflate the balloon of readers’ expectations. Readers are most likely to stop reading if a beginning isn’t compelling enough. Why would we want to create this sort of challenge for ourselves and our readers?

hot air balloon on ground rainbow colours
Image from Pixabay

Recently I read a piece of advice to the effect that every chapter must end with a cliffhanger, because we writers must assume that our readers are so fickle they must be tantalized into reading on, with the ultimate goal of a review that says, “This book is a total page-turner. I couldn’t put it down.” Which suggests that a chapter should end, and the next one begin, at the top of a wave.

For books other than thrillers, the term “cliffhanger” stretches to cover more situations than life-or-death physical perils. Maybe it’s better to suggest that each chapter ends with something intriguing, a question planted in the reader’s brain to ensure that they read the next one, and the next and the next. But distorting a perfectly good plot simply to engineer cliffhangers seems like a bad idea to me.

Photo by Cade Prior on Pexels.com

If the book isn’t a thriller full of perilous situations, the writer may wish to consider ending chapters at points where a question arises. What’s in the letter that just arrived? How will Character A react to the provocative comment by Character B? What will the characters do when their car breaks down during the outing? The idea is to end the chapter on the rising side of a trough, not at the bottom.

Instead of contriving cliffhanger-type situations, find them where they already exist in the work and place chapter endings there, in situations of questioning, uncertainty, revelation, and rising tension. Those should be there already, so why not make use of them?

A confession–as a reader, I don’t care much about chapters. I can stop reading anywhere, knowing the book will be there in a few minutes or the next day, and I can pick up where I left off. Once I’m committed to reading a book, I read to the end, even if I don’t find it enthralling. A book has to be abysmal (in my opinion) before I throw it on the DNF pile. Chapters with titles are useful, as I’ve already noted, but mainly as a way of labelling key events in the story for reference.

I wrote and scheduled this post a week ago. It’s entirely coincidental that THIS OTHER POST on the same topic, but with a different emphasis, appeared almost at the same time.

How do you deal with chapters? Carefully or casually? Numbers, titles, or both? And when you read, do you always read to the end of a chapter before stopping?

Featured image: A page from She Who Comes Forth, showing chapter title.

stripped-down room, renovations in progress

Revision Revisited

I’m at the stage of my work in progress that follows finishing the first draft. That draft was a 6-month sprint compared to the rewrite, which right now feels like it’s not even a marathon, but a journey.

Several months ago, I heard a talk by a writer and editor about the psychological state of the writer while revising a piece of writing. I will not name that person here because I’ll be mixing their ideas with my interpretations and extrapolations.

The talk began with a writer’s inherent resistance to revision. There are several reasons for it, but the ones I related to most were the fear that making changes to a piece of writing might unravel it entirely, and the fear of being overwhelmed by the possibilities for changes. The first is like pulling on a thread in a sweater, and the second like looking at a map with dozens of possible routes to a destination.

Then there are the words used to describe the process: revision, rewriting, editing. Let’s start with “editing.” As I see it used, it covers everything from major structural changes to proofreading, and therefore is often qualified, as in developmental editing, structural editing, line editing, stylistic editing, copyediting, etc.

Some writers say they edit as they write. This can mean only that they clean up their prose sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph, correcting typos, spelling mistakes, and grammatical errors. Maybe they evaluate word choices and delete or add words or sentences. If you go back and read what you’ve just written, it’s impossible not to do this type of editing, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But it’s definitely not revision or rewriting, which involves deleting or moving paragraphs or entire scenes, or writing fresh ones from scratch.

To me, revision and rewriting are pretty much the same, but when I look at the words, it makes sense that revision happens first. It’s re-envisioning the work, which then requires rewriting. One way of looking at it is that the writer must be freshly inspired by the work as written to shape it into its full potential. In other words, revision is a new beginning, rather than the conclusion of a writing project.

