Category Archives: writing

July 27, 2015

Camp-Winner-2015-Web-BannerThis month has been pretty busy, as evidenced by my not being around much online. However, that’s meant a lot of good developments for me in the writing department. I decided to do an overhaul of Paladin Honor thanks to the wonderful feedback last January (how is it already July?) at Darcy Patterson’s retreat. Feedback suggested some reworking of the end mostly and I wanted to pitch the novel at the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association conference, which was two weekends ago as well, so it made sense to dive in and give the book a final polish. So, I’m ending the month not only with a freshly polished novel with a stronger ending, but also a couple of requests from pitching it. I just need to revamp the query and summary now before sending it on out. I feel victorious and productive.

captchaAlso, I’m hoping to make some changes to this website in the coming months. I’ve been getting a ton of spam comments, which is why I have the comments go off after two weeks, but I finally took the time to find and research some security things to put on it so I can re-open them again. I’m also doing some larger planning to try to organize my posts better… and eventually will probably bet get a theme that works better on a tablet. Marketing is one of my weaker things and I’d like to improve. Ultimately, I’d like to blog more on focused subjects, probably Anthropology and world-building for fantasy, science fiction, and historical novels, since most of mine fall into those categories.Kathul

Another thing that’s happened these last few months, is that I’ve written a joint novel! This was actually a huge surprise, since neither of intended to write a joint novel. While I’ve fallen into writing a few books when I didn’t mean to, this is the first one I’ve written entirely by accident. It started out as a fluffy crossover project, when during rping with one of my long term writing partners. One of my characters wanted to visit one of hers and help her solve a problem, and since we weren’t doing much at the time, we went ahead and wrote it. The thing ended up about 100k and we had a great time and considered it just fun writing practice.

Fast forward three years, and my friend dug it up at one point while revising another story and re-read it. It was actually a full novel, with proper character arcs, plot, and a great climax. It just needed some things to be filled out in the middle of it and for us to re-frame the book to make it unclear if my troll was a supernatural creature a construct of the MC’s imagination. We both dove into editing it and now we have a new great book!

On the downside, all this productivity somehow obscured me finalizing some art problems with my Calico Avenger book. I promise to get that fixed and out for sale soon! My new deadline is September 1st, and this time I promise it will happen!

 

The Writing Life: Missing Pieces

puzzle 1I did one earlier post likening writing to completing a puzzle and since I do enjoy puzzles (especially dragon puzzles) I mentally keep coming back to the idea. I like to buy puzzles at second hand stores because they’re usually only one to three dollars and most of them end up a good buy. If there’s one or two pieces missing I might keep it if I rather like the picture, but if it’s only so-so, I recycle the puzzle and spare other people the frustration of finding it incomplete. I’m not sure why more people don’t do this with incomplete puzzle, honestly. They’re cardboard after all and who really wants a puzzle with missing pieces?

I recently bought one that had thirteen pieces missing! What person thought, gee, I bet someone would like to buy this for two dollars and have the frustration of putting it together and miss thirteen pieces! I can’t think of anyone who would enjoy missing that many with a free puzzle, let alone one you buy! Which is when it occurred to me exactly what a puzzle missing pieces is like: a novel that ends on a cliffhanger.

You can see most of the picture, even with thirteen pieces missing, you can extrapolate what goes in the missing spots, but it’s just so unsatisfying. And depending on where those pieces are, extremely aggravating. Once a useless puzzle I bought had only one piece missing, but it was the horse’s face. Talk about a way to ruin a picture! And that’s exactly what a cliffhanger is like. Missing the face or some other essential part of the picture.

puzzle 2I can put up with a few loose ends in a novel, if I enjoy the story it’s making. Some missing sky, or even, while irritating, pieces of the main figure if the rest is really awesome. But it’s really hard to forgive a book that ends with a major plot point unfinished, especially on a cliffhanger. And while part of the game with second hand puzzles is wondering if you’re going to have all the pieces or not, if I paid more than a dollar or two for it, I’d be mad. If it was a new puzzle, I’d return it to the store.

Most people feel the same way I do. In all the writers and readers I’ve talked to in various groups, online, or at conventions, I’ve only met two people out of hundreds who expressly said, “I like a cliffhanger at the end of a novel.” Most people will feel cheated, frustrated, and ready to dump your book in the recycling bin.

