New Writing Challenges


Hi, all.  I’m back, and wanted to take care of a couple of quick items before I get to today’s post.  First of all, thanks to all of you for the great comments on my posts while I was away on vacation.  I’ve read through all of them — y’all have some excellent dreams for that free year — and I added a comment to the “Writer’s Block Rant” because I thought one was warranted.  Good discussions all around.  Thanks.

Second, I noticed today when I went to post that Ed’s post on Saturday was the 600th in our archive.  Just wanted to pause for a moment to reflect on that.  600 posts.  That’s a lot of words and a lot of magic.  Thanks to all of you for your contributions to the discussions and for your interest in what we and our special guests have to say.  No you=no site.  We’re grateful.

Even after a dozen books and fifteen years in this business, I still find myself confronting new challenges.  Case in point:  I’m trying to do something right now that I have never done before:  I’m trying to begin the second book in a series of stand alone novels.  The Thieftaker books represent my fourth fantasy series.  But all the others have been extended story arcs.  This new project is different.  Each book tells a complete story — each book is a self-contained mystery.  And so in starting the second Thieftaker novel, I’m starting a book that is entirely new.  Except that it’s not.  And therein lies the challenge.

With the second or third (or fourth or fifth…) book in an extended story arc, I know exactly where to take my story.  Each book is part of a larger narrative whole, so in a sense my plotting is taken care of before I begin.  I know that I have to make progress toward the ultimate ending of the series, and usually I have a specific narrative starting point and stopping place in mind when I begin.  I know that I will have to reintoduce characters as they return to the stage, but the continuation of their stories makes that reintroduction fairly simple.

This second Thieftaker book is different for a number of reasons.  First, most obviously, I need to begin a new narrative.  I have a few clues as to where this story will go.  I know it will be set in pre-Revolutionary Boston; I know it will involve a mystery, probably a murder that my lead character needs to solve.  I know that the mystery and the political/social history of my setting need to overlap some in order to continue the historical theme I initiated in the first book.  And I know that Ethan will have to deal with his nemesis, Sephira Pryce, and will have help from his friends.

I also know, though, that I’ll have reintroduce each of those characters and will have to find ways to do so that will be as informative as their introductions in the first book, without being mere repetitions.  And here we begin to see the first of the challenges presented by the true serial versus the extended story arc.  It’s not just that I’m writing a new story; it’s that I’m hoping to attract a whole new set of readers.  With a three volume extended story arc I expect there to be a great deal of overlap between readers of the first book and readers of the subsequent volumes.  But in this case I’m purposefully writing a series that readers can pick up at any point.  I hope and expect that readers will start the series on book 2 or 3 or 4, and then go back to earlier volumes.  There is no need to read these books in order.  So I have to begin each novel as if my readers have never met any of my characters.  On the other hand, I will have readers who read the series in order and who will already be familiar with the characters when they begin this second volume.  And I don’t want to tick them off by rehashing too much from the first book.

I also don’t want my characters to be static.  Ethan is always the hero; Sephira is always his chief nemesis.  But this second book could take place two or three years after the first one.  The next (third) book could coincide with the Boston Massacre, and so would be five years after the first volume.  These characters will have changed in that time.  Not a lot, but enough to keep them growing, to keep them interesting for my returning readers and for me. 

Finally, I don’t want my plots to become overly formulaic.  The series has a formula, of course.  All projects of this sort do.  Mystery, history, fantasy blended into a fun and hopefully thought-provoking story.  But I want the historical events to be different — I used the Stamp Act Riots as the backdrop for the first novel.  I expressly avoided a similar event for the second book.  And I want the mysteries to be different, too, although they need to be similar enough to make Ethan’s involvement logical.  I’m getting into too much detail here, but hopefully you see my point.

More than with any of the extended story arcs I’ve written in the past, this new project demands that I strike a delicate balance between making each new book familiar to fans of the series and making each one original, even unique.  To be honest, I’m not entirely certain how I’m going to do it; I just know that I have to.  And maybe that’s the larger message of this post.  As others have said here again and again, the key to growing as writers is forcing ourselves out of our comfort zones, of trying to do more with a book or a story or even a scene than we’ve ever done before.  Those challenges can be big or small, obvious or subtle.  The important thing is to push ourselves, to strive for more in our art.

