Author Archives: fictorians

Table For Two

A guest post by Lehua Parker

As an author of books in a three series and workshop instructor, I’m often asked by other writers about character development—specifically, how should characters change from one book to the next. I always say it all depends on whether your series is more like a fast-food burger or a chef’s table dining experience.

You know us Hawaiians; it’s all about the food.

When you walk into a burger joint, you pretty much know what you’re going to get—some variation of a basic grilled patty in a bun. In its purest form, a burger series is a book version of a television show like The Simpsons. Within an episode there’s usually some character growth—for example, Homer learns that honesty is the best policy when his lies cause a nuclear meltdown in Springfield. But magically, from one episode to the next, Homer’s character is reset to his original factory-flawed default settings. From season one to thirty, Homer chases one doughnut after another, hangs out at Moe’s, and never learns or suffers from the consequences of his actions for more than half an hour. For some audiences, consistency is part of the charm.

Don’t knock it. It’s why McDonald’s sells over a billion Big Macs a year—and counting.

To keep pages turning, burger books focus on plot, not character development. Detective, children’s, and adventure genres boast some of the best-loved burger series. One of my favorites is Robert Parker’s Spencer novels. First book to last, Spencer changes his underwear and not much else. A crime is committed. It gets solved. Some shooting, drinking, sparkling repartee, and bed-hopping happens in between. The order in which readers devour the novels doesn’t matter much to their enjoyment, no more than having a bacon cheeseburger one day and a jalapeño ranch burger the next. Other burger series include Nancy Drew, Clifford, Curious George, and most chapter book series.

Burger book authors understand that with infinite combinations of new toppings and special sauces to season the plot, there’s no reason to mess with the character of the ground chuck. Burger books follow the same beats throughout the series, making outlining a breeze. Without long-term consequences, well-known characters are easily dropped into plot lines limited only by imagination. Best of all, with no over-arching storyline, the series never ends.

Like a stop at Five Guys, I know what I’m getting when I pick up a Spencer novel—and I know I’ll like it. For authors trying to make bank with a series, a reader’s taste for charbroiled is gold. The Simpsons is in production on season thirty, folks. That’s how deeply some fans fall in love with characters—the same, unchanging characters. And when you think about it, almost 700 episodes is a lot of lettuce.

But no matter how juicy, few people crave burgers all day every day. Variety being the spice of life, it should be no surprise that some series are the literary equivalent of a multi-course chef’s table meal. When you sit at the chef’s table in a restaurant, you relinquish control over your dining experience to the chef who determines the pacing, ingredients, and presentation of each course. For readers, it’s about surrendering the meal to the author and savoring each dish on the way to dessert.

Think of the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling. In each book, the wizardlings go on grand adventures as they defeat obstacles like finding the Philosopher’s Stone or winning the Tri-Wizard Tournament. But underneath every scene is a more important tension, an overarching conflict between Voldermort and Harry that advances until the series climax.

Now imagine if you’d read the last book, Deathly Hollows, first. The entire meal is ruined. You can’t go back and experience the delicious tension that builds in the previous six books knowing Dumbledore’s end game and Snape’s true character. The pay-off of the climax is reduced to a whimper if you haven’t seen Harry, Ron, and Hermione grow from knock-kneed first years to full-blown wizards.

Reading a chef’s table series out of order is the equivalent of eating dessert first and spoiling your appetite.

Just as a chef considers the textures, flavors, and juxtapositions of each dish in his set menu, the author of a cohesive serial story forces characters to change and grow from book to book, ultimately piquing the reader’s hunger for the next course. Chef’s table series can—and should—have fantastically engaging external plots, but the real nuance and satisfaction comes from the unfolding of the characters’ internal journeys.

Chef’s table series tend to be epic in scale and page count. Big thick books offer immersion into not only a world and plot, but into the characters’ innermost desires, thoughts, and beliefs about themselves and the world around them. The conceit that chef’s table books change lives has a grain of truth. Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Dark Tower, A Song of Ice and Fire—all multi-course chef’s table meals. For a satisfying binge-worthy read, these are the droids—and books—you’re looking for.

