Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Finishing a Difficult Novel

Getting to the end of the first draft of your book is a major accomplishment for any writer. Getting to the end of the first draft of Backlash, the third book in my Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series was flat-out torture. I’d never struggled to finish a book before. As a typical pantser—one who writes by the seat of her pants—I write a chapter at a time, with only a glimpse in my brain to where I’m going with the story, possibly two or three chapters ahead at most. So why was this book giving me so much trouble?

Expectations. Both mine and my readers.

Over the past year, people wrote to ask me when the next Diana Racine novel was coming out. OMG, people were waiting for it. Those readers had obviously liked the first two well enough to look forward to the third. I published the last one, Goddess of the Moon, in October of 2012. That was almost two years ago. I published one other standalone in between.

Though the first book, Mind Games, wasn’t published until March of 2012, I wrote it way back in 2003 or 2004. My agent spent a couple of years trying to sell it to a publisher, with no success. Then I got distracted writing a few erotic romances under a pen name, published by two very good e-publishers. With no large or small press interested in Mind Games, I decided to self-publish it and the other suspense books I’d already written. At the time, I had no intention of writing a series until I had an idea for a second book, and Goddess of the Moon was born.

Both books received pretty good reviews. How could I possibly live up to them with a third book? I didn’t want to rely on the same formula—I hate that word when it applies to books—that I used in the first two books, namely, Diana in trouble to be rescued by New Orleans police lieutenant, Ernie Lucier, the love of her life. Was there enough excitement? Suspense? Even humor?

One of the main criticisms in longtime series is keeping the characters from becoming stale and repetitious, thereby relying on contrived storylines to make up for the lack of characterization. Since Mind Games was written as a stand-alone, I had to dig deep to advance my main characters in Goddess of the Moon. What was left to know about them? How could I keep them fresh in the third book without losing the traits I had worked so hard to cultivate? Does the relationship between the two protagonists evolve naturally?

You see where I’m going? I began to second-guess myself, fearing Backlash wasn’t up to the two that preceded it. I agonized, edited, rewrote, and in the process lost my objectivity.

I always knew the ending, but getting there took every bit of perseverance I could muster. I’m reading it aloud now, patching inconsistencies, and will send it to a beta reader for her opinion and to my editor for her superb editing skills. My brilliant critique partner has already given it her stamp of approval, surprised by a twist at the end. I’ve announced a September publication date because I think on the whole it’s as good as I can make it.

But what a trip.

Writing a series, though popular with readers, adds extra pressure for me as a writer. Maybe I put that pressure on myself, but I’ve read so many second and third books of a series that can’t hold a candle to the first one. Don’t ask how I feel about the tenth or fifteenth book in a series. I admire those authors who can pull off a long series without disappointing his or her readers.

Will I write a fourth? I doubt it unless I have a major brainstorm, and the story is written in my head from beginning to end. Of course if the producers of the Jason Bourne series want to try another movie franchise…



Polly Iyer is the author of six novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and two books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games and Goddess of the Moon. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

35 comments :

  1. As a panster myself, I was aware of this potential problem with series. So I completed the whole series ( an epic fantasy trilogy of over 600,000 words) before I began the publication process. That way I knew I'd have the story finished before any reader saw any of it. The first volume was published in March, the second at a convention last Saturday. My publisher says the last volume will be out in time for Xmas.
    I realise not every author can afford to wait until they've finished in this way, but it certainly solves that problem of expectations!
    Good luck with your series, Polly.

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    1. Stuart, good for you. I don't think that far ahead and couldn't possibly write a 600K novel. At this point in my life, I wouldn't remember what I'd written way back at the beginning. That's one of the downsides of being a pantser. I do take notes, but I had a problem with this third one with a name I named in the first book when I didn't think there would be a second, and I wanted another name for the character. I had to tap dance around the explanation. I don't have your patience, for sure. Best of luck with the epic series, for that's what it is.

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    2. Thanks Polly. I used a spreadsheet as a timeline to keep track of all my characters (134 named) in the series, otherwise I'd have 'lost' some along the way! But before I started actually writing, I'd collected a long list of character names that I'd invented and passed through Google search to ensure they were unique. That way, when I needed a new name, I had a ready made list to go at. I have to prepare like this, as I can't interrupt the flow once I start actually creating the story. The series, A Seared Sky, took about 20 years from inception to publication, but I wrote other stuff at the same time.

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    3. Your reviews for the first book are stellar, so you must be doing something right. Getting out the word is the hard part. Wishing you much luck for such a tremendous undertaking.

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  2. All the best for your series, Polly!

    I don't think I would be able to write a series without planning it first, so that I can plant clues in all the earlier books that will pay off in the latter books.

