I once spent an entire day trying to fix the story I’d been writing with Shadow, and at the end of it I reached that moment best described as ‘Hell with it, I’m done. Bin time. Too many days wasted like this already.’ I wrote a friend of mine a text message saying ‘Thanks for all the reading you’ve done but the book’s dead, I just can’t save it this time.’ I was literally one click from sending it, and then I got the one idea that saved the whole book in a second. Where did it suddenly come from? I’m still not entirely sure. Some people call that having a muse, some call it spiritual, some call it blind luck.
Moments like that are useful when you’ve had one, because you’ll always do the ‘remember when’ routine every time you’re tempted to give up in the future. But we’ve done motivational already. This is about fixes. None of what I’m going to tell you about is guaranteed to work. Your project is not mine and you’re not me. But perhaps I can help.
How I fixed what became Shadow’s Talent that evening boils down to one question that every series writer should ask themselves at several development stages:
What can I change?
One thing I learned from writing ST is that this is a much better question than ‘What’s wrong with my story?’ I only knew the answer to that when I’d already fixed the problem, and I did that by trying out different angles and different ‘What if’ scenarios. So what can you change about your story? Anything you bloody well like. Yet it’s easy to sit there saying ‘But I can’t change that, because etc etc etc.’ You’ve been there. We all have.
Rather than rattle off a great big list of possible changes, I’m going to share some of the ones that I’ve made work.
Change your protagonist
Let’s briefly return to the question I asked in part one about whether you really have a series in front of you. I knew the answer was ‘Yes’ for The Talent Show because I originally set out to write an epic standalone with a bunch of characters and something resembling a plot. I got 300,000 words out of it. Mission accomplished. Except it was too long, and yet the ideas I had needed so much more exploring. Break it down into several books then.
Yay! Series time! So what was I going to do with it next?
The first thing I did was ask myself which part of the story was the strongest. Who was driving most of what I’d made happen in this book? The answer was Shadow Hatcher. Was he my favourite character? At the time, no. If anything, the good doctor Kit Calloway emerged as my favourite (okay, maybe not always so good). Watching him square off with his devious, scheming CEO cousin Avery McCaffrey for the spotlight led me to thinking Avery was more successful but Kit was the better man, and not just because of the saving lives thing. I loved the dynamics that produced that, yet I was faced with neither character being protagonist material. When I started that first draft, I started with Avery – his name was in the very first line. But not only did he not end up as the central character, but I was more interested in what Shadow ended up making him do.
Picking Shadow was decision one. Where next?
Change the narrative voice – 1st or 3rd person?
This was a fundamental, and perhaps the one decision that gave me more joy than any other, yet at the same time, a monumental headache.
Was I going to write as Shadow? Originally no. My first 300K was 3rd person. Then I tried 1st, originally in the form of Shadow writing a letter to someone, knowing his entire story. This didn’t work and I scrapped it, but as an exercise it produced some good ideas and got me started on his voice. So a 1st person narrative without being in letter form? It would work. 1st person past tense felt right, so I went with it.
With ST and GOTN combined, I’ve now written 360,000 words of final draft in Shadow’s voice. A first person narrative that goes on for this long can really drag when you’ve been at it for years, as I have. If you’re prone to character fatigue, perhaps 3rd person is the better choice for helping with your staying power. I frequently fear that the reader may not stick with Shadow’s voice for this many words, but this is probably groundless worrying. Robin Hobb wrote the lengthy and brilliant Farseer Trilogy in the first person, and it’s one of my favourite reads. I dared to go where one of my heroes went.
Here’s the next stage though: if your series becomes deep and complex enough, consider using different narrative styles as the book progresses. Talent Show Book 3 is going to be in the 3rd person. I want different angles now, and I can’t get them by just telling the story with Shadow. For one thing, some of Book 3 takes place on a different planet and the two stories will eventually meet. For another, this helps with any potential reader and writer burnout as well. A break from Shadow after the end of GOTN is probably a good thing. But to those who might have fallen in love with him, perhaps it’s not.
Some readers don’t like this sort of switching. Others love it. Iain Banks wrote books where first and 3rd interchanged in the same book – read Transition if you want to see my favourite example. Banks didn’t make unconventional narratives work just because he was a big name, he was a big name because he dared try this sort of stuff. Back to ‘Get Inspired’ then. Take a chance on changing narrators, and if you really need to, pick a different central character for each book and then tie the storylines together. Lucas Bale has done this in his Beyond the Wall series, and it’s been a great read so far.
