Today, I start a new weekly series: Writer Wednesdays. Why? Well, I just liked the alliteration. And I’ve wanted to do a tips for writers thing for ages. As an editor, I see authors making a lot of the same mistakes. As a writer, I’ve made them too. So maybe I can show my battle scars to you young ‘uns so you won’t make these common mistakes.
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen authors do is not finish the story.
I myself did not finish the story (cringe).
It’s easy to do. You read that X genre will be allowed Y number of words, so you reach that number and say, “Oh, crap, time to quit writing.” No, it is not. It is time to finish the story. Later, you can cut scenes and slice out sentences and maybe remove entire subplots and characters, but you have to give the reader a sense of resolution on this book’s main question.
And that’s true with series as well. A successful series might have a big, over-arcing story line that isn’t resolved until the last book — “Will Voldemort really kill Harry Potter?” — but each book in the series has to also stand alone and have a unique story separate from all the rest — “Will Harry win the Triwizard Tournament?”
Here’s what I’ve learned to do: Ask yourself way at the beginning of the book, even before you start writing, “What is the main question I want to answer by the end of the book?” Sometimes that’s hard to say in a quick sentence, but try. It helps you focus the plot. If you can’t, you need to stop writing and go back to thinking. You’re not ready to write. The book isn’t done cooking.
For example, right now I’m reading City of Fallen Angels, the fourth book in the The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare. The main question I want answered is, “Who is making the dead demon babies, and how can they be stopped?” Sure, there are other questions: “What’s wrong with Jace?” “Will Jace and Clary ever be together?” “Which girl will Simon end up with?” “Can Simon really not be hurt because of the Mark of Cain?” But that’s all subplot stuff.
The over-arcing story line is, “Will Jace and Clary ever be together?” That probably won’t be answered by the end of the book. The other questions are smaller and probably will be answered as well. Or maybe not. But if I don’t know about the dead babies by the end of the book, I’m going to be really angry. I’m going to feel cheated. They don’t have to necessarily catch the dead-baby creator, but I need to know who it is and why they’re doing it, which will lead me to book two.
I didn’t initially finish the story with Shifters. The experts all said middle-grade (I’ve since aged it up to YA) books, especially boy books, should be about 35,000 words. I guess boys all have ADHD. Well, my grocery lists are usually more than 35,000 words. So I split the book in two. I got an agent, she submitted it to several publishers, and they said, “It doesn’t seem quite finished, does it?” So I bargained for another 15,000 words. It wasn’t easy shoe-horning both books into one — several subplots from book 2 died a quiet death — but at the end, the story was satisfyingly finished. The main question — “Who’s mutilating and killing animals all over town, and why?” — was answered. Lots of questions weren’t, which can lead to sequels, but the main question was.
It still didn’t get a publisher.
I’m not saying you need to have the entire plot outlined when you start writing, though I’m sure a lot of writers would disagree with me. I usually write the first scene and then almost immediately the last scene. It gives me a frame — I need to get from point A to point Z. The other points in the center will fill in. (But you have to watch for saggy middle disease when you write this way! Another topic for another day.) That way, I know what the question is after the first scenes and what the answer is by the last scenes. I have a direction.
So there you go. Job 1, finish the story. Forget cliffhangers or ending your last sentence with an ellipse or ending with a question or any other kitchy crap. Forget making them excited for book 2. That’s not excitement; that’s frustration. If your readers are satisfied, they’ll read your next book. You won’t have to put all kinds of signs and portents — “This way to book 2!” — to encourage them. Just write a great first book. They will come.