This is a summary article I did for the Novelists Inc Newsletter after last Years conference. I’m reprinting it here because I was asked to do a post about Conflict, and this is better than me trying to explain it myself.
In order to write create great characters and write compelling stories, we need to understand the psychology of our characters. It’s easy to think Goal, Motivation, Conflict, but in reality we know that creating memorable characters is not so easy. With that in mind I stepped into the conference room at the Tradewinds Island Grand and prepared for Dr. D.P. Lyles workshop The Psychology of Character Motivation-Understanding the Whys of Character Thought, Action and Dialogue.
Admittedly, I was worried that taking a workshop from a Dr. on the psychology of character motivation might be a bit too, oh I don’t know… school-ish for me. You know what I mean? I’ve never been one to read textbooks and I don’t have much love for big ten-dollar words. I like it when things are explained to me in a simple straightforward way. Dr. Lyle did even better than that – he used examples that made things crystal clear.
I’m going to jump right in with the recap here and start with his slide show. It looked a little like this….
Tough Guy ——————————————————– Whiner
Team Guy ——————————————————– Rebel
Artist ——————————————————– Dreamer
Smarty ——————————————————– Dummy
Blooming Rose ——————————————————– Wallflower
Grinder ——————————————————– Lazy Dog
Goody ——————————————————– Baddy
Believer ——————————————————– Doubter
For the workshop he used the character and story line of Silence of the Lambs for an example.
First we went over each line asking which side of the board Hannibal was on at the start of the book. Then again at the end of the book. Then we did Clarice, start and end of the book. Sometimes the character fell in the middle, but often it was closer to one side than the other.
See an example of the Clarice chart below.
Tough Guy —————————————-S————— Whiner
Team Guy –S—————————————————– Rebel
Artist ———————————————–S——– Dreamer
Smarty —————————————————S—- Dummy
Blooming Rose —————————————————-S— Wallflower
Grinder ———————————————S———- Lazy Dog
Goody —S—————————————————- Baddy
Believer –S—————————————————– Doubter
Now keep in mind I can’t remember exactly where Dr. Lyle put them, so these are my remembered interpretation.
Basically, at the start of SOTL Clarice was a rookie FBI agent who followed all the rules, did her job, and didn’t think much for herself or stand out from the crowd in any real way. But as the story changed, so did she. She learned, and grew and changed until at the end of the story she ignored procedure, and her own safety by going into the basement after Buffalo Bill (bad guy serial killer) to rescue the girl. At the end, her chart was drastically different than it was at the beginning. Everything changed. Clarice, and her belief system, were changed forever by the choices she’d made during the story.
Hannibal, however, changed very little throughout the story. The one thing that did change was essential though. That change was that at the beginning of the story Hannibal was simply the bad guy. Sure the way he killed was disgusting, and what he did (eating the victims) was gross, and we all knew he was evil, but that was pretty much the same at the end of the story. The change in him was brought on by Clarice. The change was that he grew to admire and care about her, and that added dimension not only made him human, it made him even more terrifying.
What we need to learn from these examples is that characters are people. People we create who grow and change as the story moves forward. And change is essential. Our characters come from our imagination, we give them names, jobs, desires and foibles. They have good traits and bad, they are not flat, or one dimensional – at least we don’t want them to be! We want them to be three-dimensional. In order to accomplish that they have to grow and change, the same way we do.
“Let them live. Let them breathe,” Dr.Lyle says when talking about character. “Then pressure them into changing.”
Why should we pressure them into change? Because people don’t change unless they have to. Pressure makes things move and people change.
Not to mention pressure creates tension, and tension makes for great storytelling. So, how do we create this pressure?
Dr. Lyle’s answer is “No win creates pressure.”
This is where we get into what the conflict zone is. Dr. Lyle says that when in the zone “characters have to chose A or B, and that choice will change them forever.” We as the authors build tension and pressure by showing what the character wins and what they lose with choice A. Then show the same with choice B. and by doing that we show that there is a win for the character in both options, and a loss for the character in both options as well. This is what makes the choice so difficult, and builds the pressure. That pressure can be stretched over months, or flash in seconds.
Again, Dr. Lyle gives us an example of it broken down into something simple so we can grasp the concept, and adapt it to our own stories.
His example is that of a woman with three children, at home, and the house gets on fire. She manages to get two of her three children out of the house before it becomes clear that she might not succeed if she goes in after the third.
This becomes the conflict zone with choice A or B.
Go in after the third child
WIN if she saves the child
LOSE if they both die and the 2 outside are orphaned.
