I’m in a dither, but it’s my own fault.
I can’t seem to get involved in my current story, even though I have a cute guy on the front cover, a cover which, I might add, I won. I’ve re-written my introduction several times but I’m still not happy with it.
The thing is, I know what my problem is and how to fix it.
I recently read an article by Derek Murphy, who says, ‘I had trouble getting through a whole book until I learned story structure and plotting—and after I learned it I’ve found it much easier to produce fiction that sells, much more quickly.’
Many writers do ‘write from the seat of their pants’ and the story unfolds for them as they go. They enjoy letting the characters drive the plot along and may even justify it by saying their characters create the dialogue and therefore the situation. This may work for some genres such as romance, but I write epic fantasy and if there’s one thing readers like are the subplots, the twists and turns, the secondary characters who also have their part to play in the overall plot.
When I wrote the Bethloria series, which has seven books in total, I semi-plotted each one out. I had a vague idea of where each story was heading and who some of the characters were going to be, but it was only a skeleton of an idea and not fleshed out.
It had holes. It had weaknesses.
The thing going for it was that I knew my created world inside out. I’d smelled the untaming rot in the trees, seen how its dying forests appeared, felt its icy weather, experienced the dungeons and dragons and demons that I forced my main characters to experience. Thank goodness I was able to weave all the loose ends together at the conclusion of the series.
But it could have ended up in a great big mess.
On the whole, as a plotter, I tend to write better-crafted stories without gaping plot holes. I generally have loads of page notes which I can incorporate and create a gripping tale. When I’m writing from ‘the seat of my pants’, dialogue takes over and characters hijack my already flimsy plot, more flaws tend to appear in the actual story whose direction I have little idea of and I have loads to correct once the manuscript returns from my editor.
I had a friend once whose junior fiction stories were snapped up by a publisher. They signed her up for a series and my friend suddenly had deadlines, which stressed her out no end. She also worked and had a young family to look after and the only time available to write the series was late at night when everyone went to bed. She decided to write the stories by the seat of her pants, thinking she’d get them over and done with quicker. The publishers detected glaring holes and other problems in her stories. In the end, they rejected them. My friend had made more work for herself because she had to rewrite large sections of the stories.
‘I just don’t know what to write,’ she moaned. ‘Or what’s going to happen next.’
Luckily, she had a light-bulb moment and decided to plot out her remaining books, which was when she began to write faster and with a clearer direction. Plotting essentially gave her a map from beginning to end, enabling her to churn out six books.
One famous plotter is James Patterson, whose extensive outlines read like little stories on their own. Sounds like hard work to me. On the other hand, Stephen King is a pantser and enjoys stressing out his characters to see what transpires. Seems to have worked for him.
So, which are you: plotter, or pantser?
Known as antagonists, scoundrels, criminals, baddies, rogues, enemies and desperados, villains are nasty pieces of work. When writing fiction, they create bucket loads of adventure and peril which readers love. In fact, great stories cannot exist without a villain or two. They produce empathy and admiration within the reader for the suffering protagonist.
The word nemesis aptly describes what a villain is. It means: ‘a bitter enemy, especially one who seems unbeatable; a source of harm or ruin; a person or force that inflicts punishment or revenge.’ In short, villains should hang around like a bad smell until the very end of the story.
A villain should be introduced early, like the sweet old Granny from next door who makes periodic appearances as someone harmless, holding the hand of the frightened protagonist. In real life, Granny is the Black Widow Killer who has murdered several husbands with rat poison. Provide lots of unfortunate events for the protagonist along the way, such as that unhelpful detective, helpers falling ill or family members having unexpected accidents at the last minute. What about a terrible storm to heighten the series of worsening incidents?
The best Agatha Christie mysteries introduce the villains at the start of the movies as the least likely suspects. Lots of characters who’d make perfect candidates for her villains are scattered throughout the plot. These provide great red herrings. Your protagonist could jump to conclusions that turn out wrong every time. They may hear or see something to believe the criminal is someone else. Perhaps they overhear part of a conversation—remember Shrek and Donkey in the first movie? Or maybe they see blood on the carpet behind the couch. Red herrings help attract suspicions onto false suspects. Include events where the reader’s attention is drawn away from the charismatic villain! Make the red herrings plausible and the reader will believe them, too.
Cast the villain as the sweetest character of all that none would suspect until the final scenes when the butcher’s knife comes out of her drawer or the pot of peppermint tea is secretly laced with arsenic. Maybe the villain is there in the background all along, offering supportive advice and sweet smiles to cover up their hatred. Maybe the villain’s alter life is some sort of community helper so no one would suspect them such as a meals-on-wheels volunteer, or a nurse at the local hospital. When they are finally discovered, the revelation is all the more scandalous.
