Author Archives: Ace Jordyn

Don’t Revise – Plot the Next Novel!

In my previous post, Know Your Story – 5 Simple Steps, I talked about creating a scene-by-scene outline from your first draft. The purpose of this exercise was to see the story’s structure. Structure included the shape of the plot itself and whether the scenes were structured in a balanced manner with a focus on exposition, action, dialogue, and reflection. I still recommend doing this to familiarize yourself with what you actually wrote as opposed to what you thought you wrote.

This is especially important if you’re writing a series because every book needs to build on the previous one. So, know what you wrote but don’t revise it just yet. PLOT your next book first before you begin revisions.

There is a theory out there not to write the next book in the series before the first one is accepted by a publisher. That’s silly, for so many reasons. Today, we have the option to self-publish. Even if a publisher accepts Book 1, that is not a guarantee that they’ll want Book 2. That depends on sales. But my main reasons for finishing a series, with or without a publisher are: a) I have momentum, a writing style and my characters and I understand each other well. There is no guarantee that I can pick up that vibe in the future; and b) the story is in my head, as is the character’s voice and a series is but one longer story to me. I have to write it; and c) I have publishing options and if a publisher publishes Book 1, and not the rest, I can build on whatever momentum I have and release the rest of the series.

But why plot the next novel before revising the finished one?

The future devils are in yesterday’s details!

I know an author who wrote the first book which was accepted by a publisher. In the throes of edits and final copy, the author set to work on the next book. Now, this author had ideas for the rest of the five book series and it was on that basis that the publisher bought the series. But, she didn’t have them plotted out. She didn’t need to because the concept and her writing were strong enough. The problems began when she created a more detailed outline for the next book. Details, information, actions, clues – all the things that could have foreshadowed and been used in the second book had not been included in the first book. She had written herself into corners or didn’t have the necessary tools for her characters in the second book. Creativity took on a new meaning and it was a challenge, albeit a doable one.

That is why I recommend outlining the next story before you revise the current story. Know the key plot points such as the beginning, the climax and the end. Jot down some ideas of how the protagonist and antagonist will arrive at the climax. What tools will they need? What characteristics will they require? Does the setting need to be described more richly so there aren’t any convenient contrivances? Are the subplots and relationships strong enough to sustain in the next story? Is this story’s world, and the characters rich enough to continue the melodramas and keep tension in the next novel?

When revising a story set in a series, the questions and story problems aren’t confined to the single novel. They affect the entire series and most importantly, the first book sets the stage, so make certain that the stage is set well, with enough detail, information and tools so that you don’t write yourself into a corner.

Always remember that the future devils are set in yesterday’s details!

Before You Revise, Know Your Story – 5 Simple Steps

At first glance, the advice ‘before you revise, know your story’ seems like silly advice. Of course you know the story, you just finished writing it! But despite the thought, the sweat, the sleepless nights mulling over scenes and characters, do you really know your story?

It’s like baking a cake. You choose every ingredient carefully. The vanilla flavouring is not an imitation extract – you’ve sourced the beans, scraped them out, pulverised them to get an even distribution of the flavouring in the batter, but not so much that you’ve destroyed the essence – or have you? Have you done too much or too little? You’ve chosen every ingredient carefully, mixed, chosen the pan, and baked it all with the skills you’ve learned to date. But, is it the perfect cake? You don’t know until you step back, see if it’s lumpy, lopsided, and taste it to know if it’s too dry or too moist.

How do you get to know your story?

  1. Let it sit for a bit, two or three weeks. Like a cake, it needs to cool before the true flavours come out.
  2. Write, in one sentence, what the story is about. For example: the story is about a girl learning the true meaning of inner strength while challenging an evil king who has oppressed the people. This line about your story will be part of your pitch.
  3. Change the about sentence into a question. The climax must answer this question. If it does not, then there is a story problem which needs to be addressed. When a girl challenges an evil king who has oppressed the people, will she learn the true meaning of inner strength?
  4. Create a chart with the following headings, Scene #, Page, One-Liner Description, Scene Type, and POV. You may choose to add other columns such as Notes for the problems you discover but note them only and don’t be tempted to fix them yet for you may have to change or delete the scenes.Even if your story is organized into chapters, I recommend the chart be created at the scene level. For example, Chapter 4 might have five scenes. Number each of them and note the page number. This is important because every scene must pull its weight as it must somehow address the About Statement. If it does not, then it must either be changed to do so or eliminated.The One-Liner Description will not only tell you what the scene is about, but when this exercise is completed, you’ll have created an outline (many editors want this done). The outline will show you the shape of the plot and will point out gaps in logic or progression.