So, how are you challenging yourself with your Work In Progress?

David B. Coe


21 comments to New Writing Challenges

  • Mikaela

    Writing challenges?
    Right now I am editing a novella. No problem, right? Well, at the same time my brain wants me to work on the sequel to Angel among Demon. This has it’s own challenge, since I have no idea where it will start. Oh. And I need to describe heaven without offending anyone. *swallows some paracetamol*

  • Good luck with your series, David. You may have challenges ahead, but I’m sure you will find a way to deal with them.

    I think I probably face every possible writing challenge as I write my first novel after a year-long false step. The main one right now is confidence to keep going and push through the fear. But you folks here are so giving of your time and advice, that when I feel like I’m on a tightrope over Niagara Falls, I can find a post to talk me down. Thanks.

  • Two thoughts, David — 1) What we’ve said here many times before in regards to other things (such as world-building, character descriptions, etc) still applies. Less is more. 2) While there are differences between series and extended story arc, I’ve always said you are great at getting me back up to speed with old characters in just a few sentences. I have full confidence you’ll succeed this time too. Good luck!

  • Interesting post, David, and very applicable to my current writing situation. My most recent series, the As You Wish series, consisted of stand-alone novels, all connected by a genie who grants wishes to women who work in the professional theater. I had to solve some of the problems that you’re working on (minus, of course, the really exciting-to-me challenge of your fitting your work into real history!)

    My current WIP offers me the opposite challenge – I’m turning back to traditional fantasy, and I’m trying to work out an over-arching story arc for three novels, growing all of them out of a 5000-word short story. I’m probably going to do some tricks with narrative form, as well – all while I dust off those “traditional fantasy” muscles. Should be, um, interesting, to see how this all works out!

    I look forward to hearing more about your Revolutionary War fantasy series!

  • HarryMarkov

    I write dark books, stories, whatever. However, my newest project is YA and it has to be humorous, because the protagonist is a goofball. At the same time I need to make it emotional and heartfelt. This is a huge challenge, because I have never ever written ‘tame’ or ‘light’ stories. BUT this is a YA series, which I have devised to transition from YA to adult as the character, who is too young to handle the magical and real life challenges, morphs from innocent to cold-blooded and manipulative. And I also plan on dealing with alternative sexuality and some other delicate social themes. A lot to go wrong there.

  • My WIP is challenging me in a number of ways:

    1) Actually finishing a novel (never been done for me)

    2) Writing in a POV of a girl in a believable way

    3) Challenging me to answer theological questions in a believable way that readers can accept. This means finding answers to why bad stuff happens to good people and doing so in a way readers will accept.

  • Young_Writer

    I finished editing this morning and I realized that my setence structure needs a lot work. Right now they’re either confusing or obviously could’ve been written better.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Like a couple of other posters here, I’m still on the actually-finish-a-book challenge with aspirations of make-it-a-book-I-myself-would-actually-like. But I just wanted to add a Thank You to you and all of the other posters on this site, for talking candidly about the challenges of this sort of endeavor. In some other fields, i.e., my day-job/studies, the work is acknowledged as challenging as in only a fraction of people are expected to be ABLE to do it, but those that are must APPEAR to work with ease, to always know the right path to solution, to understand all of the necessary literature perfectly, to have perfect focus and the will and desire to put in as many hours as necessary. When there are opportunities to discuss the difficulties, it often devolves into whining with overtones of weakness. It is so wonderful to come to this site where challenges are discussed practically and sympathetically, but with sense that great things are always possible while still maintaining happiness and sanity. So, thank you.

  • Wow. Great comments — thanks to all of you. It’s nice to be back at MW and able to respond the day comments come in. And so….

    Mikaela, ah yes. The New Shiny syndrome. Always hard to work on one project while the new one beckons. But that’s part of the business, too, and one that I struggle with constantly. AS for where to start the other book — yeah, welcome to the club… 🙂

    EK, thanks. Glad that MW is helping you. I think that all writers deal with the confidence issue. We work in isolation so much of the time. It’s hard to avoid those moments of self-doubt. I find that I have to maintain faith in my creative process; I have to believe that no matter what others think, I’m writing the story that I have to write, and eventually I’ll get it to a place where others will want to read it. Easier said than done, I know. But that belief is central to overcoming the doubts. Best of luck.