Now, I’m not saying you have to tie up everything in a book, particularly if its a series. But a novel should offer a complete picture of some kind, an interconnected whole that is intriguing and satisfying.  Sometimes I see novels in critique where the conflict is mostly wrapped up, the characters all reconcile and then the author adds a final chapter that puts them all back in conflict. This is particularly irksome. It’s like an ad for book two. Trust your reader. If they like book one, they’ll come back for book two.

Unfortunately, unfinished and cliffhanger ending books have gotten more popular with publishers as well lately, moving me to often not buy or read a series until it’d done, to make sure I get an end. For example, after hearing book 2 ended on a terrible cliffhanger, I decided not to read Hunger Games until the whole thing was published, and borrowed the book from a friend rather than buying it to see if I’d even care for it. While I did enjoy it, I found it irritating how deliberate cliffhangers were placed at the end of the first two when the first one especially could have easily ended with a focus on winning vs an unfinished dilemma of who to fall in love with, sigh.  It definitely made me think less of the author.

But that was more like missing a couple pieces, not thirteen! What was worse was once a Piers Anthony book I read where the main character were traveling through a series of parallel worlds and got caught up in a conflict in one and thus stuck in it. Now, I was fine with the book ending before they got free of the whole parallel world problem, it seemed like it was going to wrap up with them ending the conflict, escaping the world they got caught in, and traveling on to try to reach their ultimate destination that would happen in future books. I would have been fine with that. Instead the book had a final chapter after they finally wrapped it all up, where they traveled into the next parallel world and promptly got caught. I was so angry at the cheap trick, I’ve sworn off all the author’s future work. While I liked the characters, I no longer trusted the author could tell a story that I could enjoy ultimately.

I know that this sort of stupidity has become allowable in the publishing world these days, but do you really want your novel to read like a second hand puzzle?

Camp Nanowrimo: Into the Woods of Revision

camp 2015

It’s that time of year. April is almost upon us, and for those active in the world of Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) it’s time to consider doing the April camp.  For those of you who don’t know about camp, here’s the basics: it’s a smaller additional twice a year Nanowrimo challenge in which you chose your word count or project. Finishing a started project, short stories, editing, graphic novels or screen writing are no longer rebels but official projects. Often I use the camps to give myself that extra bit of motivation to get whatever project I’m working on finished. Unfortunately I don’t always “win” camp, like I do the official event.work

This happens because when I sign up they have the default 50k goal sitting in the box and when I look at it, ready to change it to my planned goal something in me goes, wait! You can do 50k, really! Why change it? After all, you really want this project done. Only, unlike in November where I’ve set aside other obligations for the last ten years and everyone knows I’m busy, I have other stuff going on during the months of April and July. But since anything I get done is a victory in a larger sense, I find it useful anyway.

Silver creek trailThis year, though, I want to do something dramatic, bold, and brave! So, off I venture into the deep woods of revision! I want to turn a good novel into a brilliant one. The book is one I’ve been working on for several years, has been through several rounds of critiques at Critique Circle, and several full book beta tests from close friends. After doing everything I could, I still didn’t feel confident about it though. Despite knowing the book and the writing were strong and supposedly market-ready, it nagged on me that I was still missing something. That it wasn’t as good a book as some of my others. So I took the book to Darcy Pattison’s novel retreat.

In a group with three other novelists, we worked through the exercises in Novel Metamorphosis interspersed with lectures from Darcy and small group discussions. What came out of that retreat was a focused map for revisions, one I’ve been honing this last week by doing some of the exercises in the book I didn’t have time for the retreat schedule being so focused. Unlike other camps, I’ve got my backpack full of tricks and a detailed map of what I’m adding and subtracting from the novel. And thus I’m going to be big, brave, and bold. The novel is 85,000 words long and I’m going to edit each and every one of them, so I’m upping that number on the nano goal to 85k.

And considering this novel is about the age of Charlemagne, I feel quite justified in using the traditional battle cry as I get myself fired up for April 1st: Monjoy!

The Calico Avengers Strike Back

It’s almost time for another adventure on the high seas! Captain Calico Patrick, his first mate and brother Natty, and their loyal German shepherd-collie cross friend Rifky will soon return in an all new Calico Avengers sequel. The book will be released on May 1st on all major ebook platforms and in hard copy from Createspace and Amazon. My awesome editor is Alexis Arendt of Word Vagabond, and here’s my fabulous cover, done by artist Leo DeBruyn:

Calico_Treasure_Web

When a mysterious thief attacks in the night, Captain Calico Patrick discovers there’s a treasure map hidden on his ship. Under the guidance of a wolf named Silver, the Avengers head off to Dog Bone Island to find the treasure. But a crew of scurvy pirates under the command of the evil Captain Halibut-guts are determined to stop them and take the treasure for themselves.

