Committing Trilogy

As I write this blog post I’m editing and polishing my third Psi-Tech book, Nimbus, the last in my trilogy of space operas (though there may be more ahead set in the same universe—it’s too early to tell, yet.) It’s due from DAW in October 2017.

The groundwork that I laid when writing Empire of Dust (DAW 2014) still dictates what I write three books later. Once the first book of a trilogy is published I can’t retrospectively change the big idea, or even any of the basic principles, so getting the world-building right (and consistent) in the beginning is really important. I there’s something to be revealed as the trilogy progresses then it needs to be foreshadowed in the first book.

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The Psi-Tech trilogy is set 500 years in the future. Building that universe is a task which crops up early in my writing/planning process, though maybe not right at the beginning. (I’ll be talking about world building in a future blog, so I’m going to skip some of that detail now.).

Which comes first, writing or planning? I’m a half-and-half writer—not quite a plotter, not quite a pantser (i.e. a discovery writer who writes by the seat of their pants to find out what happens next). When I first get an idea I’ll often sit down and write without a plan of any kind. Then, when I’ve done a bit of story exploration, I’ll outline the structure in broad detail. I have been known to have the beginning reasonably well detailed, the ending clearly stated, and between those two extremes I have a lot of wibble labelled: stuff happens, with maybe one or two pivotal scenes sketched more fully. I don’t tend to outline plot points chapter by chapter in great detail. (I’ve tried that and it makes me feel as though I’ve written the book once already when I come to write the first draft.)

Putting a specific character in a specific situation is probably what gives me the initial idea; someone with a dilemma I can get excited to write about. It’s an acorn from which I hope to grow an oak tree. In Empire of Dust, the opening scene features a lone telepath, in fear for her life. She’s been on the run for a year, and her pursuers are catching up with her. When I started, that was all I had. The surroundings that coalesced out of my imagination were bleak and grey, utilitarian, though a little shabby, and largely featureless, except where humans had tried to imprint their personality with improvised artwork on the doors of their one-room apartments. A space station, I thought, and the world building grew from there.

The character building also grew from there. Who was my telepath? What had she done to make herself into a target. Was it her fault? How was she going to get out of the initial dilemma? Ah right… she was going to hustle for a ride out of the space station with someone, a stranger. She didn’t know him, but as the author I needed to know who he was; what his background was; where he was heading for; what his own problems might be. These two characters had to be interesting enough to hold the attention for a full book, or, as it turned out, three books. They had to have room to grow, but their growth had to arise from their backstory. They didn’t appear out of nowhere. Cara was estranged from her mother. He father was dead. Ben’s parents were dead, but he had a grandmother, a brother and two nephews. We get to meet them in the first book, but they become important in the second book and continue to be a solid presence in the third.

A writer doesn’t simply need to know enough about setting and characters to deliver a single story, they must inhabit their world more fully and know the people who exist there. The book shouldn’t feel as though the universe it’s set in popped into existence just a few minutes before the first scene. It should feel as though there’s a history, even if you don’t describe it in great detail. When the book ends your reader needs to feel as though the universe is still carrying on beyond where you wrote ‘the end’ and left your protagonists living happily ever after (or not).

And what goes for a standalone novel goes three times as much for a trilogy.

I’ll be honest I didn’t plan that Empire of Dust would be the beginning of a trilogy. It could quite easily have been a stand-alone novel, though I did have some ideas of how it could progress into two, then three books. The reason for that is purely practical. When I wrote Empire, I did it purely on spec. If you are an unpublished writer seriously aiming at publication you shouldn’t waste time writing a sequel or a trilogy until Book One has sold, because if you can’t sell Book One, those sequels are dead in the water, and you’ve wasted precious time (years, even) when you could have been writing something that a publisher would buy. Been there, done that, got the T shirt. However, at the same time as writing your standalone, you have to spend a little time thinking about the possibility of continuation because, if you are lucky enough to sell a book, your new publisher may ask: ‘What else have you got?’ or, ‘Is there a book to follow this?’