Stay with the 2 outside.
WIN, she still has 2 children, and they have a mother.
LOSE: she loses the third child.
Both choices have a win and a lose side to it. So which does she chose?
“We are all trapped by who we are,” says Dr.Lyle. Meaning this is the type of pressure and conflict that changes your character. No matter what choice she makes, she will never be the same person she was. These are the types of conflicts we need to think about. We need to understand who our characters at the core, not just on the surface, in order to put them under pressure and create the changes in them that come with great characters and major storytelling. Once you’ve put your character into the conflict zone, and you’ve made it clear what the win/lose options of both choices are, you need to decide what choice you can you use best in your story.
There was also a bit of talk about how different it is when you’re writing a series. Series characters don’t need to, and really shouldn’t change so massively in each book. If you’re writing as series you can’t have them change so drastically in each story because then you risk losing your readers. Readers follow a series because they like the character. They want to see the character challenged physically and intellectually, they want to see his belief system challenged, but they love the characters the way they are, and don’t really want to see them change fundamentally in each story.
The final message of the workshop is that often we get too caught up in the writing. We need to take a step back, breath, and think. List all the options your character has, then make the right choice for the story-which is not always the right choice for the characters well being. Sometimes people do bad things for good reasons, and vice versa, and we need to think of our characters as people or there’s a chance they might become flat and one-dimensional.
This workshop was the second of the day for Dr. Lyle, and when it was over I was lucky enough to get a few minutes alone with him and my video camera for an on the spot interview. Take a peek.
We’ve been spending the last month looking at writing your first novel. Last week, we talked about getting ready for revision — deciding if you need to take an initial pass before your readers and deciding just who you want to read your book. You’ve sent your book over to them with a deadline as to when you need comments back.
At this point, hopefully, you have several manuscripts in your inbox. You’ve gotten some rest. You’ve cleared your head with some short stories. And now, it’s time to read your own book.
Once again, you have some choices. You can read it straight up without everyone else’s comments, making your own changes (using track changes ideally unless working with a paper copy and a red pen works better for you.) It really comes down to how many passes you need to make the story the best it can be…without taking so many passes at revision that you’re never actually done. With my first novel, I did a bit of both. One of my readers gave me back a paper copy manuscript with handwritten notes and the others gave me MS Word .docs marked up with the track changes feature.
I decided first to read the paper document that was already marked, making notes and changes as I went and reviewing the recommended changes my reader had written on the manuscript. Then, after I’d gone through with just his input and marked my own changes, I merged the .docs from my other readers into one document and went through that file with the paper copy in front of me, page by page.
I think the hardest thing with revision when you’re new is knowing which suggestions to accept and which to reject. I was fortunate — I had written a lot of short stories and practiced revision with a team of readers. I came to my first novel having some understanding of what did and didn’t work for me. But my first time out with the suggested revisions of others…well, it wasn’t pretty.
I had gone to a writing critique group in Seattle, near where I was living at the time. I brought a story called “Blakely in His Heart” and came back the following week with no small amount of trepidation to hear the comments of the fifteen or twenty people in the group. The critiques were wildly different and when I went home, I had a stack of marked up manuscripts that I bravely sat down to go through.
And then, I proceeded to make every recommended change.
I met this big fella from Kentucky at the group. He and his wife had just had a baby and I knew he was busy but we’d also really clicked at the group. He’d also had really good comments about my story and when I asked if he’d take another look at it, he agreed. So after I completely turned my story inside out by Frankensteining everyone’s Very Divergent comments together, I sent it over. It’s the first time I got the “We Need To Talk” call from John Pitts. It wasn’t the last…but it was the last time I took everyone’s advice at once.
I learned an important lesson there. Ultimately, it’s YOUR story as the writer. And the opinions of others — whether good or bad for the story — are just that: Their opinions.
Still, there’s a balance to find. My guidelines are pretty simple.
First, know your reader’s strengths and weaknesses. If Reader A is great at plot and not so great at character, I may lean more on their advice around plot than I do character and pay close attention to what Reader B has to say about my characters if they’re stronger there.
Second, if three out of five of your beta readers think that your novel’s climax lacks oomph, they are probably right. I keep an eye out for when more than one reader identifies the same problem and, if they’ve suggested fixes, I consider them. But ultimately, I keep in mind that different writers work differently and it’s my story to figure out.
