Author: Rob E. Boley

The Long Haul: Maintaining Momentum During a Book Series

Closeup on top of old legal or law books with blurred backround

Finishing a novel is a challenge, so it stands to reason that completing an entire series of novels can often feel nearly impossible. I’ve written eight and a half books so far of my ten-novel Scary Tales series, and I’ve definitely learned a bit along the way about the tribulations of working on a series. Below are some of the strategies I’ve used, but first let me frontload you with that all-important backstory.

 

The Scary Tales saga started as a simple horror/fairy tale mash-up with a basic premise—what if the Snow White fairy tale didn’t end when the Prince kissed Snow? What if she woke up as a deranged zombie? This idea started as a short story that grew into a novel that I successfully pitched as a trilogy, except as I delved further into this world, I kept discovering new mash-ups of monsters and fairy tales. Red Riding Hood and werewolves. Beauty & the Beast and the Phantom of the Opera. Goldilocks and the Mummy. And so on. Eventually, the series grew into a framework of ten novels.

 

The first seven books in the Scary Tales series were published between 2014 and 2017. Unfortunately, the original publisher went out of business after publishing the seventh book in the series, and I took a two-year hiatus from the series to work on other projects. In late 2019, the rights to publish the Scary Tales were finally returned to me. I could now reissue the original seven books and finish writing the final three books to complete this epic saga. I could’ve simply republished the original seven books as-is, but since writing these first books, I’d discovered so much more about these characters and the world that they inhabit. It seemed a shame not give those early books a fresh pass. Plus, reviewing those first books was a great way to dive back into the Scary Tales world.

 

It’s been quite a ride working on this series, and I’ve learned a lot along the way. Hopefully some of this advice will prove helpful to you . . .

 

Lists, Lists, and More Lists

 

I’m a data analyst by day, so organizing comes natural to me. It’s also been a saving grace for my series. The deeper you get into your series, the more crucial organization will be. I’ve found that it helps to keep various lists to track all the important details, such as:

 

  • Glossary – keep track of the spellings and definitions of terms that might be unique to your world or your characters;
  • Timeline – especially if you dabble in flashbacks and have a series that spans generations, you’ll want to keep track of what happens in what order;
  • Characters – have some handy way to track the details of your main characters, such as their appearance, desires, fears, injuries, habits, catch phrases, and possessions; and/or
  • Loose Ends – for the sake of your readers, also keep a list of unanswered questions and stray tidbits that need to be resolved, as it’s really easy to forget some of these along the way.

 

I keep all of the above items in a massive planning document that I always keep open while I work on the books. It took awhile to get into the habit of updating these lists but now it’s become part of the process.

 

Don’t Write Yourself into a Corner

 

More than likely, you won’t have the luxury of completing your series before the first book is published. I mean, that’s a great problem to have, right? But remember that whatever you write in the first books becomes set in stone once it’s in print. If you’re too detailed about backstory, dates, and such, you can inadvertently write yourself into a corner. 

 

For example, if you’re writing a flashback, you might be tempted to say, “Jollene was eight years old when she ventured alone into the forest for the first time. It was 2052, the summer after the Plagues left her an orphan.” On the other hand, you’ll leave yourself more flexibility later on if you say, “Jollene was only a girl when she ventured alone into the forest for the first time. It was the summer after the Plagues left her an orphan.”

 

Ask yourself if the specific dates and ages are crucial to the story, and if you definitely want to commit to them for the life of your series. You may find later on that it would make more sense for her to be a little older or younger, or for other events to happen in a different order. 

Map It Out

 

If I had one thing about my Scary Tales series to do over again, it would’ve been to start with a geographical map of the various locations. This series spans over three kingdoms and multiple cities and villages. I more or less kept it all straight in my head, but I really should’ve made a map as I went. 

 

Instead, I had to make on retroactively. As I re-read my series to prepare for the re-release, I noted every single instance where I’d mentioned a landmark and its orientation. I then compiled all those locations and made my own map for the series. It was actually a lot of fun. Fortunately, I hadn’t contracted myself in the original versions of the books, so I was able to fit all the kingdoms, villages, cities, and rivers into a cohesive landscape.

 

Even if your series doesn’t take place in a fantasy world of your own creation, it’s super helpful to have maps for reference. It’ll help orient both you and the reader.

 

Walk Away If You Need To

 

After you finish each book in your series, it’s tempting to plow onward into the next book, and maybe that’s the best thing for you. I’ve found, however, that it’s nice to take a couple weeks off between books and devote those writing days to short stories and poetry. When you’re in the midst of a massive writing project that takes years to complete, sometimes it’s refreshing to actually finish something

 

So don’t be afraid to walk away for a few days or weeks. If it helps, give yourself a definite date upon which you will return to the series. 

 

Taking a break can also make you love working on these series all the more. After my own two-year hiatus from my series, writing these characters again was like having a reunion. It’s been surprisingly emotional, and I’m thrilled to be finishing their horrific adventures.

 

So with that—write on, friends!

Rob

Writing Amidst a Pandemic

The plague doctor is working at his desk, inventing a cure for bubonic plague. The atmosphere of mysticism. Historical reenactment. Halloween.

Maintaining a consistent writing habit can be hard enough, but the pressures of a worldwide pandemic, a looming recession, and shelter-in-place orders can make writing feel impossible. Since this whole mess broke out, I’ve heard from multiple author friends that they’re having difficulties focusing on their writing, keeping their spirits up, or finding the motivation to conjure stories.

