Saturday, April 23, 2011

Untangling the Webs We Weave: Revising a Series

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Revisions. How many of you got a shiver just reading that? I’m a bit of a freak, because I enjoy revisions. I love digging back into a draft and turning “meh” into “wow.” To shape a story from a wandering mess to something that can hold a reader’s attention for 400 pages.

Until I wrote a trilogy. And then had to revise that.

Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy revisions, but revising a series took different skills than revising a stand-alone novel. Here are some things I learned that could help if you’re working on a series.

1. You have a lot of stuff to remember 

The big stuff is obvious. Major plot points, revealed secrets, story twists. But it’s the little things that get you. What color were someone’s eyes? When did the sidekick and the hero meet? Does the love interest know about that little “situation” last book? Readers remember way better than authors do, and when you mess up continuity they notice. So you have to check and double check your facts to make sure you don’t have a grandfather that played a pivotal role in book three and a great-grandfather that played that same role in book one. Keep a series bible. Don’t just write down the big stuff, but all the piddly stuff you don’t think will really be important. It will be later. And when you find yourself having to dig through past books to find a fact, put that in the bible.

2. Changing the past means changing a lot of past 

If your story is already published, there’s nothing you can do about previous books. You’re stuck with what you wrote, even if changing it will make the current book so much better. But if you’re writing the entire series or trilogy before you start submitting, anything you do in book three you have to make sure still works for book one. And again, it’s not going to be the big stuff that trips you up. Sometimes it’ll be original backstory you’ll want to change, or how two people met. Small details that would deepen something you’re doing later when those details actually play a role in the plot. In book one, they were just throwaway details. But book four, the whole climax hangs by them. Then there’s that quick mention in book two, and a joke in book three over it. Those character-building details often permeate your entire series, and they might even be the motivation behind a critical moment. If you change the past, that motivation may no longer work.

3. Your backstory will try to kill you 

Unlike a stand-alone novel, every previous book is backstory (shudder). You’ll want to reference previous books, cute scenes you liked, problems that really bugged your protagonist. Some will work and help the current story, but most of it will just confuse the reader. When you spot these character “in jokes,” ask yourself if they really need to be there. Would someone who didn’t read that book know what you’re talking about? And if you find yourself explaining it so new readers will get it, that’s a red flag that it doesn’t have to be there. Naturally, if it plays a critical role in that story it’s okay to talk about it, but you’d be surprised how often you reference past books when you don’t need to.

4. How bad can things really get? 

Stakes also become a challenge, because you want each book to have escalating stakes, but when one book ends on a major high point (as all books need to do), where do you go from there? It’s tempting – and not uncommon – to pick up right there in the next book, but when you start with stakes that high, there’s nowhere to go. Instead of starting high and going higher, the tension plateaus after a few chapters. If your critique group is telling you “it’s exciting, but it’s just not going anywhere” then this could be the reason. Personally, I think this is one of the harder things about a series. It’s easy to go too far and fall into melodrama, but you still need to maintain that “things getting worse” aspect. Try looking at other places you can raise stakes besides the plot. Internal struggles that can cause problems (which helps with character growth), secondary characters who can get into trouble, past traumas that can come back to haunt your protagonist. Look at your series stakes like a wave. Start low and go high, then drop back down and start again.

Series can be challenging, but they’re great ways to really explore your world and your characters. And if you don’t mind a little (okay a lot of) extra work, you can end up with deeper, richer stories.

Originally published during the Blue Fire blog tour at The Writing Cave.

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Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I take VERY detailed notes on everything. Even just revising one book, I have a terrible memory. I review my notes before every revising session so I can remember.

  2. I footnote the drafts using different colors - red indicates notes relevant to book one, blue for book two, and so on. I can tell at a glance what books are obviously implicated in any decision. It doesn't make up for a series bible by a long shot, but it's a great shorthand and creating the footnotes really helps cement the plot threads and the continuity.

  3. The stakes thing is killing me on book two. I just don't feel like I have enough at stake. *sighs* I also just realized relying on my memory for the details doesn't work with a poor memory.

  4. Las Vegas Writer: I take more notes now that I've been through it. Wish I'd done more starting out :)

    Kurt: What a fabulous ideas! I love that. I'm so doing that next series. Thanks!

    Wendy: Aw :( That's rough, and I've been there so I feel your pain. You might try some wild out of the box brainstorming. Just think about things that might happen and see where it leads you. Maybe you'll find something you can adapt to the story :)