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!

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