On Writing: Writing and Pitching a Series

“Arriving at one goal is the starting point to another.”

–  John Dewey

 

A few weeks ago, I received a question on one of my older writing posts. This was from someone who was writing a series, but having trouble making book one “long enough” to reach books two and three. This question intrigued me enough to write a post about it.

There are a lot of people out there whose advice goes something like this: “If you want any shot in being published at all, completely forget about ever doing a series and just write this one book, you naïve plebeian.”

I half agree with that philosophy. First of all, I know exactly what it’s like to pitch a series, because I’ve done it before. When I was sixteen, I began querying a YA Fantasy project I’d been working on for a few years. At this point, I’d written most of the books in my potential series of seven.

Looking back, it’s easy to see why I didn’t get very far with that. I was spreading out my creative energy so thinly across multiple projects, I wasn’t devoting all my attention just towards the first one.

Since then I’ve shelved the fantasy project and focused my efforts on my contemporary YA novel (which is up to three full requests, yay!) but, I do plan to come back to the fantasy project someday. And I do plan to pitch it as a series.

However, there’s a right way to do that.

Again, I truly sympathize with the ideology of plotting out an entire saga, and having tons of elements from book one affect things in books six or seven. But I also think that for a series to truly flourish, you have to let yourself “re-create” it along the way, know what I mean?

For my fantasy series, I knew exactly what I wanted to happen in all of the books; at least, for the most part. I certainly knew enough for that to influence the way I wrote book one. And when I come back to it, I’ll revise book one carefully, keeping certain parts intact so they can set up events in future books. But, I also can’t let these feel out of place during the story.

There are many people—and I used to be one of them—who get so excited about the events in book two or three that they rush book one. This is entirely understandable, but it doesn’t fit well in the publishing business. Book two won’t see print if book one sucks. It just won’t.

With you and I both agreeing that’s unfortunate, what can we do about it?

Glad you asked!

How I approached my “series problem” is I took a deep breath and told myself that I will always be a creative person. And I will always get new story ideas. And if I channel every drop of my creative energy into just (just!) book one, then when the time comes to write book two, there will be more creative energy there to write that one, too.

See what I’m getting at? It’s a balancing act. On one hand, you should keep the series potential in mind, and maybe let that influence certain plot points in book one. But on the other, much more important hand, you have to let yourself get creative and put all your effort into book one, so that it can do well enough on its own. That won’t happen if you “just make it long enough” to be a bridge towards sequels.

Another thing that sucks, but you have to keep it in mind anyway: each book should have its own story arc which builds up, reaches its peak, then gradually concludes by the end of the novel. Do you have to wrap everything up? Of course not! That would defeat the point of a series. But look at the Harry Potter novels. Sure, the whole threat of the Dark Lord taking over is there for the entire series, but each book has its own self-contained adventure (the Triwizard Tournament, the Chamber of Secrets being opened, etc.)

I know for a fact that most agents, while possibly willing to sign on multiple books, prefer to be pitched them one at a time. That makes it easier for the writer, too. Now you only have to write one query letter, and one synopsis! If a book does well enough, and there’s the right amount of suspense at the end, there will be demand for a sequel.

Like anything in writing, it’s a balancing act.

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Happy balancing.

R.I.P. Tom Clancy

“Success is a finished book, a stack of pages each of which is filled with words. If you reach that point, you have won a victory over yourself no less impressive than sailing single-handed around the world. ”

–  Tom Clancy

 

I realize that this epigraph is a repeat of the same quote I used in a post a few months ago, but this is my favorite one from Tom Clancy, so I think it’s worth re-using.

When I heard about Tom Clancy’s passing on Wednesday, I was naturally upset by the news. After all, Clancy has frequently been hailed as one of the greatest thriller novelists of all time. For anyone who isn’t familiar with him, I’ll give a brief summary.

Clancy was an insurance salesman until he sold his first book, The Hunt For Red October, in 1985 for $5000. From there he launched his publishing career and went on to write over twenty-five espionage novels, several of which were adapted into highly successful movies. When asked about his success, Clancy said, “What happened was pure dumb luck. I’m not the next Hemingway.”