My first three book deal from DAW was Winterwood (historical fantasy in the Rowankind series), Empire of Dust (space opera) and an unspecified sequel to Empire based on a one page story synopsis that they asked me for. That sequel became Crossways. My second deal was for the second Rowankind book, Silverwolf, and the third Psi-Tech book, which became Nimbus (Due October 2017.)

When planning a trilogy you need three separate books with beginnings, middles and ends, while the whole three books form an arc of their own, again with a beginning, middle, and end. You have to decide on the structure, and how the books are linked. Are you going to have the same characters continuing the story throughout the three books or each story going to be a linked standalone? Or maybe the first two books feature two different protagonists and those protags are going to come together in the final book.

If it’s one megastory told in three books, how are you going to deal with your (probably large) cast of characters? Unless you kill everyone on the last page, you need to decide which characters are going to survive the whole three books and which are going to be sacrificed to the god of plot. (You may literally kill them off or just remove them from the storyline in some manner when their role comes to an end.) Your long-lived characters, the ones who are front and centre throughout the three books, need to remain consistent from the first to the last page. That doesn’t mean your character can’t grow and change, but it means that you can’t suddenly have someone behave out of character unless you have foreshadowed it and inserted good reasons.

Your overarching three-book story may be obvious from the beginning, or it may grow out of events that are foreshadowed in the first book. Whatever you decide it has to be consistent and logical. What you decide to do in the first book is going to be with you for a long time.

In Empire of Dust I mention the visions that pilot-navigators have when transiting through foldspace. That foldspace theme develops in Crossways alongside dangerous problems caused by human antagonists. In Nimbus it becomes pivotal. The developments in foldspace will eventually mean that the human problems have to be solved in order to solve the foldspace problems.

2book-RowankindThe Psi-Tech books form my first trilogy, but my historical fantasy series beginning with Winterwood and continuing with Silverwolf looks like growing into the Rowankind Trilogy, too. Maybe after that I’ll write a standalone. I already have ideas…

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Cover Reveal: Nimbus

Nimbus isn’t due until October 2017, but I just got the cover and permission to let you all see it. So here it is: Nimbus, the third in the Psi-Tech trilogy.

Cover by the fabulously talented Stephan Martiniere.

Nimbus front cover

In a galaxy where the super-powers are the megacorporations, and ambitious executives play fast and loose with ethics in order to secure resources, where can good people turn for help? The megacorps control the jump gates and trade routes. They use psi-techs, implant-enhanced operatives with psionic abilities, who are bound by unbreakable contracts. Cara Carlinni once had her mind turned inside out by Alphacorp, but she escaped, and now it’s payback time.

Ben Benjamin leads the Free Company, based on the rogue space-station, Crossways. The megacorps have struck at Crossways once—and failed—so what are they planning now? Crossways can’t stand alone, and neither can the independent colonies, though maybe together they all stand a chance.

But something alien is stirring in the depths of foldspace. Something bigger than the squabbles between megacorporations and independents. Foldspace visions are supposed to be a figment of the imagination. At least, that’s what they teach in flight school. Ben Benjamin knows it’s not true. Meeting a void dragon was bad enough, but now there’s the Nimbus to contend with. Are the two connected? Why do some ships transit the Folds safely and others disappear without a trace?

Until now, humans have had a free hand in the Galaxy, settling colony after colony, but that might have to change because the Nimbus is coming.

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Write What Someone Knows by Ben Jeapes

Source: Write What Someone Knows by Ben Jeapes

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Stories Far and Near

I love scandals in the family – preferably in past generations, of course.

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Bessie Bullough 1913 – 1992

My dad’s cousin, always known to me as Auntie Bessie, was supposed to have traced the family back to Cornwall in the 1600s whereupon the two distinct family lines were said to split into pirates and lunatics. At that point she gave up.