Take a peek and read chapter one.

***

As we get closer to the release date, I’ll be posting more information. Also, if anyone wants to do a review, I can send you and advance e-copy but it won’t have the inside art in it yet, but let me know if you’re interested. I’m thrilled this is almost ready! I have a third book in the works as well but haven’t yet nailed down a title. Hopefully I will get the plot kinks worked out and gear up for another release this fall to round out the series.

The Writing Life: Pitching in Person

Organized Tables, Valencia, Spain, March 2007Now that I’ve moved into traditionally marketing some of my book again, I’ve found that I get much better responses to queries when I give them in person than when I send them by email. This is something new and scary for me. I’ve only verbally pitched agents and editors a grand total of nine times, the last two just on Friday at the Portland Writing Workshop. But this limited experience means I’m also still close to the terror of doing so, because it can be quite terrifying. If you’re also new at this, here’s a quick list of what I’ve discovered learning to do it:

1) Verbal pitches work best when they are NOT the same as a query letter.

This isn’t too surprising, since written words and conversations are totally different. That’s not to say many people don’t just sit down and read their query, and the agent/editor will tolerate that, but that’s also pretty stiff. A personal connection is important when pitching. So when you prepare the pitch ahead of time, pare down the query into something about half. It should still introduce the characters, tension, and stakes of the book, but as concisely as possible. That leaves room for the agent/editor to ask questions after you give the pitch, and you can elaborate on the other aspects of the novel then. You need a prepared pitch, so you don’t blank out on talking about your novel, but ultimately it’s the conversation you want–like telling a friend about your book.

2) Make a copy of your pitch in large print or type and more space to reference. 

It’s amazing how small 12 point font in a solid paragraph looks when sitting there face to face with an agent/editor. I either double space my pitch in 16 point font or hand write it with every other line left blank on the notebook paper. If you’re pretty good at public speaking you might even just have your pitch in the form of bullet points so you can refer to them easily. The idea is, when you’re talking about your book and your brain hits a blank spot, you can just glance down and see where you left off and trigger the rest of it.

3) Practice aloud. Lots. And with other people as well as on your own.

Speaking and reading silently are totally different. You want your pitch to roll off the tongue smoothly. You want to sound polished. You don’t have to memorize it, but if you read it aloud over and over, eventually you should be able to go a couple sentences each time without looking at it, and just glance back down at it for the next bit.

Even better, practice with other people. The other people giving pitches at the event are great people to practice with. Each take a turn pitching. Practice making eye contact and sounding excited about your work (because you are, even if you’re also terrified). Then listen to their feedback and adjust your pitch if you need to. When you listen to theirs, ask questions about their book. What sorts of things does their pitch make you want to know about the book? Hopefully they will ask questions too.

4) Research the agents and editors at the event ahead of them.

Some events require you to pick the people when you register, some events you wait in line to pitch to the people you favor. Either way, you should research all the people you plan to pitch online ahead of time. A piece of paper with a few notes under each one to keep them straight during the event is a good idea.

I’ve found it’s also really handy to have this for ALL the agents/editors at the event, not just the ones you’re planning on pitching to. Sometimes there’s extra spaces for you to get in more pitches. On Friday’s event I could have signed up for some extra sessions, but since I hadn’t planned on it, I couldn’t remember which genres the remaining agents represented and so missed my chance. Sometimes the agent/editor you pitch to explains you’ve classified your genre wrong  and should try other people who represent that genre. This happened to me last summer, but luckily the event had a sheet with all the agents and what the represented in my program.

5) Treat the session as half job interview, half talking to a friend.

Before my first pitch, I was completely terrified, so I kept asking the people ahead of me how theirs went. Everyone kept saying things like, well, they’re just people, friendly people, and I relaxed and had a good time. Right. I wasn’t buying that, until I actually had my pitch session. I found that by the end of it, I totally had relaxed and just related to the agents/editors as people. Everything they’d said was true. It was like talking to a friend about writing… just a bit more formal. Be sure you have your written pitch and a pen/pencil.

