Writing Isn’t a Race

By David B. Coe David B. Coe – http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com

Conference Faculty Member

One of the workshops I’ll be giving during October’s SCWW conference will be on structuring story arc and pacing your novel — the official title is “Writing Isn’t a Race: Pacing and Story Arc.” Obviously, I’m not going to cover exactly the same material in this post, because that would leave us with nothing to do in October but sit around and stare at one another. And after the first hour or so, that can get kind of weird.

But in preparation for discussing the nuts and bolts of story arc, I thought it might be helpful to define a couple of terms. I write fantasy, and like so many in my genre, much of my work is serialized. I have written two trilogies and a five book sequence. Most recently, I have written the first two books of a new historical fantasy series, and am now working of the first books of at least three other series. Part of this is the market — in fantasy and science fiction, mystery and romance, young adult and middle reader, series are all the rage. The market is looking not just for a single book, but for the next money-making franchise. And while all of us want to be true to our creativity and write the best books we can, we also have to look at this as a business.

This is not to say that you can’t get published writing a stand-alone novel, or that you have to write a series in order to survive in the current climate. But any writer — whether an established professional or an aspiring author still looking for that first big sale — needs to understand where his or her work fits in the market. The answer to the question “What are editors and publishers looking for?” depends on what sort of book you’re writing. Actually, more to the point of this post, it depends on what kind of series you’re writing.

Let’s define some terms. In my genre, we call every multi-book sequence a series. But as you’ll soon see, not all “series” are created equal. Specifically, we need to distinguish between two terms: “true series” and “extended story arc.”

A true series is a sequence of connected books with recurring characters, in which each narrative pretty much stands on its own but has ramifications for the next book (or for previous ones if the author goes back and writes a prequel or two). A perfect example of this would be the Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher. For those of you not familiar with the Dresden books, this is an urban fantasy series featuring a wizard who is also a private eye. Each book has its own mystery, its own plot, its own set of unique characters. But there are also recurring characters, chief among them Harry himself, his sidekick, and his love interest. And the subplots that revolve around these recurring characters run like threads through all the books. There are other examples, for those of you who haven’t read Butcher’s books. C.E. Murphy’s Joanne Walker series fits the definition, as do Faith Hunter’s bestselling Skinwalker novels. If you’re looking for an example from another medium, think of a TV show like BONES. Again, there are recurring characters and subplots, but each episode works on its own. A viewer could watch on any given night, and get the gist of what’s going on. The books I’m writing now, including my historical fantasy series, The Thieftaker Chronicles, which I’m writing under the name D.B. Jackson (the first book, THIEFTAKER, will be released in May 2012) are true series.

An extended story arc, which is what many big-name fantasists write — George R.R. Martin, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan — is quite different. The phrase “extended story arc” basically means that you’re telling one epic-length tale (usually with several related sub-plots) over the course of several books. Not only do characters recur in these volumes, but they are working toward the same basic goal throughout the sequence. Ironically, the extended story arc became popular in fantasy after the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS, which came out in three volumes. I say ironically, because LOTR is not a true story arc. It was originally written and intended as a single work, but was split into three volumes for marketing purposes. For this reason, the three books don’t hold together well as single volumes: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING has no satisfying ending; THE RETURN OF THE KING has no effective opening; and the middle volume, THE TWO TOWERS, has neither. But while the severity of these problems is somewhat unique to LOTR, nearly all extended story-arcs suffer from similar issues to some small degree. Since the overarching conflict is not resolved until the final volume, it can be difficult, although not impossible, to make each book truly stand alone. On the other hand, because each volume is actually part of a single larger story, the books are far more interdependent, and many readers love this aspect of the form. Again, if you’re looking for a pop culture equivalent, think of a daytime soap opera, or my daughters’ current prime-time favorite, PRETTY LITTLE LIARS. A viewer could try to watch an episode mid-season, but chances are he or she would be somewhat lost. Similarly, with extended story arcs, it can be hard to pick up readers mid-arc. Extended story arcs are what I wrote for my first three series, and they have been a staple of fantasy for several decades.

My take on the market right now is that extended story arcs are less viable than they used to be, even in fantasy, where they are so deeply rooted in the literary tradition. Publishers are wary of them when they’re proposed by young authors, and they’re only slightly more receptive to them when they’re proposed by established writers. Why? Because they demand a contractual commitment of several books. If I go to an editor with an idea for a four-book extended story arc, that editor knows that she has to buy all four books or none of them. There’s no middle ground. Her publishing house can’t publish two of them and then stop if the books don’t sell well, at least not without really ticking off those readers who bought the first two books. A true series, on the other hand, gives publishers far more leeway. I can still go to that editor with a proposal for four books, but in this case each book stands alone. The editor can buy two books and see how they do before committing to two more.

I would never tell an aspiring author to write to “the market,” whatever that means. The fact is that the market is far too fluid, and book turnarounds are far too slow. Cannibalistic Troll Erotica might be all the rage right now, but who’s to say it still will be in a year, when your great new take on CTE is ready for publication? Instead, I tell aspiring writers that they need to write the books they’ve imagined, the books that they care about. Creativity is too fickle to be taken for granted. Write the book that’s inside you; follow the characters who are speaking to you.

That said, though, you should also understand that some projects are going to be easier sales than others. If you have a three or five book extended story arc burning a hole in your chest, by all means, write it. But if you can write a true series instead, that is going to be the more viable project from a commercial standpoint. Generally speaking, publishers are far less willing to offer contracts for several books at a time than they were a decade ago. That means less security for writers. Yet it can also present opportunities. Conceiving a project that can be marketed one or two books at a time might well make you a safer bet for a publisher. And in these difficult times, that might be exactly the advantage you need to break through.

In October, we’ll discuss the pacing and structure of your projects. In the meantime, think about story arcs and serialization, and figure out which one is best suited to your current work.

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