In real life, villains ‘hide’ within their vocations. Jack the Ripper was reportedly a doctor. If this occurs in real life, a fictitious character could hide in a similar way. The carefully concealed villain that puts everyone at ease and throws suspicion off themselves makes the best story. Have them appear briefly in unobtrusive scenes so they have the perfect alibis. Then, create plenty of other suspects, or red herrings, who don’t have alibis yet have plenty of reasons to be guilty of the crime.
As a writer, drop small clues throughout the story, none that are too obvious to incriminate Granny—yet! Hide clues in glimpses of house cleaning or ‘old lady’ dialogue, so that the reader glosses over them, or they simply appear insignificant until the very end.
Villains are complex characters because they generally believe that what they are doing is right. They turn bad when they decide to do what it takes to achieve their goals, regardless of who gets hurt. Their actions result in dangerous consequences for all involved, especially the protagonist.
Here are some villain personalities that may help you create your own villain.
1) MR BIG: obsessed with power and wants to rule the world. Think James Bond villain. They control powerful henchmen who do their bidding. Mr Big shows no remorse and is beyond help.
2) Scheming villains may appear innocent to the end but are secretly malicious. They will lie, cheat and kill to steal from others. Their motivation is envy and jealousy.
3) Polite villains conceal their evil intentions behind a mask of charm. They speak politely but manipulate others for their own gain. Think Agatha Christie films.
4) Villains who are easily led are those with low self-esteem and self-confidence. They prefer to follow others and may commit horrible crimes just to be accepted. Think crime shows.
A hidden foe introduced at the beginning of a story is very effective to the overall plot. Concealed behind plenty of smiles, the true villain can mislead readers and offer a great story of mystery and intrigue.
Don’t let failure stop you from achieving your goals. Believe in yourself and your abilities. Look, rejections happen, but so does that acceptance you’ve been hanging out for. Learn to push through those failures; squirrel them away in a file and don’t dwell on them. Dust yourself off and keep on going. Put away that rejected book and write another story with a better plot and more amazing characters.
Here are some famous authors who had to do just that. Thank goodness they did, too, or we may never have had their wonderful books on our shelves. Use the stories of these authors as examples to help you push through barriers of rejection and disappointment. There just might be a bestseller inside you waiting to be published.
1. Frank Herbert, author of one of the bestselling science fiction novels of this century, Dune, faced rejection after rejection from over 23 different publishers before his book was finally accepted for publication. It has won a Hugo and Nebula Award and was later adapted for film. (I once met Frank Herbert at a Supernova Convention).
2. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Windwas rejected by almost 40 publishers before eventually getting published. Yet a recent Harris poll discovered it was the second most popular book after The Bible.
3. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle was also rejected around 26 times before it was finally accepted for publication. It went on to become an international bestseller and was adapted into a movie. The book won numerous awards, including the Newberry Medal.
4. L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was rejected so many times that he kept a diary titled ‘A Record of Failure’ in which he collected all his rejection letters. Later, the book was translated into multiple languages and was adapted into a plethora of films, musicals and mini-series.
5. Twilight, by Stephanie Meyers, was rejected by 14 out of 15 literary agents but went on to become an outstanding novel, series and movie franchise. It also reached No. 5 on The New York Time’s Bestseller list.
6. Even J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stonewas rejected over 10 times by numerous publishing houses. One agent’s daughter, after she had read it, nagged her father to green-light the novel. It went on to become an international sensation with multiple movies and sundry merchandise.
7. Dr Seuss had 17 books rejected, which were not published, though he’s had many more that have. His very first book, And to think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, was rejected 27 times.
8. Isaac Asimov, the internationally famous science fiction writer, had several stories rejected which were never sold.
9. One editor told Ursula K. Le Guin that her story The Left Hand of Darknesswas ‘endlessly complicated’.
10. Agatha Christie waited four years for her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, to be published. It featured detective Hercule Poirot for the first time but was rejected 6 times. Although she died in 1976, her books, short stories and plays have gone on to earn multiple prestigious awards and have been adapted for film and stage.
11. The bestselling author of The Princess Diaries,Meg Cabot, keeps a mail bag of rejection letters.
12. Beatrix Potter ended up self-publishing her bestselling book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. It went on to become a household name and was adapted for TV and film.
13. Richard Hooker’s book titled A Novel About Three Army Doctorsinspired the film and TV hit show M*A*S*H, yet was rejected by 21 publishers. The film has been running as a successful series longer than the actual Korean War it was based on.