And yet, if you walk into any book shop, you’ll most likely find an entire section devoted just to Clancy’s works. His name is up there with Stephen King, Judy Blume, and arguably even J.K. Rowling. If you know books, you’ve at least heard of him.

His final book actually hasn’t been released yet. It’s due out December 3rd, even though he passed away two days ago. And while the news of Clancy’s death was exceptionally upsetting for me, it isn’t because I’m a fan of his work. As a matter of fact, as shameful as this is for me to admit, I’ve never read a single one of his novels.

No, the reason I was upset is on a somewhat personal level. And thus, here’s my story about my interaction with Tom Clancy, which I think is fitting to share today.

As my avid blog readers know, I’m a teenage kid trying to get a book published. I have been for years. A little more than a year ago (August 2012), I was starting to do my research on the whole agent and publication process. I bought reference books, read author websites, and asked anyone who knew anything about how it worked.

As it happens, Tom Clancy grew up right around where I live. That itself was mind blowing when I found out…this super famous author whose name is in every book shop in America, lived only a few hours away from me? Cool!

So, I decided it was worth a shot to email him and ask for writing advice. I figured I could use the whole ‘hey, we both live in the same area’ as a sort of foot-in-the-door.

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Of course, my odds of getting a response were about the same as expecting a response from Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. But hey, I actually did get a response from J.K. Rowling, so I thought this was worth a good shot too.

I sent the email and went on a weekend trip shortly before senior year started. When I got back from the trip and checked my email, I had a new message.

It was from Tom Clancy.

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Wow.

Crazy, right? Here I was, a seventeen year old kid, and one of the most well-known authors of modern American literature sent me writing advice. About half the literary agents you submit to these days don’t even take time to shoot you a rejection, and Tom Clancy—who is probably infinitely busier than them, and far less obligated to reply—took time out of his day to help me.

There are just some things where you can’t describe how much they mean to you, you know?

But, out of respect to Tom Clancy, I’ll try.

Mr. Clancy, the fact that you took any time to respond to my email at all is exactly the kind of reason I don’t give up in trying to get published. Never mind the actual advice, though that was incredibly helpful, too. But the fact that there are still people out there who made it and want to see others make it, too…it’s hard to describe how much that keeps me going. When I tell people I’m trying to get a book published, a lot of them say, “cool,” or sometimes, “good luck.” But the ones who who do things like give me advice because they really want to see me succeed…those are the kinds of people who keep me going. And Mr. Clancy is most definitely one of them.

I’ve never read a word of this man’s stories, but I already like and respect him more than many authors on my shelf. How he treated me is how I’ll aspire to treat others if I’m ever published, and I promise—publicly, on this blog, so I can’t back out—that if I ever do make it, I’ll do my best to help other people get where I am, just like Mr. Clancy was trying to do with me.

So, to wrap it up: Rest in peace, Mr. Clancy, and thank you for taking time to help me when you didn’t have to. I might not have read any of your books, but if you ask me, I’ve read the best words you’ve ever written.

ReBlog: What J.K. Rowling’s Pseudonymous Novel Says About Commercial Success

“Even J.K. Rowling can write a good book that drops into the ocean and barely makes a ripple.”

–  Nathan Bransford

 

In case anyone hasn’t caught the news recently, a tiny little detective novel which came out back in April has now risen to the top seller lists. Why? Because everyone just found out that this tiny little detective novel was actually written by J.K. Rowling.

Very sneaky, Miss Rowling! But really, can anyone blame her for wanting to release a book under a name that’s not…well, one of the most famous names in the literary world?

Anyway. Published author and avid blogger Nathan Bransford posted about this today before I got the chance to, and he says pretty much everything I was going to say.

So, take it away, Nathan:

http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2013/07/what-jk-rowlings-pseudonymous-novel.html

We’re Not in Hogwarts Anymore (Book Review: The Casual Vacancy)

“I’ll put it out there, and if everyone says, ‘Well, that’s shockingly bad – back to wizards with you’, then obviously I won’t be throwing a party. But I will live. I will live.”

