July 10th, 2010 by Ken Scholes
Where Series Come From:  The Evolution of the Psalms of Isaak, Or How Leroy Tricked Me Real Good

Howdy folks!  I’m back!

Thanks for the warm welcome last week.  It’s great to be here.

When I was casting about for topics to blog about an interesting suggestion wandered in from Carrie and it’s had me thinking.  She posed the question “what made you decide to write an epic fantasy series for your first novel?”  (I’m paraphrasing badly here.)

It’s a great question because as I think about it, I’m really not sure how many first-time novelists tackle an epic fantasy series and beyond that, I’m not sure how many of them actually go on to sell them.  Five book deals in general are pretty rare, I think.  So today, I’m going to tell you.

Of course, you want the short answer first, right? 

I was tricked into it.  Duped.  Ambushed.  By whom you say?  A large cast of characters, to be sure, but one in particular is the most culpable:

Leroy, my Inner Redneck and Muse Extraordinaire. 

Now for the long version.  I shared last week that I was taunted and dared into writing my first novel.  To be completely honest, I was dragged, kicking and screaming, to the long form like a two year old to an unwanted nap.

(Queue dramatic music.)

Until October 2006, the longest piece I’d ever written was my novelette, “Last Flight of the Goddess,” standing at a solid 15,000 words.  It was 5,000 words longer than anything I’d written prior.  For years — nearly a decade — friends and family had urged me to tackle a novel but I was terrified of the length.  See, with a short story you can get in and get out in just a handful of days.  Hell, sometimes you can wrap it up in one sitting.  And then off to the next thing.  But novels are no simple fling.  You’re going to live that batch of words for a while.  There’s (gasp) commitment involved.  I didn’t really think I could do it.  More than daunted, I was afraid to even try.  And because I’d been selling short stories since 2000, I had this other bit of worry rattling around in my head:  Novels and short stories are different critters.  The time I’d invested in the learning curve of writing publishable short fiction was substantial and the idea of spending possibly years more in that learning curve before I crafted something marketable…well, it was just easier to tell everyone I was a short story writer.

Leroy, sneaky bastard that he is, had other plans and he laid his snare for me with great care and glee.

First, I ran across a call for stories featuring mechanical oddities for a small press market called Lenox Avenue.  Leroy poked me in the ribs.  “We could do one of those,” he whispered.

“How would it go?” I asked him.

He put down his beer and grinned like he does.  “Rudolfo’s Gypsy Scouts found the metal man sobbing in an impact crater deep in the roiling smoke and glowing ruins of Windwir,” he said in his most matter-of-fact drawl.

“Boy howdy,” I said and we were off.

So in June 2005, I wrote a short story called “Of Metal Men and Scarlet Thread and Dancing with the Sunrise.”  But as things sometimes go, it did not land at the market I’d intended it for.  They closed to submissions for that particular issue before I finished, but I had a story I felt okay about — not elated or delighted, just okay — so I didn’t mind.  One more for the inventory.  And then Leroy and I were off to the next project.

Well, “Of Metal Men…” went out in search of a home and then one day, in the fall of 2005 I got a note from Doug Cohen, Assistant Editor at Realms of Fantasy, saying he’d read the story and liked it enough to forward it up to Shawna McCarthy, the Senior Editor.  Leroy, as he is wont to do, wriggled his eyebrows at me and drank more imaginary beer.  Not long after, there was an acceptance.  And then a contract showed up.  And one day, around Christmas, I was sitting around Googling myself (sad writerly habit many of us have, I fear) and on a lark, I Googled the title of my story.

And though the story wasn’t due out for months and months,  I surprisingly got a hit.

And this is what gradually took shape upon my computer monitor.  The artist who’d been commissioned to illustrate my story had posted his finished product to his online gallery.

“Boy howdy,” I said again.  Leroy just grinned for a minute, that gap-toothed grin that goes so nicely with his mullet and Coors Lite ballcap.  And then he kicked me.  Hard.  Because there was more to Isaak’s story than I’d realized.  Why, it was much larger than a short story it was…FOUR SHORT STORIES!

It was perfect.  Four tales set at key points in a larger tale of deception, loss and hope.  And each with titles that formed a rhyme when all put together.  Leroy had really outdone himself and I told Jen all about it over Mexican food one night.  I remember her eyes getting wide as she got excited about the bigger story. 

“That sounds like a novel,” she said.

“Nope,” I assured her.  “Just short stories.”   Of course, inwardly, I knew that maybe, just maybe, I could take those four short stories, knock the ends out of them, link ’em together and have me…a novella!  Thirty thousand words, tops.

Leroy snickered in the background.  Later on, I said to him, “Now what?”

And we sat down to write the second story in what I was tentatively calling The Androfrancine Cycle.  When “Of Missing Kings and Backward Dreams and the Honoring of Lies” was ready , I slipped it off into the mail to Realms of Fantasy.

By now, the first story had come out and it was getting a nice welcome in the world.  Notes were coming in from all over from people who enjoyed the story and it landed several good reviews.  I’d recently won the Writers of the Future contest and editors were starting to ask me when I’d have a novel ready.

And part of me wanted to give them one.  But another part was still rooted in those bizarre internal mythologies I’d bought into that held me back from tackling the long form.  Besides, I could always try a novel after I finished this exciting short story project I was on.  After all, any day, I knew I’d have a letter from Realms of Fantasy, accepting that second story.

Of course, I was wrong about that bit and it changed my life.

