Adding New Ideas vs. Knowing When to Streamline

I received an awesome question post in my forum last week, and I thought I’d answer it today. 🙂

I thought my first novel was done except for proofreading, after being through many CPs and two passes with a professional editor I hired. Now that I’m about 25% into its sequel, I keep discovering new things about my characters that I’d like to go back and put in the first one as a connecting detail or foreshadowing. This is for characters, but for places too, because my trilogy is fantasy and I get more awesome ideas about the various cultures and places as I write more.

The problem is when can I “stop” world building? Should I write and edit the entire trilogy before self publishing the first one or just publish the first one now because it’s ready. When I’m working on the other two, I’ll just have to delete some of my new ideas I guess? Because the first one will already be out in the world, unchangeable.

How do you deal with this when you have a traditional contract for only one book, not knowing if your editor will want to buy or publish the rest of the series as you envision it?

Okay, let’s break this down into two separate questions.

When to Stop Adding Ideas

It’s funny that this question—When can I stop world-building?—came RIGHT at a time when I’m struggling with a similar issue. I have so many new ideas! I want to squeeze them all in HERE and NOW and into THIS WORLD…

Well, there is a breaking point and there is such a thing as too much. And in all honesty, a tight book that gets complex without getting unwieldy and that wraps up in a great big AHA! of meeting threads—those are the books that readers love most. (An excellent example is the Harry Potter series: lots of threads and characters and world details, but it never bogs down the reader. Best of all, everything comes together for a truly spectacular ending.)

So how do you know if you’re only complicating things by adding more?

For world-building: If you have extraneous details that don’t actually add to the story or need to be there for the plot’s sake, then you might want to cut out some histories and details. A few subtle elements can absolutely enhance the story—little details make a world feel real. But if you worry you have too many details or so many settings that the reader is getting whiplash…Well, you might want to take a look at the world-building.

For characters: If you’re having a hard time incorporating characters into a scene, then maybe they don’t need to be there. I totally made this mistake with Strange & Ever After—I wanted to have Laure join Eleanor and the Spirit-Hunters in Marseille and Egypt. But it got so unwieldy! Having to find ways/reasons for every character to speak and act in group scenes? I just kept forgetting characters were even there. Obviously, I solved this problem by leaving Laure in Paris and then trying to keep each scene focused on only a 1-3 characters at a time.

For plot threads: If, at any point, you have to start writing a really complicated, info-dumpy type scenes in order to wrap up and connect all the threads, then you might have too many plots twining through your book. I am SO guilty of this in Strange & Ever After, and I’ll talk more about that below. 🙂

The key is, in my opinion, to getting a streamlined book is to:

  1. Work with what you already have when trying to connect scenes, characters, places, and events. Sometimes little throwaway comments from earlier chapters or books can become AWESOME plot points or props.
  2. If you can’t work with what you already have, try to instead to TAKE AWAY. Maybe some detail or thread is actually clogging you up rather than giving you the freedom to move forward. Thought it sometimes requires rewriting, it’s often better to simplify than to complicate–unless, of course, the book is already super simple. Then you might want to…
  3. Add in those new ideas and see/feel how it works. If you can tell that it’s just opening up too many new story questions or story directions, then maybe you shouldn’t add it. But you can always weave it in, try it out for a few chapters, and then decide.

Writing an Entire Series Upfront

Now, onto the other part of this question: If self-publishing, should you write and edit the entire trilogy before publishing the first? If traditional publishing, how do you deal with new ideas and being confined to what’s already in the world?

Goodness, I can tell you from experience that writing a sequel once the earlier books are published/unchangeable is REALLY HARD. Holy crow, it’s hard. You write yourself into unforeseen corners and you can’t go back to tweak things in earlier books.

Or, you’ll have the AWESOME ideas that you just love and that resonate so much with you…but that you can’t introduce because they really should have been introduced in the already-on-shelves book 1.

Or, if you’ll discover in your third book (as I did) that everything you’d kinda-sorta thought would tie up DOESN’T—at least not in a way that resonates with you. Now you’re stuck adding all sorts of little details and backstories that you really wish you’d dropped into earlier books. For example, in Strange & Ever After, I introduce the idea of gods and other creatures from the spirit realm. I REALLY wish I could go back to Something Strange & Deadly and weave in just a few hints that gods are coming up…But alas, the first books were already published.