Here’s my breakdown of the meeting:

Introduce yourself – Even if you have a name tag, this helps trigger normal social skills and make this a more pleasant interaction.

Tell the person if you’re overly nervous – There’s nothing wrong with saying, this is my first pitch/time doing this or I’m new at this, boy am I nervous. If you’re shaking or something, it’s even better to, first because saying it aloud will help calm your nerves, and second because chances are the agent/editor will say outright, that’s alright, don’t worry, just relax, or some other helpful response. If they’re a jerk about it, then you know they aren’t the right agent/editor for you anyway.

Give your pitch – It’s good to make eye contact. Don’t sweat reading/saying your pitch exactly the way you wrote it, so long as you cover all the points/ideas you meant to. Brief is good, because it allows for the next step.

Expect questions – If you’re pitch has done its job, the agent/editor will want to know more. They’ll ask you about your book or sometimes about you or your goals.  If there’s time, you can also ask any questions of your own you have. If they ask for materials, make sure you write down what (query, pages, synopsis), who (name and email), and how to title it (since many people use filters). Sometimes they’ll give you a business card, but taking a couple quick notes are useful when you’re trying to send the right stuff to the right person later.

Thank them – These sessions are timed usually, so this is brief and you may not have time to shake their hand, but nothing ends a pitch session than a big smile and a, “Thank you so much.”

 

Five Reasons to Write Fanfiction

stockvault-notebook-and-pen136687Fanfiction, while exceedingly popular, can often get a lot of scorn from authors. I think this is ridiculous. There’s a long history of re-imagining established stories and characters in literature. All the famous Greek playwrights wrote in one sense, fanfiction in that they took well known stories and characters and made them their own, creating new adventures or re-imagining older ones. In fact, I’m willing to go beyond just saying fanfiction is not a problem and people ought to write fanfiction (if they are inclined to).

With one caveat though: Always respect the authors’ copyrights. Don’t steal work and illegally sell stories based on their characters and worlds. Making money off other people’s work is wrong. But when done properly, there’s definitely five great reasons to consider writing fanfiction.

1) Learning Your Craft 

Fanfiction in some ways makes things easier for a beginning writer. It supplies the world building and the characters ready made. Sometimes it even provides plot, big events happening in the mainstream story that you can use in your own re-imagining. When trying to write for the first time, it can be overwhelming to create everything you need on your own. Trying fanfiction allows you to practice writing and gain skill in it with the support of elements you know are solid. I think of it a bit like tracing when learning to draw. Or copying masterpieces in learning to paint. These common exercise are used to educate beginning artists in how to do things right. It helps you learn to pick out elements in your own work that need further development when you compare them to your favorite stories.

Much of my earliest writing was Redwall or Star Wars fanfic. When I look at it, I can see ideas that I added to these worlds that were good strong ideas. Later on I kept some of those concepts and characters that originally came out of fanfiction and developed them further into original stories.

2) Keeping Enough Enthusiasm and Confidence in Your Story 

Another common problem beginning writers struggle with is believing your story is good enough to actually get to the end of it. Often writers will abandon a project because somewhere along the way they lost faith in it as a good idea. This can happen with any story, even fanfiction, but I’ve found that where fanfiction differs is you have the original story that excited you no matter what. You love something about this world or these characters, something about it got you so excited about it, you weren’t done when the story was over. You wanted more. Your brain is giving you more, filling in new ideas about what these characters are doing or how this world is changing. I find it easier to hold onto my confidence in the characters and the world when it’s so obvious popular with many people. This can help the writer stick with the story longer and thus learn more from writing it.

3) Feedback From People Who Care as Much as You

When you’re starting out as a writer, getting feedback on your work is essential. It’s the biggest way you learn and grow as a writer, to hear reader comments about how you can improve. However, as anyone who is a writer knows, it can be pretty difficult to get anyone to read your stuff. Friends and family get tired of you begging them to, and often don’t give good feedback. Joining critique groups is quite helpful, but sometimes you end up in groups where the people critiquing you don’t have the same interests in reading as you do. You might find what you’re critiquing in exchange just as boring back. While you’re all writers, you have different tastes.

With fanfiction you have an immediate community with other fans. These people are just as excited about this particular world and these characters are you are. They’re eager to read it. You’ll find their writing more exciting as well as it features the same things that excite you. On a fanfiction forum you can meat lots of people to share and connect with and to give you thoughts and reactions on your writing. It’s a fantastic way to grow as a writer.

