Retrofitting Your Fiction

by Bruce Blake

2012_fisker_karma_eco-sport-pic-8309640610408033156I read an article the other day about a company that is taking 1800 Fisker Karmas (an electric supercar, but the company went bankrupt) and replacing the electric drive systems with corvette engines. They are effectively turning the ultimate green machines into gas-guzzling land rockets, an outcome I suspect the folks at Fisker never thought would come to pass. It reminded me of a question I’ve asked myself more than once in the past:

Do authors always know where their stories are going?

I ask this question on a broader scale than the short story, novella, or even stand-alone novel. No, the inquiry is leveled more at the writers of series.

The first time I recall pondering this puzzle was sometime when I was reading A Clash of Kings, the second book in Geroge R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (something IGame of Thrones, George RR Martin. read a number of years ago…long before Peter Dinklage ever donned tights, swung a sword, and waxed on about the troubles of being a Lannister imp). As the story developed (and characters I thought were main players met their ends), I moved on to A Storm of Swords about the time A Feast for Crows came out, and it was common knowledge even then that the series was going to stretch on longer than expected (in word count as well as time between installments). As I read, I began to wonder If George had any idea how the whole mess was going to end. On a smaller scale, when he wrote about Jaime throwing Bran out the window, did he already know about the Red Wedding (to use TV phraseology)?

I won’t go too deep into my own speculation about Mr. Martin’s story planning here–both because I’d most likely be incorrect and because I don’t want to spoil anything for the three people left in North America who aren’t either watching or reading the series–but I can talk about my own experience.

Since that time I began wondering how far in advance an author plans, I’ve published a trilogy, three books in an ongoing urban fantasy series, and the first two books of what might best be called a long-form epic fantasy serial. (For the sake of this post, a series is a group of related books, usually with the same character or characters, where the series may have a larger story arc, but each individual book can stand alone. A serial is a group of related books that form a larger story in which each is an important piece but does not have its own traditional beginning-middle-end story. Thus, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files or Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse are series, while A Song of Ice and Fire might be considered a serial. Debate in the comments, if you like.).

Let me tell you about each of mine.

BLOOD3First, the Khirro’s Journey epic fantasy trilogy.

As this was one tale told in three volumes, the bulk of the story was laid out when I began writing. As has been discussed in previous posts on this blog, I am a plotter who leaves room for improvisation, so  a few things came to be through writing but, for the most part, I knew in advance. Except, of course, a few details about the ending but I figure if something in the ending doesn’t surprise me, how will it surprise the reader?

Next, the Icarus Fell urban fantasy series.

This is, in my opinion, exactly what a series is. Each of the three books is a stand alone story. There are elements that carry over from book to book that a casual reader may not grasp completely if they read book 3 without reading the first two beforehand, but there’s enough in each to make for a satisfying read. And the answer to the above question? I have a couple of ideas for future books, but no firm guide to where the series will go. What happens as I write will help determine what comes in future books…that and the fickle muse.

Finally, the Small Gods.When Shadows Fall, Small Gods

I’d throw this one into the category of a serial…one long story that continues from one volume to the next. Start at the beginning or you’ll be lost. I spent a month planning around the first book–partially on the plot, but a lot of world building, too. By the time my fingers started tapping keys, the first book and portions of the second were already planned. More of the second book developed as I edited book one (I specifically kept notes of bread crumbs I’d dropped that I might want to go back and use). Beyond that, I have a few highlights I know I want to hit, and a few thoughts about the final climax, but every once in a while, something completely unexpected happens. That might show up while I’m writing–one idea leading to another, leading to another–or the muse occasionally just wallops me over the head. I had a thought the other day about one storyline that, should I decide to follow it, I expect to add one more book to the series (I’ve been expecting 6 books, just so you know).

So, I can’t answer my query on behalf of Mr. George R.R. Martin, but I can answer it myself…

The author is having fun on a voyage of discovery, not unlike the one the reader takes.