Elements of revision:

  • The Imaginer must be present at the rewrite
  • It’s necessary to identify the core essence of the story
  • It’s necessary to identify the crucial scenes and amp them to the max
  • Strip the connective matter between those scenes to the bare minimum
  • Identify areas of weakness and take deliberate action to remedy them

To elaborate on each of these

The Imaginer must be present at the rewrite. It can’t be left up to the Editor and Inner Critic, who may convince the writer (of whom they are components) that the work is unimprovable, or that it’s perfect as it is and major rewriting will destroy it. At this stage the work is malleable, like unfired clay.

Identify the core essence of the story. This is done by reading it without getting sucked into making minor changes, which is hard to do. It may be helpful to set the manuscript aside for a week or longer before this read-through. This disengages the brain from the work and prevents it from supplying missing elements which would not be available to a reader who isn’t the writer.

Identify the crucial scenes and amp them to the max. During that read-through, write down (with pen on paper) the most emotionally significant moment in each chapter or scene, and focus on perfecting it.

Strip connective matter between scenes to the bare minimum. This may be text that “sets up” a scene or describes characters moving from one place to another. While the writer needs to work out these details while creating the story, the reader doesn’t always need to see them.

Identify areas of weakness and act deliberately to remedy them. Description, dialogue, character motivation, conflict and tension, climax and resolution. Any of these may be problematic and in need of attention. An editor, critique partners, or beta readers may be helpful in calling attention to the problems. However, the writer should beware of taking action on any and all suggestions. Asking for feedback on specifics is more productive.

The goal is to produce a narrative that transcends the writer’s expectations and elicits an emotional reaction in the reader, even when the reader is also the writer. If, during the revision process, the writer gets bored with the story or tired of the characters, the story has not reached its burning essence.

That said, the writer must decide when it’s good enough. Only then is it time for what is usually called “editing”–looking for continuity problems, making the best word choices, and correcting grammar and spelling errors, and typos.

I’m a long way from that stage yet, because I’m in no rush. One thing I’ve learned is that when my attitude toward the work becomes mostly negative, it’s time to step away and do something else. I can’t find that burning essence when I’m physically tired or weighed down by everyday mental baggage.

Fellow writers, I’m sure you all have your own approaches to rewriting and editing. Feel free to share in the comments!

Image by Monica Silvestre from Pexels

Enough Rope

The final chapters of my WIP involve rope. Rope is useful. My characters use it to get themselves into and out of trouble.

I have had to visualize the operations involving rope in detail, because there are certain realities about it. To wit:

  • a person has to be able-bodied to climb up or down a rope
  • if someone is going to climb up or down a rope, said rope must be solidly fastened to something
  • after descending via a rope so fastened, there is no way to untie it from beneath and remove it
  • a rope left in place can be used by someone else, including enemies/pursuers

In my longhand first draft manuscript, there is much evidence of agonizing about ropes. First a rope ladder just happens to be lying around. Hurray! Ah, but there’s a note in the manuscript that says “NO ROPE LADDER. TOO EASY.” Replace rope ladder with a basic rope. First it needs to be there, then it has to leave the scene. Where does it go? (Remember: PLOT MUST BE LOGICAL.) A few paragraphs later, the rope is back (“Yay!” say the characters), but I see another added note: “NO ROPE YET.” Fine. The rope keeps sneaking in, and the Editorial Voice keeps sticking in directions to remove it, so as not to give the characters a break.

Meanwhile, the person pounding the keyboard (that would be me) is having fits.

I have to say, this is one of the most tedious aspects of writing–working out practical details in a way that’s realistic but not too easy for the characters. For one thing, tiresome details are a pain. For another, my natural tendency is to figure out the simplest, easiest, and most efficient way for the characters to get something done, not the most torturous, error-prone, and frustrating way. But readers of fiction prefer the latter, so the writer first has to imagine the right way to do something, and then a number of wrong ways. And the plot must be logical.

Just for the record, I have never climbed up or down a rope, but I have certainly become tangled up in a fictional one.

I have now finished keying in that longhand ms. I’ve sorted the rope. Now the rewrite begins!

Featured image from Pexels.

