Author’s Note: I’m sending out my very first newsletter this week and it has exciting NEWS in it, so if you’re interested, sign up here.
At the end of last month (where is time going?), my second manuscript was sent to my editor. I wrote about it (briefly). When I sent it, it was 131,000 words, which is loooong. But I ran out of places to cut words and time to do it in so sent it with fingers crossed.
Meanwhile, I was in the middle of a serious argument with the third book in my trilogy. My characters did not want to cooperate with my plan. At all.
All of this, combined with a lot of other things going on in my life, including frustrating book sales, led me to overwhelm which led me to stasis. Something to know about me: When I get overwhelmed, I freeze. I didn’t want to abandon my series, because this is my dream, but I also felt the familiar sensation of losing my way creeping in.
Fortunately, I have a good editor who wasted no time in pulling me off the cliff. Although, I’ll be honest, I was a bit nervous when I received the email from her enclosing her critique. Katie and I have a great relationship, and I trust her, but something about seeing, “You’ll see that I do make a big recommendation that could change a few things” in an email from your editor can really make your heart rate spike.
Of course, my brain started to go into overdrive as I ran through worst case scenarios such as: she hates my new protagonist (who is a character I’ve been developing for approximately… forever); there’s a gaping plot hole I’m not going to know how to fix; the prose is terrible; the whole thing needs rewritten. All fixable, yes, but not pleasant. I should clarify, none of these were the case, either.
What I wasn’t expecting was a suggestion to expand the trilogy because well… the book is too long but parts need a bit more development and there’s nowhere to find 30,000 extra words. As Katie put it, “The story and characters have begged you to.”
My first thought was: Why didn’t I think of that? Why did that not ever seem like an option?
It’s funny how strict you can be with yourself, how solid an idea can be before it’s even formed. In my head, my series was always a trilogy. That’s just how it was. Period. As I’ve said before, I’m not a plotter, so how that one idea became so solid, I’m not 100% sure, but it was. Three books. No more, no less.
I called an emergency “meeting” with a couple of my most trusted beta readers. Frantically, I spelled out to them via Facebook messenger what my editor was proposing. Then I sat back, wincing as I waited.
Here’s something else you should know: My betas are the best people I know, but they can be a tough audience. That’s what makes them good (and my friends). I expected some kind of resistance from them especially because expanding a series is done frequently in fantasy and sometimes it’s not done all that well. They know that. I know that. I expected them to remind me of that.
Surprisingly, they didn’t. “I like it,” said one.
Hm… I thought, then winced again and decided to poke the sleeping bear. “This would help me fix the problems with book three that were making me want to throw the book out the window. I guess I was just dead set on a trilogy.”
The three dots on the message screen blinked, and my stomach flipped somersaults as I tried my best not to grind my teeth down to nothing. “Trilogies are so passe. Ten million books plus ten novellas are so hip right now.”
I burst out laughing. Just when you think you know what to expect, people throw you a curve ball. Which is, of course, exactly what my characters did to me too, sneaky bastards (and I mean that term literally in at least one case if you’ve read book one).
With my betas on board, I decided it was possible to discuss this thing with my editor. So after taking a night to sleep on her critique to digest what her suggestions would look like, I sent her a sprawling, long-winded email that concluded by addressing the elephant in the room: fantasy series that are expanded poorly.
Everyone who reads this blog knows my policy on not tearing down any specific works by any specific author, and I’m not about to break that now. Instead, I’ll say that sometimes authors expand series because they’re popular, and their readers want them to, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they should. This shows in the writing. The books start to drag or get redundant or the characters no longer seem to be on an arc but more of a flat line path. No one is developing. In short, the writing loses its spark.
This is sort of my biggest fear when it comes to a series. I want my series to reflect the arc in my own writing. Book two should be (and in my extremely biased opinion, is) better than book one. Book three should be better than book two, etc. You’re growing as a writer, and your characters should grow with you. That’s organic. That’s (dare I say it) art.
Don’t get me wrong, plenty of fantasy series have more than three books and are absolutely lovely. Obviously, the most famous fantasy series in the history of the world consists of seven books, and they’re all stellar.
That said, there are plenty of series that could have stopped at book two or even book one and been fine. And I couldn’t quite get my professors at UNC out of my head as I started to contemplate a possible expansion. The famous “six-word novel” hung heavy on my heart. For those who don’t know it, it is as follows:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
It’s often mistakenly attributed to Hemingway, but there were stories like this before Hemingway. It’s true author appears to be unknown.
The point remains the same, however. Less is more. This was always an extremely difficult concept for me to grasp, and though I believe I’ve gotten much better at it, I probably won’t be writing any six-word stories any time soon.
Still, those extra words nagged at me. I could see the possibility on the horizon. I wanted those words. The strength with which I wanted them made me shove through the fear and the self-doubt and dare to imagine what this series could look like if I had the room to really open up and let my characters do what they want instead of constantly fighting me.
Ultimately, the decision to expand was born through a combination of that desire and my editor’s sage advice: “Overall, listen to the characters and the story, and don’t worry about trying to fit it in a certain number of books.”
Now, I might not be able to write a six-word novel, but that is something I can do.
Here we go y’all.