    Stuart, I appreciate the kind words. I think your first point is key. Less really is more, and I have to keep reminding myself of that.

    Mindy, I find it interesting that we’re kind of moving in opposite directions — me from fantasy arcs to stand alones; you the other way. Something we should chat about the next time we have the chance. World Fantasy, perhaps. Good luck with the new project. I look forward to hearing more about it.

    Harry said, “A lot could go wrong there.” Yeah, but a lot can go right, too. It sounds like a potentially rich, fun series and I hope it goes well for you. Keep your thoughts positive and enjoy the challenges. I find that’s very important for me when I’m pushing myself. If I work from fear or reluctance, the challenges often seem insurmountable. When I come at them in a more positive way, I do better. Cliched, I guess, but true.

    Mark, I’m intrigued by challenges two and three (I have every confidence that you’ll finish the book). I always have found that some of my best characters are those who force me to step farthest from my own experience. I wonder if you’ll find the same to be true; in other words if you’ll find that writing from a female POV is actually far easier and more rewarding than you expect. And the theological issues sound fascinating. Keep up the good work!

    YW (Alexa, right?), the mechanics are always challenging, particularly early on. I found this to be true, and I’m sure others have as well. Clearly you want to vary sentence structure and length so that your work doesn’t take on a monotonous feel. But you have to also strive for clarity. Not easy, and there are no quick fixes or secrets of the trade. It takes work and practice and some trial and error. But I’m sure you’ll find that balance. Best of luck.

    Hep, thanks for the kind comment. We’ve said it before here and will say it a thousand times again. This is hard. Concealing that accomplishes nothing and helps no one. To be honest, there is something self-serving in writing about these challenges. “Discussing” them helps us deal with our own writing issues, even as (hopefully) it helps others deal with theirs. Win-Win. Seems like a no-brainer to me. And I appreciate your take on what we’re trying to do here — because we do try to balance the “This is hard” posts with “But it’s not impossible and it’s so worth it.” Again, thank you.

  • David, we missed you! SO good to have you back. Hope the vacation was fabulous!

    Challenges… First, when the AKA (Gwen) wrote the Rhea Lynch MD series, I faced that on books two through four. I don’t remember how I handled it each time, but I remember loving the creative opportunity to do something old and new at once. I also read a few books in long running murder mystery series — mostly to learn how *not* to do some things. 🙂 I can’t wait to see how you deal it.

    My own challenges? I want to do a blend of old and brand new things in the next 12 months:
    1. Write book four in the Jane Yellowrock series (old, but taking the character out of her New Orleans environment into a new place, and forcing her through a crisis of identity and spirituality which will be new)
    2. Write 5 short stories (very new!)
    3. Get the Role Playing game for the Rogue Mage series finished and released. (Old and new and dragging along for four years now)
    4. Start a spinoff in the Jane Yellowrock world. Hmmm. I can do that in the short stories, can’t I?
    5. Seeing the MagicalWords.Net books come into print.(very exciting!)
    After reading your post, I’m looking forward to it all. Which I wasn’t yesterday when I was thinking about it in terms of deadlines. Thanks for that! I am so glad you are back!

  • Thanks, Faith. Good to be back. And yes, the vacation was terrific. Re-entry has been a little bumpy….

    I should look at the Rhea Lynch books. I’m looking forward to seeing how I do this, too! Hope I don’t screw it up.

    And I think your list of challenges is wonderful. Particularly number 2! Can’t wait to see your shorts. Er, as it were….

  • Beatriz


    As one who loves serials I can’t wait to see how you (re)introduce your characters and world in books 2- 11 zillion. 🙂

    Done well it is seamless and no one notices. Until I read your post today I hadn’t considered how challenging it is to find the delicate balance needed to lure in new readers without boring the ones who’ve been along for the ride since the beginning.

    Writing challenges: This week I’m editing and/or rewriting five “chapters” to add content and smooth out the bumps. I’m under a tight deadline as my designer (think editor) needs this by the end of the week. The good news? Since this is all tech writing I know how it is supposed to end and don’t have any pesky characters (other than my office mates) wandering around, trying to muck up the progress.

