Writing Series

Excellent post the other day from Nathan Bransford on writing series. He’s already covered before how to mention sequels in your query letter (and it doesn’t read like “This is the first in a seven-volume epic”), but now he’s weighed in on writing the series at all:

…I haven’t actually blogged about whether an unpublished author should set out to write a series in the first place. My opinion? You shouldn’t.

I completely agree with him, and that’s based on some hard-won experience.

Throughout college, I wrote a fantasy trilogy. Now, if there’s any genre that you might manage to publish a series straight off, it’s fantasy. Fans do love the door-stops, and the more to stack up the better!

As a writer, the series is alluring–expanded scope, no new world to create every time, more space to work events and subplots into. Plus, a lot of my favorite authors at the time were writing expansive, multi-volume series. I set off to write my trilogy, front to back over the course of a couple years.

But the truth is that the greater length introduced more problems than it solved. As a developing writer, my craft grew over the course of the series. By the time the third book, my writing was much better than when I started. But so many of the problems in the first book were deep structural issues, and my best efforts to rescue it came to naught. And that’s the rub–no matter how great the series may get, you have to sell it off that first book. No publisher will wait for book two, three, or five for the big payoff.

I made a half-hearted effort to sell the first book, but I knew it wouldn’t cut it. A complete rewrite would have been necessary, and although I loved it dearly, the whole series went in the drawer. I haven’t regretted it since.

Nathan’s spot on about this. If you’re a first-time author, the deck’s already stacked against you. You can’t afford to save cool stuff for later. This book has to snap, crackle, and pop all on its own. If there’s potential for a sequel (like my current WIP), that’s good, but don’t let the series drag your first book down.

Of Pens and Gel

I normally follow Rands in Repose for his humorous, insightful commentary on software development and managing programmers. However, the other day he posted on a topic which, I daresay, is as close to my heart as writing code: gel pens.

I avoided a total pen breakdown for a few months simply by looking for this pen in my home and work environments, as I was sure I’d find remnants of the six boxes of pens that had mysteriously liberated themselves from my office over the past four years. In a week, I’d built a small stockpile of reclaimed, partially used pens, but it is a fundamental law of office supplies that a pen wants to be free. Despite my best efforts, my stockpile was slowly depleted.

From there he proceeds through an insanely detailed testing of several pens, with checkbox grids laying out the various factors considered. It reads like the sort of thing I’ve considered, but narrowly avoided doing myself. “I’m nuts,” I’d say. “It’s just a pen.” I have, however, probably spent days worth of time pacing the pen aisles at various office stores, searching for that perfect pen.

My own criteria have a lot in common with Rands’:

  • Gel ink is the absolutely a must. Smooth, less likely to bleed, lasts longer (in my unscientific observations)
  • Clicking pens annoy me… and that’s just when I’m clicking them obsessively myself. Capped pens are the word of the day since I carry one in my pocket.
  • A narrow body is preferred to the more chunky varieties. I don’t need lots of padding or jumbo grips.

Since I’m going to be writing more new material in the near future, it might be time to start hunting for a new pen myself. Hurray!

Line-edit Luvin’

Polishing my novel while waiting for replies from partials (fingers crossed) , I’ve got line-editing on the brain. My pal Nate also gave me some excellent editing, and it’s got me noticing new patterns in my writing… the type of pattern I want to get rid of.

As always, these are not rules. I’m sure there are cases where these constructs are fine, necessary even. However, I’ve noticed in my own work that they tend to bulk up sentences and drag down the pace.

Agreement in dialog — This is a variation on the classic don’t-write-dialog-like-people-actually-talk rule. An offending sentence goes like this:

“Yeah,” he said. “That’s what we ought to do.”

What purpose does the “Yeah” serve? The remaining dialog makes it clear he agrees. Why not let that well-crafted response carry its own weight?

Superfluous location/timing tags — In these cases, a sentence ends with “there” or “then.”

After looking at the end-table, he set his mug down there.

Most of the time these extra tag show up when the location/time was mentioned separately before in the sentence or paragraph. As long as its clear from the context, though, that last word can go.

Doubled-prepositions — Not sure that’s exactly the right grammatical name, but I use these a lot with “back” or “down” in particular:

He put the magical item back in his bag.

Sometimes that “back” might be significant, but if it was clear he got the “magical item” out a moment ago, it’ll be clear he’s putting it back already. The word can simply vanish. Another culprit on this count is “off of” which can almost always turn into a simple “off”

Adding to my own nitpicking, read an excellent, more general blog post on this a few days ago too on the Deep Genre blog. Good stuff to keep.

8-bit Paradise

Fifth anniversary… that’s the one where you buy your wife consumer electronics, right?

