On writing

Reflections on writing series books – part 3

The third in our musings about the difficulties of writing series books.

There’s a line in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie where Elizabeth falls off the fort and into the water because her tight corset makes her faint. Jack Sparrow dives in to rescue her. He drags her out of the water and rips off her corset, which allows her to breathe.

One of the guards Sparrow has been talking to, says, “I never would have thought of that.”

“Clearly,” Jack says, “You’ve never been to Singapore.”

Terry Rossio says that in the first movie, it was simply a throwaway line. Yet two movies later, the crew of the Black Pearl are in Singapore.

It’s part of the magic of writing a series. You never know which little bit of colour you add in one book will stick in your mind, and a novel or two later, become important to the story. For example, there’s a passing mention of a rather unpleasant man in LINESMAN (not naming names, because … spoilers). We’ve started book three, and all of a sudden—who’s one of our bad guys? He is.

We don’t know what’s coming

In an ideal world, we’d have our three story arc and our overall story arc determined before long before we start. And we do in a minor sort of way, because we sent synopses for books two and three to our editor before we were even offered a contract.

For pantsers like us, books don’t slot themselves neatly into the synopses. I won’t say we don’t outline, for when two of you are working together you need to know where the book is going. Ours is more of an organic outline. We know roughly what happens in the story—the one page synopsis we sent to our editor—and we have a good idea of the end. Then, as we write, we discuss what happens next. So we know a day or two ahead what’s coming—and it doesn’t always come, mind. The story can go off in a totally new way in the following day’s writing.

I don’t want to give spoilers for Linesman, so I’ll use an example of another, unpublished, story of ours. This one’s middle grade, and it’s called Hero’s Apprentice.

Jorry and his father have hardly spoken to each other in the year since Jorry’s mother died, and when they do talk, it’s to fight. Jorry decides to impress his father by becoming a hero, and he knows how to do it too. The scary old Hermit down the road has a Supreme Star—the highest honour in the galaxy. Only true heroes get Supreme Stars. All he has to do is get the hermit to take him on as an apprentice.

At the end of the book Jorry gets his chance to be heroic and his father is proud of him. Jorry, however, discovers that being a hero isn’t all he thought it would be, and that sometimes deeds other people deem heroic are not ones he is proud of.

As you can see, we know a lot about how the story starts, have a rough ending, but little in between. We thought we knew how Jorry got to be a hero, but that changed. We thought we knew his relationship with the hermit, but that changed. We didn’t know anything about the alien Jorry befriended, or about fire rocks, or kin skills. They came later, as we wrote the book.

Half the fun of the story is finding out what happens as we go along.

However, if you don’t plan your series up front you never know what you’ll have to do in later stories to make the sequels fit the story.

Balancing act 1

Once something is in print you can’t change it.

For instance, in the original drafts of Linesman, we made line four the line that dealt with computers. Even in today’s world computers don’t generally get their own guernsey. Your car has a built-in computer. Your credit card has its own microchip. Your phone has apps. None of them are computers per se, they’re technology built into the device.

So instead, we made line four the line that dealt with gravity. Which worked well, because our ships had artificial gravity but until we made this change, no apparent means via their technology of doing this.

Luckily for us, we were able to change that in the rewrites. Imagine, though, if we hadn’t changed it in time. You can’t change it in book two. Whatever is set in print is what you have to use in ongoing books.

As you build your world, book by book, you have to remain true to the universe you have created. There are some things you’ll get wrong. Even now, finishing book two, we find little niggles that we would change if we could back in book one.

Balancing act 2

I said in an earlier post that we didn’t initially start off writing three books about the same character. We started writing stories set in the same universe, with characters common to both stories, but with different protagonists.

We hope some of these books might published one day too.

The first one—let’s call it Acquard, after the protagonist—is set around a specific event. This event happens early in book two of Linesman. Once it’s happened, Ean Lambert, our protagonist from Linesman, knows what Acquard (and Rossi) discover in Acquard. It’s not something Ean would ignore.

We can ignore it and pretend it never happened, which means that Acquard the book will end up under the bed, because so much of the book is based around a specific event.

Our agent may not like the story, in which case it will end up under the bed anyway. Even if she does like it, she may not be able to sell it. After all, we don’t know if Linesmen will sell enough to warrant another series yet. Also under the bed.

But we like the story, and the characters, and we have enough faith in it to want to assume that it will eventually become part of the line series canon. Which means we have to include characters we wouldn’t have otherwise, and the reader has to know what Ean knows without giving away too much of Acquard‘s plot. And we have to make it fit into Ean’s story without it being an obvious add-on, so our editor doesn’t automatically say, “Cut [this character’s] scenes. They don’t add anything to the story.”

It’s a balancing act.

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