Handwritten first draft manuscript of She Who Returns

Work in Progress Report

Maybe a better title would be “Regress Report.”

Remember the pile of scribbled-upon paper I displayed in a post at the end of June? That was the first draft of my current work in progress. Two hundred pages, about 100,000 words, I hoped.

I expected to take a couple of months to type it up (why does that sound old-fashioned?) The story was complete, more or less, so I was finished with the hard work of rendering imaginings into prose. All I had to do was pound the computer keyboard until I had a big, fat Word document I could massage into perfection.

Remember the motto I applied to the project? “PLOT MUST BE LOGICAL.” It lived up to that until the 60% point, when I reached a place I remembered as potentially problematic. It turned out to be actually problematic. In fact, I had added a note in the manuscript that said “Major Bump in the Road. Fix!” At the time (back in April), I was intent on powering through to “The End.” Any problems could be fixed in the rewrite.

Fixing this problem meant scrapping and rewriting ten pages, or about 5,000 words. The Imaginer had to be recalled from a state of torpor and persuaded to come up with some logical plot elements that would fit nicely into the chasm gap created by removing those ten pages. The new material couldn’t interfere with other plot elements that absolutely had to remain as they were.

As part of the rethink that preceded the rewrite, the Imaginer came up with a splendid new idea that fixed not only the previously identified bump in the road, but did away with some other logic-impairing aspects of the original.

The rewrite took about two weeks, in part because the continued drought in this part of the world made it necessary to spend an hour or so a day racing around with watering cans, dragging hoses, positioning sprinklers, etc. Then there were the usual garden tasks of deadheading, staking and tying, fretting about plants not doing well, and standing around admiring those that were.

Now, at the end of August, instead of a complete second draft, I still have 50 pages (25%) of the original manuscript to key in (which sounds less antediluvian than “type up”). I know it won’t be a simple matter of transcribing the original, because I have to make adjustments as a result of the rewrite, with the splendid new idea. And there are a couple of things the characters are going to have to discuss, to make sure that certain elements make an appearance.

On the plus side, I don’t have word count anxiety. At 75%, the document has about 77,000 words. There will be lots of surplus to trim, once I get to that part of the process. Short, skimpy early drafts make me nervous–will there be anything left after deleting all the crap?

I still hope to have a publish-worthy novel by spring 2022.

manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progress

The Work Progresses

You would think by now it would be easy. After all, I’ve written and published five novels and a bunch of short stories. I have idea notes, planning notes, things-to-fix-in-the-rewrite notes, and problem-solving notes.

But writing the first draft is still hard. In fact, some days it’s a real struggle. And yet, it lurches forward.

The work in progress is a sequel, which complicates things. It means I have to know everything each character knows about all kinds of things. Who knows what? Who lied to whom? It’s amazing how many details I’ve forgotten from the previous book, even though I wrote it.

Some characters from the first book have changed quite a bit. I need to account for those changes–plausibly, and in a way that contributes to the plot.

It will be bad news if something I think is crucial for the sequel doesn’t line up with, or even contradicts, something important in the first book. (A good argument for writing both books before publishing the first one.)

Then there’s First Draft Daily Anxiety Syndrome. I’ve managed to keep up with the page a day resolution I made back in December, but knowing I have to put in the required time every day to crank out the next page or two can be a cloud on my horizon as I emerge gummy-eyed from sleep.

Strange thing, though: sitting down and picking up the pen has an almost magical effect. With only the vaguest idea of what is going to happen next, I start to write, and a scene unfolds, complete with details and nuances. (Whether it will stand the test of the rewrite is another issue.)

I’m 85% through the first draft and on schedule to finish it by the end of June. The trouble is, now that daylight arrives early and lingers late, the garden exercises its own allure. I may have to shift my writing sessions from first thing in the morning to what I call Glare Time, the hours between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the light is harsh and bright and the garden is devoid of magic.

Never mind–at least now I can finally see the day I’ll get this one off the ground!

hot air balloon on ground rainbow colours
Image from Pixabay

Fellow writers, I’m sure many of you have WIPs under way. What works for you? What gives you fits? Share your WIP woes and wins.