14. Stephen King became so frustrated with early drafts of Carriethat he threw them away. When he eventually finished it, it was then rejected 30 times. In the end, his wife helped him publish it.
15. Publishers of the outstandingly successful Lord of the Ringsby J. R. R. Tolkien were uncertain if it would work. They divided it into 3 books instead of the one enormous book Tolkien wanted. His publishers were still worried they’d lose money on this book, but in the first 6 weeks, they printed 3500 copies and then ran out. It has a huge fan base and when it was adapted for film, it won loads of awards.
I smuggle my faith into my stories. The Bethloria series have always been about the Christian life retold through epic fantasy rather than contemporary drama or romance, although there is quite a bit of romantic involvement towards the end of the series. It shows readers the words of St Paul: ‘to continue in the faith, reminding them that they must enter the Kingdom of God through many tribulations,’ words we don’t always want to hear. Whereas the Bethloria series are neither theological nor historical parables, I translate them in their purest form as tales set within a secondary world where my faith in Jesus Christ finds expression in a number of key ways.
For instance, the Morning Star represents the Holy Spirit and provides the two main protagonists, brothers Robbie and Dougray, with guidance in their decision-making. The Morning Star in its physical state is a true star but it is also the spiritual essence of Christ in the books, directing and providing comfort to the boys as well as to their Elf companion, Belle Shadow-Chaser, who is a strong believer.
One of the most powerful themes running through the series is how the seductive power of magic corrupts whole kingdoms and brings them to utter ruin. The monarchs are so consumed by magic’s gold-dross influence that they become physically altered, along with their kingdoms. As a result, they must be redeemed, or set free by the brothers, whose priestly roles are to bear the burdensome cross of Rafem, ‘saviours of the age’. It’s a sacrificial role bestowed upon them from birth which Dougray in particular finds difficult to accept.
Morgran, the supreme evil being in the tale, represents Satan. He invades Bethloria with subtlety by sending his minions to the seven kingdoms, offering the allure of magic to each of the monarchs, who become unaware of their enslavement and corruption. Five of them succumb, the Elvish Kingdom fights on and the main kingdom disappears altogether, a remnant kept safe by divine provenance but which is sought keenly by Morgran to entrap.
Belle Shadow-Chaser, the boys’ companion through the seven books, is the closest thing to an angelic character in her guidance and protection of them through her elvish skills and wisdom. She also offers them friendship and devotion to their cause, which coalesces with her own quest.
There are echoes of hell (the Abyss of Amarythe) in the story and what awaits if the boys should fail, with the appearance of monstrous creatures reaping havoc upon the lands. These scenes will increase as the stakes are raised in each book.
Other major themes include hope, and the ultimate victory of good over evil, although what victory is gained is tempered by sacrificial sorrow and loss. As the tale progresses, sacrifices become greater and the knowledge of the Morning Star becomes more innate by the characters, until paradise—redemption—is reached in book 7. The stories resonate with human weakness and failure and the need for salvation. Repentance is also a potent theme, realised with the brothers forgiving each other of past grievances.
For non-Christians, the Bethloria series are epic fantasy stories about good and evil; to Christians, they are an ever-present reminder of the subtlety of temptation with the Holy Spirit supporting us through the darkness of this age.
Let’s face it, I’m pretty weird.
I’m a writer with an overdeveloped imagination who sits for hours at the keyboard creating adventures for fictional character at the expense of having them myself. I even call those characters ‘friends’. I hear them speaking; I laugh with them when they do something that cracks me up, and I cry with them when things fall apart around them. My self-made isolation in my caravan fortress is comfortably familiar and the adventures I create in here thrill me more than Star Wars.
So yeah, that’s seriously weird.
But I have to watch out for dragons. Yep, them there dragons of avoidance, ignorance, timidity and fear, all like to rear up and wag great big jaws at me, and you if you let them. They belch forth reasons why I’m not good at it, why I shouldn’t go to conferences (even if covid wasn’t around); why I don’t need to write newsletters and blogs, and why I shouldn’t spend time on social platforms. They’re those same dragons that send fiery blasts of guilt for not producing stories, and self-pity when someone else posts their latest published novel and I don’t.
Talk about an epic battle taking place right at my fingertips! Yes, a real struggle! A fight I might not always win.
Procrastination is a dragon that kills my motivation to write that next scene. Yet creating something of worth means I’ll need to fight for it, and continue to fight until I’ve arrived at the end of my journey. Until I can see the Holy Grail before my tired eyes.
