After reading a forum post I made about Ghost of the Navigator, author Raine Winters asked me if I had any tips for ‘sticking with it’ when writing a series. Everything that went through my head told me I should have written this column already.
I’m neither an authority on writing, nor a bestseller, but if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to keep my butt on a chair and pound words into the keyboard. Trouble is, there’s far more to keeping a series of books going than that. Anyone who has tried it will know this moment: you’re staring at your latest draft after months or even years of writing, and the whole series stinks worse than Sonic the Hedgehog’s sneakers. So what do you do? Is it time to switch off, or do you take one more shot at the final boss?
Here’s what I know about the writing equivalent of hitting ‘Continue’ when your lives are spent. I’m dividing this into two blog posts: this one concentrates on motivational stuff, the second one will go into writing tricks.
Why did you want to write that series in the first place?
I’ve never heard of a writer who went for the series goal without having read one. Whose work did you read? We’ve all had our first ‘I want to write like this!’ Think about the books and authors who do that for you. It’s not nearly as far from your reach as you might think.
Some writers like minimalism in their writing rooms. If that works for you fine, but it’s never would for me. I like being surrounded in the stuff that inspires me. There are two CD stacks on my desk, three bookshelves behind me, my record player and vinyl collection next to them, some paintings of the outdoors, and a mirror on my wardrobe door, so I see it all whichever way I look up from the screen. I’m surrounded by the people who made it happen, whenever I need them. They don’t have to physically be in the room with me, because their work is. I want a board meeting with my heroes, I got it.
Your favourite author got a book signing on? Great, go see him or her. If the floor opens and you just can’t resist asking a writing question, fine, but don’t mention your own book. Just listen to them talk about theirs. Don’t try and pick up ideas, just soak up whatever gets talked about and enjoy the evening. Have a drink. Get your signed copy of their latest. Get your pic taken with them if they’ll let you. Sometimes heroes are for meeting, because they are the people who made you want to do what they can. They inspire you. Maybe if you stick with that series, you’ll be sitting in their seat one day, inspiring other people and signing copies of your book for them. You don’t even have to hit the big leagues to do this, or even sign a book. Any self-publisher or even trad-pub author worth their trade will show you a way to contact them, because they love it when someone says ‘You inspired me to write.’
While we’re out and about, let’s do:
Get away from the writing
The blindingly obvious. Yet so many ‘Please help me I’m losing my resolve’ posts are made on writing forums at time when that writer could just as easily be helping themselves by calling ‘Time Out.’
Before I sat down to write this, I went for a walk. A long one. Why? Because for the last two weeks, I’ve been to my two day jobs, slept, eaten, and finished writing a book. That’s literally it. Time for something else. I kept my promise to myself this morning: shave, clothes, breakfast, then get out the goddamn door. Do anything but turn that computer on.
In On Writing, my hero Mr King talks about how he almost lost his magnum opus The Stand, and when all seemed stacked against him, he went for a walk. Look at that book now. If that’s not enough to make you go take that deep breath of outside air, then take it from me as well: walks work. I’ve lived in the country and the city, and I’ve walked countless miles in both places because of writing.
Don’t just walk though. Writing can’t be your only hobby. If it is, it’s time to take up something else. There’s a line in Ghost of the Navigator where Shadow’s Talent tutor tells him to do something else besides train so obsessively with his mind powers, because he’s going to burn himself out. I might as well have been talking to myself about writing through my characters with that line.
I play the guitar. There’s nothing like it for clearing my head of fiction. During one evening of despair with Shadow’s Talent I got the guitar out and sat there with some tablature for the song ‘Under a Glass Moon,’ trying to work out how the hell it was possible to play even for John Petrucci, one of the most technically brilliant guitarists on Earth. I’d forgotten about Shadow within ten minutes. Two hours later my hand and shoulder ached, but at least I could play half the guitar solo, at just under half the speed. Take it from me, that’s an achievement in itself. When the writing’s not working, try achieving something else to pick yourself back up.
Once upon a time, my hero couldn’t play like this either. He picked up a guitar for the first time, just like King once put a blank piece of paper into a typewriter.
Your heroes have all had those moments where they dumped a ’script in the bin, or chucked a guitar at the wall, or at least felt like doing all that. They’re the same as you. They made long term commitments to be good at the thing they loved. At least you’re writing that series, or learning that song, so there’s them up at the top, those who do nothing at the bottom, and you somewhere in between.
So how about it? Do you still want to make that long term commitment to your series now? Perhaps it will help if I tell you:
Nothing is ever a waste of time
Do you really have a series here in the first place?
Some writers get to a place where they realise they don’t have enough material from that initial idea to make a good series. Fine, no problem. What can you salvage? Is it worth writing a standalone book with any of this? Or even picking a couple of bits you like and going for a novella or short story?
Part of my ability to stay the course with The Talent Show has been based around knowing that I will have a use for most of the material that comes out of it. Some of the wordcount I cut from Ghost of the Navigator last week is going to become a shorter story in itself, set 500 years before the events of Shadow’s Talent. It was all historical padding, but reworked into its own story, it could be quite cool. And I’ll publish it myself with its own cover, and probably stick it in KDP Select to help with my discoverability, because short fiction does well in there (my longer books are wide-published and always will be.) Someone who might not want to read all 150,000 words of Shadow’s Talent might just take a peak at 20,000, set in the same world, and get the bug.
Self-publishing helps when it comes to knowing your series will get out there for people to read. So will any of the by-products of that writing, if you do what I’ve just described above. If you’re a writer pursuing a trad-pub approach, staying power is most likely harder when you’re faced with a string of rejections or ignores even if you do manage to finish the first book. I’m not going to tell you to switch to self-pub, but I am suggesting you at least consider it, because it picked my morale up no end. When I finish a book with Shadow, I don’t have to do all that letter writing to agents and publishers I’ve always hated doing. Nor is anyone besides Amazon or my other sales outlets going to get a cut if that book does take off.
If you believe in your project enough to continue it, then believe in it enough to put it out into the world yourself as well, when nobody else will do it for you. You can always chase trad-pub with your next project if you still want to.
Consult other writers, forums and magazines
Writing websites are legion. So are forums where writers meet, and blogs where writers share their experiences. You’re here because you found one.
Yet whenever I see an article on them about how to manage your time, write more, avoid videos of cats on YouTube, and generally get that staying power you’re after, it’s usually missing the obvious: networking with other writers can be a massive time suck. Even when you get good advice (which let’s face it, you won’t always get) it might not work for you. But I’m still in favour of writers getting together, online and off. Because when you do find that person or article who helps you solve your problems and kept you staying the course, it seriously rocks.
I’m a writer, you’re a writer. We have a journey in common. The days of writers shutting themselves away and not sharing that journey are dead. It’s so much better now there are writers supporting each other all over the world.
Try NaNoWriMo. If you want a good, quick fix way to build your discipline and staying power, enter in November. I did it last year, and went to some write ins with my local group. One of the guys I met even bought my book, wrote me a five star review after reading it, and has just agreed to beta read my next one. When he gets something finished, I’ve offered the same in return. There’s nothing like this kind of networking to make you want to stick with your series and your writing in general. I’m about to enter Talent Show Book 3 in NaNo, to get it flying out of my brain’s door.
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So you still want to write that series? Great. Now you have to end your break from writing, get back in the seat and do some serious looking at what writing fixes you need.
Part Two coming soon.