Ending the first novel in a series

As I near finishing draft five of The Thieves of Traska, the ending is a problem child again. How do you end the first novel in a series when the story isn’t yet over? The end is supposed to tie up all those pesky loose ends and satisfy the reader. But now it also has to entice the reader to obtain the next book and continue the adventure. Yikes!

Just about every how-to I’ve looked at says the end of book one should feel resolved, but still have a few loose ends. That way the reader can be satisfied, even if they don’t go on to the next book. In theory, that makes perfect sense. In the trenches of novel-writing, however, it doesn’t offer much direction. Which part is supposed to be resolved? Which part isn’t? Does that mean I have to do a cliffhanger?

I’m of the opinion that the ending of the first book should not be a cliffhanger. Leave readers wanting to know what happens next? Yes. Introduce a new, life-changing problem at the end and make the reader wait through a whole other book to resolve it? That’s better suited for book two. So let’s take a look at what to close and what to leave open at the end of book one.

Resolve: What brought your character into the story?

Your inciting incident gets your hero involved in the events of the story. It might relate to the overall plot, but it’s also personal to the hero. Why else does he leave his old life behind? I refer to this as the character’s selfish goal.

Why “selfish” and not just “personal,” like so many others call it? It’s a simple goal ignoring the reality of the character’s situation, and how it affects others. Your character has three ways to resolve their selfish goal:

  • Achieve. One option is to have the hero get what he was after in the first place. It resolves the main conflict of this installment, but not the series plot (winning the battle as opposed to the war). For an ending, it’s the point where the hero could stop and still be satisfied with their accomplishment (just like the reader). But there is still much to do, and the hero has made the big problem his problem.
  • Abandon. Another way to resolve the hero’s selfish goal is to have him abandon it. The person/thing he’s been searching for is dead/destroyed. He decides not to take his revenge. Like the previous option, the hero’s main conflict is resolved and the series conflict remains for the later installments. He lost the battle, but the war is still ongoing.
  • Postpone. At first glance, this resembles the previous options. As far as the reader knows, the hero has either achieved or abandoned his selfish goal. But they are in for a surprise. That person isn’t really dead! It was stolen, not destroyed! He had it with him all along! They caught the wrong culprit! But all that happens after book one.

Leave open: What keeps your character in the story?

Remember, the ending of book one is where the hero got (or thinks he got) what he wanted. He could turn away from the greater conflict, but then there’d be no need for a sequel or two. This is where he declares his heroic goal. It’s the daunting, nebulous task the hero chooses to take on.

Just because I call it “heroic” doesn’t mean that goal has to be saving the world. If you’re working with an anti-hero, the heroic goal could involve revenge or something equally not so goody-goody. It could be a broader selfish goal, like rising in power or conquering an enemy.

Whether your hero decides to do something good, bad, or a bit of both, he should have some vague idea of what that thing is. The “why” should already be answered by the events of book one. The “how” is the plot of the rest of the series.

This declaration is an invitation to the reader to proceed to the next book. The ending answers most of the questions, so the reader could stop there. There are just enough unanswered questions — about how the hero will reach his heroic goal — to interest readers in the next installment.

What are your hero’s selfish and heroic goals?

Well #?^% XXVIII: A writing rule I can’t stand

At a world-building workshop for fiction writers I attended last Friday, a familiar writing “rule” came up. It’s not one I like and following it has never worked for me. For whatever reason, hearing it taught as an absolute part of the process made me angry—at least angry enough to doodle some angry faces around that part in my notes. The rule:

“Figure out as much about the world you’re creating before you start writing the story. Don’t build as you go, or else you’ll end up painting yourself into a corner.”

I’ll break down the three elements of this so-called rule that bother me.

Bianca's weird face
The doodles weren’t worth uploading, so here’s Bianca making the sort of face I made internally at hearing that “rule.”

Rule: Figure it out before you start writing

Some people have to plan out every little element before they can write a single word. Others like to run with an idea as soon as it hits them and see where it goes. I’m in the middle camp. Once I have a character, a conflict, and what makes the situation unique, I start writing.

There is a lot that goes into a made-up world. Depending on how far the story will go, you may need to only develop the culture and people in one city. Or maybe you’ll need to work out a few cities, or even different countries. If it’s all going to be plot-relevant, of course you’re going to need to fit all that information in. But you’re not going to write about it until the relevant moment. That moment might be as simple as someone using a deity’s name as a swear word. You don’t need to know every step in the traditional dance used every third Tuesday to honor that deity before a character can say the name.