4) Gaining Fans That Carry Over

If you have an active fanfiction community and fans who enjoy your work, sometimes that can carry over to your original work as well. These people know and love your fanfiction. They like your treatment of characters and find your style interesting. It’s also likely that your original work will have lots of the elements of the established worlds you love. I’m not saying copying, but more like they’d be in the same genre. My original books aren’t copies of Redwall or Star Wars anymore, but you can see the influences in things like animal characters, complicated family relationships, a hero on a quest to save his home or country, and other larger themes.

Many of the people read your fanfiction will likely enjoy your original work as well. Several authors have had success publishing original stories after having a large number of fans of their fanfiction work. It helps you to build up a platform from which you will eventually sell your own work.

5) You Can Make Money in Fanfiction 

Now, just to be clear, I mean LEGALLY, not trying to sell stories still under copyright. There’s several ways you can do this. First, some older properties are no longer under copyright. Notably, recently copyrights expired for Sherlock Holmes and Treasure Island. You can now legally write stories with those characters. There’s a lot of great older stuff like Alice in Wonderland or the Jungle Book. Just double check to make sure the property you’re selling actually is public domain before you charge money for it.

Sometimes, when a property is still under copyright, there are ways to get permission. If the owner of the copyright is willing to sell you or the publisher the rights, your story can be published. Peter Pan for example goes through the Children’s Hospital in the UK. Also, some larger publishers regularly put out books in various worlds like Star Trek and Star Wars. Someone has to write those books. If you’re good enough and they like your ideas, it could be you. Recently the Jim Henson Company held a contest to pick which author they’d hire for a Dark Chrystal prequel novel. If you really love the right fanfic universe, you just might be able to write in it. Just do your research about who holds the rights and the best way to legally write for them.

These days, you can even self-publish in a few established worlds. Amazon has purchased the right to sell fanfiction in several worlds through kindle publishing. These copyright holders receive a percentage of your story’s income. It’s worth checking out their list of allowed worlds to write in to see if any of them are worlds you enjoy. While it’s a limited list, it ranges from something as literary as Kurt Vonnegut’s novels to as pop culture as GI Joe. Each world has rules though that have to be followed before you can publish a story with it, so make sure your fanfiction follows the unique guidelines. Hopefully more copyright holders will be interested in joining the program in the future.

Now if only they got the rights to Redwall… and I might just return the field of fanfiction.

The Writing Life: Novel Critique Challenges

This weekend I attended Darcy Patterson’s Novel Retreat held in my area through SCBWI. Revision and critique groups are something I’m rather intimately familiar with but I wanted to try a new format for looking at a particular book that was stuck. I’d put it through an online group twice, but still hadn’t been able to articulate what it needed. The retreat was focused on whole book critiques, done by a focus group who had read each other’s whole novel all at once. I was successfully able to figure out what the book needed this way, which has made me ponder why my online group has worked so well for some projects but not for this one. I think the answer is in that there’s two basic ways to critique a novel: a chapter at a time and the whole book at once. Each process has different advantages and disadvantages.

old-books-stackedA Whole Book at Once

Ideally, a novel should be taken in as a whole. It is a complete artwork and so when getting feedback it’s invaluable to get it on the whole book. When a critiquer reads a whole book they can comment on key things like plot, pacing, character arc, setting, tension, and message from a place of understanding the whole story.

However there are several downsides. Critiquing such a large work is a strain on the reader, which means unless you pay someone to do it, often people who offer either don’t get to it, or give a very brief reaction. It’s rare someone will have the time and energy to give line by line suggestion in an entire novel unless you pay them to. So, other than a few typos, it’s rather unfair to ask someone to offer editorial comments on that scale. Still, even asking just for general reactions, I’ve found sometimes the critiquer has only a brief reaction of a few things they liked and disliked. While that is helpful, it doesn’t really dig into the novel to help dissect what it needs.

Usually if you exchange a novel with another author, the process is more reliable since the person is also awaiting your feedback. What made the novel retreat stand out was that everyone had three other people who had read their book, which meant the whole small group could debate each novel in detail, answering specific exercise questions posed by Darcy. This was extremely effective because when one person was unsure why they felt a certain way, either the question or other member’s ideas would help spark them to find words for why this or that part was something they felt worked or didn’t.

workChapter by Chapter

While the experience was intense and awesome, it did take a large chunk of time reading the three other novels and thinking about what I thought before the retreat. Then, it was an intense weekend that I had to set aside for the process. Unfortunately, not only do critiquers not usually have that much time to put aside to help me, I don’t usually have that much time to devote to the process. This is where chapter by chapter critique groups come.