I’ve learned in my case that I can work under very different circumstances when it comes to revision. For drafting, I need my music and a sense of detachment from my surroundings or the solitude of the Den of Ken. For revision (or drafting non-fiction) I can work in a room with other people, with other things going on. (Even as I write this, my toddler twins are fussing and fighting and playing with one another.) So find out what your own process requires. You may need utter quiet and complete detachment from the universe, but find out and then give yourself what you need to get through the process.
Do you see my recurring themes? Learn your process and then do your process. Don’t give yourself time to fall into the Second Guessing Pond. Climbing out, once you’re in, takes a long time. And every year you spend writing and revising your first novel is a year you’re not spending to continue that education on novels two, three, four, five, six. This is a numbers game as much as anything else is — under most circumstances, you have to write, revise and submit a lot of words in order to perfect your writing, revision and submission processes to the point of being publishable.
Eschew multiple passes of revision. Set a limit and stick to it. Because here’s another secret: You’re going to be a better writer next year than you were last year if you grow as a person and practice as a writer. You can either spend all that growth trying to fix the novel you wrote three years or five years ago…or you can roll all of it up into a new project. I’m nearly always going to be in favor of that second option because I think you’re nearly always going to get a better return on your investment.
I think that point’s been hammered home now. Heh.
So, you’ve taken your feedback and everyone else’s, you’ve done at least one really good, solid pass through your manuscript. What next?
Well, we’ll talk about that next week when I wrap up this series. For now, this is your ole pal Trailer Boy signing off.
Since it’s conference week for Romance Writes of America, I figured I’d make an effort to give more of “writing craft” post than normal. Still, I’m a big believer in people doing what works for them, and in not over-analyzing my own ways, so don’t expect too much no matter what I titled the post.
One of the most common questions I get asked by new writers is how to write hot sex. I’ve written too many sex scenes to count. Sex in private, sex in public, menage, male/male, kink, masturbation… and in my mind the one thing they all have in common is emotion.
I can’t stress this enough. Emotion is what makes a sex scene hot. Now, the next really important thing I want everyone to pay attention to is that emotion does not always mean Love or romance. Plenty of times lust comes first, and sometimes before lust comes anger. Anger can feed lust. Sometimes there’s no anger, just the rowdy, raunchy joy of naked skin against naked skin or doing something taboo. It’s not always love and romance.
Next big thing is word use. I’m so not a fan of flowery purple prose, but I’m also not a fan of the overuse of explicit crude language. Don’t get me wrong I think the well placed use of words like c*nt or c*ck can be magical, but the key phrase there is “well placed”.
Variety of description is another big part of hot sex scenes, and that means having a plethora of words to chose from. Some words just scream sexy and erotic. Words you might not normally think of to use in a sex scene…like appetite, crave, demand, greed, hunger, longing, ravenous, relish, thirst, urge, voracious, yearning.
Alone, those words might not make you think sex, but simply because we’re talking about sex, the words feel different when you read them here and now. Get the idea?
Writing hot is about vivid description of the emotions and sensations the characters are experiencing so that the readers can feel the heat come off the pages.
Instead of saying “pleasure washed over her” describe what that pleasure feels like. “liquid heat flowed through her veins” or “calloused fingertips skimmed over my too sensitive skin and my muscles tightened in anticipation of a heavier touch.”
Craft is important. Technical writing skill is always a good thing, but if you want to write hot sex scenes, you have to remember the magic that comes from using words to elicit emotion.
Erotica is all about emotion-the emotions the characters experience within the story, and the emotion the readers experience when reading it.
Last week in Part 1, I talked specifically about the Kitty books, and how they evolved from the first book that I pessimistically assumed would be the only one, to the nine-volume series, with several more on deck, that it is today. (The ninth book, Kitty’s Big Trouble, is out tomorrow!)
This week, I’m talking about general lessons I’ve learned over the course of writing the series. Keep in mind, I’m specifically addressing ongoing, open-ended series here, which is different than a series that tells a story over multiple volumes.
I think the most important thing to remember about writing an ongoing series: the guidelines for how to write a good book don’t change. Each novel needs to be a novel, with a plot, characters who grow and change, interesting writing, and a cohesive narrative. You don’t get a free pass just because you’ve written about these characters eight or ten previous times. You can’t assume your readers will be sympathetic and let you get away with sloppy writing, plotting, characterization, etc., just because they love you and your characters. Some of them might. But the chances are too good that this eighth or tenth book will be someone’s first introduction to your world — to your writing, period. What then? Do what we all should be striving to do, all the time: write a good book.