    Knowing the SCENE TYPE helps us understand story pacing and story balance. Depending on who you read, there are anywhere from four to twenty or more scene types. I like to keep it simple by focussing on exposition, dialogue, action, and reflection. These are the four elements I want to keep balanced in a story. Is there is too much reflection and not enough action, or too much action and not enough dialogue? Examining scene types addresses issues such as the boring sections which may have too much exposition or reflection. Too many of those in a row can slow pacing and kill momentum. Too many action scenes in a row can cause reader fatigue and be unrealistic as characters need to stop and reflect, even for a moment whether it’s internally or in dialogue with someone.

  5. Forget the About Statement and Question you wrote in Steps 1 and 2. Write new ones based on the outline. Are they the same as what you originally thought? If they aren’t that isn’t necessarily a problem if you decide that this theme is what you want the story to be about.This exercise allows a writer to understand the story’s theme. That was the goal of the About Statement. The Question tells us very quickly if the climax and its resolution answer the theme’s concern. If they do not, or don’t do it satisfactorily, then there is a story telling problem which needs to be addressed.If you discover that the theme or About Statement has changed then you can either:
    1) accept the change and make sure all scenes address the new theme in some manner; or
    2) pinpoint the scenes which derailed the story theme, and rewrite with a view to making sure characters, actions and plot points address the desired theme.

Knowing your story and addressing plot, pacing and thematic issues will save you grief and many hours of work because there’s no point in line editing or scene editing if the scene needs to be eliminated or changed. Plus, your beta readers will love you. Beta readers will point out structural issues and problems this exercise has easily identified or they may know that there is a problem but don’t understand it. This process allows you to address the bigger issues ahead of time so that your beta readers can address other details, such as character inconsistencies, which are more helpful to your editing process. Make the best use of beta readers by giving them a structurally sound manuscript.

So, get to know your story because the rewards of doing so will be recognized and lauded by beta readers, editors and agents.

After the First Draft, What’s Next?

You’ve finished the first draft, what do you do now? Revise? Publish?

Of all the skills I had to learn about writing, this was the hardest. Revision takes patience, persistence and it requires objectivity. It also requires dealing with well-meaning friends and relatives and their enthusiasm for you. “You’ve written a book! That’s great! When will it be published? When can I buy it?”

Try explaining that the first draft is really just an in-depth outline which needs work and refinement. They don’t get it. Unfortunately, many writers don’t either. That’s a concern with self-published books. Most authors take the time to revise and perfect their manuscripts, but those who don’t have hurt the industry’s reputation.

The trouble is that revision is a hard thing to explain because many writers don’t understand the process or exactly what needs to happen. It’s more than just line by line revision, as we’ll come to learn in this month’s blogs. It’s about story structure and making certain scenes are doing their work. It’s about getting feedback from beta readers and perhaps even editors. We’ll hear from an acquisitions editor for a magazine and a freelance editor about what revision means to them.

We’ll even hear from a pantser about how she approaches revising her novels. This month’s blogs will also tell us HOW to revise. That’s what I had the most trouble with when I first started out, was knowing how to approach revision and what I needed to do.

The issue is this: we have lived, dreamed and scribed the story. We know the characters, the setting and the plot well. We know it so well, that we’re not aware of gaps, pitfalls, inconsistencies, clunky writing, too much telling, and not enough showing. But this creation is our baby and giving it time away from us so that others may applaud and criticize our efforts is a nerve wracking process.  Yet, it is so very necessary for if we don’t address the problems one of two things will happen: readers will either ignore us and never become fans, or the reviews will be so bad that no matter what we write again, it will not be read. And should that reader be an acquisitions editor – well, we don’t want our names to end up in the amateur, do not read pile. On all counts, that is a disaster because we writers desire to entertain through our marvelous creations of character, world, and plot.

My dear fellow writers, I have learned that the first draft is but a mere outline of the story. It begs to be revised time and time again until it becomes its best and perfect self. For it is in the perfection of creation that readers marvel. However, revision can be a joyful and creative process. But first, we must all learn the process, and that’s our goal for April!

Melding the Series Arc and Story Arc

Does a series need an overarching story arc where a question or problem takes several books to resolve? Not all series have an overarching story arc and whether or not you need one largely depends on genre.

Fantasy and science fiction series often have a broader question which needs to be solved or an antagonist who needs to be conquered. Sometimes it is the same antagonist, like Voldemorte in the Harry Potter series, or an antagonist who can change like Larry Brooks’ Shannara Chronicles where after season one in the television series, the antagonist got a new face (but he’s still past of the evil cesspool) and the struggles continue.

