Big Ideas, Little Time


One of the huge advantages to not yet being published/under contract is you can pursue a big idea when it comes your way. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I feel strongly that you have to, y’know, finish writing books if you ever want to get published, but say you’ve just finished a book and you’ve got this one specific idea percolating at the back of your mind. Suddenly you’re free to write it, pretty much no holds barred.

This is not something you really appreciate until you can’t do it anymore. And believe me, I do understand that this is a “wah wah poor you” kind of statement–but it’s also an interesting one to look at in regards to being a professional writer.

Most of us–not all, but most–are writing series. My publishers, in fact, made it clear to me a year or so ago that I didn’t have the name recognition to risk a stand-alone; it was too likely, they felt, to get lost in the general masses of book releases. This, I bet, will clash with something many of you have been told, which is “don’t try to sell a series,” but my life-long experience, both as a reader and a writer, is that publishers like series. Readers like series; they like continuity. Sure, there are exceptions, but authors keep writing series for a reason. My personal interpretation of “don’t try to sell a series” is a lot more like “don’t write five books in one series before you’re published. Write one. Then write a book in a different series. Then write another book in a third series. Then maybe go back to the first series and write a second book. Then write something else entirely. Then…(you get the idea).”

That was not where I was going with this. πŸ™‚ It does, however, kind of tie in to what I do want to say: once you’ve gone pro and are under regular contract, the chances of having time & financial stability to start something completely new diminish. There are a couple reasons for this: one is you might have committed to a longish series, like I have (The Walker Papers are intended to be 9 books), or you may become known for writing a specific kind of story, which can be surprisingly hard to break out of. I write–well. I’ve been writing about 3 books a year since 2004, all under contract (that’s four different series, folks. See the above paragraph? Three of those series came from exactly the described behavior: I’d written all or huge chunks of six first-books-in-a-series before getting published, and three of the four series that sold were from that pool). This has been fantastic in every way–it’s let me be a full-time writer since before my first book hit the shelves–but a flip side to it is that I have some Big Ideas that I would dearly, dearly love to develop…and I quite literally don’t know if I’m ever going to have time to do it.

One of my personal hot topics is environmental issues; it’s at least partly a result of growing up in Alaska and having very clearly seen the effects of climate change in my lifetime. I desperately loved Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Science in the Capitol” trilogy, which is some of the most beautiful nature writing and political commentary/near future science fiction that I’ve read…but even as much as I love it, I can see that its flaw is that it’s not easily accessible, even to ardent readers. I would *love* to try my hand at a near-future SF environmental series that was a little easier to get inside. Furthermore, it’s topical: they’re the kind of novels I’d want to write much sooner rather than later, so let us say I wrapped up the Walker Papers and the Inheritors’ Cycle, which are my two current series, lickity-split, and wanted to turn my hand to my Big Idea environmental books. Let’s say I managed to do that by 2012, which is realistically the very soonest that could happen.

Suddenly I’m faced with the rub of the matter: writing those books would require real, physical world research. Travel, interviews, time. Time in which I could be writing books I would be quite sure of selling; time in which I would be spending, not making, money while I did research; time in which I was risking the career I do have for a new branch in the one I’d like to have. Time in which I may not have any books at all coming out, because I’m working on something brand new. These are not necessarily bad things, but they *are* factors, and they’re something you don’t have to consider nearly as much when you haven’t yet gotten that first contract.

So, without in any way meaning to discourage new writers, let me at least say, “Take a minute to enjoy where you are.” Writing is a career always in flux, and it’s really easy to get caught thinking about the next step, whatever that might be, without fully appreciating where we are.


8 comments to Big Ideas, Little Time

  • QUOTE: This, I bet, will clash with something many of you have been told, which is β€œdon’t try to sell a series,”

    Yeah, I read this somewhere the other day talking about new authors shouldn’t try to sell a series. I was a little blown away over that one because I’d also heard the old adage (which is especially true for screenplays) everyone loves the possibility of a sequel. I think in the end, if the story is strong it shouldn’t matter if it spans multiple books, but I’m not yet in the market, so I can’t really say either way.

    I do have a couple stories that I fully plan on spanning two to three books and one that I want to make into a serial of perhaps 10 and then a second serial dealing with the aftermath, but the latter are also novellas, or maybe about the length of the Green Star Saga novels by Lin Carter.

    What I tend to do, and did with my current WIP, is put enough into a novel that will allow for a sequel, if they find they want one. Kinda like the Shannara books. They’re part of a whole, but you can pretty much pick Elfstones up and read it and enjoy it, even if you haven’t read Sword. It can stand on its own, but has enough juicy tidbits thrown in that can be picked up and run with at a later date.

  • I do have several ideas for series. The funny thing is that I only set out to write stand alones, but you can’t turn away good ideas–and I didn’t. My published friends tell me this all the time–to enjoy writing on spec. You’ve got me thinking now, Catie. Good post. πŸ˜‰

  • Great points you raise, Catie. I’m currently faced with possibly doing a rewrite on a recent book — turning it into a historical — which would require enormous investments of time and energy for both research and rewriting. And I’m not sure it’s worth doing for all the reasons you cite. But on the other hand, it would make for a very cool book once all the work was done. Not sure what to do, but you’ve got me thinking about my choice in subtly different ways, and for that I thank you.

  • One thing to keep in mind when you hear “new writers shouldn’t try to sell a series” is that it is often followed up with: “Write one great book that can stand on its own but leave open the possibility of a sequel”. They call it a “standalone with series potential”. It’s not so much that that new writers shouldn’t write series as it is that new writers won’t be able to sell a book that doesn’t have a strong plot arc with a beginning, middle, and end. A lot of unpublished writers have this idea that a series works like one big book split into parts. And some do, and they usually come from established writers that readers are willing to take a chance on. But most don’t, and until a writer becomes familiar with the structure of a series, they are asking for trouble when they try to write one. If a reader spends $25 on a hardcover from a new author, it can be very off-putting to have the book end on a major cliffhanger and then it takes another year or so for the sequel to come out. Or, at least, that is always how I’ve understood it.

