I was recently asked to describe my writing process for novels and series.
That’s a hard one. Every book has been different. Every series is different. This isn’t a post about how you should write your books and your series. This is about what I’ve done so far and how it has worked, as well as what I’m going to try to do next.
The Short Version:
Erdemen Honor evolved as a standalone, then a sequel, then a third book in the series. Each is a complete, self-contained story that builds on the previous books.
A Long-Forgotten Song was a series from the beginning. In fact, it’s more of a “series” in the way that The Lord of the Rings is a “trilogy”… it’s split up at logical places for publication, but it’s really one story.
A Fairy King began with the first novella. I thought I was done, but I got several emails from fans demanding a sequel, so I wrote A Fairy Promise. I’m glad I did, but it might not have happened without the encouragement of devoted readers.
Erdemen Honor 1: The King’s Sword
In 2007, Mr. Brightley and I moved to the DC area after graduate school. He had a job, and I didn’t, even though he specifically looked in DC because of my graduate field… he could work anywhere. The job search was a daily grind of soul-crushing frustration, and we had no friends or relatives within 700 miles. I was frustrated, discouraged, and lonely.
Enter National Novel Writing Month. I’d written before, of course… I had a trunked novelish monstrosity that I’d written as a frantic distraction from grad school term papers, as well as a number of shorter unfinished works dating from elementary school onward. Fifty thousand words was intimidating. 50,000. The number looked so huge. Although my trunked novel approached 50,000 words, it was written over months as pure play; it didn’t even aspire to have the structure of a novel. This was different. I wanted to do NaNoWriMo right. I wanted to win. I wanted to end up with something that might someday be a novel.
I planned my NaNoWriMo novel (AKA “plotted it”). I noted the major turning points. It wasn’t the most ground-breaking work of fantasy in history… the story of a spoiled prince growing up and reclaiming his throne. That was fine… I was interested in the experience of writing a novel draft, not breaking new ground in the genre. I had no intention of publishing it.
Now, you have to understand the rules NaNoWriMo to understand what I mean by “won”. I wrote (typed) 50,000 words on one story in November. That means I won NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo has no requirement relating to structure, or quality of writing, or even that your “novel” have an ending. You write 50,000 words = you win.
It wasn’t a novel yet. It was far from ready to be published. But it was a good start, and I was proud of it.
I loved Kemen and Hakan, and I loved the experience of writing their story. I had followed my outline almost exactly, and the events were more-or-less what I’d planned. Yet my neatly-planned novel was different than I had envisioned it. I had thought I would tell Hakan’s story through Kemen’s eyes, but discovered that Kemen was far more interesting than I’d expected or planned. Instead of Hakan’s story, it was Kemen’s, with Hakan as the main supporting character. The story had morphed from a redux of a well-worn fantasy trope into something more subtle, although I didn’t really grasp what it was yet.
That first draft required a lot of editing. The words were good but the gaps were so huge that all but two of my beta readers completely missed the point. It wasn’t their fault. However, it was hard to figure out what comments were useful and how to use them. See more about how I dealt with this and what I learned from it in this post about beta readers. This is when I learned to think in “story threads”… for me, this idea encompasses character arcs as well as plots and sub-plots.
Before I seriously began editing this draft, I sat on it for about a month. I thought I was done. The experience was enough. I enjoyed writing, and I’d write something more “serious” later.
But I couldn’t let it go. Kemen and Hakan were too important to me, and although I didn’t have the distance yet to edit The King’s Sword, I began drafting the sequel.
Erdemen Honor 2: A Cold Wind
Unlike The King’s Sword, I didn’t plot this novel. It began with a version of the reconciliation scene… if you’ve read it, you know the one. THE SCENE. But I didn’t have a clue who Riona was… what was she like? How did Kemen and Riona get to this point?