Well, in our household it was. Despite her general apathy toward video games, my wife over the past few months became quite interested in the Nintendo Wii. The active gameplay was something she could get into, and she knew that deep down I do like video games (although I’m by no means a gamer). After some difficulty we found one, and it’s been a lot of fun. I might write about it in general at some point–Nintendo’s doing something fascinating with their unique controller style.

But that’s not what’s prompted this entry. Oh no, think low-tech. Because you see, the Wii has an emulation mode that plays games from the NES, SNES, and N64 systems. They’re available for download on the console using the wifi connection our router already had (and which actually wasn’t being used until we got the Wii arrived).

My birthday rolled around last week, and Amber got me a classic controller that plugs into the Wii Remote, and 2000 Wii Points to download games. I snatched the original Super Mario Brothers, Metroid, and the Legend of Zelda.

As revolutionary as the Wii’s new interface is, there’s something deeply satisfying about returning to the old 8-bit games. The NES was the first gaming console I played much as a kid. A couple friends had Atari’s before that, but the NES defined video games for me.

But I never actually owned one. I guess that’s part of it. I always waited to play Mario or Metroid at a friend’s house. Now I can play it any time I want.

Overall, I’m impressed with how seamless Nintendo’s made the whole process. Nintendo emulators have existed on the web, but it’s always been too much trouble. Now it’s point and click to grab some of the greatest blasts from the past.

My only beef is with the credit-card entry buying Wii Points–it’s a bit unwieldy, and failure on the validation kicks you back to the first step. There’s an entry space for the county your billing address. County? I’ve never entered that on a credit card purchase before. Skipped it, hit to Buy and BEEP, no good. I ended up entering your credit card and address again from scratch at least twice. Anyway, you can buy Wii Points cards in real-world stores too, so I’ll probably do that next time to avoid some tedium.

So far I’ve been fulfilling my original NES cravings, but there are several great SNES games that I’m looking forward to after that. Never really played N64, but there’s plenty in the NES/SNES world to keep me happily entertained for a long time.

The little boy inside of me is smiling… and he wants to go play Nintendo!

Books: Giants in the Earth

Inspired by my good friend Nate, I’m planning on blogging more about what I’m reading. Kicking that off is a book that I read earlier in the year, meant to write about, but didn’t actually get to at the time. Better late than never!

The book is Giants in the Earth, by Ole Edvart Rolvaag. Nate recommend it, and given how highly he spoke of it, I couldn’t refuse. It falls well outside my normal reading, and that made it even more fascinating and unique. Written in the early 20th century in a dialect of Norwegian, even the translation is clearly a work from another time and culture. For the first couple pages the wording and pace seemed odd, but after a while the rhythm gained familiarity. In the end, it became an integral part of the story, evoking the setting and pace of life in ways that more modern structure and syntax wouldn’t have.

Giants in the Earth tells the story of Norwegian settlers coming to the Dakota prairie. It follows one particular settlement, and focuses mostly on a single family–Per Hansa, his wife Beret, and their children. It goes into great detail about the day to day struggles they faced just living on the plains of Dakota. Normally, I wouldn’t associate this with an exciting read. However, the book manages to bring alive the toils of simple survival in those times. It taps into something primal, and suddenly how they constructed shelter, how they sowed crops, how they fought against the elements becomes vitally important and engaging.

Beyond that, the story also had a surprising darkness. Often we get a picture of the hardy American pioneers suffering through adversity with a moral fortitude that isn’t realistic. It simply isn’t human to be in the type of pain and difficulty those people endured and not at least wonder whether you made the right choice, worry for your life, or wish you could be somewhere else. Giants in the Earth portrays that vividly. Here’s a pioneer story fraught with depression, home-sickness, fear, even thoughts of suicide and murder. I’m a sucker for a grim book, and this worked powerfully to transform how I think about those people who headed out west into danger.

And the ending… wow. No spoilers, but suffice to say, you ought to read this book.

Polish, polish, polish

With partials in the mail, it’s time for my “final” pass through my novel, Dreams of a Shaper. You’ll note the quotes around final, and they’re there for a good reason–I don’t actually think I’m done. On that happy day when I get an agent and/or publisher, I expect more work for certain.

However, here final means I’m closing on the limits of what I can see to do myself. I’m finding typos, hastily disposing of unnecessary adverbs, and fixing occasional clunky sentences (often the result of prior editing), but by and large the pages say pretty much what I meant them to. I’m not a writer drawn to the eternal revising some find so attractive. I’ve already spent seven years with this book. Frankly, that’s too long and I’m ready for something different.

But before I can wholeheartedly move to the next project, this last polish has to be done. I’ve got to look at it again, because the next person to see it after that will be an agent or publisher who’s requested a full.

How do you finish off a long project? Are there any tricks you use to finally set it aside, or are you already prepared to move on once the first draft is in the bag?