At least that was the story, but I never got the chance to talk to her about it before she died. Sadly it doesn’t appear to be true. I’ve done a lot family research myself, but there’s no Cornish connection – though the family goes back to Dorset and Somerset.

I’m reminded of the standing quotation from the TV show, ‘House’ – ‘Everybody lies.’

My Great-Great-Grandfather, Fletcher Fletcher, (so good they named him twice!) came from New Hall in Staffordshire, close to Burton on Trent, but his son, Benjamin James Randal Fletcher moved up to Castleford (Yorkshire) to work in the mines in the 1870s and told everyone he came from St Ives in Cornwall. It’s even in the family bible – though in a slightly different hand as if it’s an afterthought.

A cousin suggested that since Staffordshire miners had a reputation for strike-breaking, no one looking for work in a mining community wanted to admit that’s where they came from. If I could grab Benjamin’s spirit in a seance I’d really take him to task for that one. It took me ages to track him down. You wouldn’t think there would be many Fletcher Fletchers in genealogical/census records – and there aren’t, only 6 in total anywhere in the country – but, of course not one of them in Cornwall, so I was looking in the wrong place for years!

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Samuel Robinson 1835 – 1905. My Great-Great Grandfather

Benjamin did well for himself. He married Emily Robinson, daughter of Samuel Robinson who was not only a colliery viewer (a mine manager) in Castleford, but also ended up with his own pub (The Victoria) and a rather large and impressive tombstone as a monument. Possibly as a result of who-you-know, Benjamin ended up as a undermanager in a colliery, though neither he nor Emily made old bones, and the Fletcher children were brought up by their oldest sister, Mary, who married Sam Bullough shortly after her parents’ deaths. Kudos to Mary for keeping the family together, but as a career teacher (yes, even in the era around the First World War) it was Sam who did most of the bringing up after he got back from the trenches. Sam and Mary had only one child who survived and that was Auntie Bessie (a career teacher who never married and who literally wrote the book on new methods of teaching music and movement in the heady days of arts teaching after the Second World War). Bessie’s photos came to me after she died. Sadly, though we looked through all her papers after her death, there was no trace of the family research she was supposed to have done. Did she do it? I can’t imagine she’d have thrown it away if she did. Are we back to the ‘Everybody lies,’ thing?

The more I dig into genealogy, the more I realise that stories come from everywhere, and family history can be just as good a source of inspiration as anything else.

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Lock Lane Infants, Castleford, circa 1911. Mary Robinson Fletcher, top left. She married Sam Bullough later the same year and continued teaching all her working life..

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Bloggage or not…

Guys, I’m just finishing off the last little bit of the first draft of Nimbus , the third psi-tech novel. (Due October 2017.)

I’m up to my ears in words, living on coffee and chocolate and writing until three in the morning. Please forgive lack of bloggage this week. Have a lovely photo of my dog, Eska, instead and a promise that I’ll write a proper blog post on Tuesday 21st March.

Encouraging comments welcomed – both about the writing and the dog, who is a real sweetheart.

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Agent Update

Way back in February and March 2016 I posted parts one and two ‘About Literary Agents and How to Get One’. You can read part one here and part two here.

Yes, go and read them if you like, I’ll wait.

Back again?

Well, you’ll notice that I’d already had three literary agents when I wrote that article… but now it’s four.

Lost another one? You might well ask, but the fact of the matter is that Amy has moved out of being a literary agent and into another branch of publishing.

If you were paying attention when reading the history of my efforts to snag a good literary agent, you might recall that when I signed on with Agent #2 she was part of a big New York agency. Though #2 was my agent, my contract was actually with the literary agency, not with #2 personally. However when #2 decided to leave the big agency and set up on her own, I was faced with a decision. I could either stay with the agency, in which case they would have had to team me up with one of their other agents – an unknown quantity who may or may not like my writing – or I could resign from the agency and stick with agent #2 and become her personal client. I liked her enough to do that, so when – a year and a bit later – she decided to get out of agenting altogether, I was left high and dry. It’s not a unique story. Agents move, change, retire, or even die. A writer can find themselves abandoned for any number of reasons, and have to start the lit-agent search again.