Writing that first draft was a matter of discovering how Kemen and Riona had gotten to that scene. Of course, when I imagined that scene, I expected that it would be closer to the end of the novel than it is in the final version… things changed, as they do during editing. I wrote the scenes out of order, piecing them together into a coherent story as it coalesced in my mind. From the outside, it would have looked like a very strange way to write a novel… this bit of the end, then this middle piece, then this intro bit, then a little bit more of the middle, then a conversation between Riona and Lani at the beginning. Unlike The King’s Sword, which followed a plan I had made, writing A Cold Wind felt like uncovering a story that already existed, brushing away the dust and dirt to discover little gleaming bits of treasure in a story that existed unto itself. I didn’t know the story, but the story knew itself.
I finished the first draft of the story in February 2008.
I began seriously editing both The King’s Sword and A Cold Wind during spring and summer 2008. With the help of some fantastic beta readers who understood what I meant to do with the story, I shaped those early drafts, the bare bones of stories, into more-or-less final versions.
Writing A Cold Wind was very different than writing The King’s Sword. I knew Kemen now, and although these situations were new, his reactions were not difficult to imagine and write. Getting into Riona’s mind was a much greater challenge. I didn’t know her the way I knew Kemen, and I needed her to make sense to me and to the reader. I needed to understand her the way I already understood Kemen.
Then I set the books aside. I queried a few agents and received some interest, but nothing that really panned out the way I’d hoped. I didn’t seriously pursue publication; I was busy with my new job and life.
Then self-publishing exploded. I was sadly ignorant of how the publishing world was being turned upside down. I read a few articles, but I didn’t really get it… I didn’t completely buy in to the idea that I didn’t have to wait for permission to publish. I wanted someone else to sign off on my writing, to say it was worthwhile, that it was worth reading.
Then I grew up.
I’m not being facetious, and I’m not saying that everyone who wants to be traditionally published is immature. Of course not! But for me, at that time, choosing to sit on my books waiting for permission (which I didn’t even pursue that hard) rather than jumping in was a choice made in fear and uncertainty, of wanting to be told I was good enough and my writing passed muster with someone whose opinion mattered. For me, deciding to go indie was part of deciding that I wasn’t going to ask permission anymore… I was going to trust my own judgment about my writing, and I was going to risk letting my work be read.
It was a choice to be brave and vulnerable.*
Erdemen Honor 3: Honor’s Heir
I struggled with Honor’s Heir. Eventually, after being stuck for months, I threw away about 45,000 words and started almost from scratch. I kept the main characters, but Sirkhar’s character was completely reimagined, and Elathlo’s character arc was changed in important ways. In comparison, the first two books were far easier to draft and more difficult to edit, while Honor’s Heir was a bear during the drafting process but easy to edit, since I’d worked out the major issues already.
A Long-Forgotten Song 1: Things Unseen
Things Unseen was completely, terrifyingly unplanned. I had no idea I was writing a new novel. I was fighting with Honor’s Heir, discouraged and frustrated, and just started typing. Typing anything, with no vision, no idea what it would turn into… no plan for it ever to see the light of day.
It was the first scene of the book, the scene in which Aria sees Owen for the first time at Dandra’s Books. I finished it, sat back, and thought, “Uhhhhhh… now what? What happened? Who is this guy? Why is he threatening Dandra? WHO IS PETRO?” These questions needed to be answered, and I didn’t have the answers. I discovered them as I wrote the scenes; the scenes came in order, and each one led me on to the next, with more questions: Who is Gabriel? Who is Niall and why is he important? What is Owen doing? Why does he care? Why didn’t he kill Aria on the bridge?
Although I am a Christian, I did not plan to write a Christian story. Doctrine and theology and values inform my work, but not everything I write has an explicitly Christian purpose or message. This story morphed as I wrote it into something that is definitively Christian; some readers don’t see it in the Things Unseen, but the themes and story threads are definitely there. By the end of the first draft, I knew the story would be a series. I thought at first it would be a trilogy. Then I wrote the first draft of The Dragon’s Tongue.