I’ll even have to slip my sword from its scabbard once in a while and stab those pesky conflicts and opposition in the guts. They’ll show up every day if I let them and I have to get violent, just like the hero in my book has to get violent if he’s to survive and reach the final scene.
Let me tell you, I’ve battled some pretty epic dragons over the years, especially in the arena of self-publishing. My armour is a bit singed in places and my helmet sits a bit crooked. Once I took back the rights for my books from my last publisher—and for years I procrastinated doing that too—I found myself out on a limb over the raging river called Do It Yourself. Believe me, there were quite a few crocodiles down there waiting to gobble me up in doubts and uncertainties.
I read loads of articles and how tos on the internet on self-publishing my first book. I gave up many times after failing dismally, but I knew I had to keep going. I was on my own epic journey and huge dragons started to appear around every corner. At first, I didn’t know what to do about them and tried everything. But they wouldn’t go away. For many months, I avoided purchasing Vellum, which I knew would format my manuscripts beautifully. I clung to my old beliefs and methods and created terrible books. Cringe! It made me so anxious and frustrated, I’d cry myself to sleep.
Then, one day, I bit the proverbial bullet and bought Vellum. I started improving and creating beautiful products. But still, no one was buying them. So, I set off on a side road to discover what had to be done. I’m still figuring it out but I’m a little closer to understanding.
This year, I decided to embark on the production of a newsletter and blog and created a website as a possible landing page. I’ve never ever written a blog before, but I know it’s like some magic key that opens doors. I’ve learned how to add text to photos, make short videos, create pins on Pinterest and set up 3D book covers. Maybe one day, I’ll even learn how to make a crazy video to upload on Youtube, though I don’t want to crack anyone’s screen just yet.
Derek Murphy has a great way to battle those dragons of fear, which I really like. You might like it, too.
‘You know that the secret charm to combat a boggart - a creature that mimics your worst fear - is "Riddikulus." If you're able to laugh out loud at your fear and turn it into a ridiculous image, it will no longer threaten you.’ –Derek Murphy.
A great idea. What do you think?
1. Mists, shimmering silver fingers, rose over the pale green water of the lake. – The Awakening by Nora Roberts
2. I was running hard, pushing myself past human limits, to the only place I knew could help. Home. – The Hero, The Sword and the Dragons by Craig Halloran
3. The extravagance made my teeth hurt. – The Stars We Steal by Alexa Donne
4. The day had finally arrived, a day I’d been waiting for ten years. – Mitosis A Reckoners Story by Brandon Sanderson
5. This probably isn’t the best idea I’ve ever had. – An Extraordinary Few by Pam Eaton
6. I can’t breathe. – Guardian by A. J. Messenger
7. Maybe if I’d known how that night would impact my life and the lives of everyone I knew—not to mention the fate of the entire world—I would have turned round and headed straight back to college. – Fractured Light by Nick Cook
8. Once upon a time (that means I don’t exactly know when, but it wasn’t that long ago), in the land called the Seven Kingdoms, the king and queen very much wanted a son. – The Princess Rules by Philippa Gregory
9. As seventeen-year-old Aniya Lyons sat across the table from her date, a forgotten man stumbled through the alleys of the Hole, slipping on blood that drained from his side. – The Light Thief by David Webb
10. Drake knew it wasn’t the frogs’ fault. – The Thirteenth Horseman by Barry Hutchison
11. The Depraved appear in the distance—hundreds of them, jumping and crawling their way through the pouring rain. – The Awakening by Stuart Meczes
12. Heavy boots pound the tarmac, as officers bark their orders and sniffer dogs whine, blinded by the rows of steaming halogen floodlights. – Ned’s Circus of Marvels The Gold Thief by Justin Fisher
13. The dragon roared, its jaws so close to Thane’s head that I waggled the page gently in the air, waiting for my writing to dry. – I Am Margaret by Corinna Turner
14. ‘Good luck and have a pleasant apocalypse.’ – The Apocalypse Five by Stacey Rourke
15. Cats were a proud race of seers. – The Seer by A. R. Curtis
16. Joost had two problems: the moon and his moustache. – Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
17. There is a pirate in the basement. – The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
18. My big brother reaches home in the dark hours before dawn, when even ghosts take their rest. – An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahi
19. I stalked my enemy carefully through the cavern. – Skyward by Brandon Sanderson
20. Prague, early May. The sky weighed gray over fairy-tale rooftops, and all the world was watching. – Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor
There are 3 main types of series: serials, sequels and spinoffs and each one is slightly different and well worth a mention.
