Monday, April 28, 2008

On writing a series

I read something very insightful on Nathan Bransford’s blog the other day. He wrote:

Professional writers are RUTHLESS with their own worlds and work... For-fun writers linger and linger in the same world or with the same characters and can't bear to start a new world or delete anything. And unless you press that delete button or start fresh or create a new world it's impossible to get better.

This was so relevant to myself that I was a little taken aback at first. Here’s what I did when I first started out writing fantasy (translation : here are the mistakes I made).

I wrote a novel which was set in a temperate, medieval-Europe-type world. The good people lived in the Starlands and the bad ones lived in the Darklands (you already know who’s going to win the cataclysmic, worldwide war at the end). The good people had nuclear families and the bad people had slaves. There were other problems, including the fact that the continent was shaped like North America, but these were the major ones. Since I didn’t see anything really wrong with it, I wrote three sequels set in this land.

After a while, though, I started getting rejection letters that made me think I should write something different. At the time I was intrigued by the idea of an vicious, xenophobic character losing everything he had and having to rebuild his life step by painful step – could I make such a person sympathetic? Maybe, but the xenophobia meant it would have to be set in another world, one without the clear boundaries of “Starlands” and “Darklands”. One land, then, with several different races struggling for supremacy and survival. And it would be a harsh world, with hot deserts to the south and cold ones to the north, with each race able to deal out death in a different way. Even if they looked weak or seemed pacifist, it wouldn’t be advisable to turn your back on them.

That story became Redemption, which I’m reworking at the moment. I had a good world and a serviceable idea, but at the time, I didn’t do it justice, so I tried something new. Since I’d gone from different-lands-in-conflict to one-land-in-conflict, I went back to the former setup. This time I came up with the continent of Eden.

One thing I like about Eden is that none of its lands is designated as good or bad. Different societies and cultures have different flaws and virtues. The Dagrans aren’t wrong for expecting women to wear long gowns any more than the Iternans are wrong for hunting down and executing anyone who leaves their land without permission. And since I’d tried huge epic battles with the first series, I decided that each Eden book would stand alone, and wouldn’t deal with any lands going to war with others. The first Eden book was Before the Storm.

After I finished that, I thought of writing a story where dragons weren’t pets, antagonists or mounts. What if they were worshipped as gods instead? Since I’d already had a society with “normal” values and structure (Dagre), I tried something completely different for this story, which is called Dracolytes. Karne, the land which serves the dragons, practises slavery and has no concept of the nuclear family – but the Karnish are the protagonists. Karne was a lot of fun to write.

I have another book set in another land, complete and ready for editing, and another idea waiting to be developed into a book as soon as I’m done with Redemption. If I’d kept writing sequels to the Starlands books, it’s doubtful I would have been able to find an agent. More importantly, I wouldn’t have pushed myself to create something new, come up with something better.

That being said, why might writers not do as Mr Bransford said, and continue in the same world?

1. Series are popular in fantasy

They’re popular in published fantasy. Unpublished, the only thing that matters is whether a manuscript can catch an agent’s or editor’s eye. It’s not going to succeed at this unless the writer’s good, and the writer doesn’t become good by staying in a comfort zone.

2. It’s easier to write a series because each book fleshes the world out

This was one reason I kept writing sequels, and it took me a long time to break that habit. When I did, I wrote short stories set in the same worlds – those weren’t sequels, after all. One way to work around this is to write in the same world, but make each book a standalone – that way, rejections for the first book don’t automatically mean rejections for the second as well.

3. What if I run out of ideas?

I used to worry about this. I worried until I was stuck in a subway one day and wondered what would happen if there were tunnels, but no trains. Within half an hour I had a new, different world, and I realized how limitless a writer’s imagination can be. I don’t think it’s possible to run out of ideas as long as a writer keeps thinking and reading and self-editing – not all those ideas will work. But the more you have, the more you can pick and choose from, and the less likely you are to be discouraged by rejection. If every editor says no to the first story, you still have the second one to pitch.

There are exceptions to most rules, and if an agent likes a first book, they'll be more open to the idea of a series. But it's more difficult (for new writers) to get agents interested in a first book that ends with plot points unresolved because they continue through Books 2 and 3.

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