Monday, January 18, 2021

Words for Writers - Writing Books in a Series


 First there were sequels. Then came trilogies. Now quartets and even quintets are popping up. It seems that everywhere you look, authors are creating series of books, and more and more publishers are asking for them. If you’re thinking about joining the bandwagon, read on. There are a few things to consider before you get started.


Type of Series

Did you know there’s more than one kind of series? While others may disagree with the terminology, I divide them into two categories: continuing characters and connected characters. 

What’s the difference? In a continuing character series, the protagonists remain the same, while secondary characters and sometimes settings change. Think of Nancy Drew, Miss Marple and, more recently, Harry Potter. In each case, you know who the main character is, and part of the pleasure of reading one of these books is knowing that when you finish it, there will be another adventure coming, featuring your favorite people. 

Plot-driven books like mysteries, thrillers and suspense make ideal continuing character series.

Connected character series are different. In them, when the first book ends, those protagonists’ stories are complete, but seeds have been sown for at least one secondary character to star in a subsequent book. It’s common, but not mandatory, for the protagonists of one book to make cameo appearances in the next one. 

Although settings may vary from one book to the next, it is also possible that the setting itself becomes a character. That’s what happened with my Texas Dreams series. The stories form a connected character series, with the hero of Scattered Petals being introduced in Paper Roses, and Tomorrow’s Garden’s hero making his debut in Scattered Petals. In addition to those connections, the town of Ladreville and a cast of secondary characters form a common thread. 

Character-driven books like romances and general fiction are good candidates for connected character series.


Number of Books

Once you’ve decided which type of series is right for you, the next question is to decide how many books will comprise that series. In the case of continuing characters, the answer is frequently “I don’t know.” That’s because those series are often open-ended. 

Connected character series, however, are typically finite. Since trilogies seem to be particularly popular now, my recommendation is to think in terms of three books. And, if you’re writing a continuing character series, I’d suggest including at least three books in your initial proposal so that there’s no question that it’s a series. 


The Challenges

Although there are many challenges associated with writing a series, for me, three stand out.

1. Maintain consistency from book to book. Readers are intelligent. They’ll remember that Susie had green eyes in Book One, and if those suddenly change to brown in Book Two, unless you mention that she’s wearing colored contacts, your reader will be disappointed in you. I keep a chart with all characters’ ages, hair and eye colors and other dominant characteristics. Unfortunately, I did not include characters’ horses’ names on that chart and, halfway through Tomorrow’s Garden, found myself paging through Scattered Petals to see what I had called Lawrence’s horse. Note to self: include horses on chart.

If you’re using the same location from book to book, I highly recommend having a map that shows where houses, rivers and other landmarks are located. Once again, readers will notice if you change the street names between books. Even if you’re using a real town, it’s important to know where the characters live so that you’re consistent. 

2. Create each book as a stand-alone. I know, I know. We’re talking about books in a series, so why am I suggesting that each one be a stand-alone? For me, there’s nothing more frustrating than picking up the second book in a series and feeling as if I’m a stranger at a party where everyone else knows each other. They’re all talking about people and events that are unfamiliar to me. 

If you write each book with the idea that it can stand alone, you’ll make readers happy. The key is to ensure that each reference to a prior book has a brief explanation, bringing the reader “up to speed.” The challenge, of course, is to not give away key plot points from previous books. Is it easy? Of course not. That’s why it’s a challenge.

3. Make each book as compelling as the previous one. For me, this is the most difficult challenge of all. I’ve read so many trilogies, including some written by New York Times bestselling authors, where the first and third books were excellent, but the middle one fell short that I started asking why. Was this an extreme case of the sagging middles that we’re all told to avoid?  Was it like sophomore slump? I suspect part of the problem is that, as authors, we’re excited about the first book, but when we get to the second, we’re anxious to finish the series, and the second book suffers. Don’t let that happen. 

I wish I could give you concrete advice on how to avoid the middle book doldrums. All I can say is to be aware that this is a potential problem and one that afflicts even bestselling authors. If you have critique partners, ask them whether this book is as good as the previous one, and if the answer isn’t the one you wanted, ask yourself what you can do to improve it. Your readers expect excellence. Don’t disappoint them.

For me, although there are undeniable challenges involved, writing books in a series is great fun. I love the challenge of creating a town and peopling it with interesting characters, then returning to it a second and third time. I love introducing characters in one book, then following them into a second book. I love every aspect of it except one: saying good-bye.

Writing books in a series can be a fulfilling experience. If you’re at all intrigued by the idea, I encourage you to try it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - January 13, 2021

 

Fort Laramie - Laramie River
Cottonwoods, scrub brush, and a river -- what a peaceful setting. 

The river in question is the Laramie, one of two rivers whose confluence (how's that for a big word meaning "meeting"?) marks the site of Fort Laramie. The other river, in case you wondered, is the North Platte.

And, yes, this picture was taken at Fort Laramie.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Words for Writers - When Happily-Ever-After Isn't Enough

 “Nothing happens.” It’s been many years since I received that particular rejection, but I still recall my confusion. How could the editor say that nothing happened?  I was writing short contemporary romances for the secular market at the time, and I thought I’d done everything right. The book was set in an exotic location and was laced with fascinating (at least to me) details of life in a place most of us only dream about seeing. My hero and heroine met, they fell in love, and after resolving a few misunderstandings, they lived happily ever after. What could be wrong? And why did the editor say that nothing happened?