Oh, the questions they ask

An interesting part of the pitching experience that, in retrospect, should have been ultra-obvious was the question I might get asked. I didn’t consider it much before-hand–combination of nerves and other fish to fry, such as nailing down the essence of my story.

But questions were asked. Some I fared all right with, others I muddled through. This is clearly not the list to end all lists, but here’s what I was asked:

Stand-alone vs. series–This fell into the easy-to-answer category, and is particularly relevant to sff where long epic sagas proliferate–especially unpublished, long, epic sagas. My answer seemed to be what they wanted to hear: stand-alone, with potential sequels. Although a series can get sold, it means convincing someone to fork over for not one book, but three (and I hope it’s only three for your sake). Better to hit them hard and leave them wanting the next installment.

What books would you compare it to?–This one nailed me. I’ve thought about it before, but never come up with a compelling answer that I feel captures the style and world of my book. It wasn’t a deal-breaker, but I sure didn’t feel sharp scraping my brain on a moment’s notice for something intelligent to compare it to.

Earth-based vs space-based?–This actually highlighted in my first pitch that my setting wasn’t crystal clear. Especially if you are working in an alternate universe, grounding is important. I filled in at the time and made more direct references to locations in the later pitches. I definitely recommend listening carefully to what’s being asked, though, to see if it signals something you should have given in the main pitch.

What’s the ending?–I actually had some preparation on this one since my pitch leaves it hanging. No one asked directly, but my friend Heather has been asked it in pitching before. I’m glad I’d considered how to succinctly answer that because otherwise it would have been easy to blather.

Where can we back up the truck-loads of money?–Haha, just kidding. Certainly didn’t get asked that… at least not this time around 🙂

Ship it

So I’ve just posted my big high-level recap of pitching at the Willamette Writers Conference. While I finished up editing that, I actually got to the (short-term) finish line, and the partials are in the mail–two hard-copy, one electronic.

Now for that most dreaded of all games… the waiting game. Actually, it takes a lot of the pressure off. I have a bit of final polishing planned for the rest of the book, but otherwise I’m not going to be fretting too much more over it (until such time as someone else points out something to fret about).

Soon I’ll start gathering other agents to query, but first there’s a pile of closet doors I’ve been putting off painting the whole summer. They’re calling my name, I can hear them.

The Main Event — Willamette Writers Conference 2007

I know, it’s been a week since the big conference, and the blog has been eerily silent. Well, rest assured this is a good thing. The silence comes from my feverish work in almost every spare moment (apart from a little Wii boxing for tension relief, and quality time with Amber) revising my synopsis and first fifty pages.

Yes, my pitching at the conference resulted in partial requests from each agent/editor. I’m not naming names, but suffice to say that most of the pitches were an enjoyable, if slightly nerve-wracking experience.

A couple things I learned:

  • If possible, don’t take your notes. I knew the material well enough to not bring the notes, and oddly it helped me be more at ease, more conversational. No notecard in hand, less to fidget with.
  • Interacting with the “pitchee” is the whole point–if you’re just going to give a stilted summary, why not just send a letter? The personal (if short) conversations after one pitch was actually the highlight of the conference for me.
  • Ask questions. Be prepared with specific questions for each agent or editor. I wasn’t ready enough on this count, although I pulled a few interesting questions out at the last moment.
  • Ask more questions! I asked for clarification on a few points about what they were requesting, and I’m glad they did. One editor asked for three chapters, then said, “But we really mean about fifty pages.” I mentioned this to the next agent who also asked for three chapters, and he said, “No, we just want three actual chapters.” If I hadn’t asked, I might have cut one short or flooded the other with almost twice what they’d really wanted.
  • Enjoy the experience. This was a unique and exciting time–I’d never had a novel ready to sell before, never met people in the industry, never had trotted my tale out to people who could actually get it published. It’s easy to lose sight of this in all the worry and nerves, but as my wife kept reminding me, keep perspective on what this is–a great chance to sell face to face that you won’t have too often.
  • Materials–although you probably won’t have to hand out copies during the pitch, have the following together:
    • Query Letter–better now than when you’re pressed to put a cover letter on your partial.
    • Synopsis–I got requests for a shorter synopsis, about two pages. Thankfully, I’d already drafted one that could be pared down, or I would have been even more slammed this week.
    • 50 pages–like I said, I got requests for three chapter (~30 pages for me), and for 50-75 pages. Glad I had 50 together already.

The pitches were the highlight for me, but there were also some good sessions. I especially enjoyed Larry Brooks with his “Voice” and “Breaking in/Breaking Out” talks. Great information, and he’s a really engaging speaker. Also, Liz Gorinsky doled out some excellent sci-fi specifics, along with links to some fantastic web resources.

All in all, I’m glad I went. Now to get those partials in the mail!