I consistently get two questions about writing series, and both of those I think are critical issues to consider: how to make sure each book has a stand-alone story, and how to deliver backstory. As I mentioned, I’m working on the 11th Kitty novel. How do I bring new readers up to speed, or remind old readers of what came before? (Since not everyone can do what the really obsessive fans do, which is reread every book when the new one comes out.) And how do I make each book interesting in its own right?
First Issue: Making sure each book stands alone.
This one’s very important to me, because I’m sensitive to the plight of the person who habitually picks up a series in the middle. Because I’m one of them. Plus, I really want readers to feel like each book is a satisfying experience. How to do this: I pull in stories from outside the characters or ongoing storylines. I’m always, always looking for new ideas to bring in. I can’t keep going over the same internal and relationship plots over and over again. It’s one of the things that drives me crazy with other series, and I try not to do things that drive me crazy. Love triangles, endless on-again off-again relationships — I get bored. I get to a point where I just want the characters to get over themselves. This doesn’t mean neglecting the characters’ personal stories and arcs entirely. I have to stay true to the characters, no matter what happens. But I can explore the personal stories through a variety of external conflicts.
You might have noticed, this is how TV drama and thrillers do it. American TV series episodes often have an A plot and a B plot. The A plot is the Enterprise meeting an all-powerful alien who Picard has to convince that humanity is worth saving, the B plot is Data learning how to paint. On Castle, the A plot is the murder mystery, the B plot is Alexis’ secret admirer at school. Sometimes the plots relate to each other, or the solution to one offers the solution to the other. But having two tracks gives me a chance to tell different stories in the same book. The relationships are always going to be there. But I can better illustrate the relationships by having the characters respond to outside stories and conflicts, rather than focusing on them and inventing false-sounding conflicts.
I also follow The X-Files model to an extent: some episodes are mythology episodes, some are monster of the week. House of Horrors and Goes to War are essentially monster-of-the-week episodes — self contained stories that don’t really advance the over-arcing series plot, but were still fun, interesting, and advanced Kitty’s personal story. Big Trouble and Steals the Show are more mythology episodes — I give away a lot of information about the big baddy and focus more on the series arc. (I think The X-Files was brilliant for its first four seasons. Definitely a model to follow on how to write a series. But it lost its way about halfway through — it lost track of its own mythology, its own endpoint. I stopped believing there was an ongoing story. This is what I’m trying to avoid.)
Second Issue: Backstory
In May I went to a writers workshop/retreat, and we held an informal lunchtime symposium on writing series (a good portion of the writing excerpts brought in for critique were chapters of second and third novels in series). I want to share something participating author Paul Witcover said during this discussion: Even first novels, or stand alone novels, have a backstory. It’s just that we don’t worry about including it all.
I think this is incredibly important to remember: When you’re writing subsequent books in a series, you don’t have to tell a new reader everything that came before. You only need to tell them what they need to know to understand what’s happening right now, and you can do it in a sentence or two. Don’t explain everything that happened in every previous book. Don’t spend paragraphs explaining anything. Remember — the same guidelines for writing a book, any book, apply here. Keep the story moving, don’t get hung up on irrelevant details. You may think the reader needs to know every detail of the back-and-forth in the epic love triangle. But really, the reader doesn’t. They’ll be able to figure it out.
Example: Cormac is one of the most important secondary characters in my own series, and he and Kitty have a huge, complicated backstory. But I try to limit his introduction in each book to a couple of sentences. Here’s his introduction in Kitty Takes a Holiday, the third book:
A job. With Cormac, that meant something nasty. He hunted werewolves — only ones who caused trouble, he’d assured me — and bagged a few vampires on the side. Just because he could.
Here’s his intro in Kitty Goes to War, the eighth book, after a lot more history has happened:
Cormac had saved our lives and ended up in prison for it. He’d had to put his life on hold; we hadn’t. Cormac and I had had a thing, once upon a time. Then he’d brought Ben, his cousin and victim of a recent werewolf attack, to me. I’d taken care of him, Cormac went to jail, and Ben and I got married.
My goal with these short bits of backstory is to get as much information into as short a space as possible. This reminds long-time readers what’s happened. But new readers get only the basics: Cormac has spent time in prison, he and Kitty have unresolved issues, these three characters have a complicated history. That gives a new reader a basis for understanding what happens moving forward. They don’t need a complete summary, just the foundation. They’ll be able to see the details in how the characters behave with each other. There it is again, show don’t tell.