Children’s series and crime/mystery or thriller novels don’t need to have an overarching plot problem to be a successful series. Both these genres rely on strong character development and setting to keep the series together. These books stand alone in that they deal with a crime or issue independently and the antagonist or issue is completely resolved. In these series, the character doesn’t need to grow or change, not a lot at any rate. Readers enjoy the characters unique quirks and relationships and they come to rely on their unchanging nature. That is why some series, such as James Bond have lasted for so long. Viewers know what to expect and that’s why they keep coming back.

Crime novels which have stand alone plots can still be tied into a series through their subplots. Such subplots can deal with relationships or fatal flaws such as alcoholism. In these novels, the crime may be solved, but the personal issues are not. Crimes become the setting for character development and the theme of each book speaks to some personal element of the subplot. An excellent example of this is James Runcie’s Grantchester Mystery Series which has been made into a BBC television series in which amateur sleuth and vicar, Sydney Chambers, helps solve a crime. Subplots in the form of personal and local issues resonate in the theme of each episode for main and secondary characters. At the end of each episode, Sydney’s Sunday sermon sums up the theme quire brilliantly.

To create a series whether it be fantasy, science fiction or crime and which has an overarching plot or question, it’s best to map out a few things so that series focus and perspective isn’t lost. Even if you’re a pantser, there are a few things to know before you start writing. Writing a series with an overarching plot or question looks like an umbrella.

The unbrella metaphor helps keep the series in perspective and allows me to include things where they’re the most needed. It keeps issues separated, at least for plotting purposes, helps avoid the murky middle issue for the series and helps keep the series plot unresolved until the end. Here are a few tips for planning hte series and book arcs:

  1. Determine the plot or character problem to be solved by the end of the series. If the protagonist is after a villain, then the climax at the end of the series will be when the two battle it out. If unrequited love creates the resulting climax, know if it will be a happily ever after, an unresolved tragedy, or an acceptance or a moving on with a new person.
  2. Determine each book’s plot or character problem. Resolve that to a satisfactory conclusion. In a crime novel, the criminal is caught. In a fantasy, the fortress is safe and secure from the evil wizard.
  3. Develop the setting and determine key elements so they are consistent throughout the novels.
  4. If your character needs to grow and change, know the degree of this change in each novel. You can’t have the protagonist acting the put together and able to handle things effectively in Book 2 when their great ‘aha! moment’ isn’t supposed to happen until Book 3. If that happens, in Book 2, Book 3 will be redundant.
  5. Think of each book as an act in the series arc (for example, it could be a three or five arc plot). In a trilogy, Book 1/Act 1 introduced the problem and reveals clues. If it is a fantasy, for example, it may be that this is part 1 of the hero’s tussle with the villain and a resolution of some sort happens. The hero may have won the skirmish for now, but the bigger battle is yet to come. Book 2/Act 2 there are more clues and tension increases (murky middles are not allowed!). The hero tussles with the villain more, stakes increase, losses and wins occur. An unrequited love is so close yet so far – hope is won and lost. Whatever the series problem is, now is the time to keep it interesting and happening. Book 3/Act 3 is the most complex and fun to write. Both the book arc and the series arc are dealt with and concluded. All the clues, ideals, character quirks are resolved. But, keep a series diary so that details ad clues are consistent because if you mess up, your readers will tell you.
  6. If the book arcs don’t directly relate to the series arc, but support it, make sure the events reflect, at least in a thematic way the series issues. Think of it this way: whatever personal issues the protagonist faces, he will see the world through those lenses. For example, the self-absorbed alcoholic detective struggles for self control on the job. He will observe and understand issues of self control because he can relate to them. Or, the thriller hero. She may be the stereotypical adventurer who has no desire for long lasting relationships and approaches the world with an abject lack of sensitivity when it comes to understanding people on a personal level.

Have fun creating your own series umbrella. As you saw in the diagram, I like crayons and squiggles when brainstorming.

Some final tips:

  1. Understand the overall gist of what you’d like to write. Know the beginning, the climax and the end result of the series.
  2. Write Book 1.
  3. Step back and note the problem and the clues you’ve planted. Ask if this is going in the direction you want and most importantly as if the larger problem is sustainable? Does it have enough traction for the series or can it be easily resolved? This is the time to up the tension, the stakes and the problems to avoid the murky middle novels!
  4. Revise Book 1 with Book 2 in mind. In fact, I prefer to have even a broad outline. This will help ensure that factors, character traits, clues and setting issues don’t come back to haunt you in subsequent books. I have heard authors complain after Book 1 has been published that they have written themselves into a corner in Book 2 because they can’t change a small detail in Book 1 which greatly affects the plot in Book 2. So, plan and think ahead as much as you can and keep a series diary!

A series can be along and rewarding journey and you must be in love with it in the middle of Book 4 as you were in Book 1. With a little planning, and an eye on the series and individual book arcs, your writing journey will be filled with adventure, personal accomplishment, and the gratitude of loyal readers.