So as an author, which kind of series is right for you? Do you focus on interchangeable, plot driven books or on crafting one long extended meal served in courses?

Burger books are fun and fast to create—over the lips, on the tongue, and gone the next minute—designed to delight readers and probably stick to the ribs no longer than lunch. The payoff’s fast and delicious, and the time commitment for the reader is seldom more serious than a few hours, making burger books easy for casual diners to take a chance on. Burger book characters don’t change much from book to book, and that’s a good thing.

Chef’s table series allow authors to explore deeper themes as they build flavors and textures through multiple books on the way to a death by chocolate climax and pay off. Chef’s table series are designed for pondering deep truths, and authors and readers can lose themselves in the stories for days, weeks, months—even years. These hearty stories stick to ribs, and unlike many burger books, carry the heart and soul of the author. Through a chef’s table series, characters go through the wringer and come out 180° from where they started, and that’s a good thing.

Me? I cook like a write: a little of this, a pinch of that. Along with works that combine to tell one continuous arcing storyline, I write shorter burger books that tie in with my chef’s table offerings. Often a burger book will bring casual readers to one of my chef’s table series, hungry for more. At the very least, burger books give fans something to snack on as they wait for the next chef’s table seating. Most importantly, I find an occasional burger book is a much-needed break from all the angst of a chef’s table series. Sometimes an author needs to write about a shark munching a disrespectful tourist without contemplating the meaning of being a monster.

But I digress.

Happy writing! And bon appétit!

 

LEHUA PARKER is the author of the award-winning MG/YA Pacific literature magic realism fiction series, The Niuhi Shark Saga: One Boy, No Water; One Shark, No Swim; and One Truth, No Lie, and other speculative works. Originally from Hawaii and a graduate of The Kamehameha Schools, Lehua is an author, book doctor, public speaker, and business consultant. Trained in literary criticism and an advocate of indigenous cultural narratives, Lehua is a frequent speaker at conferences and symposiums. She cannot wait for June to see how the Honolulu Theater for Youth has adapted her work into a play.

To find out more about her works or to follow her adventures via social media, visit her website at www.LehuaParker.com.

 

 

When You Realize That Your Sequence of Novels Doesn’t Make Sense

Writing a Series: When You Realize That Your Sequence of Novels Doesn’t Make Sense.

A guest post by Nathan Dodge

Those that know me from the Superstars seminars know that I signed a contract for Shadow Warriors, the first novel of a YA SF series at this year’s SSWS. In brief, the series is a sequence of five novels about teenagers that are kidnapped and forced to train as the crew of a starfighter to fight in a galactic war.

I wrote all five novels in an 18-month period. That might not sound very smart, having sold none of them, but I went into a writing frenzy and they all rolled out—about 450,000 words in all. And now, finally, one is sold, with the prospect of perhaps selling more.

Like everyone else writing a novel series, I ran into “series problems,” the blips that come up for any writer of a series as the writing progresses. Example: continuity. It’s darned hard to remember all the stuff you’ve put down over time, especially about the time you get into the middle of novel 4. How many times have you started to edit something in the new book of your series and thought: Wait a minute—I said something about this situation (or character, or background element) in Book 2. Is it consistent? And sometimes it isn’t, and you have to sharpen the old red pencil, metaphorically speaking, and reconcile the two passages. And yes, I kept a “facts” diary, but you still forget.

However, that isn’t the problem that had me buffaloed as I finished Book 2 of the Shadow Warriors series. It had very nice starring roles for several of my main characters, a couple of independent parallel plots, and the usual 1/3-point and 2/3-point crises. However, as I began to reread and seriously edit, a problem slapped me in the face: The book didn’t read like Book 2. It read more like Book 3!

What was wrong? Mainly, I decided after some analysis, the characters had matured too quickly. They were already advancing in command positions, and they were becoming too important in the overall command scheme of their navy.