A corollary to this: make sure you’re starting the book in the right place. I’ve read a couple of first-in-series urban fantasy novels recently that started late. The first chapter showed me what the heroine’s life looked like after her traumatic introduction to the supernatural, and related that traumatic introduction in a paragraph or two long infodump. This made me furious — that traumatic introduction should have been the first chapter, told in visceral terrifying immediate detail. The mundane reality after should have been the second chapter.
Third Issue: Continuity
Keep a series bible. I didn’t, because as I said I didn’t think this was going to be a series. Since then, I’ve been slowly building one up. I have files for the in-world chronology of the series so I can keep track of what happened when, I have a file listing everyone in Kitty’s pack, I have files to keep track of descriptions of people. It’s the little things like that I have trouble remembering. Continuity’s a bitch.
I know that “write a good book” is a terrible piece of advice. Of course we all want to write good books, that’s the point, isn’t it? But if there’s one thing writing ten books in a series has taught me, it’s that this is the guiding principle I go back to time and again: what makes a good book? How can I make this book that I’m working on right now a good book? Do that, and the series will take care of itself.
I suspect I”m somewhere between Salt Lake City and Boise as you read this on my Impromptu Little Sister Road-trip Book Tour. Hopefully, those of you in the area have come out to meet me.
Over the last several weeks we’ve been talking about writing that first novel. I’ve broken the process up into the stages that make sense based on what I learned when I wrote my own first novel and the ones I’ve written since. And again, what works for me may not work for you. I think the most important thing about this (apart from pushing yourself to finish that novel and put it out to market) is that you try different things and figure out what works for you.
So last week, we wrapped up that post-draft rest break, talked a bit about getting some Story into you and being ready for that bit of post-drafting depression that many of us encounter. And you finished cleansing your writing palate with a short story.
I closed by saying you had some decisions to make. And you do.
It’s time to revise your novel and as with everything in the process, you have to figure out your process for revising a novel. You can make some of these decisions in pre-draft if you’re the sort who really likes to know your path before you start walking it. I often do that.
So you’ve just spent 50 to 100 days on this book. All along the way, you’ve been telling yourself “It doesn’t have to be good; it just has to be done.” And you’ve been telling your internal editor “You’ll get your chance later” in an effort to stay on task with the drafting.
Well, it’s nearly time.
Your first decision is at hand. Do you want to take a pass at revision yourself before it goes out to your readers? A lot of writers do, especially if their first drafts are pretty rough. And by rough, I mean large bits of the story out of order or looking more like stream-of-conciousness free-written material.
Everyone’s draft quality is different. Finding the balance between giving those readers a readable draft and using your time as efficiently as possible is sometimes tricky but again: we learn by trying.
In my case, I have really solid first drafts. And I have a life that’s stacked utterly full between my toddling twin daughters, my relationship with Jen, my dayjob and all of the other things that go along with being a writer. So I actually do something that makes some writers’ heads spin and fall off. I (are you hanging on?) send out my book to beta readers chapter by chapter as I draft it. Some of them read as I write it, others store up chapters and read in chunks. The cheerleading helps me stay on course and we have a rule: Big fixes get identified if they impact where the stories going, but everything else waits until the draft is done. Still, that wouldn’t work for anyone. Most of my writing pals cringe at this approach.
So that’s your first decision. If you do take a pass at it, I recommend trying to teach yourself (if you don’t know already) how to revise using Microsoft’s track changes feature (or whatever equivalent tool your word processing program offers). And I recommend that you ask your readers to do the same. It will make your life much easier. Of course, if they can’t or won’t, you do what you need to do in order to get their feedback.
If you’re making that first pass without anyone else’s comments try to move at a quick pace. Figure out how many words you can revise in an hour (on average). I think I revise about 5,ooo words per hour (about one of my chapters) but it varies based on the quality of the draft. And in my case, I do one pass. I get all of my readers’ input along with my own thoughts and go through the document once.
The goal (as always) is to push through quickly and yet efficiently, then turn the book over to other eyes. In my case, I read through Lamentation with a paper copy of the manuscript. Some of my readers used track changes, others used manuscript. I got good feedback. The price I paid was a bit slower process because I was moving between paper and electronic documents.
And you have another pretty large decision (also, again, one that you can make in the pre-drafting stage). Who is going to read it for you?
Well, my first and biggest suggestion is this: Do not pay someone to read it and revise it. There are people out there who will gladly take your money. But it’s far better (IMHO) to learn how to do this yourself. And to gain the experience of helping someone else with their book in exchange for their help on yours.