The note back from Shawna told me that the story didn’t quite stand on its own and that I should write a novel in that world with those characters.  And then, what followed is the Infamous Tatertot Taunting and Novel Writing Dare I spoke about last week.  I opened a new document, I took the first story and the second story, dropped them in and then changed the font color to red so I’d know what I’d started with.  Then, I looked at the space between and the space after, where those two yet unwritten stories would’ve fit and asked Leroy what he thought.

“It’s a trilogy,” he told me.  “I think.”

When I started to hyperventilate, he patted my hand and offered me a beer.

“We can do this,” he said.

And so we did.  That first novel was a brutal, emotional experience, written in a blur until my wrists ached and I had dark circles underneath my eyes.   I filled in the gap between those two snapshots at breakneck pace, making it up as I went.  All I’d known going in was that I had a handful of characters in two stories with a war in between.  But as I drafted it, the story came together organically.  Existing characters fleshed themselves out and new characters walked onto the stage.  At the end of it, I had a first draft that I was quite skeptical of in what I thought was going to no doubt be my practice novel.  A good effort.  But alas.

And people loved it.   I mean, really loved it.

“I don’t think this is a trilogy after all,” I told Leroy.

He grinned.  “It ain’t four short stories, either.”

“Nope,” I agreed.  Because now I could see it clearly.  I just needed to get ahead of the fear and give the story time to evolve.  “Five books,” I told Leroy.  “We’ll call it The Psalms of Isaak.” 

When Lamentation went out into the world, I knew all but one of the five titles for the rest of the series.  And I had a sense of what needed to happen in each of the books.  But I also could now be confident (well, most days) that Leroy knew his business very well and would create, on the fly, just what the story needed as it needed it.

When the first agent I submitted it to agreed to represent me, we talked about sending it to Tor because I knew Tor had a good track record and had provided a loving home to many popular series.  And within thirteen months of starting that first draft, I had a call from my agent that I’ll never forget.  “Are you sitting down?” she asked me one day October day when I was home with the flu.

Tor made an offer on all five books.  A really good offer for a first time novelist with just one book written in his five book series.

Of course, by the time I got that call, Leroy had hauled me halfway through Canticle

“I think we’ll call the third one Antiphon,” he said.  “And I can see a lot of places where we can write more books in this here world once the Psalms are finished.”  He wriggled his eyebrows.  “Moreover,” he said in a conspiratorial tone, “I think that other short story of yours, “Invisible Empire of Ascending Light….”

I didn’t let him finish.  “A trilogy?” I asked. 

“We’ll call it The Invisible Empire.” 

He grinned and I grinned back.  Then, we went back to work with less fear and a somewhat slower pace.  We’re on Requiem now and Hymn is just around the corner.  Lamentation is just starting to come out in Europe and early reports are that folks like it there, as well.  Especially France. 

“And that,” Trailer Boy said, “is where series come from.”

Or at least how mine evolved.  Your mileage, of course, may vary.  Come back next week and we’ll talk some more.

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8 comments to “Where Series Come From: The Evolution of the Psalms of Isaak, Or How Leroy Tricked Me Real Good”

  1. Laura
     · July 11th, 2010 at 1:45 am · Link

    Wow, I can really relate to that story. I’m finishing revisions on my first novel of a fantasy series and as an author. I’ve written more since, but it took me a bit to make myself tacking the dreaded revisions part. Anyway, the whole series came from a scene I came up with when I was practicing flash fiction. Then the characters wormed into my heart, and I started asking, “So how did you two get into this situation anyhow?” When they started answering, I ended up with a short story, then a novella, then a novel, and now i have a series. I’m glad to hear that the process is not unique to me.

    Thanks for the interesting and amusing post.


  2. ptn
     · July 11th, 2010 at 3:42 am · Link

    Thanks for sharing! It’s funny how tricking someone into writing a series can end up being so fun and ultimately rewarding (for both parties).

    Have to admit that the opposite has happened for me. I tricked my muse into it :) What turned out to be a stand alone turned into a trilogy and now has become a five book series. Still working on book 2 but it’s still going.

    I’m just waiting for my muse to turn around and shout ‘GOTCHA!!!’ and completely change everything on me. Until then, I’m typing away until that moment comes. Definitely a motive to keep writing.

    Loved your post, your voice and candidness! Congrats on Lamentation making it out to Europe :)

  3. Ken Scholes
     · July 12th, 2010 at 3:42 pm · Link

    Thanks! And good luck with your series!

  4. Ken Scholes
     · July 12th, 2010 at 3:43 pm · Link

    You’re welcome! And yeah, once our characters start telling us stuff the stories really take off, don’t they? Good luck to you with your series!

  5. Nadya
     · July 14th, 2010 at 10:55 am · Link

    Geek stuff first: The link to the (amazing) artwork is broken — just an extra http:// at the beginning

    Writer stuff second: Great story. I was talking to a writer friend the other night about the terror of having finished a 2000 word scene for my first novel and then realizing I only have 50 more to go. AHHHH! I screamed as I ran from my keyboard for gin and chocolate. Just keep plugging, my wiser friend advised. Your post is a wiser friend, too.

  6. Candace Havens
     · July 14th, 2010 at 1:22 pm · Link

    Ken, Great blog. I’m a week late with my greetings, but welcome to the blog! We’re happy to have you. :)

  7. Ken Scholes
     · July 14th, 2010 at 3:52 pm · Link

    Thanks Candace! Great to be here and I’m enjoying YOUR blogs as well. :)

  8. Ken Scholes
     · July 14th, 2010 at 3:54 pm · Link

    Aha! I’ll go fix that. Thanks for catching it, Nadya.

    Gin and chocolate are responsible for a great many novels. And yep, persistence is definitely a critical ingredient! Thanks!

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