Friday, October 07, 2011

Technical Topic -- You're Out of Order

Someone asks, more or less,

"When it comes to publishing a series, can I start somewhere in the middle and fill in the blanks as I go?"

Well, of course you can.
People do weirder things than that every day of the week.

You can start anywhere in the timeline and slip the next book in before or after, as you please.  This is what I do.
I'm headed into planning the sixth book, the PAX STORY, and it'll hit about midway through the series, timewise. 

If I were giving advice, I'd say:

-- Every story should be standalone.

This doesn't just mean each story has a full story arc and that you've shovelled in the needed backstory.

It means your twelve-year-old minor character doesn't telegraph what he's going to be at twenty.

You suppress foreknowledge.  Even though you know a character will die six years after the close of the book, you don't write her as 'doomed'.   In this book, she's not.

And you try not to pull characters in from other books just to say hello.  Continuing characters appear if they earn a place in the plot.  If not, they wander off to live their lives outside the book.

Certainly, leave Easter Eggs for your insiders.  That's part of the fun. But these references have to be invisible to the novice reader.

--  Be stingy with backstory

Well, one is always stingy with backstory. 

But in a discontinuous series it's especially wise to avoid handing out all the particulars of, 'what has gone before'.  You may want to write something cool ten years in the past.  Something that hasn't occurred to you yet.

Give yourself room to maneuver.  The more you've tacked down the past, the more you limit what you can do there. 

-- Every book is trapped in its own moment of time.

We deal with this all the time when writing historicals.

We know the French Revolution turned out badly. Folks in 1789 didn't. They had high hopes.  When we write what characters thought and did, we can't let our knowledge of future events creep in.

-- Imagine the entire lifetime of the characters.

When you write your fifty-year-old man, try to image him as a twenty-year-old and a twelve-year-old.  You may someday need him in that capacity.  You want to make him a useful character, doing interesting things at all ages of his life.

I find it easier to imagine forward than to imagine back, as it were.  Easier to see the old man who grows from the young dude than pulling the young dude out of that old man.

-- Leave big empty patches in everybody's life.

When we write chronologically, we're free to build any future.  ("Always in motion is the Future.")  We are so powerful and unconstrained. 

When we set a story in our fictional world's 'what has been', the action must be consistent with and lead to what comes later. Our feet are all tangled up.

Some of it we can avoid somewhat.
I mentioned above that we don't get specific with backstory.  Being vague about our character's past is particularly important.   We try not to just randomly predetermine our character's life left, right, and center.

So we might be specific about stuff that won't affect anybody's action but coy when we assign life events that do constrain.  We'd say, 'he was promoted to lieutenant in 1809,' rather than 'he fought at the battle of Corunna'.  That way we don't sit down to write a scene set in Paris in 1809 and suddenly notice, (by way of those charts we're keeping -- see below,) that somebody we need is off fighting in Spain.

And we leave some years in the chronology just as empty as we can.  We don't say what anybody's doing.  Those years are vacant lots where we can build something.

And, finally:

-- Keep records

From the first chapter you set down in electrons, make notes.  Make charts, year by year and even month by month over the whole period covered by your books.

What's going on in the world?  Where is everybody?  What have they got themselves up to?

If you don't write this down, you are not only going to get stuff wrong and feel like an idiot, when somebody points it out to you,
you're going to get cross-eyed with looking things up when you have three or four books out.


  1. Charts? OMG. Torment.

    I love reading series out of order, especially if there are bits here and there referring to what happened before. Just bits, enough to whet the appetite for more. Often these are more intriguing than hints about the future. Sure, the hero's brother is obviously going to star in the next book, and I want to see more of him -- but hints about what happened to Grandma 40 years in the past that made her the witch she is now -- that totally sucks me in.

  2. I feel exactly the same way. I like a light hand with the hints and whispers. I like to figure it out for myself, y'know.

  3. Excellent advice, thanks. My WIP is the first of a trilogy so this is very applicable.


  4. Hi Spesh --

    I do like the first book in a trilogy to come to a satisfying conclusion. I like to lay it down after reading and feel that I've finished a story.

    Now lots of folk are going to disagree with me on this. But a well-written book that makes me content with the ending is more likely to draw me to the second book in the trilogy than a cliffhanger.

  5. I'm coming into this territory now for the first time, where I have two books spiralling off the one I just finished and want to lay a few tantalising snips before the reader of other stories that might be told, but don't want to give it all away.
    Going through my old blog posts just now, for a meme, and came across this one about you Jo!

  6. Hi Deniz --

    Oh, that's funny. I think I can say that even though I wrote it. I mean, so much time has passed that I completely forgot about it.

  7. I think you can say it [g] I was feeling rather pleased with myself, actually, because I also came across a rather nicely written review of Lady Chatterley's Lover that I'd forgotten I wrote.

  8. I'm having the opposite reaction in my life currently. I'm trying to go through a very old Regency I wrote in 1983 and it is AWFUL.

    I want to put the file up on the net so folks can access it, because I'd like people to read something that's clean text and the pirated versions aren't.

    But it's just terrrrrible writing.

  9. Do you mean the published book from then?! The one that retails for... Ooh, I see it starts at 30.45$ on Amazon. What's the 45 cents for, I wonder? I've had that on my wishlist for a while :-)

  10. Right. That one. I will eventually scrape enough time together to proof that and we will get it up for e-sale.

    Why do I never have any time? Huh?

  11. It's an epidemic, I swear.

    Does it help to know that I'm waiting for it with baited breath? [g]

  12. Hi Deniz --

    You too? Does nobody have any time?

    jo (darkly) I suspect somebody's stealing it.

  13. Excellent advice about writing down what everyone is doing when. I've written three historicals and contemplating two more in the same fiction world, in which minor characters wander between stand alone stories. It's time for me to start getting serious about keeping them all straight. I mean keeping me straight.

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  15. Hi Lori --

    Yes! I can't recommend too strongly getting everybody down in a time line. The exact moment you need to know how some of this stuff fits together will be when you're racing under a deadline.