So find another writer or two to read your book. But keep in mind, when you do, that writers often read differently than people who do not write. For instance, if you were a dancer and you went to the ballet, your enjoyment of the show would not be the same as someone who simply loved dance but didn’t dance themselves. When you do it yourself, you bring a more critical eye to the performance because you understand everything that is happening up on stage. And if you’re like a lot of people, you know just how you would do it differently.
This can be tricky.
So I recommend having a few writers on your reading team. But I also recommend having a few people who just read the sort of books that you write. I have an amazing team of first readers and in that crew, I have one writer who’s eye I trust completely, a reader who devours two or three genre books in a good week and then my editor (who decides if the story is ready for prime time and pushes the buttons that send checks) and my agent (who’s job is to help me sell said book if it’s not under contract already but she also brings a keen eye for story to the table and her comments are always useful.)
Of course, in those early days just after finishing Lamentation, I didn’t have an editor or agent. But I was well-served by my other readers.
The writers who read your book will give you good perspective as writers. The readers will approach it as a story that they’re reading. Both bits of input are important so try to put together a balanced team. And when looking for writers to read your book, try to find writers who write in your genre who are ahead of you on the curve. You can often meet writers either through local workshop groups or by hanging out at the writing panels at your local SF/F conventions or by talking to the SF/F folks at your local bookstore. You also may have local writing groups that hold events of some kind — those might be great places for making friends who eventually become part of your reading team.
Also, try to find experts to help with areas that fall outside of your own experience. If your protagonist is a cop, you really should consider finding a cop to read your book with an eye toward his or her line of work. Most people will gladly help you out and will be tickled by the notion of their name in the acknowledgements.
Once you’ve identified your team, go asking for their help. When you ask, make sure you are giving them an out and that they know it’s okay to pass. People are busy and reading and commenting on an entire novel is a tremendous labor of love. And not everyone likes the kind of novel you wrote so be sensitive to that. Give them a timeframe — a month is probably long enough — with a date in mind for when you’re going to take everyone’s comments and start revising.
Ask them if they can make that deadline and then tell them you’ll check in at the two week and one week mark to see how they’re doing. And be prepared to extend the deadline but…set a limit with yourself as to how long you’ll wait. And then, when it’s time, take what you have and move on. Try as much as possible to not look back. If someone gets their comments to you after you’ve finished revising the book, set them aside if you can. If you open the file and look at the comments, you run the risk of falling into the second guessing game and taking another pass at revisions.
Again, I know people who’ve been revising the same book for years and years and years. If they go on to win the Pulitzer prize for it that’s all well and good. But they may have a short bibliography at the end of their career. Which is fine, certainly, if that’s what they want. But a lot of us get sidetracked out of our own lack of confidence.
I digress a bit.
Send your manuscript out to the readers and then, if you already took a pass before sending it along, go write more short stories. Or go outline your second novel. If you didn’t take a pass at it, sit down with your manuscript and read it. Make notes as you go and if you make changes, make them with track changes so you can see them in the document. That will become important later when you merge the documents your readers send back.
I’ll talk more about revision in Part 5 next week. Until then, Trailer Boy signing out.
Putting my notes for this post together, I decided I’d better break it up into two parts. The first will be about the evolution of the Kitty series specifically: how I set it up, what I was thinking, how it turned into the ongoing series it is today, what my process is for continuing. The second post will be more general: what I’ve learned about writing a series, what I think is important in building an ongoing series.
I’ve mentioned before, Kitty and The Midnight Hour was the fourth book I tried to sell, and I didn’t have an indication it would generate any more interest than the three books I tried to sell before that. So I wrote it to be complete on its own, just for my own satisfaction if nothing else. That said, I’d already written four short stories featuring the character and had an outline for the second novel ready to go. But while I was shopping it around, I went to work on a completely different novel that turned into Discord’s Apple.
Well, Kitty and The Midnight Hour sold, and so did its sequel. The first book was successful enough my agent and I anticipated getting an offer for two more books, and we did. I was still working on the assumption that I couldn’t count on writing any more books, and I needed to not get too ambitious. I had the ideas for the next two books nailed down. More than that, though, they formed a series arc — the four books together would tell a satisfying story of Kitty learning, growing, leaving her pack, then coming home a stronger, more confident person ready to take charge. The end of Kitty and The Silver Bullet (Kitty #4) doesn’t leave any serious loose threads hanging. Except I had a few more ideas. . .