I had let a little of that happen at the end of Book 1. The top male character had become a unit commander after only one major battle (sort of a “battlefield promotion”), essentially in charge of not only his crew but nine more fighter crews. In addition, the two main female characters had demonstrated excellent planning and strategic abilities, so that they were assigned part-time to their Carrier commander to assist in battle planning.

Which was okay—my crew was still a group of base-level fighters, with some modest responsibilities above and beyond that of a fighting crew. That led to my realizing the problem: they had to prove they had earned the new positions by performing in them before they were again promoted in Book 3. That is, they had to gain more experience (and also more success), demonstrating that they had earned the right to advance further in their military careers.

But that hadn’t happened. What was needed was a Book 2, in which my daring young warriors proceed to act in their new roles and prove to their commanders and the Alliance at large that they deserved more command responsibility.

So editing Book 3 (formerly Book 2) was put on hold while I returned to the end of my first epic and designed another plot to allow my young charges to earn their stripes. Or, since they were all young officers (as in the US Air Force), to earn their officer ratings. Of course, that meant a new plot that would mesh with the already-established Book 3 events, but that would also stand on its own as an interesting story line.

In addition to a main, galactic-war-related plot, all the Shadow Warrior books have a secondary, more personal plot. That presented a challenge in Book 2 until I considered: in Book 1, a relatively small Shadow Warrior force had defeated an enemy of fifty times as many warships. What if the upper hierarchy of naval command, far from the battle on their home planet, didn’t understand the unique strategy that had allowed victory, even at the cost of half its ships? What if they recalled the carrier commander in charge—the one whose faith in my crew had led to the victory—and court marshalled this commander before a military tribunal for her “excessive losses?” Not only would the crew be facing a new enemy threat, but they would also have to testify in an alien court to save their commander.

All this required not only lots of new plotting, but a great deal of rereading of the former Book 2 (now Book 3) and its “facts” log to be sure that details in my new story didn’t contradict the events of the following story. At the start, I mentally groaned and moaned a lot, trying to find excuses to ditch the new volume. But I stuck to it—and about three months later, I had finished the new Book 2. Further, my revisions to Book 3 were minimized, with careful, regular back-and-forth comparisons and reading, so that in fact I did not have to rewrite the third book to any great extent. In only about a month or so more than it took to complete Book 3, the new Book 2 was done and Book 3 altered as required. Problem solved.

In retrospect, I can identify three “take aways” from my experience. First, in a series about the same character or group of characters, they need to constantly mature and evolve—but that maturation/evolution must seem reasonable and natural. Second, careful plotting and story line management can assure that if you do have to change or rearrange your sequence of novels, the transition can be as painless as possible while bringing the maturation of your characters back into balance.

Finally, this exercise brought home to me rather graphically that when you deal with a set of characters over an extended series of volumes, since these characters constantly evolve, you must deal in each new volume with what is essentially a new set of characters.

Because the “old characters” are growing, maturing, and acquiring new abilities and capacities, you must constantly expand the texture and nature of their personalities and individualities. In my case, for example, the battle-hardened seventeen-year-old veterans of Book 3 were absolutely nothing like the timid, just-kidnapped sixteen-year olds of Book 1.

If your characters aren’t constantly becoming new versions of themselves, your reader will more than likely lose interest, as the characters can quickly become flat, featureless, and boring. It can be a hassle to pay attention to the maturity level and complexity of your characters, to help them grow, and to make them continually more well-rounded and interesting, but in my opinion, the result is worth the trouble!

 

 

With BSEE (SMU) and MSEE and PHDEE degrees (The University of Texas at Austin), Nathan Dodge was an engineer and engineering manager before joining the University of Texas at Dallas. After 16 years, he retired in 2014, although he still teaches half-time. He won several teaching awards at UTD.

Nathan began writing seriously in 2012 and has attended seven Superstars Writing Seminars. He has a story in the Purple Unicorn Anthology with daughter Sharon, a short story sale to Mike Resnick’s Galaxy’s Edge, and recently sold the first book of a young adult science fiction series to WordFire Press. He and Sharon will soon release an anthology of SF stories, To the Stars.

