Monday, May 17, 2010

Which Way Next?

What I’m reading: Smash Cut by Sandra Brown

How much should you plan ahead? One of the first thing you learn when you’re starting out is that nothing moves fast. You spend months—maybe longer—getting the manuscript ready to submit. Then it’s time for queries. Agents might have response times of weeks or more for a query. You’re lucky; you get a request for a partial. There’s another month or more waiting for a response. Lucky again; you get a request for a full. Tick, tick, tick.

What do you do while you’re in the midst of this waiting game? Write the next book. Ah, but there’s the rub. What do you write? There’s no guarantee book 1 will sell, much less a series, or a spin-off, based on it.

After I wrote When Danger Calls, one of the secondary characters wanted his turn front and center, so I started writing Dalton’s book. When I got an agent, she suggested we make it stand alone, so I had to go back and make sure there was nothing the depended on a reader having read the first book. Publishers often don’t want to buy book 2 in a series. So, while she was shopping the manuscript around, what was I doing? Writing another book. I took a hiatus from the Blackthorne, Inc. world and wrote Hidden Fire, the sequel to Finding Sarah.

One thing I didn’t do—perhaps out of laziness, perhaps out of the fear of jinxing the sale of a series, was create a reference work, a “Bible” for either series. I’ve started working on the 4th Blackthorne, Inc. manuscript and the lack of a centralized reference has come back to bite me. And, to compound the omission, I’m editing that second Blackthorne book, and as I read through it, discovering things I’d totally forgotten. And since I’ve got a 3rd, and yet unsold manuscript, I’m realizing there were things I should definitely have established from page 1 of book 1.

And it’s more than just remembering if your character has blue or green eyes, is a redhead, or is six-foot-four.

My Blackthorne covert ops team was rather loosely fashioned for the first book. I didn’t really pay all that much attention to each man’s specialty—I’d created a team of ‘jack of all trades’ operatives, but although each should be able to function in a variety of circumstances, I should have designated a primary specialty for each.

This came into focus as I was reading for edits, and realized that in the 3rd book, I’d established one character as the team’s pilot. However, in book 2, he was functioning as an on-the-ground agent, and I had someone else up in the helo.

Now, I’m not sure I’ll ever sell book 3, much less book 4, but my editor was good with me swapping personnel and assignments for the team in book 2 so that there will be continuity for books 3 (which features the other guy in the helo) and 4 (which features that pilot).

I’m still not an advocate of those long, drawn out character histories before writing the book. I have, however, begun cutting and pasting those passages where I describe a character, where I mention family, and any other pertinent details.

Although I’m a stickler for keeping the names in a book different enough so readers won’t get confused, sometimes, there’s no way around names more similar than I’d like, because when a character who seems to be a walk-on in one book suddenly requires page time in a sequel, there’s no real way around having Jennifer and Janie show up together.

Book 4 features Jillian, a secondary character in book 2. However, in doing those pesky edits, I discovered that Jillian was the name she was using when she ran from her husband, but that her real name was Julie Ann. I’d only used it once in Where Danger Hides, but it was something that had to be taken into consideration.

What should go into a “Bible?” At this point, I’m thinking as much as possible. Do you have to do it before you start? No. But as things unfold, you should make sure you have it recorded in some format that works for you— a document, a spreadsheet, a specialized software program, a 3-ring binder. Don’t neglect even those throwaway character facts. Because that character might come back as the focus of a subplot—or even an entire book.

The same goes for setting. If your character’s living quarters might show up again, make sure you know if he lives in an apartment or a country estate. If you’re coming back to the same town (something I’ve managed to avoid except for the Finding Sarah/Hidden Fire duo), make sure you know what the shops are called, or where they get their pizza.

When you’re just starting, and not sure you’ll ever sell the book, this might seem optimistic—maybe arrogant. And it’s certainly going to make extra work. While you’re writing, you’re totally immersed in the story and the character details. You don’t think you could possible forget them. Think again.

And don't forget -- I'm offering Terry's Place readers 50% off (shipping included) on autographed copies of When Danger Calls. Email me for details, and mention Terry's Place. US/Canada only, please, due to import/export rules.