How about the other authors out there? Who writes series? How much planning do you do? Do you think George Martin has planned the entire thing?


Bruce Blake is the author of 8 novels, none of which he particularly planned, and he’s really quite unsure how he managed to finish them. If he’s not careful, he’ll likely write a few more by accident. Look for one in the spring.


5 comments on “Retrofitting Your Fiction

  1. I failed mind-reading in school, so I can only speak for myself too. I, so far, have had a fairly good idea where a story was heading – when I finally sit down to write and outline it. But really, first dozen or so times through, i’m daydreaming and letting the ideas flow, rewinding when a path doesn’t work, exploring more when things get interesting. When the ‘OOOh, I just have to write THAT moment occurs,’ that is when I start writing.

    Not that even at that point do I know everything. Plot lines develop and rough bits can smooth out into whole new avenues (as you said, bread crumbs that might not have been seen until you go back and edit).

    Every writer is different. I don’t feel comfortable investing the tiny bit of time I have to write into a story until I know it is going somewhere good and won’t lose momentum on the way.

    How is that ‘return to work’ thing going, Bruce? And BTW, love your author description this post! 🙂

  2. Mind reading would probably be a pretty easy course, if you’re any good at it…tests would be a breeze!
    I think we have a lot of similarities in the way we write, Autumn, but I’m finding the longer series is a bit less planned. The goal is there, but the path is being discovered all the way along. Sometimes I have to hack at it with a machete, sometimes it opens before me like a blossoming flower.
    I’m muddling through the ‘return to work’. It’s making it challenging to write, but I’m fitting it in. Hope remains that it’s a temporary thing and I can get back to the life I’m supposed to be living! 😉

  3. As I write my series, I rarely try to plot out where exactly it’s going to go. Of course, if I have things that I need to follow from a previous book, I go back to make sure all the information matches. My series so far has two books published, one in the editing phase, and one that I just started writing and I have no idea how many books will end up in this series. The stories in general can stand alone, but there are elements that cross over from book to book. So far, I haven’t had an idea for the next book, until the end of the previous one. There are certain elements that I try to plan, the larger events that my characters go through, for instance. But pretty much everything else is free to come as it wills. 🙂 Nice post, by the way. I agree with your assessment of serial vs series, and mine is definitely a series. 😉

  4. This is great. I have two series (not serials) that are about to have the first two installments in each published. There is a projected six books for each. Before starting the first, I plotted like crazy, and have a 2″ binder filled with character description, backstories, locations and objects. Everything, right down to the colour of my character’s eyes, has a meaning.
    But after writing the first book, I felt stuck, so I moved onto editing. When that didn’t work, and bloated my word count instead, I started another idea. It was just supposed to be a stand-alone novel-there was no plotting. However, that one idea morphed into a story I could carry across six installments and three novellas, plus a spin-off. I made a short summary of each book – no more than five or six sentences long – and that is my guide. I just started writing book five.
    Going back to the first book I took a break from, I tore it apart and revised, ignoring the five pages of subplots I had spent days outlining. I made a brief summary for the points I wanted to hit in each novel, this time in point form, and cross them off as I go. The plots are there to fall back on if I feel stuck, which will also be an amazing tool while editing. What happens to get the story from one point to another is a mystery, and even though I know the broad idea of how it will end, the details are yet to be crafted.
    So to answer your questions, Bruce, I think both are necessary – to an extent. Every story and its author is different. But by the time the writing begins, the author should know his/her characters better than they know themself. Given a problem, they should instinctually know how the characters will react, how a given location will influence or help/hinder that reaction, and what little thing ‘could’ happen that will escalate the conflict. After reaching the fifth book of my second series without notating so much as an eye colour, I wish I had done a bit more regarding planning. Now I have to reread the first four in order to develop the final two. It is a balancing act, and I (personally) think you cant do too much of either or you may find yourself in muddy waters.

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