    I used to be a pantser, but since my stories are written (or movie-fied) in my head as I'm falling asleep and I can't write/type them fast enough to get all the details down before the next night's before-I-sleep 'episode', I find that I end up with outlines while I'm awake until I have time to write the actual words of the story down. I miss pantsing, so I have some stories specifically for that.

    I don't think I'd deal with the pressure of writing a series well, but then I've never tried. I don't think I want to.

    Kudos to you for getting so far.

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    1. I moviefy too, Jovanna. That's how I write--by seeing and hearing the story and becoming the characters. And I also see a lot of my story at night, in bed. Then I write chapter by chapter with only a little bit of foresight as to what comes next. I doubt I'd come up with some of my characters and plots if I plotted it out in advance. The story, as it evolves, tells me where to go next. I don't think this would have been a series if I had started out thinking of it as such. It would have made me a nervous wreck. Thanks for commenting.

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  3. Interesting post. You've just described what I'm going through with my WIP - writing a sequel (refuse to think of it as a series) to what was conceived as a standalone. It sounds like you've solved the problems. Good luck,

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  4. I sympathize, Sandy. I think of a sequel as a continuation of the original book/story. I guess every series is in a way. For me, each book of my "series" is a standalone with elements of the earlier books mentioned in passing. It's really hard not to name the previous bad guys when writing subsequent books in case someone reads the third book first. So much to consider. As for solving the problems, I'm not sure I have. I'll have to wait for someone to tell me.

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  5. My hat is tipped to those writers who crank out one a year. That is a lot of pressure and publishers now want "extra material." Talk about pressure.

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    1. One a year? How about three. The cozy writers are putting out three for the big pubs. I'd be in a straitjacket.

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  6. One of the problems I have with writing series is that I didn't create a series bible at the beginning. Oh, I've got all the main character sheets, but certain extraneous details require periodic re-reading of the entire series before moving forward. No wonder writers of series get paralysis. With expectations from readers and ourselves, its hard to meet the mark. You've done an excellent job with your Diana Racine series, Polly, and I'm keenly anticipating its release!

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    1. Thanks, Maggie. A lot is due to you as my critique partner. You've done well with your series--how many? Three? Four? Part of your success is keeping the characters honest and true. It ain't easy. Thanks for your input.

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  7. Thanks for sharing this post. I'm editing the second book in a series. I've tried to start a third, but like you, I'm at a loss. For some reason the fourth book isn't taking off. I keep working on the second one, perfecting it and dread the day when I have to actually write the third.

    How do these people write 10 or more books with series characters? Geez!!

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    1. My second book was a fluke. I had no idea that naming my character Diana would lead to the name being so important with its history in mythology. It's like an actor getting a great part and then, what next? How can I top myself. I do think long series have a way of petering out unless the writer is good enough to make the stories riveting. In many of those cases, the character is solid, think Harry Bosch in the Michael Connolly series. I've lost interest in many series because they become trite.

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  8. I'm with Maggie in floundering along without a series Bible -- I kept thinking I'd get around to it when I actually had a multi-book deal, but my publisher insisted on seeing a full manuscript before they'd decide if they wanted to buy it, so while I was looking around for another publisher, I just kept writing. My romantic suspense are "connected" rather than series, but my mysteries are a true series, and I should be doing a much better job of tracking, rather than going through the files and searching to see what I've already said about that character.

    I know what you mean about expectations, though, and while I was writing my 6th Blackthorne book, that fear that I wasn't going to give readers what they wanted kept rising. Once I decided to let the characters take the lead, not my fears, things started chugging along.

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    1. I like the "connected" part, Terry. I didn't do that. I feel if I were going that route, I'd just as soon write a standalone. Writing a series is daunting, and I give you credit for getting to the sixth book. I doubt that will happen to me. But one never knows. If a few readers hadn't asked me when the next Diana book was coming out, I doubt there'd be a third. I need to do the bible thing, though it's probably too late. Thanks for commenting. You're a successful series writer, so your input is invaluable.

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  9. I tried to be a plotter this time, and it screwed me up royally. Also, I added a major character in the middle and had to go back and write him in. It's a long way to the shootout.

    BTW I think Lee should rescue herself, and she rescues her partner this time.

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    1. It sounds like you're trying to do what I did and break from the formula, if even there is such a thing anymore. Lee is a great character. I'm looking forward to more of her. No pressure.