Usually there’s a set meeting schedule where everyone comes together and critiques either a single chapter, or in some groups a set amount of words. The most common schedules are once a week, every other week, or once a month. Everyone comments on the chapter, whether aloud (in a real life group), or in email/forums, on an online group. While this make some overall things harder to see, it gives more time to individual scenes and chapters, allowing for more in depth comments, and also help with sentences, grammar, description, or other specific writing problems.

Both processes are very helpful, and I think this weekend’s retreat underscored to me that ideally a book should be critiqued both ways. When one doesn’t help me find the problem, it makes sense to try something different, until I do. Hopefully, this next draft will be a definitive one!

Camp is here!

2014-Participant-Vertical-BannerI love to go camping. Something I will have to wait until I get my car back from repairs to do. Siiiigh. But until then, I can go to Camp Nanwrimo! This summer version of Nanowrimo (the main event is in November) is a lot more relaxed. Writers can pick their word count goal, if they’re writing a novel, script, short stories, revising, etc. Any writing project is acceptable. And while I’m super busy with both writing Much Ado About Villains and proofreading Dragon Boy for the Pacific Northwest Writers’s Association conference Sea-tac, I just couldn’t resist getting myself together to make a goal for July’s camp.

Good thing I’m not really going camping until August! I won’t have time.

I debates setting a new goal for Much Ado like I did in April, but I need a break from my intensive schedule and some mental room to work on Dragon Boy and the conference, so I decided I’d finish one of my other novels that was unfinished. I’m attending a workshop next January (no one can complain I don’t plan ahead at this rate) where I’ll be in a small group going over a chosen novel and so I picked one that was unfinished but I really cared about for the workshop called Mortal Friends. I need to send a full draft in to my group partners by the end of November, so now’s the perfect time to squeeze it in. I’m pretty excited to finish this book, as it’s one that’s special to me. Here’s the blurb:

Conrad (Con for short) the goblin is forced to join the Horde to help his impoverished mother keep her house and his sister out of an early and disgusting marriage. Life in the Hoard stinks, he’s bossed around by the other goblins, the food’s no good, and the heroes just cut through them no matter how hard they fight or try and defend themselves.

His brother Swindle watches his back though, and gets Con a nicer position—guarding a captive princess. The Princess Irene is slated to marry the goblin prince in a plan to bring the Golden Lands under the Horde’s control.  Bored with guard duty, Con first reassures her, then teaches her how to sword fight, accidently becoming friends. As the wedding draws near, Con can’t stand the thought of watching it happen, but can he help her escape without being a traitor to his people?

I’ve kept my goal at 50k, the length I hope the book will end up at, because before finishing it I want to go over what I’m keeping and revise it. I’m hoping for a whole draft by the end of the month so I can get back to villains.

Now, to everyone else doing camp this month, let’s get writing!

What kind of series is best?

One of the most powerful marketing tools of our time in any form of story telling is the series. Every summer movie 2 or 3 or 4 comes out in some series. Books too, have lately been more and more series. Harry Potter, Twlight, Hunger Games, Game of Thrones. People just can’t get enough of series these days. Readers like knowing what they’re getting and a series promises more of the great story you love.

Yet, how do you write a series? A book is difficult enough, but three books? Four? Six? In my experience, there’s actually several ways to write a series. In considering the various ones I’ve read, here’s some categories to help think about what kind of series is right for you:

One Long Book

LOTR seriesOn one end of the spectrum, there’s a series that is basically one story, one very long story, and so it’s broken into several parts, Lord of the Rings being a good example. Reading just one book, you don’t get a full story arc. The story just stops and the next part picks it up. You have to read the whole thing to find out what happens to Frodo and the Ring, or Aragon and his kingdom.

The advantage of this kind of series is that you have it as a full idea. You know where you are going from the beginning. You have a built in hook that keeps your readers coming back, wanting the resolution of the story. But that can also be a disadvantage. If you get stuck on one book, all your books are in jeopardy because none of them can stand alone. Readers aren’t going to be pleased waiting around for the next installment because nothing is resolved. Or they may wait until all the books are published. Hearing the first two Hunger Games books ended on cliffhangers, I assumed it was this sort of series and didn’t bother to read any of the novels until the series was fully published. Or, if your story isn’t one that really needs this many words to tell it, you end up with too much padding and it will bog it down.