A Long-Forgotten Song 2: The Dragon’s Tongue
By the end of the first draft, it was pretty clear that the series would be a tetralogy/quartet/quadrilogy. I wrote Things Unseen and The Dragon’s Tongue in a rush of inspiration that lasted about 5 months. I’m not being entirely metaphorical when I say “inspiration” either… I do believe that these books are inspired by God. Not inspired in the way that Scripture is, of course, but inspired in that these stories are not wholly mine. I did not know where they were going. I did not plan the theological themes. There is far more depth in the stories than I believe I could devise on my own. I did the writing, and I worked very hard on the books, and I am editing and polishing and pulling story threads and theological themes forward and weaving them together… but they are not entirely mine. There are story threads that were started in Things Unseen that will not make sense until Book 3 or 4… but I didn’t start those threads knowing what they meant, or how they would be important.
I feel honored and blessed that I am allowed to write these stories. I have a sense of ownership over them, over the work I have done, but also a sense that I am sharing in something wonderful that is not about me.
A Long-Forgotten Song 3: The Beginning of Wisdom (working title, coming soon!)
I’ve been working on this for over a year. The first draft was finished in February 2015 and it was originally going to be published by Christmas 2015, but life got in the way. I’m aiming for a mid-March publication date. Editing this book has been the most challenging but most rewarding so far. As the third in a four-book series, a lot is riding on this book, and I want to do it justice.
This one came as the others in the series did… mostly in order, scene by scene. Editing has been a process of going back and teasing out the theological threads, pulling on themes and character arcs and character relationships. I also tend to write in such spare detail (read: almost no detail) that in the first draft the setting tends to be nearly non-existent, so while I edit the story I’m also working in details about the setting and environment so that what is on the page is closer to what I see in my head.
A Long-Forgotten Song 4: Untitled
I’m just starting to plan this one in detail. I have story threads that must be pulled taut and character arcs that must be resolved. Book 4 the explosive conclusion of everything built up so far, and it needs to be fantastic. To be honest, writing the last book in a series like this is more than a little terrifying. But I’m excited. I know some of what will happen, but not everything. I love discovering the story as I go. I don’t want to claim this story as my own, but rather to leave plenty of room for God to work, to surprise me with what He does through me. I don’t want to lay claim to this, as if it’s all mine. It’s not.
A Fairy King 1: A Fairy King
I wrote this intending it to be a short story while I was working on the edits for The Dragon’s Tongue.. It was initially just Chapter 1, and I thought I was done. But the story called to me, and I wrote Chapter 2. Then Chapter 3 just sort of happened… I couldn’t help it. But then I was definitely done. I published it within a month of publishing The Dragon’s Tongue.
A Fairy King 2: A Fairy Promise
Did I say I was done? Several fans sent me emails pleading for a sequel, and so I wrote A Fairy Promise over the course of a few months between publishing The Dragon’s Tongue and starting the first draft of A Long-Forgotten Song Book 3. It was unplanned but unfolded more-or-less in order. I think their story has ended, but I haven’t ruled out a third novella in the series. I really enjoyed the shorter novella length, and I’ll be writing more in the future.
So… what is my writing process?
I… um… it’s complicated? *picture me shrugging* I’m a pantser (as in “seat-of-the-pants”er) who sometimes writes out of order, because I know my characters far better than I know the events of the story. I know where they will be, and who they are, and I have to figure out how they get there. I write my characters rather than interesting thought-experiments (What if a guy walked into a bookstore and threatened the owner and no one seemed to notice? Why would that happen?… that’s not how Things Unseen started for me, although from the outside it might appear that way.). I write the bare bones of the story and then have to flesh it out… my editing process is radically different than what I read about the process of many other writers (especially fantasy writers). My editing is filling in gaps and adding detail rather than cutting out redundant bits and unnecessary fluff.
I’m still learning my own process. I don’t know how the next book will be written. I know about the ones that have been backburned, but after that I have no idea. What I do might not work for you. It might not even work for me next time.
* My one regret so far about my writing and publishing is that I wish I had been brave earlier. I sometimes think my writing career would be a lot farther along if I’d published when it was a little easier to get noticed, when there weren’t a jillion books already out there. But then I remind myself, with varying degrees of success, that my readers… the people who will enjoy what I write, will find me anyway. If that has already happened, great! You can follow along as I keep writing. If a reader who loves my writing doesn’t find me for several years, that’s cool too, because they’ll have plenty of books to read once they discover me.