Tomorrow, my guest is author Rosemary Harris, whose topic is "Ripped From The Headlines." See you back here at Terry’s Place.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Me? Forget a character? No way! :)

Happens ALL the time. Hooray for series bibles!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Mason Canyon said...

I'd often wondered how authors keep everything straight when doing a series, especially if it had quite a number of characters returning each time. I did read a series once where a name and a career of one of the main characters changed from the first book.

Thoughts in Progress

Terry Odell said...

Eliazabeth - I should have been more optimistic about continuing my series. Even if it's sold one book at a time, the continuity needs to be there.

Mason - Suzanne Brockmann plots out 7 book character and story arcs. With spreadsheets and colored, highlighted text. Makes a non-plotter like me climb the walls!

Lou Belcher said...

Great post. Yes, I've finally learned to put it all down from day one.... I keep a notebook for each project and just keep adding to it. Thanks for a great reminder.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I'm still struggling with whether to write that book #3 or not. Meanwhile, I have two other very different manuscripts to submit somewhere...soon, very soon.

Terry, please drop by my blog when you have time. I have something for you.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I have the same problem, Terry and Pat. Five Star has purchased book #3 of my mystery series.
THE TRUTH SLEUTH will appear in May 2011. But will there be enough reader interest to continue the series or should I work on something totally different? I'm going to work on something different for the time being. I think, Terry, you have the right idea.

Cleo Coyle said...

As a longtime writer of media tie-ins, I know how very important Bibles are for continuity. If you want to think big, for instance, and consider your idea going the way of (say) Sookie to television, you can bet a bible will eventually be made of your series characters and your recurring "sets" -- think of it that way and it might be more fun (rather than a chore). Just picture Hugh Jackman reading over your bible to get a sense of his character and where he fits into your world :)
I'll just add two more notes of advice. For the published authors: make sure you keep or file the copyeditor's Style Sheet when your publisher sends you the copyedited ms. for review. The Style Sheet will have a list of characters, place names, etc. As your series progresses, the sheet may even begin to carry notations about character descriptions. For the unpublished/aspiring authors, I second Terry's post here - working on more than one series is something many pro authors do. So if you have a proposal on an editor's desk and you have an idea for a new book or series, carpe diem, baby. Start practicing the skill of putting one thing on hold while you write another. :)

~ Cleo
Cleo Coyle on Twitter

Terry Odell said...

Pat - thanks for the award. And keep writing something. I think that's the secret.

Jacqueline - I think that's part of the package when you're with a small press.

Cleo - agreed (although none of my publishers are "big" enough to send anything remotely resembling style sheets. We're on our own.

Terry Odell said...

Lou - yes, a notebook is a good idea. I was doing edits for Book 2 and just noticed that a minor character spoke with a trace of a Minnesota in his speech. I need to remember that--because sure as I don't, he'll show up in another book with a Boston accent!

Terry Stonecrop said...

I haven't even thought of these problems yet. That Bible idea sounds smart, though. Something to think about.

Maeve Greyson said...

Thanks for the tip! I once had an editor catch where I'd changed my mind and switched the name of a minor character later on in the book. The names were similar and I hadn't realized I'd done it. This would help me keep track.

Terry Odell said...

TerryS -early is better. Trust me!

Maeve - I've often mistyped character names and thank goodness my crit partners usually catch those sorts of things (especially when I use the hero from a former book, or type my son's name)

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I keep up with characters,their families and traits by using note cards. I haven’t thought about doing the same with living areas and such. Thanks for the hint.

Terry Odell said...

Jane - no need for everyone to make the same mistakes I did.

Jemi Fraser said...

That's a REALLY good idea Terry. I've honestly never thought about it. I've wondered if my characters might show up in another story - or if the setting will reappear too. Hmm... I'd better get started on that bible!

Mary Ricksen said...

You are amazing with this stuff Terry!
I keep a notebook myself!

Julie Musil said...

Great post. I do forget things as I move along. Great idea, keeping a notebook!

Terry Odell said...

Jemi - the devil's in the details.

Mary - No, if I'd DONE it, it would be amazing. I'm regretting my laziness.

Julie - whatever system works. The important thing is having a system.