Posts Tagged With: setting

Writing a Series

A lot of authors write series. Some make all their money writing long series rather than stand-alone novels. A few are even paid by their publishing companies to keep writing series even after the story has gotten old and there are no new ideas or places for the characters to go (*cough* *cough* James Patterson and the Alex Cross books *cough*). But writing a series is a lot tougher than it looks. Rather than keeping a reader’s interest for about 300 pages, you have to keep it for several times that amount and over several books too.

While there is no one way to write a series (is there ever “one way” to go about anything in this business?), there are some tips and strategies that can make writing a series a bit easier. Here are some of mine, gleaned from years of writing various different series in my teens and publishing one of them once I got into college.

Decide who your main characters are and what sort of story you’re going to write with them. I feel that it’s important to nail down who your main characters are pretty early on, because they often end up influencing where the story goes through their actions. You don’t have to go into each character’s entire history at this early stage, but you should have an idea of who they are, what they like and dislike, maybe what sort of environment they grew up in, and what they want and what you from them in this series. That information will come in handy when you’re planning out the series.

Make a roadmap. When you have your characters (and if you’re writing this story in a world different from the one you and most of your readership live in, a general idea of this world), then you should plan out the series and what is going to happen. You don’t need to go into every single detail on what happens in each book, you can save that for when you write each individual book. Just have a general idea of what will happen in each book, how that might fit into a greater arc if you have one in mind, which characters you might introduce or kill off or whatever, etc. It’s kind of similar to outlining a novel, in a way (for tips on outlining, click here), only for several books. Creating a roadmap can also be helpful in keeping a record of what and when you need to research a subject and can allow you to keep notes of what’s happened in previous books in case you need to refer back to something for the current book.

Immerse your reader slowly. This is something I’ve learned over a long time, but it’s useful to remind some writers of it every now and then. Let’s say your story takes place in a fantasy or science-fiction universe and you’re the only one who knows the entirety of the world, its various pieces and factions and groups and aspects. You’ll have an urge to make sure that your reader is immediately caught up with everything, so that they know all there is to know about these worlds. I’m telling you now, resist that urge! Updating them about everything in this world of yours too early would be overloading them with information. They wouldn’t know what to do with it and they’d put down that first book before getting very far in it.

Immersing a reader in your world is like teaching a kid to swim.

The best way to go about introducing readers to this world is to imagine it like teaching a young child to swim. Naturally you don’t start with the deep end. What if your pupil drowned? Instead you start with the shallowest end of the pool. It’s good to start without overwhelming the kid, and they can get a sense and a working knowledge of how swimming works. Later you move them into deeper waters, teaching them new techniques and watching them adjust to the greater depth of the pool. As time goes on, your pupil moves deeper and deeper into the waters, learning new knowledge along the way, until they’re swimming fine in the deep end and able to handle all you’ve given them.

In a similar way you should treat the reader. Slowly take them in, giving them the bare minimum to get along in this world and how to live and maneuver through it. As time goes on, you’ll add more information and they’ll be better prepared to handle it all, so by the end of the series they’ll be able to handle all that information really well.

Keep a guidebook. This can also be helpful, especially for series in fantastical worlds. A guidebook (or whatever you want to call it) contains information on the many aspects of your world, from characters to places to objects to story points and everything in between. If you need to organize a very complicated world, a guidebook can be helpful. Or if even the world is very simple, having a guidebook could help you keep track of things. I recommend using some sort of 3-ring binder for your guidebook, so you can add more information as time goes on. Dividers will also be helpful, so get those and categorize entries as you need. Using a guidebook can also prevent any ret-conning that could annoy and upset your fans.

Writing a book, and writing a book series, is often like this.

Remember the bigger picture. This is always important in writing, but it is especially important in a series. Writing a series is like working with several hundred or even several thousand puzzle pieces, but you have to focus on both the puzzle as a whole as well as the smaller pieces. It’s not easy, keeping track of the smaller stuff as well as keeping aware of the whole arc of the series, but it’s something you’ll have to do if you want to successfully pull off a series.

Each book has a purpose. If your series has an overall story arc, then not only should each book tell an interesting story (or a segment of the larger story), but it should maybe serve a purpose. For example, the first Harry Potter novel introduced us to the Wizarding world, and to the boy we root for the whole series; Book 2 hinted at the existence of Horcruxes, explained the concept of Wizarding blood purity, and introduced other important elements that would later appear in the HP books; Book 3 gave more information on the night Harry’s parents died and their relationship with Snape, as well as introducing how Voldemort would come back to power; Book 4 brought back Voldemort in an elaborate plot as well as hinted at the denial the Ministry would be famous for in Book 5; and so on and so forth. You don’t have to, but it might be helpful to think of assigning your books a purpose in the overall story arc of the series.

