As y'all know, there's nothing I like more than a good process discussion. So for the past few days I've been reading with great interest the posts at the Fangs, Fur, & Fey livejournal community, where a bunch of authors have been posting their responses to the question of the month, "How did you plan the last novel you wrote (and successfully finished)? Outline? Synopsis? Summary? Divination Rod? Nuthin' at all?" (Here's links to a few, and you can seek them all out using the link above: Laura Anne Gilman's, Maggie Stiefvater's, Janni Simner's, and Megan Crewe's.)
This all falls under the category of when you're thinking about something, suddenly you see it everywhere. One thing I'm trying to do as I approach my next book (or what I'm fairly certain is my next book) is give it a little more cooking on the front end. My process seems to be shifting over time to allow more planning, with the caveat that the story still sometimes manages to jump tracks and end up somewhere completely different. I have no expectation that I'll ever completely eliminate that track-jumping, at least not in the smaller sense, and I don't really want to. What I do want to try to do is get more of a feel for the story, the world, and the characters before I start actually constructing them on the page.
So I've been thinking about that--stopping myself from actually starting the book, as is my usual modus operandi--and slowing down and letting the pieces come together a bit more first. I'm sure this won't actually turn out to be that slow a process, since I also believe that too much planning can be useless or, worse, detrimental. Witness all the research I did on Aztecs and the Romani in the earliest of early drafts of what was to eventually become a book that uses only Greek mythology (the book I just finished). Now, that stuff will come in handy--in fact, I expect some of it will come in handy on the project I'm doing all the thinking about. But I certainly didn't end up needing it for the last book, so I'll be doing my researching as I go this time. Because despite all this front-end work, I still thoroughly expect that I won't know exactly what I might need to research until I get into the placing of one word after another.
Which brings me to the second thing I've been thinking about--what are the elements that seem to be common to successful series? By series here I mean both open-ended series with lots of books and the more traditional trilogy; for my purposes, the key elements would likely be the same. I'm thinking the next thing I write might be such a trilogy, and that also necessitates more planning up front, at least in theory. Here's what I've come up with so far, and then you smartypants can (hopefully) add or comment on things I missed.
1. A big enough idea that you actually need multiple books to fully, satisfactorily, explore it. Particularly for trilogies, it seems to me that the concept has to have a certain degree of richness. It has to be an idea that throws off lots of little ideas, giving lots of potential roads to travel down. One of the satisfying things I get out of the series I read is the sense of surprise at where the story goes, because the central idea is big enough to have more than one possible narrative in it. If that makes any sense whatsoever. I think this may also be one quality of stories that lend themselves to fan fiction--there are plenty of stories left in the world for fans to add. (Actually, it strikes me that the whole list describes stories that lend themselves to fanfic--no surprise that a good series often inspires people to create more of it.) ETA: As I thought, I was a little wiggly in my description on this one, maybe to the point of confusion--I don't want to imply here that each individual book couldn't stand alone, just that usually it's more interesting for me as a reader if there's a reason the idea behind the story needs to be spread out--like Hunger Games. That's a perfect example. The first book is complete (more or less), but I'm guessing there's a larger narrative that will be even more satisfying, which flows out of the idea of this world and these characters. Er, I hope so, anyway.
2. An engaging world with depth and complexity. This ties into number one, but isn't the same thing. The old world-building, as they say. It seems indispensable to me in the series I like best, be they big fantasies like Elizabeth Knox's Dreamhunter books or Cassie's Mortal Instruments trilogy or realistic crime novels like Dennis Lehane's Kenzie-Gennaro books or excellent prep school novels like the Upper Class books. That said, I'd probably agree the world-building is even more important in fantasy and SF novels, and not just because it's one of the things that SFF readers dig most. It's also a big part of what gives books in a series a certain texture. Because the story--whatever that may be--is inextricably linked to the world it happens in, both causally and thematically speaking. Plus, this is where a lot of the cool stuff resides, and by cool stuff I mean cool stuff, but also story surprises and game-changers. I'm a geek first and foremost. Never forget it.
3. Characters, characters, characters. I'd probably weight this as the most important element (although you need all of these, ideally). It's a rare series that can get away with having a truly unsympathetic character--or, at least, a truly unappealing one. Highsmith's Ripley books leap to mind, but even Thomas Harris jumped the shark when the novels were suddenly about Hannibal Lecter (and Lecter's mainly played as a likable sociopath in those books, besides). I'm sure there are plenty more, but it seems to me that by and large the characters must be people that readers crave more time with. That they can care about deeply. Last fall, I read a bunch of urban fantasy/paranormal romances, because a) they're doing really well and I like to keep up with the field and b) I kept seeing them get dismissed all over the place and I didn't want to be someone doing it with no firsthand knowledge. Sure, some were crappy, but many of them were very good to excellent--and all of the ones I read, to a book, did an excellent job of portraying a main character the reader would want to spend time with, and the best ones invested the supporting cast with equally memorable characters. Leila posted about the latest Luxe novel earlier today (I know so many people addicted to those books; I'm going to have to give them a try), and said she thinks the reason why she keeps reading them is: "Maybe because I do have some amount of affection for some of the characters. And because even though they all started out like time-traveling clones of the Gossip Girl characters, they've become their own selves in my mind." The series that seem most successful generally don't have paint-by-numbers characters (or not for long, anyway). And, again, the thing that the best UF novels I read did so well was balance plot with the emotional life of the protags. Even with less than perfect writing, it's easy for me to understand why readers find such books so appealing. (Off the top of my head, I recommend for this Marjorie Liu, Ilona Andrews, Justine Musk, Patricia Briggs--oh, and Alisa Sheckley, Alisa Kwitney's first book under that name, The Better to Hold You, is just out, and a majorly fun read. All of these ladies are fine writers, too. Just ignore the covers.) It's the characters that keep people coming back, and often they are larger than life, and that's what makes them so appealing. A character's emotional life and reactions should feel true, sure, but I don't think that most overly "realistic" characters are well-suited to carrying a big idea sort of series. You need personalities that match the milieu. Anne of Green Gables instead of Anne of Boring Adultery Gables.
4. That knowing how to shape--and end--each book thing. Again, feeding into all the things that came before, a series or a trilogy has to make the reader want the next book enough that they still remember how much they want it a year or two years or three years later. Each book should also, ideally, stand on its own as a compelling read, but be an even more compelling read for people who read the other books. The story should build, but not in a way that makes it inaccessible. The His Dark Materials Series is a perfect example of this. You can read them out of order. I did. I read The Subtle Knife first, because I inadvertently bought it at the airport without time to go back, and hadn't read The Golden Compass yet. It caused not a problem for me, and, in fact, made going back enjoyable too, kind of like picking up a TV show in the second season. The best thing is, when the third/last book causes inevitable disappointment, then you don't have to worry about it anymore! (Kidding. Kidding.)
There are a few more things, but these are the biggies and this has gotten (more than) long enough. And I'm interested in what you guys think. What makes you love a certain trilogy or series? What makes you hate it? Etc. Etc.
p.s. My blog every day posts will not always be this long. Swearsies!