 –  J.K. Rowling, in an interview

 

The Casual Vacancy coverThere are several reasons I’m hesitant to review this book. First of all, the review is several months overdue. I don’t have an excuse for this, other than I haven’t had time to construct a breakdown of Mrs. Rowling’s newest novel.

And, secondly, I have very few positive things to say of this story. I know I should technically be able to speak freely, but I’m still not totally comfortable trashing on a book by one of my favorite authors, especially seeing as she’s one of the most successful writers to date, and I’m an unpublished teenager with a blog.

But, I have a fair amount to talk about with this story. And so I talk.

 

Yes, I was (am) crazily obsessed with the Harry Potter franchise, but that doesn’t mean I started this book expecting to be blown away like I was by Rowling’s famous wizard. I decided to go into it with an open mind, expecting nothing. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much more than that.

Here’s the setup: there’s a small town called Pagford, which we know is filled with at least thirty-four people, as that’s how many main characters there are. Unfortunately, the most appealing of them—who’s still a bitter, reclusive journalist who doesn’t think much of his family, mind you—dies on page two. This character, named Barry Fairbrother, was on the town council, and his death leaves an empty seat which acts as a catalyst in the characters’ scrambles for power.

(Please note that this review, from here, contains spoilers. There isn’t a whole lot to spoil, honestly, but I still think I should warn you.)

If I summarized all of the sub-plots spattered across these five hundred pages, I could write a small book myself. So instead of wasting words, I’ll try to just hit the high points:

  • We have Miles Mollison, who is predicted on page 10-ish to win the town election. On page 500-ish, he wins the town election.
  • Sam Mollison, Miles’ wife, is constantly thinking snarky comments on everyone’s words and actions, all while fantasizing about running off with the lead singer of her daughter’s favorite boy band.
  • Howard Mollison, Miles’ father, is a power-hungry member of the council. Notable for being the source of more obesity descriptions than I’ve ever read in a single book.
  • Terri Weedon is a heroin addict with a three year old son, Robbie, and sixteen year old daughter named…
  • Krystal Weedon, a student who juggles going to school, caring for her younger brother, and crushing Samuel L. Jackson in the imaginary game show, “So you think you can use the F-word more than me?”
  • Stuart “Fats” Wall is a scrawny student at the same school as Krystal, and eventually starts a relationship with her (though this relationship is notable for its lack of emotional investment and honesty).
  • Andrew Price is a school kid who’s best friends with Stuart and spends his free time stalking a girl in their class (at one point it describes in detail his combing through her Facebook photos).
  • Simon Price is the father of Andrew Price, and chooses to show his affection for his wife and children by relentlessly abusing them both verbally and physically. He was my personal least favorite.

There are several others whom I could list out with their related sub-plots, but there are many other things I could do that would take far less time. Watching all of the Lord of the Rings movies, for example.

So those are the sub-plots of the novel. These unfold side by side as the pages slip from one hundred, to two to three to four hundred…and finally, around page 450…there’s an election! Holy Grail!

And it turns out exactly as expected. The least horrible character wins.

Then, just to finish off the narrative—this is supposed to be the grand finale, mind you—Krystal Weedon goes down to the river with her boyfriend, Stuart Wall. They don’t pay attention to her younger brother, Robbie, who takes several steps forward and drowns in the river.

Then, Krystal runs home and commits suicide with her mom’s heroin.

And on the last page of the book, as the two kids’ coffins are carried down the aisle with Terri crying, “the congregation avert[s] its eyes.”

This illustrates my biggest problem with the book, right down to the last sentence: there’s absolutely no redeeming qualities in this story. All of the characters start out as horrible people and end the same, if not worse. Instead of coming to terms with their own problems or trying to fix things, they all screw themselves over by being selfish. It’s as if Rowling and her publisher said to themselves, “You know how with that last series, we made a bunch of characters who start out bad and redeem themselves through love and forgiveness? Yes, this time, let’s do the opposite of that.”