Rule: Don’t build as you go

It’s silly to think you will not deviate from your carefully constructed plan even a little. What if you’re writing, and it suddenly occurs to you that a minor conflict between two characters should be a little deeper than mere dislike? To add depth, you decide that it’s really about the fact that their grandparents were on opposite sides of a war. Now you need to figure out all the details of that war.

In the next draft—remember, there will always be another draft—you can sprinkle in more allusions to that war to further flesh out your world. You didn’t have to have that figured out before you started the first draft. You built it when you found a need for it.

You will build as you go. You will rebuild as you go. You will demolish things you built in the first draft. Don’t worry about it.

Rule: You’ll paint yourself into a corner

I’m not sure if you knew, but you can edit and revise what you write. A first draft is not a final draft. You are not limited to only moving forward; you can go back and fix whatever mess you made at any point. You could chug along and go all the way to the end of the draft before you start fixing. Or you could figure out a solution the moment you find the problem, fix it in what you already wrote, and carry on.

I do that all the time. You aren’t limited to one try to get everything in the story right. The writing adage I agree with the most is, “You learn to write by writing.” And if you’re going to create a fully immersive fantasy world, you’re going to learn everything you need to know as you write about it.

I don’t agree with every piece of writing advice, but I understand the value in it. Not everything works for everyone. Maybe building your world first is what you need to do to make what you want.

The Thieves of Traska needs beta readers!

Hello, friends! I’m very pleased to announce that I have finally finished the fourth draft of The Thieves of Traska! And that means we’re ready for the next step: beta readers!

When I first announced the project a couple years ago, I said it would be a novella. Now — at a whopping 52,580 words — it stands to be the first installment in a trilogy. It is also the longest piece of fiction I’ve ever written and the only one I’m prepared to show to a test audience.

Honestly, it’s scary. It’s like critique day in class all over again, but the stakes feel much higher. I’m not asking for feedback on a 10-page short story that I can edit in an hour or so. I’m asking for feedback on a 186-page novel that is supposed to launch my dream career as an author. So no pressure, right?

Even so, I come to you, my friends, to recruit some beta readers. I need volunteers willing to read the whole novel and give me your feedback. Whatever format you need — Word doc, PDF, Google doc, printed copy, etc. — I will gladly send it. And then I will forget about it for six weeks while you read and come back to it with fresh eyes.

If you’re interested in reading this fantasy adventure about a runaway and a fugitive getting swept into a dangerous game of intrigue between the shady criminal leagues who control the city of Traska, let me know! Comment here, email me at amanda (at) ajswitz (dot) com, or reach out on social media.

If you already volunteered before I finished writing, then keep an eye out for a message from me. Thank you all in advance and I greatly look forward to hearing from you.

By the way, what is Traska?

For this week’s Writing Wednesday, I’ve decided to give you all a look into the city of Traska, the fictional setting of The Thieves of Traska. The name is actually derived from a couple of real places I’ve visited many times in Michigan: Traverse City and Kalkaska.

I remember being in the car about two years ago, traveling between Michigan and Virginia with my family. All I had was an idea to expand a short story about a thief breaking out of jail — I still needed a new name for that thief, a location, a plot, and just about everything else. Every so often, I wrote down the names of cities and towns we passed through, picking apart the sounds I liked in each. After testing a few options on my family, I decided on Traska.

Even the Toskey River, which cuts through the city, got its name from the petoskey stones my family collects in Michigan. Though the landscape and the names are inspired by my time up north, the city is nothing like what I’ve seen there.

This is a partial image of an unfinished painting of Traska from the earlier drafts. The city was smaller, but still occupied the north and south banks of the Toskey River.

And now, for your reading pleasure, an excerpt from The Thieves of Traska about the city itself. As the book is yet unpublished, the following text is subject to change before being finalized.

Excerpt

Late in the morning, the forest ended abruptly, cut back for farming. The ground sloped upward, a number of farmhouses and villages dotting the countryside. Further ahead, Claire could make out the serene blue of a bay, rounded mountains spanning the horizon, and a river that popped in and out of sight among clumps of forest. If she had to guess, that was the Toskey River, and it fed right into the bay.

And the dark shape next to it could only be Traska.

Before reaching the city proper, they passed through a town that spread along the edge of the bay all the way to the massive stone wall surrounding Traska. According to locals, the area was called Skeggs, though they couldn’t agree on whether it was a town on its own or one of Traska’s districts.