Then Kitty and The Silver Bullet hit the New York Times list, and I knew that I’d be writing more books in the series. By this time I’d quit my day job and Kitty was paying my bills. Makes me sound really mercenary, doesn’t it?
But I kept getting more ideas, and I don’t think I would have been able to keep up with the series if I hadn’t. This was also the point when I realized I could conceivably keep writing Kitty books as long as I wanted to, and what was I going to do about it? I really started thinking hard about what makes a good ongoing series, and what makes series fail. I had examples of both, in books and TV, and so I made a list of what a good series needs. I wrote about what I learned in an earlier post.
It’s the last point on that list — creating an overall series arc and ongoing goal for my main character — that I suddenly had to confront. For Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, the series arc was him finding his place in his conservative patriarchal society — would he ever find respect among his own people? Would he find someone he could marry and start a family with? For most of the series, those questions are always on his mind and drive many of his decisions.
I came up with a couple of things to drive the Kitty series, and they both show up in Silver Bullet. First, the personal: her conflict with her werewolf self and whether or not she’ll ever be able to have a “normal,” stable life, including having children. Second, the external: a huge, save-the-world type conflict in the concept of the Long Game, a political conspiracy among the world’s vampires. By this time I had also come up with a big bad guy to go along with the conspiracy, but Roman doesn’t make his first appearance until #6, Kitty Raises Hell. I’ve purposefully left both these story threads open ended, because I can fit any number of different plots into them. And when I need an antagonist, I have one built into the series. I know where I’d like the series to end up — that gives me a direction, a guideline, and will hopefully prevent any X-Files Season 5-type stumbles where I’m juggling so many balls that they all drop.
I’m now almost a quarter of the way into writing Kitty #11. No one is more shocked than I am, because I had no idea the character would take me this far when I was shopping Midnight Hour around back in 2003. I still have that last book in mind — I know what happens to Kitty, I know what happens to Roman, I know how that conflict resolves (mostly). But I gotta tell you, I’m not sure I’m any closer to that ending than I was when I wrote #6. I think this comes from really wanting each book to stand alone, and wanting to write a different book every time. This is what got me Kitty’s House of Horrors and Kitty Goes to War — ideas I really wanted to deal with, that are perfect fits for Kitty, and they work because the plots grow out of Kitty’s reactions to the ideas. When I start to get lost, I think: Go back to the arc. Go back to the Long Game and Kitty’s place in the world. How can I fit that in? I’m hoping that when it’s all said and done, the series-long story will look like I planned it from the start.
Where I’m at now: #10 is in copy edits, I’m working on #11, and I have the idea seeds for #12 and #13. I have a couple of other ideas brewing that I don’t want to say too much about until they become sure things. So, the pattern I’ve followed so far is holding steady.
Some things I’m noticing: the books feel more episodic, in that I’m dealing with several smaller stories in each one instead of one big story. The earlier books feel more cohesive to me, because they had such a strong, single arc; but that may just be my perception. At this point, I have dozens of secondary characters and lots of past stories I can revisit, and those are always on the table. It’s a blessing and a curse — if I need a temporary ally or villain, chances are I already have one set up. At the same time, I can’t touch on all the possibilities in every book. I really can tell that I’m juggling more balls than I was when I wrote #3.
I once said that I imagined 4-5 Kitty books and no more. The trouble is, I keep getting ideas. Every book has had a plot line that didn’t fit, that’s formed the basis of the next book. If the pattern holds, the series may never reach the natural end I have in mind for it. All I can do right now is keep thinking two books ahead and see where the road takes me.
Hi all, I’ve got another guest blogger for you today. Bestselling mystery author Gemma Halliday is here to share process with you. Please make her feel welcome, especially since she’s doing a giveaway too! Read on….
Gemma had a hard time figuring out what she wanted to be when she grew up. She worked as a film and television actress, a teddy bear importer, a department store administrator, a preschool teacher, a temporary tattoo artist, and a 900 number psychic, before finally selling her first book, Spying in High Heels, in 2005 and deciding to be a writer.
Since then, Gemma has written several mystery novels and been the recipient of numerous awards, including a National Reader’s Choice award and three RITA nominations.
Gemma now makes her home in the San Francisco Bay area where she is hard at work on her next book.
A huge thank you to the Genreality crew for letting me crash their blog today. I’m a big fan of these authors, so I’m thrilled to be here!
My Hollywood Confessions Blog Tour is into its second and final week, but I do have a few more stops to make, so please check out my website for links. I’ll be giving away more prizes at each stop! (Including gift cards, free books, cameo appearances, and Hollywood Headlines collectibles!)