Writing notebook and notes

Notes and the Work in Progress

The novels I write begin with notes. Well actually they begin with ideas, visions of characters, scraps of plot, and imagined scenes. All these early elements are recorded in a notebook, along with random thoughts that might be relevant. Some notes are written on scraps of paper that happen to be handy when an idea strikes. With luck, I manage to copy them into the Official Notebook, or at least keep track of them. This stage lasts for months, or even years.

Eventually, I start writing the first draft. On paper, with a pen. Right now, I’m still writing a page a day, sometimes more if I’m lucky. As the plot has developed, in an amoeba-like way, I’ve resorted to another set of notes that are sort of like, but not quite, an outline. Character sketches and motivations, rough timelines, problems to be resolved, things I know that the characters do not, and yes, actual outlines of the next section to be written. These notes are on a separate group of 8 1/2 x 11 (A4) sheets of paper.

Novel writing notes

Then there are the in-manuscript notes. Things like [CHECK THIS!] or [EXPAND IN REWRITE], or alerts to areas of weakness [CRAP ALARM GOING OFF!!!] or [WOULD SHE REALLY THINK THIS???]. And often, when I finish a writing session, I scribble a tiny outline for the next day at the very bottom of the page.

So I guess this proves I’m not really the pantser I thought I was. More like a “plantser,” I guess.

Some things to keep in mind about notes.

  • They’re useless unless read over as the work progresses. There’s nothing like rediscovering a good idea after publishing
  • Notes on scraps of paper should be transcribed into a notebook. The lost idea is always the best one
  • There should be only one notebook per novel, but a single notebook may be used for more than one novel
  • Dating the notes is helpful for cross-referencing (e.g., “See list of names in notebook, Nov. 21/20”)
  • Manuscript pages and pages of notes should always be numbered, and indicate the title of the work (even if provisional) at the top

A novel with multiple characters is a complex creation. Notes are helpful at every stage, from concept and basic plot to rewrites. Also, in working out plot problems and bringing characters to life.

But even more, some notes represent a debate between the Imaginer and the Editor. The Imaginer is the part of my brain that’s laying down the text of the first draft. The Editor’s role comes later, in rewrites and editing. But of course, the Editor is around all the time. Every now and then it plants a flag in spots where it anticipates extra attention will be needed. That’s where those “crap alarm” notes come from. And even some quite rude remarks.

Manuscript with inserted notes

Fellow writers, do you make use of notes to help you write? Do you have any note-related tips to share?

What About the Cat? Or, Insert Quirk Here

We writers give our characters quirks and habits to make them relatable and different from one another. Fingernail chewing, smoking, polishing glasses, using certain expressions. The trouble is, it’s easy to forget about them while creating the plot.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Once the reader has absorbed that this one mangles paper clips and that one wears polka-dots, are further mentions of those quirks really necessary?

I think they are. Real people keep doing things like that, and we want our characters to be real. And it’s just sloppy writing to forget details. Besides, some readers are incredibly fussy. I remember reading a library book in which a certain character had a cat. The cat didn’t play an important role in the plot, but it was mentioned several times. Toward the end of the book, there was a fire in that character’s house and quite a lot of action around putting it out, making sure no one was injured, etc. But the cat was not mentioned. I have to admit, I may never have realized that, had not a previous reader made a marginal note, “What about the cat? Stupid author!” Readers notice details, even trivial ones.

So another editing pass may be in order. Along with tracking down typos and patching plot holes, add a quirks checklist. Insert characters’ habits, tics, pet phrases, and oddities at intervals throughout the text. And make sure not to mix them up.

But don’t overdo it. Sprinkle, don’t shovel. Aim for a happy medium between “Hey, what happened to the polka-dot bowties?” and “Geez, if I see another mention of paperclip abuse, I’ll throw this book at the wall.”

