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Friday, July 13, 2018

Talking Shop


Op-ed • "5 Tips for Writing a Fantasy Series as an Organic Writer," By Eric Dontigney 

                                                                                                                                                                               

Organic writers don’t really plot. That’s a bit of a challenge when you find yourself writing a series. As someone who’s about 3/5 of the way through writing a series, I feel like I’m in a position to offer a few survival tips. Brace yourselves. Advice is coming!

Tip 1: Take Notes After Each Novel

When someone plots a series, they build themselves a roadmap to follow. They think through the details ahead of time and weave them into the structure of the series. In short, they don’t need to remember that X character took this action in book three because Y character slighted them in book one. It’s all in the outline.

Since you don’t have that roadmap to follow, you need a detailed summary of where you’ve been. At the very least, you need a list of characters that appeared and a summary of what they did. You’ll benefit if you describe their relationships with the other characters. You also need a summary of the plot and, maybe more importantly, any unresolved subplots you worked into the story.

When you write subsequent books, you can review all that information and decide which characters and subplots to pull forward in the next book, and which ones to bring back later. You’ll find someone who is willing to write this all up for you if you’re really lucky.

Tip 2: Decide How the Series Will End

“Wait,” you say. “Isn’t that plotting?

Yes, I admit, this isn’t purely a purely organic approach. It will, however, save you a lot of agony as you go along. More to the point, you don’t need to know every last detail of the ending. You should, however, have a general sense of what the final resolution will look like and who will survive it.

What’s the benefit of doing that?

It gives you something to aim at. Most series hit a point where, to readers at least, it feels like the characters are just spinning their wheels. We’ve all read those series. They survive because we love the characters and world more than the individual books. It’s my opinion that this happens because the writers don’t have a clue about how things will resolve.

Armed with the knowledge of how things end, you can weave in details and subplots that push the series toward the inevitable end. It creates and builds tension as you go.

Tip 3: Accept that the Process Gets Less Organic with Each Book

You get almost unlimited carte blanche in the first book of a series. You can make the characters do and say whatever you want, as long as you’re consistent with their characterizations. That becomes increasingly less true with each subsequent book. By the time you get around to the third or fourth book, you’re at the mercy of everything that came before.

Any significant changes in character behaviors, socioeconomic statuses, and relationships require explanation on the page. Just as importantly, if you’re playing fair, your main character’s relationships must evolve. That means you must consider how those relationships will be affected by the events in the last book and play that out in the new book.

Some writers do an end run around this problem by changing the setting and supporting characters in every book. Granted, this does let you avoid the problem, but it’s not very satisfying for readers. Your main character never has to deal with the fallout from his or her choices, which is some of the ripest ground for character growth.

Tip 4: Get Your Magical System in Order

I talked about this pretty extensively in another post, so I’ll just hit a couple of highlights here.
First, you must figure out how magic works in your series. This is one of my pet peeves about a lot of fantasy series. You see magic users do something in the first book that becomes impossible for one reason or another in later books.

Since you’re probably looking at writing several hundred thousand words or more that involve this magical system, you don’t want things changing willy-nilly every forty pages. That’s a very real possibility if you write organically. Pin down the rules and stick with them.

Second, don’t overwhelm readers with irrelevant details about the magical system. If it doesn’t forward the story or character development, it doesn’t belong in the book.

Tip 5: Resign Yourself to a Longer Editing Process

Organic writing lends itself to following those fascinating bunny trails. It also lends itself to overextended scenes, unnecessary chapters, and gross continuity errors. It’s really easy to write a character into a chapter only to realize that you killed that character in a previous novel or that they’re supposed to be out of town.

Beating all of those inadvertent flaws out of your novel takes more time than a draft written from a plot outline. You just get fewer bunny trails, unnecessary scenes, and continuity errors when you work from well-conceived outlines. Accepting that you must budget more time from the outset makes the process slightly less grueling. It also makes it easier not to rush through revisions.

Writing a fantasy series as an organic writer is tricky because you lose some of the organic qualities as you go along. Despite the challenges, it can still be done. You must keep track of the details from each book and provide explanations for significant changes. You should pin down the rules of magic before you start, since it’s a series-spanning element. Figure out, in general terms, how the series will end. Beyond that, you can still enjoy a largely organic writing experience.

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Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides in Memphis, TN. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at ericdontigney.com.

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Memory Makes Liars of Us All,” in Stupefying Stories #13, his next will be “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 


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