Now that we’re two months into 2016 and I’m two months into my current writing project, I finally have a few things to say about it.
I started working on Serpent’s Blood at the beginning of the year. I’m sure it seems like an odd choice, since the first book, Serpent’s Tears, still hasn’t escaped query limbo. More than one person has called me out on it, too–I mean, why work on writing another book in a series when you don’t know if the first book is going anywhere?
Work on the second began while I was querying for the first, which made sense, but I’ll agree that starting the third might not make as much. At least, not at this point in time. But there are a few things I’ve already learned from working on a book 3 in a trilogy, and with these discoveries in mind, I think I’d be reluctant to ever publish a book before its series is complete.
Writing a series is hard
I’m sure you read that and think “Well duh,” but it goes beyond the obvious part that writing any book is hard. When you’re writing a series, there are a lot more things to keep in mind. Plot threads that need to trail from the first book to the last, but without robbing each individual book of a satisfying ending. Timelines are more complex, and there are more characters to keep track of, but the hardest part I’ve encountered is that as you write, things tend to evolve.
Evolution of characters is a good thing; personal growth and change is what gives us a strong character arc and an enjoyable story. I’m not talking about character arcs, though. I’m talking about the world you’ve created changing, often in ways that challenges what you’ve already written.
One such problem I’ve encountered is that the series relies heavily on magic, and toward the end of the second book, my understanding of my own magic system changed radically. It’s not like it was me working out kinks or anything, either–I mean, I spent 15 years working those out before I even got around to writing the first book. It was that I thought of ways magic could work that I’d never addressed before, and unfortunately, it challenged things I’d done in the first book, when I thought I had the rules set in stone. This meant new revisions for the first book, to close gaps and make the world stronger, while building a solid foundation.
Another problem is that by exploring some themes more deeply, I ended up uncovering a gaping plot hole left in the first book. Somehow, me and a half dozen other people managed to overlook it. I can fix it, and I will, I’m just grateful in some ways that the first book hadn’t yet gone to publication. That one took me by surprise, but I guess it shouldn’t, because…
Not only do you obtain new information through continued study and research on your chosen subjects, you learn things about your story that surprise you, that you want to include but can’t just shoehorn into a third book without it feeling trite. So again, you’re pushed into a situation where you need to backtrack. It makes the whole series stronger, sometimes with just the addition of a few lines.
And when you’re doing that, of course, you learn more about writing, just because you’re doing more of it. You do things faster, you know your characters better, and all those hours of editing have helped you catch your problems and correct them before they even slide down your fingers and escape into your first draft.
But the strangest issue I’ve encountered?
You get faster
I don’t just mean writing faster. Later stories are often faster-paced. And, partly because you write faster, partly because you’ve already laid down the ground work, books later in the series sometimes get shorter.
It seems counter-intuitive to what I expected, since most fantasy series I’ve worked my way through in the past end with a few really hefty books. Now that I’m more experienced, I realize that usually has less to do with story content and more to do with that they’ve established a strong-selling series and can get away with more fluff and less ruthless editing. But I’ve gotten better at self-editing, too, so instead of my books working their way up to that monster you’d hate to lug around with you, they’ve lost size with each installment.
Serpent’s Tears clocked in at 180k words, mostly because it was the introduction to the characters and the world. Serpent’s Wake came in at around 160k, and at the rate I’m going, I expect Serpent’s Blood will be somewhere between 140k-150k. And it’s not for lack of story, either; there’s more packed into that last book than either of the others, because it’s bringing everything to a conclusion and tying up all those loose threads that have been tangling since book one. But you save a lot of time when you don’t have to spend time doing world building, or introducing characters. By the time you make it to book 3, you already know where we are and who we’re dealing with, so there’s no need to introduce them all over again. Which means as much as 50,000 words of ground work now gives way to story, and a lot of story, at that.
I still hope that when I revisit the first book at the end of the year that I might be able to pare the word count down a little more, but I’m not too hopeful. Especially since new developments mean its count might creep a little higher before everything is worked out smoothly.
After this, though, I am looking forward to writing a few standalone books.