What tips do you have for writing a series?

Categories: Book Formatting, Book Setting, Book Setup, Business Plan, Characters & Viewpoints, Editing & Rewriting, General Writing, Psychology of Writing & Publishing, The Reader, The Writer & Author, Writing as a Business | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Components For Successful Sequels

So much more common these days!

It’s no understatement to say that Western art and culture is obsessed with sequels these days. Every blockbuster must have at least one or two continuations of their stories, artists of all stripes are naming their albums with the suffix “2.0” or “Part III”, and even literature’s greats are producing series of at least three or more books with more energy than in previous years.

Plenty of cynics would say that this sequel mania is fueled by a drive for profits, and they wouldn’t be wrong, though there are still several writers, artists, and filmmakers out there that produce sequels not out of greed, but out of a love for what they do and whom they share it with. Unfortunately, those same cynics who doubt the existence of these artists, writers and filmmakers also note that there aren’t enough good sequels out there, and sadly there’s a lot of truth in that.

Since I am about to embark on writing Video Rage, the sequel to my science fiction novel Reborn City, I thought I’d share some of my tips for writing sequels. These tips, though not essential when writing a sequel (or writing any work, for that matter), have been taken from some of the better sequels I’ve seen out there and are categorized into four distinct groups: barest essentials, setting and history, characters, and most important. The right combination of any of these components could help elevate a story from good to great, especially with a sequel.

Barest essentials. If one is to do a sequel, one has to think hard about these components when creating the story. Plenty of sequels have been rocked or bombed depending on their creator’s use of these factors.

1. Is the sequel connected or unconnected to the previous book? This may not seem like a big question, but it actually is. Plenty of series depend on an overarching tale that connects all the books together, and deciding whether or not a sequel connects to the previous book is important to think about. Most writers do answer this question before they even start the first book, but it is still important to think about before you start your sequel.

2. Don’t recycle old material. When we pay for a book on Amazon or a ticket to the latest blockbuster, we hope that it’s worth it, that there’s something new in the story and in the characters, that we won’t be bored in the first five minutes. Of course, we get really annoyed when what we’ve paid for is like Taken 2 or A Good Day To Die Hard, which basically took all that rocked from the previous film or films but not much else. As it turns out, people like something more than what worked in the first film. Yes, it seems like a good idea to use what worked for the last installment for the newest, but in reality there’s much more that is needed to make the story much better, and knowing that is a great start in writing your sequel and utilizing what worked in the last installment correctly, rather than just reusing it.

3. Avoid retcons. If you are unfamiliar with this term, a retroactive continuity, or retcon for short, is the alteration of a previously established fact or facts in the continuity of a fictional work (definition courtesy of Wikipedia). Retcons are popular in long-running comic book or TV shows to help new writers continue the story they want to or to accommodate new information. However fans are easily annoyed by retcons and often are able to point them out upon running across them. They will especially cry foul if they feel the retcon was done because of laziness or forgetfulness. For example, in the vampire novels by Charlaine Harris, one character was introduced as a certain shape-shifter, but in the next book that shape-shifter’s type was changed. Many fans wrote letters pointing this out, causing Mrs. Harris some embarrassment.

So in the interest of avoiding embarrassment, retcons are best avoided if possible.

Setting and history. I wrote in a previous article some ways to set up a great world, especially in science fiction and fantasy. For sequels, taking certain approaches to the world you’ve already built up can make the setting seem more real to readers and help them to fall in love even more with the established world.

4. Expand on the world. So in Book 1 you showed us a fantastical world full of magic and wonder. What do you do? Why not show more of it, in terms of places, history and culture? For example, in the Earth’s Children’s series first book, Clan of the Cave Bear, we see the world strictly through the eyes of a small tribe of Neanderthals and the little Cro-Magnon girl who grows up with them and in their culture. In the second book, The Valley of Horses, author Jean Auel expands on the peoples in Stone Age Europe, including different tribes of Cro-Magnon tribes across the continent and their way of life. This gives the readers more of a look into the fictional world of the characters and makes them want to learn more, at the same time causing them to invest more in the story.