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  10. Polly - this blog was perfectly timed for me! I'm working on the 3rd book in my Past Life Series (paranormal suspense), and am having a heck of a time with it. Some of it for the reasons you stated, in trying to keep the series fresh, and some of it because my beta reader made me realize I was protecting my characters and not moving the storyline far enough ahead to keep the reader engaged. As a result, the ms was lacking a lot of conflict. I think there are some novels that are just going to be a pain, whether they're a standalone or not. You've got a kindred soul who is commiserating with you right now.

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    1. Terri, I think there are many of us. Series, though usually better sellers than standalones, have built-in problems. First they have to hold their own as standalones in case a reader reads the second or third first, then they have to evolve the characters while adding backstory without an info dump. I applaud all you series' writers. Good luck on your third, Terri. I have your first one on my Kindle. One of these days I'm going to stop writing long enough to read till my eyeballs pop out of my head. (Not really, I hope.)

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  12. Great blog, Polly! I'm facing the same dilemma now with the third book in my mystery series, having the characters grow and evolve so that they're not cardboard cutouts.
    Love your writing and looking forward to Backlash.

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    1. Thanks, Michele. Seems all series writers have the same problem with the third book. I'm halfway through the boxed set of your vampire series, and you keep the characters fresh. It's not easy. Wish I had more time to read.

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  13. I admire anyone who can write a series, Polly. I'm a selfish writer and getting into characters' heads is what I most enjoy. There's no motivation for me to stay with a character for more than one book. I did try to write a trilogy once and managed to squeeze out two books. Even with a shift in protagonists, writing the second book was torture. I now intentionally write characters and stories that stand alone. I know that no one will ever ask me for another book about the high school history teach obsessed with the owner of an occult store.

    VR Barkowski

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    1. I so understand. I didn't mean to write a series. Really I didn't. I might not ask you for a second book about the history teacher, but the first one sounds like it's right up my alley. Is this the one to be published by Five Star?

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    2. Yes, the second book will be published by Five Star. FS never saw the first book and simply assumed the second was a stand alone. Further evidence of how inept I am at writing a series: the two "series" books aren't even the same genre.

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  14. Thanks for really clear insight, Polly. I'm struggling to begin a sequel and you made me realize it probably won't be as good as the first book. In fact, after two tries, I may be writing the wrong book. In spite of commercial emphasis on series, there's something to be said for stand-alones.

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    1. I agree, Judy. But you have two very successful series now. I'm limping along wit a two-book series with the third and probably last waiting in the wings. My philosophy is if it doesn't feel right, don't do it. I have no doubt you'll make the right decision. Thanks for commenting.

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  15. I understand the problem, Polly. By adding new and interesting characters, I think it helps a little by not focusing exclusively on my two main characters and their growing relationship. Lovers of series seem to like the familiarity of characters and the small town I've created and feel comfortable with them. Of course, I'm only working on my 4th now. Maybe I'll find it much more difficult as my series prograsses.

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  16. Cheers to you, Gloria. I'm not sure I'll make #4. Of course my small town is New Orleans, so there's lots of territory. I do have a steady group of characters and hope each book brings new and interesting ones to the scene. Thanks so much for stopping by.

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  17. When I wrote my last novel, I had no intention of making the story into a series. But as the end of it approached, it begged to be continued. That shouldn't have been too much of a surprise because the story has three protagonists, and one novel simply isn't adequate to tell all their stories. Not planning ahead for this, however, has resulted in a revision and upcoming reissuing of Book 1 to lay some groundwork for the sequel. Will a third book follow? I'm still thinking about that one.

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    1. We do fall into these series, Linda, whether we want to or not. When they're not planned, there are problems in the subsequent books we didn't think of. For me it was a name change, which I fudged around in book three. I doubt anyone would have caught it, but I knew

      I just read that a friend got a three-book contract to produce in one year, plus an extension of two more for her other series. I would be climbing-the-walls nervous if that was me. So be careful what you wish for. You might get it.

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  18. Wow, Polly. I'm in the same boat. Novel one was supposed to be a stand alone, but reviewers and readers wanted more, so I wrote a sequel and now I'm one or two chapters away from finishing the third (and final) one of the series. This one was so much harder! Expectations are part of it, as you said, but I think as writers we constantly doubt and second guess ourselves too. I like your pre-order strategy and will probably follow the same path, although my mailing list is small so how will people even know about the pre-order period? Marketing. The bane of my existence! Good luck.

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  19. I've read both of your first two books in the series and am looking forward to reading this one. Don't worry. You're that good.

    And I'm doing the same thing. Turning my first two standalone books (Red Tide and The Missings) into the first two books of a series because that's what readers asked for. I sure hope I can deliver.

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  20. Thanks, Peg. I know you'll let me know about the third. And yes, readers love the attachment they have to a series character. Me, not so much.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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