A series that is one long book is a big time commitment for an author. Make sure you have a story that you love enough to work that long on it, and this kind of series may work well for you.

Episodic

boxcar seriesOn the other end of the series spectrum, in my mind, is an episodic series. In this form, each book is a distinct episode, complete in every way. Rather like a TV sit-com where. As a kid, such series like “The Boxcar Children” or “Encyclopedia Brown” were like this, and adult mystery series are often in this category as well. A non-mystery example would be something like “Hank the Cowdog.” The same main characters show up each book but have a different adventure. In a truly episodic series, the characters don’t change much, if at all between books. You can often read the books out of order and it doesn’t matter too much, since each one is contained.

The strength of this sort of series is you can write a fresh story each book. That usually means episodic series can last a lot longer on average than a one book series. People don’t need a long attention span to recall the overall situation because that changes each time as the characters face a fresh problem. The weakness is that the characters don’t tend to grow or change. They are fairly stagnant and after a while might feel repetitive. For those reasons, it’s harder to write deep books or great works of literature with this sort of series.

An Overall Character Arc

HP seriesThis sort of series takes a middle ground between the first two. Each book stands somewhat on its own, with a full independent plot and structure, with climax and resolution, but the series as a whole is following the personal journey of the main character. This culminates in the climax of the final book where themes and characters from earlier points in the series often come together for a final confrontation. Often there is a villain who has shown up in smaller contests in a couple of the earlier books who is the main problem of the final book.

Harry Potter obviously follows this format. We meet Voldemort in book one, but he hardly shows up in book 3, and while he’s behind events in books 5 and 6, other conflicts and delving into the past are more central to those plots. Another great series of this format is “The Song of the Lioness Quartet.” While Duke Rodger is young Alanna’s nemesis of the series as a whole, book 3 for example, is entirely about other challenges the young lady knight is struggling with. In a character arc series, what holds the books together is the development or inner journey of the main hero across a number of plots, not just one… and yet these encounters culminate in a larger climactic end as well.

The advantages as an author is you can have the building pressure of an overall conflict, like in one long book, but without the restriction of sticking to one plot. Your main character can take a year off battling the ultimate evil to find himself traveling with nomads, or exploring some distant area of your world. But as Rowling herself recently admitted over the Ron-Hermione romance, you can also fall into difficulties trying to keep the framework of your larger story while handling your characters developing and changing during all those side plots. If your characters change too much, some of the end you originally had envisioned won’t feel true anymore.

Historical or Generational

redwall booksThis is also a bit between the first two kinds of series, not all one book but also not entirely episodic. However, unlike a character arc bases series, this sort of series is centered around something other than a character. A period of history, a dynasty of kings, a family across six generations. Each book generally does stand as a separate work, with it’s own character arcs, problems, and resolutions, but then the next book is the next chapter of history or the next generation of the family, and their new struggles. Unlike a character arc based series, there often is not a building culmination to some final contest. The point is more to follow a place or people through time and enjoy the many stories involved.

I haven’t read “Game of Thrones” but I understand from my friends who have, that it is more this sort of series. The very successful Redwall series is this sort, following the history of Redwall and Salamandastrom across the ages with different heroes, different villains. Some books a direct sequels, but no hero gets more than two books before we move on to their child, grandchild, or some other young animal upon who the sword of Martin and the office of warrior is bestowed. It generally helps to read the books in this sort of series in order, but they often don’t have to be… nor are they always written in historical order.

Not having an overall building focus to the series can have a lot of advantage as an author in opening up possibilities and new directions. You don’t need to write your books in order in this sort of series either, if suddenly something from an earlier time interests you more. However, like an episodic series, it doesn’t have a clear hook and your readers may like some books considerably better than others or skip around in the series. To balance that, some authors will write several smaller series, two to four books long following one character, all set in a larger country, world, or time period, combining the two together to try to have the best of both.

Companion Books and Looser series forms

Most series tend to follow one of those four forms, but there are a few other creative ways of connecting books, such as writing Companion Books. These usually are several books that tell the same story, but from someone else’s point of view. A recent good example is Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, which both chronicle the same war, but from the point of view of a different character. The events are not exactly the same, since the characters perceive things differently and it’s hard to say which is the “true” view of the events.