In his spare time, of which there is surprisingly little, he loves weight lifting, hiking in Colorado, and solving crossword puzzles with wife Faye Lynn.

The Trouble With Series

Guest post by M.L. Humphrey

Writing a novel is hard. Few who set out to do so actually accomplish that goal.

But just when you think you’re in the clear–you’ve actually written and published a novel—you find out that writing a novel was the easy part. Because writing a series is about ten times harder than writing a standalone novel.

First, there’s the continuity issue. You told a story in book one and now that story has to continue in some way, shape, or form in book two. You can’t change your mind and decide to go in a completely new direction. You set down rules in book one and now you have to follow them.

Book two no longer belongs exclusively to you. Because the readers who are going to read book two are presumably the ones who enjoyed book one. And they have certain expectations. They want a continuation of the story they already started.

Of course, part of the challenge is, what story was that? Did they like your world-building? The playful banter between your two main characters? The way you explored that important scientific concept? The fact that your story included dragons?

I’m here to tell you, what you think you wrote is likely not what readers thought they read. I still remember a throwaway comment Peter Watts made on his blog about one of his novels. He thought he’d written a complex story involving cutting edge science. A large part of his audience for that book turned out to be teenage girls who thought he’d written a cool book about starfish. They were not pleased with book two.

So with book two you have to write a story that meets your readers’ expectations. Whereas book one was a clean slate and you could’ve gone in any direction, book two has a path it’s now on and needs to follow. (At least to some degree.)

There’s also the style issue. If book one was in first person, you should seriously consider writing book two in first person. If you wrote with short, clean sentences, you’ll want to keep doing so. If your first novel had long gorgeous phrasing that was like eating a ripe peach (you can tell I’m not that type of writer), you’ll want to continue with that. Because, again, readers have expectations based on book one that need to be met in book two and three and four and…Ugh. (This is why I write trilogies.)

Now, just when you were thinking this doesn’t sound so bad. It’s easy to continue that story you started in book one—that was the point after all—and that your voice is your voice is your voice, there’s one more obstacle to overcome.

Books two and three and four, etc. should also be different somehow. Your readers want more of the same, but not the same. If in book one your character climbed to the top of a mountain, found the sacred chalice, and saved the village, book two can’t have them climbing to the top of a mountain, finding the sacred sword, and saving the village.

(Yawn. Been there, done that.)

But have them wade through a swamp to find that sword and you’re all good.

So you have to mix it up. But not too much. Just enough to keep them guessing. While still giving them the same kind of experience you did with book one. Got it?

Easy, right?

Yeah, sure it is.

 

 

M.L. Humphrey is a self-published author who writes non-fiction, fantasy, and romance. She finished her first fantasy series, The Rider’s Revenge Trilogy (published under the name Alessandra Clarke) in 2017. You can find her talking about self-publishing (particularly AMS ads) and life in general at www.mlhumphrey.com.

Three-D Writing: Part 2 – Taking Risks with a Cauliflower

A guest blog by Karen Traviss

On Friday we looked at ways to boost your storytelling by reworking your manuscript as a comic or a movie. This week, we move on to cauliflowers. Talking cauliflowers.

I’m not immune to the ruts and barriers of writing even at this stage of my career. If you’ve followed my blog, you’ll know that the ability to spontaneously create sentient vegetables in a story, without apology and actually making it work, was a gift I envied, so I set about trying to acquire it. That was easier said than done. It wasn’t that I wanted to write fantasy per se, but that I watched how effortlessly manga and anime just went for it and made the utterly bonkers somehow seem perfectly reasonable.

For some of you, that’ll be how you write anyway, you lucky people. My natural habitat, though, is realism. That’s inevitable after careers in news journalism and related school-of-hard-knocks trades, and I’ve built a business on it. My readers like authenticity and I’m known for doing nose-bleeding amounts of research for the smallest detail or even for the background awareness that never makes it into the book. But the other side of rigorous realism is an inner censor: the disapproving mental voice that speaks up when it encounters a wild thought, and says, “Don’t be so bloody daft, that would never happen.”