One thing that the lovely Sasha White mentioned to me when she invited me to guest here was that mystery is one genre not represented by the regular contributors. So, I thought I’d come dish about writing mysteries and my own process for that. Of course, with each book my process has been a bit different, but this is as close to a road map as I get.
Step One: The Main Characters
I almost always start planning out a book with the main characters – my hero and heroine. My mysteries tend to have a strong romantic thread in them, so the heroine is my star. But I like a hero that tries to steal the show a bit, too. My latest book, Hollywood Confessions, is the third book in my Hollywood Headlines series, so I already had the characters picked out for this one. Allie Quick, the newest reporter at a tabloid newspaper, is my heroine, and her hero is Felix Dunn, her editor with whom she has a complicated past. So, as I sat down to write this book, my starting point was fine-tuning who these two were and what they wanted. What is Allie trying to prove? Why is this story so important to her? How does Felix feel about that, and why can’t he tell her? What draws him to her while at the same time keeping her at arm’s length? Once I could answer all of those questions and knew these two like old friends, I moved on to the next part of my plot…
Step Two: The Victim
Once I knew who was solving the crime, I needed a crime. Someone has to die – because I like my mysteries with a healthy does of murder – so I had to pick the perfect guy or gal for the job. All of my Hollywood Headlines books are set in – duh – Hollywood, so that was a given. One aspect of Hollywood I haven’t yet explored in this series, however, is reality TV. Since I write humor into all my books, the idea of throwing reality TV into the mix was too tempting to pass up. Plus, I personally have a small addiction to those shows. (Yes, I’m woman enough to admit it.) So, the victim quickly became Chester Barker, the top producer of reality shows in L.A. Which lead me to…
Step Three: The Suspects
I like to have at least three or four good, strong, maybe-it-really-could-be-them suspects in my books. Sometimes I throw in a few lesser suspects as well, just to muddy the waters, but the meat of any mystery is the heroine/hero tracking down and questioning suspects, so they better be interesting. For this book, I drew up a cast of reality show hosts, crew, contestants, and participants that all could have wanted the producer dead. There is Chester’s partner, Alec (who, just to make things interesting, has a bit of a thing for Allie himself), an aging dance-off show host, the parents of sextuplets and triplets who have become American’s favorite train-wreck family, and the bachelor on a little person dating show. Then I had to give each one a really compelling reason – money, revenge, love, etc. Really, any one of them could have done it. But only one did. Which brings me to…
Step Four: The Killer
Last but not least in my plotting process comes the killer. Honestly, this is always the hardest part for me. More than once, I’ve been set on one suspect being the one who actually done-it, only to change my mind halfway through the book. As I write, it often becomes way more fun to switch blame to someone else. And sometimes it’s just too obvious. Or, other times, too obscure. Luckily, with Hollywood Confessions, as soon as I listed my suspects, a perfect killer jumped out at me with just the right amount of motive, just the right lack of alibi, and just the right level of crazy to do the deed. Of course, I’m not gonna spill who it is (Step Five: never give away the ending!), but I was pretty psyched that my killer worked from beginning to end and was twisty enough to trick my beta readers with that surprise ending.
Step Five: Everything else
Once I have the cast and the nitty gritties of the mystery down, I plot out the big moments in the story – how my heroine gets introduced to the case, what makes her determined to solve it, and the dangerous reveal moment where we find out who the killer is. Along the way there are several smaller plot points where my heroine questions suspects, learns new secrets that take the investigation in different directions, and has to deal with her own personal life, too, but I generally work those out as I write. What can I say – I’m a short attention span writer. If I plot too much before I get into the actually writing process, I get bored.
So, that’s my process for firing up a new mystery novel. I’m sure everyone has their own process and own way of arriving at a finished book, so I’d love to hear some of yours. Any tips or tricks for keeping characters straight, keeping your pace going, or planning the perfect plot? Post your thoughts and I’ll pick one lucky commenter to win today’s prize.
Hollywood Confessions is available now in both print and ebook, and since this is the 3rd book in the Hollywood Headlines series, today I’m giving away an Amazon.com or BN.com gift card (winner’s choice) worth $15 so that one lucky winner can either download the first two books in the series (priced at $.99 and $3.99), or purchase the first book in print (priced at $12.99). I’ll pick a winner at the end of the day and post her/his name at the end of the comments!
Gemma’s newest release HOLLYWOOD CONFESSIONS is available now HOLLYWOOD CONFESSIONS
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