5. Go darker. The first Harry Potter book introduced us to a fantastical world full of mystery and wonder and danger. Readers who read the first book tended to see the Wizarding world as somewhat idyllic, full of literal and metaphorical charm and made them want to go there. However in the second book, Chamber of Secrets, we discover that there’s a dark side to the magical world Harry inhabits, particularly in terms of the importance placed in blood purity and how it is wrapped up in Hogwarts’s history.

Showing the dark side of your world, if you haven’t delved too deeply into that yet, can give the readers a sense that this world could exist. Remember, the readers have to be able to identify with the setting, to believe it could exist. And if the darker parts of a setting can make a world seem all the more real to the reader, why not go there?

6. Shake things up with something new. At some point in her Southern Vampire series, Charlaine Harris added the fairy species, supposedly, because she was bored and wanted to shake things up. Similarly, shaking things up can be a great boon to your sequel. By adding something that has never been seen before in the universe of the story, you add all sorts of potential plot elements and ways to change up the story. And the ways to shake up the story are vast and endless: perhaps you could reveal that a character is related to another character in an unexpected way. Or maybe a new technology is available now that changes the entire world of the characters. Perhaps there’s even a new location whose visit will have new implications for the way your characters live their life.

Like I said, anything’s possible if you wish to shake things up a bit.

Characters. Ultimately, any story relies on its characters and how those characters react to the circumstances around them. In a sequel there are chances to expose characters to new circumstances, not just in terms of the world they live in, but also in terms of the people around them.

7. Introduce or retire a new main/supporting character. We are constantly meeting new people and losing old friendships in life. Why not do the same to our characters? Introducing a new character is a great way to explore the changing dynamics of the relationships between the characters, and if you want to get rid of a character or find reason to put them away for a while, a sequel is a great place to do so. In fact, if you retire a character for one book, you can bring them back in spectacular fashion for another book. Either way, it’s a chance to try something new by writing a story with a new character or without a familiar character.

8. Shift the focus onto another character. In the sequel to the 1991 Addams Family movie, Addams Family Values, the movie focused on Uncle Fester. Just one problem: so did the first film, and a sub-story about Wednesday’s first love couldn’t resurrect AFV from the Fester-centric plot that critics ultimately had the biggest issue with.

If you have a story that focuses on a tightly-knit group of characters and no one character is considered the main character or the most important character, it helps to shift the focus from the growth and development of one character to another. After all, no one member of an ensemble cast is more important than the other (or should be, anyway). So juggle the focus every now and then. Every character has a story behind them, and seeing where that story takes them can make for a great story.

9. Change the nature of a relationship. When James Marsters first played the character Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1997, Spike was a formidable villain throughout most of the season. However in subsequent seasons Spike’s role, becoming a reluctant ally over time and then an essential part of the main cast. Eventually Spike became attracted to Buffy, and later a hero and her lover.

Changing one character’s relationship to another and vice versa can be an excellent way to explore new territory. If you could think of two characters that might warrant having their relationship changed, go ahead and try it. You never know what might arise from such a story.

10. Conflict in a group is always interesting. This is basically the equivalent to Component #5. In the first book, the group usually learns to gel together and work with each other. What would happen if there was friction with the group in the second book? What if two characters were a couple but their friend was attracted to one of them? Or perhaps one of the characters was forced to spy on the group for the enemy, and nobody knew who that character doing the spying was. Sowing the seeds of conflict between two characters, while painful to read and possibly more painful to write (or very fun, depending on what sort of person you are), keeps readers interested and wondering how it will be resolved. I’m planning on trying it in my own sequel. Should be a fun experiment.

The Most Important Of All. There’s only one component in this category, but it’s probably the one you should keep in mind whether or not you decide to use any of the other components.

11. What would you like to see or read in a sequel? One of the best parts of self-publishing is that the author decides what they want to write and can put it out there, rather than having to put out what the publisher feels will sell. It’s the same with sequels. What would you like to see in the sequel you want to write?  New enemies? A torrid love affair? Your favorite character moving from the big city to a small town in Idaho? A new species of magical creature? It’s all up to you, and you can do whatever you want.

It’ll probably be better than whatever they’re cooking up in Hollywood right about now.

Categories: Characters & Viewpoints, Editing & Rewriting, General Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

World-Building In Fiction

In fiction, the world the story takes place in is called the setting. And in all forms of fiction, setting is a key element in telling the story. More than just a backdrop, setting can influence the behaviors, fashion choices, and histories and backgrounds of the author’s characters, as well as how those characters can grow and evolve within a story. That being said, a good setting is essential to creating a great story and an author cannot afford to be sloppy when it comes to the worlds they create.

