Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Idea Farming—growing your plot #last – Mega Farming (the book series)

Happy New Year

Idea Farming—growing your plot #last – Mega Farming (the book series)
This is the last blog in the series on Idea Farming. In this one, I’ll finish the discussion of the methods involved in story writing with a look at Mega Farming (the book series).

When you are a fiction writer, the question, “What’s your next book about?” is a common one from those around you. How you answer that question reveals much about you as a writer. Three possible types of response are briefly defined below.

Complete Evasion. In this response, you talk about just about anything but your next project. This might be used when you don’t want to talk about what you’re working on. It might also be used when you don’t have anything in mind.

Heming and Hawing. Although similar to the first option, this response provides an ebb and flow of information about the project you are, indeed, working on. Suspiciously absent, however, are details on… well, everything about the next book. It commonly leaves your reader with “Chinese take-out syndrome”—they feel full of information immediately upon finishing their talk with you, but minutes later realize they are hungry for actual data.

Direct Answer. Probably the best approach, in this response you provide enough factual information for the listener to appreciate what you’re working on. You might even include some hint as to your hoped for time of completion.
However, regardless of which approach you use, if you don’t have your next project in mind, you’ll never be a mega-farmer.

Most mega-farming authors are concentrate on a single genre within the field of fiction—science fiction, fantasy, detective, romance, and the like. Since ideas on writing a novel have been described in previous blogs in this series, the remainder of this blog will focus on the book series.

The list of science fiction authors with book series is legion. I’ll list three of my favorites.

Edgar Rice Burroughs: John Carter’s Martian books. Growing up, I read and re-read this series. Each time I was absorbed in the action and romance of Barsoom.

C. S. Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia. These, classic tales of children in a mythical kingdom are excellent reads when taken literally. However, they also provide the reader with a chance to explore the symbolism Lewis employs.

Isaac Asimov: The Foundation Trilogy. Arguably the cornerstone of influence of at least one entire generation of sci-fi writers, these three books are an example of a book series at it’s finest.

A look at some aspects of the book series provides insight into what it takes for an author to become a mega-farmer. The paragraphs that follow are not listed in any particular order of importance—all are critical to you becoming a mega farmer yourself.

Mega Farmers might grow a single crop year after year on extended acreage. They might be equally successful growing variations of a single crop over a number of years. Or, depending on the location of the mega farm, several different crops might be rotated across the same acreage over the years.

Similarly, a book series must have a 1) continuation of storyline, 2) a continuation of characters, 3) both 1 and 2, or 4) stories all from a specific time or place but with no overt connection beyond that. Any of the four options will work.

When an author decides a book series might be a good idea varies. For some, it happens with the realization that there is no “good way to end the current story and wrap up all the loose plot threads in a single book” or even after a book is out and readers are clamoring for more. For others, the plan for multiple volumes is a given from the start of the writing process. If those are both ends of a continuum, there are limitless decision points in between those extremes. However, once the decision is made…

1.    Always think ahead. What’s in the next book? Will it be the last of the series? Intentionally include plot points that will be major emphases in future books. Be sure to keep a file of outline ideas of each plot point you think will be in the next, or subsequent, books. Jot down specific thoughts as soon as you can—retrieving ideas that have escaped your brain is a lot like herding cats in zero gravity.
The original Star Wars trilogy is a very good example of this. Remember, at some point in time, you will have to decide how much more good writing you can do in the universe you create—AND HOW YOU’LL END THE SERIES.

2.   Consider your branding. One common way to do this is by the covers of the books in the series. In each of my examples, cover art through the series, in the editions I have, are similar. Below are examples from the Narnia and short story anthology series.

In my Traveler’s HOT L – The Time Traveler’s Resort series, the first two covers have a similar feel with a retro Traveler’s HOT L sign prominently displayed.

Branding is common in nearly all products from a parent company that are offered for sale. The namesake on the label instantly identifies Green Giant products. What will your brand be?

Of course, like just about anything, too much of the same can lead to issues as well. The Jolly Green Giant from my childhood looks like a distant relative of the current iteration. It’s the same with the Forest Service’s Smokey the Bear—now Smokey Bear. Those two examples are offered to show that too much of the same thing can lead to serious issues—farmers who grow the same crop year after year often end up in ruin as the soil is so depleted of the nutrients that particular crop requires that the cost of fertilizer drives them into bankruptcy or foreclosure.

The whole concept of what a brand is, and when to alter your brand, is articulated exceptionally well in the paragraph below.

As writers evolve, they often want to try something new. It is so easy to get "typecast." Think Grisham's legal thrillers. Every once in a while he comes out with a work of straight literature. He has a name so it gets published and the stories are good so readers appreciate them. Had he not become famous for his legal thrillers, he might not have been able to publish the new work—so timing [of the new genre release] was critical. Also think Harry Potter series. Rowling finished the series, and then she brings out a new book under a new author name. She gets a publisher because the story is good, but [books sit] sit on the shelf... until it was revealed who wrote the book [emphasis mine]. Then the stores could not order enough [books] to keep up with demand. Branding is good at the beginning but it is also bad unless it can be used to extend the creative spirit of the writer, if they want to do something a little different. We have almost become a society that makes decisions on what is good or bad based on what others tell us is "good" or "bad"—and by name recognition.

Back to the farm. For centuries, successful farmers have rotated crops on their lad—two years corn/one year soybeans, etc. A thousand years ago, no one knew why what Zeke—who rotated his crops because he was bored by the same thing over and over—did so his crop-yields were much better than other farmers. Today, farmers know that different crops require different combinations of nutrients—and that come crops replace nutrients lost to other crops.

By rotating your crop of stories in a different genre on occasion, you will find that your stories improve as well. The different lens required to focus your writing in a good detective story is just different from your normal writer’s lens that new ideas are added back into the soil of your mind.

3.   Set up your next book. Along with thinking ahead for storylines, you need to be planning on how, if at all, you will set up the next book. Traveler’s HOT L – The Time Traveler’s Resort books end with a cliffhanger story. That story is completed as the first story in the succeeding book.
If your series is written along the lines of stories from one time/place without significant interconnections, this point is less critical. But, be absolutely sure of your long-range plans before you kill off a character. The producers of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid found out too late that reincarnation or prequels are not nearly as compelling as a well set-up series of stories.

4.   Don’t promise more than you can deliver. It’s a good idea not to promote any more than the next book in the series. Even the hint of “upcoming volumes” can be a burden that drags the quality of your writing down if you pad a storyline with unnecessary verbiage just to extend the series to another book. Your readers will know when that happens and revolt.

That’s the end of the series on Idea Farming. May your crop yield be abundant!

Next blog: Miscellaneous Musings on The Business of Writing

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