Another loose series format is to take a less important character from one book and give them their own story. Each book follows a separate plot of people who all know each other. Romance series often follow this format. We’d be disappointed if the couple we’ve invested so much energy to in book one broke up so they could fall in love with different people in book two. Instead, the hero’s brother, sister, best friend, parent, or ex-boyfriend/girlfriend is the one to next fall in love in the further books. Sometimes these books can overlap in time, sometimes they’re sequential. Perhaps if you have several unconnected books and want to make them into a series, giving them a character, place, object or theme in common can turn them into a looser sort of series. The danger of this sort of series is that readers might not get the elements they love in your original book in the following ones and thus give on the series.

A series is a great tool as an author, so it’s important to consider what sort of series is right for your stories. Writing a straight out sequel can work, but it isn’t the only way. I don’t think there’s one sort of series that works better than any other sort. It’s more about finding what’s right for the stories you have to tell. It’s important to figure out what’s true to the heart of your story, and make a series that actually works, instead of forcing your story into a form that doesn’t.

Calico Avengers have arrived!

Calico Avengers (blog)I’m excited to announce that Captain Bull and the Calico Avengers is finally out in the world!

Captain Pit Bull is the terror of the seven seas, plundering ships traveling to Catland with his team of scurvy sea dogs. Two young kittens, Patrick and Nathaniel, are galley slaves, chained to the oars below deck. With the help of the brave cabin pup Rifky, the kittens escape. Patrick swears to return and defeat Captain Bull, but can he do it before the pirate captain realizes Rifky’s mutiny?

This is a shorter chapter book, for ages 8 to 10 in reading level.  The cover is illustrated by Leo DeBruyn but the inside art is my own. I’m a bit nervous about that… while I’ve had one piece of my cat and dog art in a traveling art show in college, this is the first time it’s been published in a book. I don’t generally consider myself an illustrator, but at various points in my life people have insisted my cat and dog drawings out to be out there. When my family heard I was publishing this story, every single one of them insisted I should illustrate it. So, there you have it.

Calico Avengers is actually one of my earliest novel ideas. I remember coming up with it clearly, lying under on the floor listening to my father play music. The original idea was a Redwall fanfiction, involving mice heroes and rat villains. Eventually the heroes discovered their father was the warrior of Redwall and Salamandastrom featured somewhere along the line with all the usually suspects. Despite rationally knowing fanfiction couldn’t go anywhere (there were pretty much no outlets for that in the 1990s, really) the story took a hold of me with a fierceness that got me through writing down about half of it.

It wasn’t long afterwards that I started writing more seriously, on reason I think fanfiction is great, it often helps young writers gain the confidence to write their own stories. Realizing the idea could never be published though in its current form, I tried to find a new way to use the characters and the story. Naturally my thoughts went to my favorite game that I used to play with my best friend in grade school.

We used to play complex stories involving cats and dogs. We found humans frankly rather dull, so with all our stuffed animals as the kittens and puppies, we became the adult animals and made up an elaborate alternate world with Catland and Dogland, two nations that vacillated constantly between peace and war. The Cat and Dog war kept being revived, much to the inconvenience of those cats or dogs who had in peacetime moved to the opposite nation for business or other reasons. Most of our stories were set around a parallel time to World War II where cats were taken into internment camps when the Cat and Dog war started again, while other kindly dogs kid their neighbors in the basement. We spent hours in the basement playing versions of this and escaping the dog version of the Gestapo.

It wasn’t a far stretch from there to reworking the story as an earlier period of the Cat and Dog war… in a Victorian Era. However, after rewriting the first couple of chapters, I got distracted with ideas involving humans. As a teenager, I was finding humans more and more interesting and reading more complex literature, and my interest didn’t carry through. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I was sharing older Redwall themed writing with one of my writing partners for fun, that I dug it out and showed her the first couple chapters. She found them hilarious and drew the cutest set of dog and cat art. That got me thinking that perhaps there was a place for the story after all. I rewrote it from scratch to better fit a younger audience and turned it into this current short chapter book.

I have currently live Amazon world wide (UK link), Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords. It ought to be up on Kobo and Apple shortly, but hasn’t quite gone through. I had an art glitch on my print proof, so I had to send for a second proof… and it hasn’t arrived, but I expect it any day, and so will post as soon as the print copies are available.