A serial is where the same main character is featured in each book, but each book can stand alone. Most mystery/suspense/action/adventure series fall into this category. While you learn more about the character as the series progresses, the stories themselves are mostly episodic. Examples include The Hardy Boys and Indiana Jones Adventures.
Serials can also be released in smaller, sequential versions for readers to enjoy, such as in magazines. Originally, the Sherlock Holms stories were written for serialisation in The Strand magazine. The Count of Monte Cristo had 139 instalments. Wattpad is one site that serialisesaspiring writers’ works if anyone is interested enough to give them a go.
Sequelshave a finite number of books where the plot is introduced in the first book and concludes with the last. Many fantasy and science fiction series fall into this category. While individual books can be read as standalones, readers get more out of the narrative when they start with the first book and follow the series in order.
Examples of sequels are the Harry Potter books, the Shannara and Twilight series.
Spinoffs take a minor character, setting or plotline from the original standalone and develop it. In many cases, the series characters are a specific team engaged in a heroic profession. Spinoffs work well for romance writers who need a fresh couple for each book’s romance, although it also works well in the fantasy genre. The YA science fiction I Am Number Four series has quite a few spinoffs.
Writing a series has several advantages. For instance, a series allows readers and writers to get to know extraordinary characters and explore the created world in detail. Strong characters make a series memorable for readers who witness their evolving traits, conflicts and growing relationships through the story. They also witness their growth and change with all that’s happening around them.
Another advantage is that you, as the writer, already have your idea, characters, setting and you know your story inside out. You have the basis to keep you writing going for years and therefore you can write faster with well-established characters and worlds. This means the more books you have, the more sales you are likely to make. The more you sell, the more confident and grounded you become, creating a loyal fan base. Writing that series will be a winning situation for you and your readers.
I see you cringing. Write a series? Who me? You must be joking!
But hey, modern binge-readers love to devour a great series. Who doesn’t love to watch a series on TV that you can’t wait for during the week? I can think of plenty I’ve seen and still love to watch.
Many readers are the same about books and love them just as much. Especially if they’ve discovered one with amazing characters they can connect with. If the plotline is also well thought out and woven through, then it’s a recipe for success and readers will love one book after another in the series.
But it’s hard enough writing one book, let alone a whole series!
I hear you and agree totally. If you’re not a quick writer and take a year or more at composing one novel, then the thought of writing a series will terrify you. But if your existing plot could sustain longer, multiple storylines, it has potential for a series.
If your story follows a single narrative arc, it can’t. It’ll need multiple separate threads that you can weave together to create an amazing narrative. That means you’ll require a memorable protagonist and a cast of supporting characters who are endearing and complex in their own right. Readers should want to follow their individual journeys as they might their friends.
Their journeys must take them through both physical and emotional changes. Do they have the potential to be developed and fleshed out enough to sustain multiple books? Tolkein allowed Pippin and Merry, Sam and Frodo as well as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli to have separate story arcs, all coming neatly together by story’s end in The Lord of the Rings.
Yes, but I can’t write a blockbuster like The Lord of the Rings!
Sure, it’s a challenge just to write a single novel. But a series takes writing to a whole new level, one that needs commitment to complete all the books for the sake of your readers. Once you begin, you’ll discover how much you’ll wantto achieve writing that series and how much you actually love your story. You’ll also realise how much you will want to find out what happens, compelling you to keep writing.
You will also discover there are basically two types of readers. Those who like one book and when they’ve finished reading it, that’s enough; the shorter the better. And there are those readers who really enjoy becoming lost in the mega serials. They enjoy the plotlines, the lengthy descriptions of settings and they love the characters.
Writers are the same. There are those who wouldn’t write a series in a million years. Writing one book is difficult enough and leave me alone please. There are those who enjoy world building, plotting, scheming and forgetting about reality. They dream of writing that book that leads to a long line of continuing, wonderful adventures. Over the decades we’ve seen: Sherlock Holms, Miss Marple, Father Brown, LOTR, The Chronicles of Narnia, Dune, Harry Potter, The Space Odyssey series, and loads more.
Have you ever come to the end of a book and felt you wanted to read more about a favourite character or storyline?
As an author, I love writing a series. I don’t want the wonderful worlds I’ve become so familiar with and created to end with the words, the end.
I love spending time exploring my characters’ world, being inside their heads, watching them get in and out of trouble, helping them on their quests. In so many ways, my characters become good friends who make me laugh or cry. I cheer them on.
So, what kind of writer will you be? Is there a series lurking inside you, just waiting for your fingers to type it onto your computer screen? If so, get started and see what happens.