Do the reverse
This can be done with premise, story, characters, the works. I really don’t have to explain it, but because it’s such broad advice I do want to demonstrate it. It doesn’t always work, and sometimes it can actually make things worse, but this is where you as the writer act as the judge. It worked like a magic bullet for Shadow’s Talent – it created that moment I described above where I snatched the book from the jaws of defeat. Here’s what I did:
In my original 300K, Shadow was in prison for murder. Because of a few ‘connections’ he was granted day release rights to do certain things, and used this to help plan the escape that was the climax of the novel. When I set out for draft 2, with Shadow as protagonist and narrator, I also changed my starting point – I went right back to the start of the story that led to him killing someone. My big reverse was quite simply this: what if he got away with it instead of going to prison?
For those who think I’ve just given a massive spoiler, I’ll say this as well: that question eventually became ‘Does he actually commit the murder at all?’ I won’t go into the questions that followed, but let’s just say it’s no spoiler that people die in my books. The part that Shadow plays in creating the ever-climbing bodycount is quite different to the one he originally played.
I got all this from doing a reverse. I knew it would work as soon as I thought of it, and I brought Shadow out to play for one last round. I was so pissed off with the writing by then that this had to be worth a try anyway. It worked.
The other big reverse I ended up with in ST is that in the original, Kit and Shadow only meet face to face during the climax of the book, despite their stories being connected by the plot. I reversed this: they now know each other from the story’s start, and are there in each other’s lives in several capacities. This works so much better than what I had in the original 300k.
‘Take off your Pants’
I’m a discovery writer, or ‘pantser’ as some people call it – flying by the seat. I distrust pre-conceived plot. I’m that guy who says plot is for final drafts; I know when I’m close to done because I know what the plot is. I’ll quote Mr King again: ‘…plot is a good writer’s last choice and a dullard’s first.’ (On Writing.) Yet I tire of debates on writing forums about whether discovery writing or planning/plotting is the better method. They both work. It’s all down to you, and what you come to prefer.
Yet if you’re a discover writer and your staying power is flagging with your series, maybe it’s time, as Libbie Hawker suggests in the title of her guide, to take off your pants. I’m not speaking for how good this book is – I haven’t read it and probably won’t, but I do like the sentiment of its title. I got to the stage where the complexity of my series and the plot twists I was getting into required a certain amount of methodical planning rather than just pumping words into the computer and hoping for the best. I started a Talent Show notebook – I prefer to write these sorts of notes by hand, and keep them bound in a book instead of loose sheets.
Discovery writing can be painful. If you’re that writer who’s always sworn by it and written posts on forums and workshops that say ‘I’m never planning and plot sucks because Steve King told me so’ or a variation on that theme, there’s no shame in going over to what was once The Dark Side and forming a plan if it means you stick with writing your series. Writing notes isn’t necessarily a plan, but I’ve come to find the notes draw me into the kinds of flow diagrams that do resemble one.
I haven’t always gone with the ideas from such planning. I still call myself a discovery writer because even when I have a plan, it almost always changes. I once had a friend reading a story I wrote and serialised on a forum, and he made a bet with me: if I lost to him at a game of pool, I’d have to tell him the ending. I lost. I told him. Then I changed it, and it wasn’t just to be clever and negate a spoiler. If there is a plan, nothing can go to it. But sometimes a plan helps me get to the end.
Teach someone else about staying power
Let’s conclude by stating the obvious: writers all over the world are putting advice articles on blogs. I’ve created this one after years of writing my own stories and reading other peoples and reading their advice. Methods for keeping your series going are not secret, but there are so many that no one writer can cover them all. Consult anyone you like, as much as you have time for, but more than anything else, the best way to learn it is to do it. Stick with that series you’re writing and in a few years time you might be writing an article like this.
Sure, I’ve imparted some wisdom here, and it seems like I’m unselfishly sharing with other writers, but here’s the truth: I’m selfish, I’m egotistical, and I wrote this article for me. Because it’s good to remind myself of how I’ve achieved what I have. So stop listening to me and go an nurture your own ego and be selfish. Achieve that series and join the club.