We don’t need self-censorship. We already have too many external censors trying to tell fiction writers what they’re allowed to do and trying to prevent them from publishing what they don’t approve of. Censorship kills fiction: it makes for cookie-cutter stories built from tick-lists, and – perhaps worse – it removes an important safety valve for society. Fiction is where we can say the unsayable and make sense of what we see without enacting it in the real world. “What if?” Those are the most important words in fiction, and we don’t need a zampolit to give us permission to answer the question.

What some of us need, though, is a way to be equally defiant of the inner censor. For me, that meant risking falling out of love with anime and manga by analysing it. (Later I extended that to live action drama.) Usually, I have to choose between creating or consuming, because once I pick a side I can never switch back to the other again. But for some reason, this time I managed it. The Japanese – and the Koreans, I later found – take risks in fiction that we often shy away from in the West. Maybe I don’t see their taboos in the gaps because I don’t understand enough about their societies, but what I do see is a healthy sense of abandon to uncertainty. They really go for What If.

Genre lines seem not to exist. Random and incongruous is the order of the day, and they dip in and out of other cultures and mix nationalities without apology or apparent fear of “appropriation.” There are some consistent character archetypes, but nobody’s guaranteed to survive, win the love of their life, or even succeed in their quest. Happy ever after seems quite rare: but there’s plenty of suck it up and make the best of it. There’s often a massive reveal at the halfway point that changes everything you thought about the first half. And then there are the techniques like timeline loops and flashback reveals which can look odd to western writers who’ve been taught that you can’t hide things from the audience. (Okay, that’s still a big challenge if you write very tight third POV.) Somehow, the Japanese and Koreans make it all work magnificently.

So, having watched more Japanese and Korean TV and movies than I thought was physically possible, I felt I had a good grasp of what they were doing and how they did it. (And boy, did I enjoy it.) But recognising what they’re doing isn’t the same as being able to do it yourself. If I sat down and tried to force something wackier or more random onto the page, I just ended up doing what I always did: extrapolating, based on reality. That’s how I tell a story. I take the environment, work out the type of characters most likely to be there, shove them together, and let them run like a computer model.

Characters need to behave like real humans, but nothing else needs to be real. I still struggled with creating the unrealistic and the un-sensible. Eventually, the first glimmer of a turning point for me was when someone pointed out that I was often surreal and off the wall on Twitter, so why couldn’t I do it in a novel?

Because Twitter is a series of throwaways, the equivalent of a casual chat in the pub. That’s why.

My inner censor – even if I do apply common sense and a healthy wariness of getting sued – is off duty on Twitter. I don’t expect to have to do anything long-form or smart with a random observation, or have my career hinge on it, so I let it loose.

That realisation taught me that I have to be prepared to grab the loony thought and hold on to it, write it down, and ignore the voice that tells me to be sensible.

Over a lifetime I’d learned not to listen to the free association that was my brain doing what brains are made to do – trying to create patterns, even when those patterns are misleading and don’t exist.

I’m working on it. Some days I get a glimpse of what’s possible, but it’s still not how I think naturally, and maybe it never will be. But if I can detach enough from my own self to think like each character that I create, and believe what they believe and see what they see while I’m in their heads, then I should be able to detach a little further from the real world.

In the meantime, I’ll keep gorging on anime and sit glued to the latest Korean supernatural police procedural comedy thriller romance series (yes, all in the same show) and hope some that breath-taking ability to ignore risk rubs off on me. When my inner voice says, “You need a talking cauliflower there… ,” I shall be ready to listen.

About Karen Traviss:
KT
New York Times best-selling author Karen Traviss is a former journalist and has also spent way too much of her life around politicians and police. Going Grey, the first in her new techno-thriller series, and the sequel, Black Run, are available now.
Website and newsletter sign-up: www.karentraviss.com

Twitter: @karentraviss