Fellow writers, do you give your characters memorable quirks? Have you ever forgotten about them in the course of perfecting the plot, or attached a quirk to the wrong character? Or as a reader, been annoyed at an author who did that?

SWCF manuscript pages

A Page a Day

Once again, I have a work in progress. It took me a while to assemble the story’s elements, but on December 11th, 2020, I started writing.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve realized I can’t depend on obsession to fuel my writing projects, which is what happened in 2000 and 2001 when I wrote The Friendship of Mortals. (Writing project? No, that first novel was a bout of delightful madness!) For me now the normal state of writing a novel is a long and weary slog.

First drafting is a draining experience. Except when a scene fully blooms in my imagination and simply must be written, bridging the gap between imaginings and words is hard work.

A neglected work in progress is an albatross, a ghost, a sinister shape seen out of the corner of one’s eye, a bad smell lurking in the corner. A neglected work in progress is a burden. The choice is to keep slogging or lay it down and give up.

Giving up is out of the question.

So I made a deal with myself–write one page a day. One page, that’s all. If I hit a point where the work takes off and I write more than a page–great! But one page is enough.

A page of my handwriting is between 400 and 500 words. I’m aiming for a 100K-word first draft, eventually to be reduced to between 85 and 90K. A page a day until the end of June should get me most of the way there.

I’m not saying this is the best way to write a novel. I haven’t tried this technique before, but it seems to be working for me right now. Most days I can find the time and energy to write one page. Often, the session extends to a second or third page. The work is coming to life and asking to be written. After 12 weeks, I’m at 40K words, approaching the halfway point of the first draft.

Fellow writers, do you speed through your first drafts or squeeze them out word by word? Do you have any tricks to make yourself keep writing?

Cursed, Dumb, or Unlucky? Making Trouble for Your Characters

“Torture your characters” is advice I’ve seen so often I think I should add it to my ever-increasing list of Advice to Question. Maybe I’m mellowing in my old age, but this one does have some merit.

For one thing, if the story’s goal is achieved or the problem solved too quickly, the novel or story ends up being too short and possibly boring. Boring the reader is a cardinal sin of writing. So it’s pretty much a given that the writer must create an obstacle course their characters must negotiate to achieve whatever it is they want or need.

Two problems I’ve experienced with doing this:

  • In real life, I make efforts to avoid problems when I’m planning a DIY project, a road trip, or cooking a dish I haven’t tried before. So it goes against the grain to create problems for my main characters, with whom I tend to identify because I often write in first person.
  • I don’t like making my characters look dumb. In She Who Comes Forth, for example, France Leighton does things that may be described as unwise. One reviewer expressed concern about this; another just called her stupid. On the other hand, she is not a “Mary Sue.”

Like any other plot device, the obstacles, difficulties, or perils we create for our characters have to serve the plot. The bumps along the road must be consistent with the plot and advance it, rather than be obviously stuck in to follow the “torture your characters” rule. A deus ex machina is a deus ex machina, even if the god intervenes to mess things up rather than fix them.

If a story involves life-threatening situations, escape and flight, or the schemes of an evil antagonist, perilous situations are essential parts of the plot. But what if your story is about ordinary life? Well, there’s always the difficult boss, the unexpected guest, the leaky roof, or the machinations of bureaucrats.

In addition to fitting the plot, the obstacles have to be appropriate for the character and situation. A flat tire is a mere annoyance if time isn’t of the essence. Climbing a high ladder and crawling onto a steep roof packs more punch if the character who has to do it is terrified of heights. The best obstacles are the ones with no good or safe choice. They may include all kinds of hard choices, not only physical dangers.

Putting characters in trouble can benefit the plot in ways other than creating tension. Negotiating with the boss, accommodating (or ejecting) the unexpected guests, or figuring out how to deal with bureaucracy would be opportunities to

  • show characters’ flaws and fears
  • show how they cope with adversity
  • show how they change or grow over the course of the story by developing skills or changing attitudes.

Does anyone else have a problem with making their characters struggle? Does anyone love doing it? Share your torture tips!

Image from Pexels