As they neared the gate separating Skeggs from Traska, they entered a swelling stream of people bustling in and out of the gate. Once Claire and Garrison passed under the shadow of the gate, the air had a different charge to it. She could feel the life of the city pulsing around her and in the bluish stones beneath her feet. The sounds of peddlers hawking goods and horse-drawn carts rattling by carried over the crowd from an open marketplace further up the road and echoed off stone and mortar walls. There wasn’t a single building in sight with fewer than two floors; some towered more than twice that further in. The buildings were the same blue-grey as the roads, many of them displaying glittering tiled mosaics on one wall or another.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little peek into The Thieves of Traska! Be sure to check back on the blog for details on my upcoming giveaway to celebrate the fourth draft.

Something’s not right: The opening of a story

The beginning of a story is a pretty terrifying place. All you’ve got is a blank page in front of you and maybe a couple of scenes you want to write, but don’t belong on the first page. Some people like to write out those parts and work around them; I do it in my notebook so I can include dozens of notes to myself about what needs to lead up to that scene.

I get lost in my own thought process and end up writing commentary on my ideas.

But that scene might not ever make it to the page. Maybe, as you’ve been writing the things that come before it, the characters have no logical reason for entering that scene. Or they’ve developed differently than you expected and they wouldn’t handle the situation quite the same way. For whatever reason, your initial piece of the puzzle just doesn’t fit. You can either rework it or accept that it didn’t make the cut. Don’t force a scene into the story if it has no business being there.

When starting at the very beginning, though, it’s easy to get caught in a cycle of distracting thoughts. Am I starting it with the right scene? Should I start earlier, or later? I’ve really got to hook people with the first sentence — what the heck am I going to write?! Does it even matter what I write now, since I’m going to edit it anyway?

In all the various novels I’ve drafted over the years, not one has kept its original opening perfectly intact past the second draft. In fact, I end up cutting most of if not the entire first chapter. Writing it all out — even though I know I’m going to get rid of it — is still a necessary part of the process. How else do you expect to find the right voice for the story?

As for how to open the story, you already know there’s no single right way to do so. There’s a right way for your story to open, and you’re the one who has to figure that out. Trial and error, my friends. You’ll write a lot, cut a lot, and eventually find something that makes you happy.

My goal for an opening line: either something has gone wrong, or it’s about to. Some examples from my own work:

No one was fast enough to catch her once she started running.

This wasn’t the kind of silence Colin wanted from his wife.

The unintelligible words of a murmured dirge hung like a dense fog over the villagers clustered before the gallows.

The first one makes us wonder who is running after the girl and why. The second makes it clear that Colin probably did something to upset his wife. The third is a gloomy and poetic image of villagers gathered to watch a hanging.

It’s important that the opening line establishes some kind of situation that will make your readers question what’s going on and why. That’s how you get them to keep reading.

The Thieves of Traska . . . Two Years Later

Facebook has an On This Day feature that lets you see your posts from however many years back. I don’t share any of mine, but I take a look every once in a while just to see where I was a year or two ago. As it turns out, today marks the two-year anniversary of my work on The Thieves of Traska. It’s incredible to think that it’s only been two years and I’m already on the third (or fourth; I’m weird about numbering my drafts) draft. For other novel projects, it’s taken me up to five years to get to this point.

To celebrate, I wanted to share with you all one of my favorite scenes. There are several reasons why I love this part, most of which have to do with Claire’s development. Up until this point, Claire has only had one person on her side. She’s been working hard to prove her usefulness so she can belong to something bigger than herself. By officially joining the Coterie (a network of spies and thieves led by Countess Mackinley Magorian), Claire is starting to loosen her grip on her past.

On a personal note, it’s times like this — when I start a new job or join a team — that I look inward and compare the person I am with the person I want to be. That’s the time when I try to let go of what’s holding me back from the ideal me. So without further ado, I present this excerpt:


 

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© Amanda Surowitz and Switzy Thoughts, 2010-15.

The Countess waited in the middle of the stairs leading down from the terrace. Miles led the procession forward and stopped them at the edge. One by one, he nudged the initiates down the stairs where the Countess took their newly marked hands and passed them down to the mass of black figures. Claire gasped in surprise and pain when the Countess pressed her thumb lightly into the raw skin bearing the mark.

When they’d all been engulfed by the crowd, the Countess ascended the stairs and surveyed her audience with cool assessment.

“Welcome to the Coterie,” Dusty whispered in Claire’s ear. “Ghost.

“Watch over your new brothers and sisters as they will watch over you,” the Countess said. “As always, we face a greater challenge than those who would see us relinquish our hold on the city; it’s far easier to seize power than it is to keep hold of it. It is through your hard work that this power remains and shall remain with us, despite the efforts of our enemies.

