The Thing About Writing a Book Series

little box writing a letterThe Unintentional Time Traveler may be my debut novel but it is also the first in five planned books about Jackson Inman/Jacqueline Bishop and their adventures. I’ve taken the long game approach and drawn out the character and story arcs for the protagonist(s), and mapped out the antagonists for each episode in the series (there will be a continuing villain and a “local” antagonist specific to each). Despite my best laid plans, I’m prepared for the story to veer a bit from its supposed trajectories. Back in my project management days, I would have called this tendency “scope creep.”

Nowadays I’ll just say that it comes with the territory of the subconscious—because some significant percentage of my creative writing process is done by the characters themselves. Or maybe the tips of my fingers have their own intentions. Or maybe what Chip Delany refers to as the “dark matter” of his mind is a thing that happens for other writers, too. I was working on a completely different project a few weeks ago—an ensemble novel about four gender non-conforming people from different eras who come together to build a high school for queer and trans youth—when I realized the scene was getting away from me. As if I wasn’t my own person, I was typing out that the character was getting in someone’s face in a law firm, and then security showed up and hauled him away, his shoes leaving temporary scrape marks in the beige carpet. Wait, what? That’s not how this scene goes. That’s not what I architected to happen. And I’m the creator of this little universe, correct?At that point I had to decide whether to leave the scene in as written or delete it. For me it came down to why I thought the scene had come into the story. Was it a rumbling strip of land borne of some underwater volcano? A materialization of a bad morning that I was experiencing? It boiled down to this: Was it part of the story that needed to be told?

Before I answer that, a word about how I see character development and the agency of the author. Of course characters are their own beings, at least between the covers of the book, in the space between the opening of the novel and the words THE END. All characters need to have believability, or another way of stating this is that they must have an internal logic. I’m not saying the characters need to act logically (although some of them would claim that they do), but that they can’t behave out of sync with themselves.

As the author, I am a mediator of sorts while the story is in progress—I decide whether a character is capable of a specific action or not. While it’s not impossible for a character to go from being a passionate pacifist to a cold-blooded killer, the shift requires explanation. Also, the shift and its explanation need to serve a purpose for the story, or else they should be omitted and not presented to the reader. I may be the person who came up with the idea for the story and the actors within it, but I must acknowledge that my story ideas come from my lived experience, the people I’ve met, the other stories I’ve read or wanted to read, and the possibilities for stories that are present in the zeitgeist. Broad terrain, certainly. But there’s a lot of narrowing into tight granularity that happens between envisioning a project and writing it down, and at the point of putting the story into words, I have to release some of my ownership to the characters. I have to let them be themselves even as I hold them to my reader’s expectations of their capabilities. Villains may be malevolent, but they’re almost never purely evil. Heroes may be grandiose, but they have limits. Some genres have rules for characters that are separate and distinct from an author’s preferences and tastes.

A romance writer told me that the hero in a romance novel can be a bad boy, or flawed, or struggling with his own demons as it were, but it is a cardinal rule that he never, never hit his lover or paramour. Audiences won’t support him, given the dictates of the genre.  If a writer were to insist that the novel’s hero perpetrate domestic violence, then the book is no longer a romance per se. So beyond my own writing tendencies I have my genre’s limits to consider in drafting my narrative. I looked at the scene with the husky security guards and the resistant character. I realized I didn’t write my character wrong—this is definitely how he would respond to unfair authority. But I’d written the side character, the lawyer, incorrectly. She was really on his side. She wouldn’t pull this with her pro bono client who really needed her advocacy. I struck the scene. I told myself I’d wonder why I’d written that at some later point. I did think about it over the next couple of weeks, and I decided that it was a way of getting through some tension I’d had around the character’s circumstances. It was something of a release valve, but it didn’t actually belong in the story. And that was okay.

All writing leads to better writing. This is a lovely, trite little sentence but it’s true, too. Planning is necessary, at least for me. I need to know where I think I’m headed with the next four novels in the Time Guardians series, but I’m okay if things shift. I have to keep my confidence in my ability to know when adjustments help the story and when they are taking me too far afield from the story I want to write. This is part of the joy of writing fiction. I could view the process as forcing a conclusion I want to see, but I much prefer when the journey is about uncovering what the story can become, and running to keep up with it.

So because believability is so important—like, readers won’t keep going if it’s not there—I have to give myself room for the story to meander away from my original intentions. If I were just working on one standalone novel it would be no big deal, but in a series? It could make me have to shift the cliffhangers from one book to the next, change the pacing of the reveals, introduce or take away major characters, or cause a seismic tilt in a plot point. In just the first book of the TG series, I took out a secondary antagonist in Jack’s present-day world because he was a distraction from the rest of the story. I can only imagine what I’ll wind up changing for the sake of the whole as I write books two through five.

Another way of putting it is to think about trajectories. The further away the endpoint, the more a slight shift early on will affect the ultimate ending. Every change has its domino effect. And to complicate matters, I can’t control the order in which my readers may approach the books. What if someone first comes across episode three? I’ve got a lot of moving parts in the series, time paradoxes, characters, epochs, and relationships, and each book will need to be readable in isolation from the others without boring the junk out of readers who know all of the back story already.

There’s a tendency to think of young adult books as simple. They’re not lyrical or poetic. They’re supposedly not complicated because they’re for adolescents. Well that would mean that teenagers are straightforward, but in my experience, they’re anything but. Creating a multi-book story is a big undertaking, no matter the genre, so it behooves me to be kind as I venture forward to write the best books I possibly can.

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2 Comments on “The Thing About Writing a Book Series”

  1. May 16, 2014 at 11:58 am #

    Ah, but isn’t it beautiful how stories expand beyond our own intentions?

    • evmaroon
      May 16, 2014 at 12:39 pm #

      It sure is.

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