  • Thanks, B. As I say, I hope I don’t foul it up. Your challenges sound very similar to those I face as dealines near, notwithstanding the differences in content. My brother is a tech writer and so I know how difficult it can be, and how rewarding as well. Good luck with the rewrites!

  • As I was reading through your description of your process, my initial thought was, “Are you NUTS?????” After I got that out of my system, I then admired your committment to stretching yourself. Good luck with it… keep the sweat going!

    I’m challenging myself with my WIP, simply by finding it again. A family wedding (I come from your standard nuclear family who rarely spoke to eah other and married into one with hundreds of branches all over the country – Canada (and Europe)- A bit overwhelming when most of ’em are gathered in one place, which happens with alarming regularity) and a month-long battle with the flu.

    I know it’s here somewhere. In fact I found my back-up flashdrive just this morning, under a pile of leftover wedding paper wrappings. This bodes well. I suspect the WIP is sulking somewhere nearby. I shall have to apologise for my tardiness and immediately get back to work

  • Welcome back, David. Good to have you online again. Intersting question, interesting challenge. I know the situation isn’t exactly the same, but in some regards it reminds me of the comic books I read when I was a kid (which was, like, last year, I think). The heroes and villians never changed, so over time the question of how to keep it interesting got trickier and trickier. At least you have room for real character growth and change. I’ll be curious to see how your series develops.

    As for challenging myself, I’m writing a YA, which I’ve never done before, in a genre (fantasy), which I’ve never written in before (not traditional fantasy, anyway; a little urban/contemporary, but that’s no where near the same thing). I’m really enjoying the challenge though; it’s got me approaching writing in an entirely new way that has been good for me.

  • Widder, first of all, yes, of course I’m nuts: I write novels for a living…. Thanks for the good wishes; we’ll see what becomes of my ambitions for the books. And yes, finding the book seems a good place to start as you attempt to complete it. I would suggest multiple backups in a variety of forms — disks, flashdrives, hard drives (external as well as internal), and perhaps even a paper copy. I know of a photographer who speaks of backing up photos this way: “There are two kinds of photographers: Those who have lost precious files and those who will lose precious files.” Books are the same way — I’ve lost chapters before and it’s not fun.

    Ed, thank you. The YA sounds like great fun and definitely a change of pace for you. Looking forward to seeing it.

  • […] B. Coe at Magical Words has a post here about the challenges he’s facing in starting the second novel in his fourth […]

  • I’m sure you’ll figure it out. 🙂

    Well, I guess I’m challenging myself in a number of ways. Foremost is actually finishing the thing. That’s a first. The second is writing romance, and also writing sci-fi. I’ve mostly written fantasy of various types, but this is the first full sci-fi piece I’ve really done. I found out I actually enjoy writing what I prefer to call epic sci-fi and I’ve taken to trying a melding of both sci-fi and fantasy in other stories.

  • Hope you had a nice vacation, David!

    Well, I’ve worked on my WIP for some time, and having finished it, my big challenge has been to let go.

    By this I mean that in the process of rewrites, I have to be willing to let things go. Nothing “has” to happen how I originally wrote it if it can be done better in the rewrite. There are times when I’ve thought that it was fine as it was … only to have someone point out that it could be more. (I blame Tom for my latest realization. The beta group is pretty awesome that way.)

    The other way I’m challenging myself is with a video game tie-in I’ve been asked to write. I must produce one chapter of “bad literary fiction”, because the character is a literary fiction author who thinks more highly of herself than she is. Now I have to balance it between being “good enough” and being really, really bad. This is going to be fun.

  • Thanks, Daniel. That’s great that you’re trying out new genres. It took me a long time to build up to writing even a short sf piece, but it was incredibly rewarding when I finished it. Good luck with all the projects.

    And Moira, yes, thanks — wonderful vacation. Finally going through pictures now. Rewrites can be a very difficult challenge, but also incredibly rewarding. Maybe that’s true of all challenges and I’m just stating the obvious: Difficult, rewarding. Yeah, that sounds about right. Writing the “bad” literary fiction sounds enormously fun! Enjoy that one!

  • Young_Writer

    Thank you, David. And, yes, my name is Alexa 🙂