“Even now, they move against us, tempting some of our unmarked friends to turn against us. You are the ones who must keep them on the right path. Without you, there is no us, and without us, there is chaos.”

All around, people bowed their heads and fisted their marked hands over their hearts. Claire followed suit, though her hand throbbed. She peeked up at the terrace, but the Countess was already gone. As if some quiet signal had been given, the crowd suddenly dispersed. Claire lingered, shivering in the autumn night air as the comforting warmth of so many bodies deserted the garden.

She was one of them now. That meant she could depend on every one of those robed figures to stand between her and Reed, didn’t it? The chill creeping down her spine had nothing to do with the cold.


The above excerpt is from a draft and is subject to change. No part of it may be copied or reproduced without written permission. © Amanda Surowitz and Switzy Thoughts, 2010-15.

Best and Worst of Critique Comments (bonus)

It’s been fun going through the nice and nonsensical comments my peers have left on my short stories over the years. Some are helpful, some are supportive, some are mean and some are just plain funny. They’re a great way to remind my fellow writers — particularly those new to having their work critiqued — that everyone’s got an opinion. Sometimes those opinions can hurt your feelings, but it’s important to look past that for any valuable input you can use. Just like when you read customer reviews on Amazon.com, you tend to ignore the ones that just say “Awful product. Never buying from this company again.” because there’s nothing there to advise you on why you shouldn’t buy the product. For all you know, that guy didn’t even read the product description before he bought the thing.

For this bonus episode, we’re actually going to take a look at some more comments left on the last three short stories I wrote. What makes these comments so special? Well, they come from my professor. I’ll go ahead and give him the benefit of the doubt — it’s the end of the year, the loud class next door has been bugging him all quarter, and there could be something in his personal life really stressing him out. This is the first time his comments have proved less useful and — as in the first picture below — a little hurtful.

Instead of launching into a defensive tirade, I want to use these comments to show you all that even professors, who we sometimes put on a pedestal for all their wisdom and experience, can offer less than helpful feedback.

hunters comments
“I’ll allow this one trip down a medieval rabbit hole, but if you do it again, you’ll start with a C. That you didn’t know if the story is set before or after The Black Death tells me you need to do more research.”

This wasn’t the first fantasy story I’ve passed off as historical fiction for this professor, but it’s the first time he’s responded in this way. This story earned an A, so I’m at least doing something right. But that just makes the threat of a lower grade bizarre. (To clarify, when he said “you’ll start with a C,” he meant that a C is the highest grade I could get if I did everything else perfectly.)

This professor also doesn’t like genre fiction — he prefers contemporary realistic fiction — so I’m taking this particular comment as an opinion of taste rather than objective assessment of quality. Taste should have no bearing on a grade.

sleepless comments
-A Good, if a bit melodramatic at times. She had a miscarriage? Stillborn? Co-worker’s callous remark a bit implausible. Where does he work, or Where did he work? In a silver mine in Reno circa 1870?”

For my contemporary story about the married couple that had a miscarriage, my professor generally felt it was melodramatic. During verbal critique, he offered some rather morbid suggestions on how to adjust the situation to be “more dramatic,” such as turning the accidental miscarriage into an abortion forced by the husband. This question about where the husband works that a coworker would make such a callous comment about the wife seems odd, especially given its phrasing.

Sure, I have years of anecdotal proof that people, myself included, can make tactless remarks without thinking. I think we’ve all said things and realized a few seconds later that, gee, I really shouldn’t have said that. But it’s hard to tell if what I wrote sounds more like intentional insensitivity when my only feedback is a quip. It’s important to explain why something doesn’t work when critiquing.

invaders comments
“A dystopian futuristic Robo Cop War of the Worlds woman warrior swooning techno romance novel? Part of one?”

Perhaps the least helpful feedback (as far as clarity on what changes are needed to improve the story) comes on the last story I submitted. Only the professor read it, so I can’t use my classmates’ comments to help decipher what’s “wrong” here. I guess any mentions of giant machines during an alien invasion will bring to mind War of the Worlds, but I’ve never seen any Robo Cop. Regardless, most writing is derivative of something these days.

What’s not working with this feedback is, again, that I’m not being told what isn’t working. Is it the “romantic voice” people have said I write in? Is the presence of a female character — who spends the whole story freaking out and trying not to bleed out from a gunshot wound — to blame for the “woman warrior” feel? What exactly am I supposed to change for the revised version?

As you can see, my friends, comments you don’t know how to respond to can come from anyone. They could even come from you. If you get responses like this, ignore what won’t help you. And if you’re critiquing someone else’s work, remember to explain why you think a change is needed.

 

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