    Another issue is that new writers may not be very good at judging how far a specific idea can be stretched. Some ideas just aren’t powerful enough to support a trilogy without adding significant filler while some ideas are too big for one book. It’s important to have a grip on what length is best for a given type of idea.

    A third point is something you brought up in your post: having the first book of several series. One reason new writers are advised–rightly or wrongly–not to write series is because any one book is a significant investment, both for the writer and the publisher. If an unpublished spends ten years writing a six book series, and then cannot sell it, they are out quite a lot of time and energy. If they write one book in a series and can’t sell it, they have lost much less. The same goes for a publisher. If they pay for a series, and the first book flops, then they have wasted a lot of time and money. If they buy one book, they stand to lose less if it dies on the shelf. And in both cases–if the writer sells one book, or the publisher gets a hit with one book–there is always the possibility of writing or acquiring the sequel, but a lot less risk.

    It also depends on the type of story. A mystery or UF book often has more series potential, because there are always other crimes to be solved or demons to be hunted. But once the big bad is gone and the friends sacrificed, the story is over. If that can all be accomplished in one book, what would be the point of a sequel? But a new writer, looking at all the series in fantasy, might be tempted to milk the story by stretching it out over several books, or tacking on a ridiculous sequel. It’s about waiting until you can know when to end a story satisfactorily, and when you have gone too far. And new writers can have trouble with that.

    P.S. May I double comment? I want to discuss my personal view of the time/series/brand name constraints issue and I see it affecting _me_, but this comment is already very long.

  • Don’t wanna speak for the owners, but it’s probably fine to double comment. I’ve done it at least a couple times for less useful reasons (durn memory).

  • When I started writing fantasy stories, I started two standalone works (which I dumped after about ten pages each). This had nothing to do with anyone’s advice. I hadn’t read any advice yet. Next, I began the first in what I envisioned as a series of three books. All my favorite authors seemed to be writing series, and so I assumed that was just what you did. Eddings, Lackey, Bradley, Asimov, Tolkien, Lewis, Brooks… all of them. So I started writing a series. And when I actually finished a draft of that novel, I went online and started joining critique forums and reading advice columns, articles, blogs. And the one piece of advice that seemed to hold steady in all of them was “don’t start off with a series.” I found this a shocking idea. Of course I was writing a series, everyone wrote series. I didn’t know a single author who didn’t write series. None of my favorite authors wrote standalones. Or so I thought. The truth was, most of them had, but they just weren’t that well known. Which somewhat matches up with what your publisher said.

    Because more length means more exposure, and more exposure means better memory, it’s more efficient to stick with the series than try a standalone book. People know they like the series, but they don’t know that they will like the writer in a different genre. More copies will be sold of the series book, so the publisher is going to push for more books to be written in the series.

    This would be death for me. I don’t write long series. I only have one story currently that I see having the possibility to expand beyond three books, and I write across a wide range of genres.

    Also, a lot of pros who shift gears do so under pseudonyms. First, this keeps new books from diluting the old brand, and second, it keeps readers who like one type of book from being put off when they read the authors latest and discover it is not the kind of book they expect from that author. However, it means effectively starting a whole new career from the beginning. The publisher doesn’t care how previous books did, because the new books won’t be associated with the old ones–or your old name–in the mind of the consumer, and so the old books won’t generate any definite sales boost. You might as well _be_ a debut author for all the difference being previously published will make in your sales.

  • Going completely off-topic, I just saw the latest episode of The Ghost Whisperer. For those not in the know, the premise is there is this woman who can talk with the dead. The restless dead that is, ghosts who have business to tidy up before they can go on.

    I started to thinking, assume that there have always been ghost whisperers. That they can converse with the souls of the dead, and can “open” communications between the dead and the living. What would life be like with such people, such occurrences around. What would the law be like, religion, the world? How would you distinguish between real ghost whisperers and fake. Would medium be the term for a fake ghost whisperer?

    Ladies and gentlemen, there are three things you need to remember about ghosts. One, ghosts can be wrong. Two, ghosts can lie. Three, you can disbelieve a ghost.

    That last is key, for disbelieving a ghost has screwed up a number of homicide investigations. Most famously the case of Nicole Brown Simpson, who was accused of lying at her coroners inquest, and the trail she provided to her killer, one Jeremiah Stout—a known sexual predator and psychopath—was ignored in the belief her ex husband OJ Simpson committed the crime.

  • Getting back on topic, keep in mind as to whether an idea will support a series or not depends a great deal on the world created for the presentation of the idea. And there have been times when the author has been wrong.

    What it comes down to is, is the world contained within the story. Is the story enough in and of itself, needing no further explanation? Or is it a story that needs to be told at length?

    Take, for example, Eric Flint’s 1632. That book was a one off, a stand alone. Flint and Baen (his publisher) didn’t think of it as the start of a series, and never planned further volumes. But then his readers got a hold of it.

    Some of Eric’s friends pointed out a few holes in the plot. A few some flaws in characterization. Fans began clamoring for more of the story. The result is an ongoing writers community and a shared world. What was supposed to be a single book has become half a dozen novels (with another half dozen on the way), an online magazine, and anthologies. It’s sort of like Bram Stoker getting Dracula published, then his friends and readers pointing out all the plot holes and logic flaws in it, as the result of which Bram becomes the leader of a writing community penning Dracula novels exploring Dracula’s world and how it deals with things like vampires etc.

    So in any idea there is a potential for series, if you look at it the right way.