Sometimes the ideas I have are good ones. Sometimes I should think them through a little more before embarking on them.
On this occasion, having the idea to write a series or serial for the Story Reading Ape all through my guest post spot in 2018 seemed like a good one. Maybe it was bananas all along.
For some time I’d been wanting to write a story based on my illustrator’s characters. Dani English does a lovely range of fantasy creatures, full of personality, and often already named. She specialises in dragons, and does commissions, if you’re interested. I’d collected some of her sketches in the past, and when I discussed it further with her, she came up with several more pictures, two of which became prompts for the first stories.
I’d also already written some flash fictions set in a fantasy world where Erebor was the almost mythical place to which everyone travelled. Carver the Ranger had turned up in these: he was inspired by a prompt requiring me to include ‘a colour-blind ranger’ among a diverse set of characters. After the initial story featuring him, I did several more… he was obviously not going away quickly.
So, I had my starting point.
What did I learn once I’d got going?
- Six illustrations do not make a series
- Flash fiction stories are not the same as serial episodes
- A full story is not necessarily conducive to being broken into episodes
- Even if you’re trying not to fall into the standard fantasy journey trope, it still happens
- A consistent voice is really hard to maintain
Six illustrations do not make a series
My illustrator, Dani English, and I had been vaguely discussing using her illustrations for some stories. I had an idea that it might work for a fantasy serial, and flicked that across. She came back with some characters, a few of them who had names and little bits of background.
I latched on to some of them, got an idea and started writing.
At first it was easy enough – Talbot the fox-rabbit (both his name and species were my invention) was an attractive character, and the colour picture of Alice (such an expression!) and Magpie gave me a great way of introducing them. So far, so good.
But the story developed without illustrations for it. I knew I wanted to bring the Wandering Merchant Raven in, and Dani had already used ‘she’ for that character. The Red Mage Cat was intended to be a fun but essentially good character, but I needed a baddy, and he looked mischievous enough for that. I always saw him as male, but I think Dani’s intention was a female.
After them, as you may have noticed, I started struggling, although the Elk of the Woods fitted in fine and gave me a lovely dangerous event which I wouldn’t otherwise have thought of. Dani was not in a position to do illustrations just for me at that time, and I didn’t think mixing up my own amateur scribbles with hers would work.
So… I am not going to do a book in that way again!
Flash fiction stories are not the same as serial episodes
I write a lot of flash fiction. Some of them include characters I use over and over again, e.g. Sir Woebegone, or the explorer Carruthers, who has died at least three times by now. Some even made it out of flash fiction into novels, like Big Pete and the Swede, protagonists of my Viridian System series.
But flash should have some sort of beginning middle and end in it. Even when it is set in a world where other things are going on, they should be self-contained enough for the reader to jump into the story.
Serial episodes need to be linked. They need to have the same sort of progression through them as writing scenes in novels. But, even more than chapters, they need to end on a cliffhanger.
By the way, books intended as series should not end on a cliffhanger. There may be further things to develop, but that story should have a satisfactory ending!
So writing the serial meant focusing each time on leading to a cliffhanger which would be sorted in the next episode, yet not just be linked flash fictions split in a different place. Mind you, some flashes can end leaving the reader to fill in the rest herself. Just don’t leave people dangling. Serials, yeah, leave them begging for more!
A full story is not necessarily conducive to being broken into episodes
At some stage I realised that I couldn’t write one episode at a time without losing track, or more importantly, knowing the right clues and red herrings to introduce for use later. Too many things left dangling would be unsatisfactory.
The only thing I left out of the story in the end was Carver the Ranger’s gift from the Wandering Merchant Raven; she did say he’d know when the time came to use them. He just hasn’t got to that point yet. Talbot’s stone and Alice’s staff both came in useful, and strangely, their usefulness increased as the series went on. I suppose magical artefacts can do that.
But writing the story to make sure you’ve included everything at the right point then becomes awkward to parcel into suitable length scenes for a serial.
I was also trying to keep them to a reasonable length for a blog post: more than 1000 words can get to be hard on people’s time, but then again if it’s good enough, they’ll want to keep reading. Some episodes cried out for more, so the longest went on for 2250, I think. I edited it to get to that, or maybe I even got it down to 2000. I hope nobody really noticed and at least one person enjoyed it enough to read to the end!
Even if you’re trying not to fall into the standard fantasy journey trope, it still happens
There are lists around of fantasy tropes, and the one where weak innocent person finds a fantastic object, is guided by a mentor, and meets up with a set of stronger people to save the world is a familiar one.
Having thought about this for several years now, I think it is very difficult for an author not to start off with a weak character who shows promise, else why would the reader develop empathy for him/her? Then if he or she is going to make progress, meeting other people—stronger, well-placed people—is kind of inevitable.
Talbot’s aim of ‘adventure’ was not a very strong motivator. What could the others be up to that creates purpose?
In avoiding the trope of ‘fantastic object’ I was left in some sort of vacuum. Is Talbot’s character and thirst for adventure enough to keep the reader interested in what fixes he gets into? And why exactly does everyone want to get to Erebor?
It may not satisfy you, but it’s given me a raft of ideas for the future!
A consistent voice is really hard to maintain
When I started writing the story around December 2017 (since the first post appeared 13th January) I was in a phase of trying to bring more of the surroundings into my work. I notice other writers using the landscape, creating a rich setting for their characters to act in. I have a rich landscape in my head, but I don’t tend to describe it to my readers.
When I looked back to see what I had learned during this series, I was struck by the description of Talbot’s home and his forest. Reading the later episodes, there is scant description. In the forest with the elk, and the swamp they go through, dialogue (which I use extensively) helps to create the sense of place. But really, my ‘voice’ is not consistent. I reverted to my usual writing voice over the year. Maybe I should stick with that!
Whether I got the characters’ voices consistent is another matter. I’m sure they developed, since only Carver had any background in my writing (and I think he changed quite a bit from earlier stories). But I think the characters stayed essentially themselves, with a determined shift in the last two chapters as Talbot started to reject Alice bossing him about!
But heavily edited sections, as I mentioned above, can also change the voice of the piece. That can jar the feel of the whole story.
A serial is an interesting way of doing a series of blog posts, and The Ape seemed happy with them, so he obviously thought they would not actually damage his reputation!
If I did it again I would do a more thorough outline, planting key issues or events and any necessary objects early enough. I needed to know what they were and when they would be needed from the start.
I would then be able to discuss that with my illustrator and come to a realistic decision on what illustration to use.
Will I do another?
As someone else said: never say ‘never again’!
Jemima is launching the second in her Viridian System series Curved Space to Corsair on January 22nd. During the first week, book 1, The Perihelix will be on sale at online retailers.
If you would like to join her launch tour, you can pick up all the resources for your blog post here.
During 2018, Jemima also brought out book 8 of the Princelings series. Her task for 2019 is to write the last two books in the series and publish the ninth: the Chronicles of Marsh.
Jemima has a new look for 2019!
Dani has had a busy 2018, but is still open to commissions if you’d like to contact her via her website.