Luckily, there are several techniques in the writing trade that allow authors of all genres to carve out a wonderful world for their setting. By using them as guidelines to create the setting of your novel or short story, you can bring your world to life in ways reminiscent of your favorite authors.

1. Make your world believable. This is more important than one might think, and especially in speculative fiction such as fantasy, science-fiction, and horror. If a world is unbelievable and the reader has trouble investing in it, they may lose interest and the story itself will suffer.

A good example of this would be if someone were to write a short story with the premise, “In the future people are given pocket watches with time-traveling abilities at birth but it is a taboo to use them. Until someone actually uses their watch.” Well, that doesn’t make much sense, does it? If you have time travel technology and you give it to everyone, why forbid them to use it?

And it’s not just big things that can derail a story. In the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, the titular organization is tasked with hunting down aliens in Great Britain, particularly in the Welsh city of Cardiff with a large alien population. Unfortunately, I lost interest in the show when I found it ridiculous that a branch of an organization in a major metropolitan area such as Cardiff with high amounts of alien activity would only have five very laid-back members on the payroll. Thrilling story, but the lack of people makes me suspicious and causes the illusion that is fiction to wear off.

2. Do your research and be as accurate as possible. After believability, this is probably the most important point. Mainly this deals with anachronisms, just as digital watches during the Vietnam War or other little things that a discerning audience would pick up on and point out.

This is also a call to do research if you’re writing on a subject you know little about. If you are writing a romantic thriller set in Nazi Germany, it would be good to do plenty of research on Nazi Germany, its government, its culture, and everyday life, and not rely on just the few WWII movies you’ve seen and Wikipedia. After all, your audience is often very clever, and they will notice when things don’t add up, if there’s only mentions of Jewish persecution or if Hitler’s the only Nazi official we actually hear about.

Of course, you don’t have to be accurate to the point that you have to be perfect. Dan Brown’s novels are filled with several inaccuracies, most of which are so minor that it’s too much of a bother to verify them. However for major elements that could heavily influence the plot, it’s important that one do their research, even if it is tedious to do and their least favorite part of writing.

3. Know how much you need to describe your setting to paint the picture. Depending on what sort of story you’re writing, you may need to do a lot of description or very little to create the image in your reader’s mind. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby takes place during the Roaring Twenties, which is a well-known and well-documented era. Because of this and because that era was still fresh in his audience’s memories, Fitzgerald didn’t need to use a lot of description to bring 1920’s New York to life.

However, stories such as Harry Potter, while similar to this world, are very different form our own. JK Rowling had to devote a lot of page space to showing how vastly different our world is from that of the Wizarding community. And even more so for writers like George R.R. Martin or George Lucas, whose worlds might as well be alternate universes to ours. In the Game of Thrones novels and in the novelizations of the three Star Wars movies, whole sections would’ve been spent on explaining and exploring the strange and alien worlds of the characters within.

Knowing how much description is needed for a setting can help an author not only utilize their setting to its utmost fullest, but also help an author hone their skills to the point where they know how much is needed to describe the setting of a story just by thinking it.

4. A full history is helpful, but it is not always necessary. When I started writing my dystopia novel Reborn City, I devoted a full chapter to how the world of RC developed from one any reader of this blog could easily recognize as their own to one full of independent city-states, countries few and far-between, and rampant Islamaphobia in certain places. However during the second draft, I cut out the chapter because while it was informative, it took attention off the main story and I thought it would be better to leave those events up to the imagination.

In my opinion, this was a good move. Without the history I created, there are huge realms of possibility for the events that led to the world of my characters, and I’ll have plenty of room to experiment and create in later books.

However, that is not necessary for other authors. Some authors prefer to have a complete history of how the worlds that are the settings of their stories came to be, even if they don’t include all the details in the stories themselves. Others prefer not to have those histories, giving them room to experiment and to go in different directions, although this leaves the possibility of retcons occurring.

In the end, it is the preference of the author that is important. Just remember to find a balance between explaining the world’s history to strengthen the story and explaining the world’s history to the point that it is only entertaining to you.

5. Don’t be afraid to go in new directions and try something never done before. In the end, the author knows what’s best for their story and should create the setting that best serves them. Sometimes, that involves exploring new territory for the author and trying things not usually done in fiction. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it can lead to whole new trends in fiction and end up influencing writers for years afterward.

The most important thing, of course, is that what you do with your setting serves the story you are writing.

Categories: General Writing, The Writer & Author, Writing as a Business | Tags: , , , ,

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