See, I hate doing this. I hate trashing on my favorite author, but this book lends itself to criticism so easily. It tries to send out so many scrambled messages, but they all fall short on top of each other, leaving a mixed mess of unpleasantness we can’t wait to wash our hands of.

I will say, though, that this still is a compliment to Rowling’s skill as a writer. She decided to write a horribly depressing story, and I can honestly say she succeeded brilliantly in doing exactly that. So, in all sincerity, Rowling is still a great writer. She just needs to find a bit more uplifting—or at the very least, meaningful—material. As she said in an interview, “If everyone says, ‘Well, that’s shockingly bad – back to wizards, please,’ then obviously I won’t be throwing a party, but I’ll live.” The woman can still write, and she at least deserves credit for that. Unfortunately, it still can’t save this particular novel.

 

In conclusion: this is shockingly bad. Back to wizards, please.

Rate: 2 out of 10.

On Writing: But Look at J.K. Rowling!

It is impossible to live without failing at something…unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all. In which case, you fail by default.”

 –  J.K. Rowling

 

Quick! By a show of hands: how many unpublished writers have talked about their work and added, “But, of course, writers never make any money.” And how many have received the all-too-casual reply of, “Well, unless you’re J.K. Rowling”?

If so, you’re probably too frustrated at hearing this much repeated response to bother telling the person that you are, in fact, not J.K. Rowling. Nor have you ever been J.K. Rowling, as cool as that might be.

Don’t get me wrong: Rowling is amazing. She’s my idol, actually. When I got a reply to the letter I wrote her last fall, I was ecstatic. Even though I didn’t start reading the Harry Potter books until middle school, I still grew up with those things. I was at the midnight premieres for the last two movies, I saw Half-Blood Prince with my best friend the night before he moved, and I’ve re-read each book probably five to ten times.

It’s easy to see why Rowling was richer than the Queen by 2003, and it can be just as easy to assume that yes, if you write an amazing book (or, better yet, book series!), you’ll soon have enough cash to quit your day job, move to the city, buy a mansion, and spend your days sipping sparkling water, with your biggest worry being that an earthquake will come, sending your stacks of money toppling down on you.

Which, incidentally, was death 333 on 1000 Ways to Die.

But I digress. The point is that, sadly, one of the reasons Rowling is considered to be such an incredible exception to all the rules is because she’s exactly that: an exception.  She went from dirt poor to billionaire. That doesn’t happen every day. In fact, getting a book published, period, doesn’t happen every day.

We always hear and talk about success stories like those of J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins. But we never hear about the hundreds of manuscripts rejected daily, or the thousands of turn-down slips that aspiring authors get in the mail. Even though Rowling received more than a handful of those, it’s never mentioned. I think she herself summed it up best in an interview with Oprah:

Failure is so important…it doesn’t get spoken about enough. We speak about success all the time…but, you know…I’ve met some extraordinary people through Harry Potter, and not one of them didn’t have their failures.”

And thus, I want to close by once again saying how much of an inspiration J.K. Rowling is to me. She’s a rich woman who gives most of her wealth away to charity. She’s one of the most famous (not to mention one of the most influential) people in the world, yet she always acts with humility and has enormous respect for her fans.

And if you’re a fan of hers, too, I would strongly recommend you check out the movie called Magic Beyond Words: The J.K. Rowling Story. It’s a TV movie that came out a few days before the final Harry Potter last summer, and tells the author’s journey from her childhood, to the writing of the first book back in 1990, to the publishing process and the success that followed. The movie is on iTunes, and in my opinion it’s well worth the money.

 

So, those are my thoughts on one of the most famous authors alive today. (I’m currently reading her new book, The Casual Vacancy, which I’ll review soon but will make no mention of yet so as to spare you its less than pleasant details.)

I could go on and on about how much I could say to this woman. But instead of making a ten-page list—which, believe me, I could do—I’ll instead close by saying what I believe to be my most important sentiment. One that, I think, quite a few people my age would like to say, too.

Mrs. Rowling, thank you for my childhood.