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 http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://magicalwords.net