Writer’s Toolbag: Writing a Series Part I: Planning

So you’ve got this great idea, right?   A book series that’s going to be the next Robert Jordan, George RR Martin, and Terry Brooks all rolled into one.  It’s going to span a dozen books, with an epic cast of characters and complex themes hidden throughout.

Which is great until you consider that a half a million (or a million) words in, things have grown a little fuzzy.  It’s hard enough to write a book, oftentimes people feel like they’ve bitten off more than they can chew and writing a series is an even bigger bite.

Writing a book is a very organic process.  Your characters grow and evolve over the course of a novel.  They develop, sometimes in ways you didn’t foresee.  Now put them in a series and this process is amplified (at least, characters should change as the story progresses, that’s the point, right?).

You should go into a series with at least some idea of where you’ll end up.  Otherwise the results can be… not good.  Just how much planning you need to do varies by the type of author you are.  Some discovery authors don’t want to know the details of how their book is going to end up.  The problem there being that it’s easy to write yourself into a corner.  That’s a bad enough position to be in while writing a book, where you have to go back and edit things to fix the problem.  With a series, your earlier books may already be published.  You can’t go back and rewrite.

Outlining and having a good mental grasp of your story and characters is a good place to start.  For me, I like to break a series down into manageable chunks, typically trilogies since that’s the style of western literature, the three part act.  Each of these sections are defined by a goal, sometimes that goal is pretty simple.  (IE, the evil Chxor Empire has captured Nova Roma, the main character sets out to free his homeworld)

Knowing how that part of the series will end gives me some rules to follow in the writing of it.  Knowing my cast of characters and the situation (having done world building and character creation), I can develop the story from there, breaking it down into books and then chapters and scenes.   It sounds a lot more organized than it feels, trust me.  It involves a lot of scraps of paper, irritation, and seeing how I can fit which cool scenes into which books.  It can also lead to some panicked thought as I reach an outlined section which basically says: “Insert cool space battle here.”

I’ve found that it’s best to do a detailed breakdown of chapters and scenes only as I get close to writing the book.  If I do it too early, I don’t have the excitement about the scenes when I finally set down to write.   So I’ll have an overall idea and concept for the series, but the books will be labeled boxes where I know “stuff” will happen but I haven’t gone into exhaustive detail yet.

I know authors that feel what I do takes away the spark entirely.  They may only have a loose concept for their book and no idea where their series is headed at all.  This allows them to be more creative in their writing, but I think it also puts them at risk as they draw closer to the end of their series.  When you build up a conflict over a series, the readers want to see a properly epic catharisis.  They want the showdown and if the writer doesn’t know how it’s going to end, sometimes that showdown can be a letdown.

On the other end there are people who exhaustively outline every chapter and scene.  This takes a tremendous amount of work up front, but it pays off as I’ve seen such authors deliver books in rapid sequence and with amazing connectivity throughout the series.

I’d make a case that planning a series out gives you that ability.  You’ll know how to plant the seeds for follow-on books, you’ll know what subplots you want told and where characters are going.  When you get writing on book three or five, you’ll already have the seeds planted that Moral Blackheart is too driven and that he’s come to see anyone standing in his way as a threat, so his sudden but inevitable fall to evil will fit the story.

Planning ahead also saves you from potential headaches like: “What the hell do I do now?  My main character is the leader of a nation, he can’t go gallivanting off on a mission by himself.”  You’ll already have another character ready to step up, to be on the front lines.

Now as a caveat to all this: don’t get too stuck on the plan.  If you’re halfway through writing the book and you realize that everything has to change because the characters/setting/story doesn’t want to go that way, don’t be afraid to change the plan.  This is often a sign that you’ve developed good characters and a “real” world.

Next week I’ll go more into the actual writing process.  Thanks for reading!

Newsletter Update

Run's mug is very important to him.
Run’s mug is very important to him.

If you aren’t a member of my newsletter mailing list, here’s a heads up: next month I’ll be sending the first five chapters of The Sacred Stars, Book IV of the Shadow Space Chronicles with the newsletter.

In addition, I’ll be doing a random drawing to receive some fun Shadow Space Chronicles SWAG.

Be sure you don't drink anything he offers you.
Be sure you don’t drink anything he offers you.

As a reminder, newsletter readers get early snippets, free short stories, and other cool stuff.  Sign up by Friday to be added to the list!

Kal’s Convention Schedule Update

A quick update to my convention schedule.

I’ll still be attending MALCon here in Denver from 12-14 August.  It’s right around the corner so if you’re in Colorado, I highly recommend attending!

Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend Dragon Con this year.  The expense of travel and hotels is too much.

I’ll now be attending Honor Con in Raleigh, NC from 28-30 October.  I’m really looking forward to that one and I’m excited to attend.  It’s a military science fiction convention, so if you’re in the area you should check it out.

Because Honor Con is the same weekend as Mile Hi Con, I won’t be able to be at both places at once.  I will no longer be attending Mile Hi Con.

That’s all for now, I’ll keep you posted on further changes to my schedule.


Movie Review: Legend of Tarzan

maxresdefaultAs a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, I decided to go see Legend of Tarzan.  The movie came out recently but sort of dropped off the radar, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

Legend of Tarzan isn’t a “profound” movie for all that it has a number of potentially hot-topic subjects.  There are underlying themes of man vs nature, man vs man, and man vs himself.  Those are there, but those themes are secondary to the spectacle.  The audience is expected to feel the wonder and excitement, not to spend time thinking about existential topics.