Anyhow, you can imagine that I was disappointed to learn that Amy was leaving the Donald Maass Literary Agency behind because we’d got on well, and she’d negotiated contracts for my first five books. I sincerely wish her all the best in her career move. However this time, I knew I was in safe hands because my contract was with the agency, and DMLA has a great reputation. Of course, finding a compatible agent within the agency was still going to be a big leap of faith.

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Don Maass

Imagine my delight when I had a long skype conversation with Don Maass himself, and to cut a long story very short, he is my new agent! Wow, I could hardly have hoped for something this great. I’ve long been an admirer of his books: Writing the Breakout Novel, and The Fire in Fiction. Both highly recommended. He’s got a new book coming out – in fact it’s out in the USA already but I haven’t got my copy in the UK, yet: The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

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Style Sheets

typewriter-3There’s a lot of information to keep in your head if you’re writing a book. There’s even more if you’re writing a trilogy or a series.

I happily wrote seven books without having a single style sheet… and then I got published.

The first book to be published (not by any means the first book I wrote) was duly delivered, went through the editing stage (content editing, that is) and then, when the story was as good as we (the editor and I) could make it, it went off to be copy edited.

At that point I started to get questions. Was it jumpgate, jump gate or jump-gate? Should telepath be capitalised or not? Was it Arquavisa or Arquevisa because I’d spelled it both ways. At that point I realised that although I thought I’d (mostly) been consistent (except where I hadn’t), it wasn’t immediately obvious to the copy editor.

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Crossways: Book Two in the Psi-Tech series.

Also there were words of phrases that I’d appropriated that meant something slightly different in my universe. House gold was a type of beer. Telepath was capitalised when it was an implant-enhanced Telepath, a psi-tech, but not when it referred to a natural telepath or telepathy. The Folds (capitalised) was the proper name of that supposedly empty space between jump gates (not hyphenated), but foldspace (not capitalised) was a type of space, not a proper name. Jump drive was not hyphenated to jump-drive unless it was a compound modifier.

Confused?

All that and more.

I didn’t have a style sheet. It was a rookie mistake, and one I’ve not made since.

The copy editor of Empire of Dust had to make a style sheet of every name, unusual phrase etc. and the publisher very kindly passed it on. I used it as the basis of a series style sheet for all the Psi-Tech novels. I’m still using it.

Every character name is on there (twice – listed as Fred SMITH (m.) and SMITH, Fred (m.) so I can find it whether I look it up under surname or forename. (Surname always capitalised, just so I know.) Every hyphenation is on there where there’s a choice of whether to hyphenate or not. Every place name is on there. Every unusual phrase is on there, for instance:
‘Juno LAKE (f. Sofia Lake’s dtr married to a nice couple)’, or
‘Orphena – dryer than Orphena’s twelve moons (saying)’, or
‘dirtsider’ for someone who is planet-bound.

So every time you start a new book have a file open for your style sheet. Every time you decide whether or not to hyphenate a term, stick it on there. Every time you introduce a new character, or invent a new place, stick it on there. Every time you use a new swear word, stick it on there (especially if you decide to use frell or frack instead of the obvious four letter word).

Since mine has become a series style sheet, if I kill off a character I note it on the style sheet (and which book they die in), so I don’t accidentally have a walk-on character appear while dead, which would be very embarrassing.

I use Scrivener to write my first draft (and probably second), but my style sheet is a word doc. I use a twenty-three inch screen, so I can have Scrivener and Word open alongside each other while I work. And, of course, Scrivener incorporates places for your research and your character files, so you don’t need detail on your style sheet, just enough of a reminder so that the copy editor knows what’s what.

Whenever I deliver a finished book to my publisher I send the latest version of the style sheet. It saves a lot of questions. I don’t always get the same copy editor as I had for the last book, and even if I do, they aren’t guaranteed to remember what went before any more than I am.

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