When I recovered from the sting of rejection, I realized that the editor was right, although I still thought she was wrong in saying that nothing happened. What she should have said was that nothing interesting happened. I had written a story of a close-to-perfect romance, and while readers might want to live that story, they don’t want to read about it. Perfection is boring, or as Tolstoi said in his famous opening to Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What was missing from my book was conflict.

I hate conflict. After one of those stress job interviews that used to be popular, the recruiter looked at me as if I were an unknown species. “You’d rather walk around a wall than through it,” he said. Duh! Who would willingly bang her head against a wall?  There’s only one winner there, and it’s not the head. But that aversion to pain and conflict wasn’t helping my writing. If my characters weren’t willing to fight, if I wasn’t willing to put them through pain, then I was going to continue receiving rejection after rejection and hearing editors say, “Nothing happens.”

 I wanted to make another sale, but I hated the idea of torturing my characters, and that’s how conflict felt to me. It seemed like an insurmountable impasse. And then I realized what I had to do. It might seem like a matter of semantics, but the technique worked for me. 

I told myself that I wasn’t torturing my characters; I was healing them. And since I believe in the healing power of love – both God’s love for us and that between a man and a woman – it became easy (okay, a teeny, tiny bit easier) to create characters who were in pain. Sometimes the pain was emotional. Sometimes it was physical. Though I wept and cringed as I wrote some of the scenes, I wouldn’t let myself off the hook. No matter how dark the story was, I knew that eventually I would give my characters – and my readers – what they deserved: healing, followed by a happily-ever-after.

And now, as I give thanks for the people who’ve touched my life, I include the editor who told me, “Nothing happens.”  

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - January 6, 2021

 

Fort Laramie - Old Bedlam
It's not just Wednesday in Wyoming. It's also winter in Wyoming, which is why I'm highlighting winter at Fort Laramie, one of my favorite spots in the state, this month.

In case you don't recognize it, the building is Old Bedlam, the oldest still-standing historic building in the state. It served in several capacities while the fort was commissioned but is most famous -- or, should I say infamous? -- for being the bachelor officers' quarters. That's when it earned its nickname.

What do you suppose those officers were doing to give it that name?

Monday, January 4, 2021

Words for Writers - Mastering Those Dreaded Deadlines

 

Do you hate deadlines as much as I do? I think part of the problem is the word. According to my dictionary, a deadline is “a line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot.” What an image! No wonder I don’t like deadlines. In fact, I prefer not to use the word at all. Instead, I refer to them as due dates. Using a term that frequently describes the projected birthdate of a child seems much more appropriate. After all, what’s due on the date formerly called a deadline is another form of creation, a manuscript.

Whether you call them deadlines or due dates, they’re important parts of a writer’s life. Consistently meeting due dates is the hallmark of a professional writer. Whether the due date is for the entry of a manuscript into a contest or its delivery to an editor as part of a contract, it’s important – I’d even say vital – that the date be met. I won’t claim that it’s easy, but I offer four techniques that can improve the probability of meeting your due dates.

 1. Set a realistic date. If it’s already the end of March and you want to enter a completed manuscript in a contest on April 15 but you haven’t started writing, odds are that that particular date isn’t realistic. Don’t set yourself up for failure. Instead, plan to enter the contest next year. Similarly, if an editor calls to say she loves your proposal and wonders how soon you can have the completed manuscript to her, take a deep breath before you answer. Even better, tell her you need to work out the schedule and you’ll call her back. Then figure out how long it will take, realizing that it’s impractical to think you’ll work eight hours every day. When you’ve created what seems like an achievable schedule, add in a couple weeks for contingencies. Trust me, you’ll need them.

 2. Create a picture of your goal. Mental images are great, but I’m talking about a physical picture, one that’ll help motivate you. If your goal is to enter a contest, create a picture of a blue ribbon or a statue with your title on it. If your goal is to send a completed manuscript to your editor, create a picture of a book cover with your name and title on it. Once the picture is complete, make a number of copies. One goes on the refrigerator, another one on the phone, still another on the TV remote. The purpose is to remind you that your goal is your highest priority and that snacking, calling a friend or watching a must-see TV show are keeping you from meeting that goal.

 3. Divide and conquer. By that I mean, divide your project into small, manageable tasks, ideally ones that require no longer than a day or two to complete. By doing that, you’ll be able to determine whether or not you’re on schedule. Like the picture, it’s important to have more than a mental plan. You need a written schedule, showing when each chapter (or scene, if you break it down to that level) must be finished. The critical point here is to know whether or not you’re on schedule, and if you’re not, to take corrective action immediately. That leads to the last point.

 4. Just say ‘no.’  If you’re going to meet your due date, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll need to make some sacrifices. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: writing needs to be your highest priority. That means that email, Facebook and all the other things that take time away from writing need to be put in second place. And, if your schedule has slipped, that afternoon at the mall may need to be postponed until you’ve met your due date.

There’s no doubt about it. Meeting due dates is hard work. It requires determination and discipline. But you can do it. I know you can, because you’re a writer, and that’s what writers do.