And it works.  Legend of Tarzan manages to tackle a host of potentially controversial content and turn it into a fun adventure.  It isn’t the best move (not by far), but it is fun.

I joked after seeing the movie that it was a better superman movie than than the past two movies.  Tarzan is a strong, brave hero… just as in the books.  You aren’t meant to question his abilities or strengths, just to watch as he overcomes obstacle after obstacle.  He uses a surprising amount of compassion and empathy to overcome obstacles… or sometimes just an ability to take a beating.

All in all, it’s a fun movie.  There’s a lot of good humor and fun action.  Not an essential movie, but true to the underlying fantasy of the books.


Writer’s Toolbag: Finding Your Voice

Taxes Writer Image 2One of the first bits of professional advice I found confusing was regarding my “voice”.   At the time, I figured I’d just write a story, how I wrote it was my voice… right?

Well, sort of.  You see, a writer has a certain tone that they use when they write.  It’s a mix of word-choice, plot choices, pacing, and characterization that not only singles out who you are as a writer, but it also has effects upon your readers.

Some authors have a frenetic tone that writes a book fast and also makes for a quick read.  Such styles lend themselves well to fast, action-oriented stories.

Other authors are driven by the details.  Sections of dense, complex prose is there to lay out the world in a clear, enriched fashion.

There’s no one “right” way to do this, just what works for you as an author.  I find that I have a different voice when I write military science fiction than from my epic fantasy series.  Some of that is necessary in that you don’t want “modern” terms and comparisons in a fantasy setting (at least, not without good reason).  Some of that is simply that I’m writing with a different goal in mind.

Voice plays into reader expectations as well.  As you develop readers and fans, they come to expect a certain voice.  If you don’t write that way, it can lead to confusion.  They may not be able to pick up on what’s wrong, but they’ll feel it.

So how do you develop your voice?  Well, in a big part, it’s simply how you write.  The words you chose and the way you shape your story.  The central piece of this is understanding your voice.  It comes back to your central ideas and your unique perspective.  The details that you pick out to put into your writing, the way that your characters react to events, even the colors you take the time to mention.

There are dozens of books on finding your voice.  The central part that I’ve found is writing more.  As you become more comfortable with writing, as you relax and enjoy it, you infuse what you write with more and more of yourself.  The things that get you excited, the scenes that you love, that will speak with your voice.


CLFA Book Bomb

Today is a day where you have the opportunity to find not just one or two, but twenty good books.  Conservative Libertarian Fiction Alliance has a book-bomb going on, where they’ve selected twenty good books for your reading pleasure.  (I happen to be one of the twenty)

CLFA Book Bomb! July 18 & 19

I’ve read and even reviewed several of the books on the list.  If you have the time and inclination, get over there and check them out.  They’ve got a variety of books in all kinds of genres, from space opera to urban fantasy, mysteries and even non-fiction.  Give it a look, support authors, and most importantly, find something fun to read.

How Pokemon Go is Changing the World

Pokemon-GOI took a walk last night.  And before you roll your eyes, no, I’m not playing Pokemon Go.

What I was doing was walking around and watching people (I do that as an author, it helps write better characters).  I’ve seen a number of disturbing trends in our society, not least of which is a decline in, well, being social.

What I saw was a park filled with people, more people than I’ve ever seen there before.  Old people, young people, black people, white people, Hispanics, Asians, families, and individuals, all of them walking around, pausing to talk with one another, and then going about their business.  They’re playing a silly game… but more importantly they’re having fun and they’re thumbing their noses at the cynicism and world weary attitudes that have made our current society so dark.

I hear nothing but criticism online and especially through the media. What that tells me is that the usual magnets of entertainment are afraid.  They’d rather you were glued to your smartphone reading the latest bad news (shootings, now with more bloodshed!) or absorbed in the current trainwreck of an election cycle.  The last thing they want is people outside, talking with one another in a friendly fashion.

Pokemon Go isn’t anything particularly new.  It’s a rehashing of a 1990’s era Nintendo game which at its root is just a scavenger hunt.  If it gets people out of their house, out of their normal comfort zone and most importantly, talking to one another in a civil, friendly fashion… then what’s the problem?

I’ve heard criticism from all kinds of angles.  “Criminals are using it!” Well, hate to break it to you, but criminals also use dating services, want-ads, and the internet.  “It’s disrespectful to have them chasing these things through location X!”  At least it has people showing up, there, right?  The vast majority of people I’ve seen playing this game aren’t just walking around, their noses pressed to their screens.  They’re walking around looking at things, checking their phone and walking again.  If this gets someone to visit a memorial or a church, then they might see something or experience something that they wouldn’t either see or do.  And I’m sorry, but I can’t think of anything that would be inappropriate about the happy laughter of kids  in a place like Arlington National Cemetery.   You know what that is?  It’s freedom to live life and it’s wonderful… it’s what those who gave their lives for.

There’s plenty of other spurious arguments.  Most of them come back to “it’s silly.”  So is being a grumpy curmudgeon.  Go out and watch people.  They’re having fun, they’re being a little silly, and if you ask me, that’s just what this country needs right now.