So if you can (and if you intend to definitely self-publish the whole trilogy), I actually think you can benefit from writing all the books at once. Not only does this allow you to really build your story and streamline it, but it also allows you to publish the entire series at once (which works very well in the self-publishing world).

However, if you ARE confined to writing only one book at a time, I urge you to follow the steps I list above: work with what you already have, take away aspects, or add new ideas with heaps of caution. Will you be stuck scratching your head and screaming at the already-in-stores book for not being changeable? Probably, but that doesn’t mean writing sequels after earlier books are finished is impossible. (And perhaps my post on planning a series will help!)

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7 Responses to Adding New Ideas vs. Knowing When to Streamline

  1. Angelica R. Jackson Aug 25 2014 at 9:54 am #

    Great post! I’ve planned out three books in synopsis form, but I know from experience about how things transform once I’m actually writing: small things turn out to be bigger things later, and things I thought would be bigger turn out to be no big deal. I’m in copyedits on the first book (so getting closer to “unchangeable”) and also working on book 2, so I’m hoping to be able to tie up all the things I want to.

    • Susan Dennard Aug 25 2014 at 2:14 pm #

      Ah, tying things up!! Best of luck with it! 😀 And thanks for reading.

  2. Pam Aug 25 2014 at 1:36 pm #

    Thank you for the advice. Those were great answers to great questions. This comes at a perfect time for me as I am going through my first book of a trilogy, writing the second and thinking about the third. Keeping them all till it’s done makes sense.

    • Susan Dennard Aug 25 2014 at 2:14 pm #

      Oh yes! If you’re self-publishing, I think saving all the books for a single (or close-to-each-other) publication can be great. 🙂

  3. Eliza Aug 27 2014 at 8:15 am #

    Thanks so much for answering my question!! You always say things in a way that make complete sense to me; even topics I think I understand already, your opinion adds so much to the writing community. I think I will write all 3 before self publishing. I also have a couple other series ideas around future characters set in the same world, so I want it really fleshed out while I’m writing this trilogy.

    • Susan Dennard Aug 27 2014 at 9:52 am #

      Oh my gosh, you are SO welcome!! It was fun to write, actually–a topic I’d thought about but never actually verbalized. And like I said, it’s TOTALLY something I’m dealing with right now. 😛

  4. Janet Long Sep 22 2014 at 1:31 pm #

    Susan, as an editor I see authors struggle with this. Series can morph over time as characters ripen and authors mature as writers. It’s a good idea to have someone on board to check continuity, but otherwise readers are very forgiving and enjoy the ride. Sequels are trickier because they should build in some way off the first book, telling an entirely new story without depending on (or changing) the details of the original work. A reader should be able to read a sequel without having read the first book but, reading both together, appreciate them as a single larger work. A multi-book work, such as a trilogy, should really be considered a single novel and written altogether, not as separate titles. Breaking long novels into several books was once necessary because of the technological limitations of the printing process, though readers do like the format–the satisfaction of finishing one and the anticipation of picking up the next. Everybody loves a cliffhanger.

    If you are publishing under contract, you are bound by the “unchangeable” first book(s). If you are self-publishing, you do not have that constraint–you can revise earlier works. The Victorians published novels serially, and when the serial was over, they revised the whole work and issued the novel as a book–sometimes with a different ending and often with the interior details ironed out. Sometimes novels (even into the twentieth century) were altered for a second printing. The danger for self-published authors now is that you can revise forever and may never feel completely satisfied that the novel is done. Part of this is because authors are understandably eager to get their books “out there in the world” and don’t have an editor telling them the book isn’t ready to be set in stone, and part is because the book isn’t set in stone. My advice is to treat every book as if it were to be set in stone–make it perfect before turning it loose on the world, but if somewhere in the fifth book the protagonist meets his long lost sister, it is okay to go back to the first book and change “he once had a sister but she was hit by a bus” to “abducted by aliens“–as long as the change is meaningful and doesn’t alter the universe of the series. A trilogy is ideally written in its entirety before publication because small changes often end up being structural changes–crashing chronologies, family trees, points on a compass, and the meaning of life. But if the author chooses to self-publish a trilogy serially and then begins to experience writer’s remorse, he or she has the option of revision and may want to consider a “single-volume” remix–a revision of the work as a whole.

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