 

So, below are a few tips for writers during these trying times. Every writer is unique and few pieces of writing advice apply universally, but hopefully at least one of them will resonate with you and your own circumstances. 

 

Achieve Wordy Goals

 

I’m a huge advocate of having metric-style goals for writing, whether those goals are set on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. I prefer to write every day, and so I have daily goals. My wife is a full-time writer, so she takes the weekends off and tends to use weekly goals. 

 

When setting goals, I’d urge you to make goals related to words or pages, not just time. In other words, don’t say “I’m going to write for 30 minutes every day.” Instead say, “I’m going to write 500 words per day.” It’s too easy to get distracted while writing, especially now when there is so much stressful news happening at the local, national, and global level. If you set your goals based on output, not time, then you’re less likely to fall prey to all the distractions.

 

To do this, start tracking exactly how much writing you can do in an hour. Track this over the course of a week to make sure you have an accurate average. Then set achievable goals that you can achieve each day. Do this not just for writing, but also for all stages of the writing process, such as editing, copyediting, and final read-throughs. 

 

Engage in Rituals, not Routines

 

We’re stuck at home. Our news feeds grow more ominous every day. We haven’t seen friends and family in days or weeks. One day bleeds into the next into the next and so on. Now more than ever it’s important to carve out time for our daily writing time. Except don’t simply make it another thing to do—make it the thing to do. I’m talking about the difference between routine and ritual. 

 

For me, my ritual begins in the early morning hours before anyone else is awake in my home. I wake up and make myself an obscenely strong cup of coffee. While it’s percolating, I feed the cats. Once I have my coffee, I practice tai chi to wake up my body and then read a poem to get in the writing mood. I subscribe to three different daily poem email lists, so I always have a poem on-hand. After practicing my tai chi and reading my poetry, I sip my coffee and begin.

 

Remember that Stories Matter

 

I get it. I do. The world feels like it’s falling apart. People are dying. Healthcare systems are breaking. Economies are faltering. In the midst of all this, what the hell is the point of writing a tale about a werewolf chiropractor trying to hunt down a serial killer magician? Plenty.

 

People needs stories. They need fantasy worlds in which they can immerse to find shelter from the real world. Now more than ever, we need literary escape. Beyond that, we need stories that show us how to conquer fears and anxieties, how to be a hero, or how to visit the grocery store and not fill our carts with the last five cases of toilet paper. 

 

Tips from Other Authors

 

In closing, I tagged some writer friends on Facebook while writing this article, asking them to share their advice, experiences, and tips on how to keep writing during these uncertain times. The responses were as varied, thoughtful, and helpful as you could want. Rather than summarize them, I’ll take the lazy way out and simply copy them below . . .

 

“My best advice is to go easy on yourself, take breaks when you need to, eat well, and only check news once a day, and take social media breaks. Reach out to your writer friends, virtual happy hours/coffee meet ups via Zoom are fun. If you have kids at home know that you will most likely not be as productive and that you may have to barter for writing time with your spouse/partner if you’re both working at home. Get outside for at least 30 minutes a day weather permitting. Exercise/walk, take care of yourself.”

– Brenda Murphy (https://www.brendalmurphy.com/)

 

“Writing right now. Both kids are engrossed in screens, I still haven’t made dinner (8 pm here), and I’m a tad stir crazy, but I’ve got 2100 words down. This may not be at all helpful.

“Edit: 2800 words.”

– Ken MacGregor (http://ken-macgregor.com/)

 

“So, I’ve been home for almost 2 weeks now and there’ve been times where it’s hard to focus, but honestly keeping a routine has been great. At least for me. Getting up at the same time and yes, getting dressed in real clothes even if you end up transforming back into pajama bottoms. Try to stay away from the social media. If you can’t resist the urge, post sparingly or scroll sparingly. It can drain you. I tried to post updates to my writing, but not frequently. And always work on something, and I can’t stress this enough: write. Write something. Inspiration will find you when you’re least expecting it to and sometimes those are the best moments.”

– Maxwell Ian Gold (https://thewellsoftheweird.com/)

 

“I think that whenever there’s a time of high emotion, we ought to be able to channel it into the work. If you’re a full time writer, though it’s easy to become creatively paralyzed by all the tension in the air, you should also thank your lucky stars that, in theory at least, the self-quarantining and such really doesn’t have to prevent you from continuing to work.”

– Hal Bodner (http://www.wehovampire.com/

 

“My advice: Don’t. I’m in a constant state of low-key anxiety, even when I don’t consciously feel stressed, and pressuring myself to hit a certain word or page count not only wouldn’t help my general state, but would impact the quality of the writing.

“Of course, that doesn’t matter if you have a deadline. And, even though I say that and have mostly been sticking to it, I also took a few days and wrote a pilot I’ve been sketching out for years. Writing it was therapeutic, as writing often can be. It took my mind off things, let me have a little fun, and gave me a much needed feeling of accomplishment. But even though I’ve got a dozen other projects I could jump right into writing, I’m not pushing myself or adding stress to my day. I’ll take a few days off as needed and jump into something else.

“But I definitely wouldn’t have been able to write what I had if I hadn’t taken some time before hand to decompress as much as possible. While the motivational ‘Shakespeare wrote King Lear during quarantine’ advice may work for some, there’s no shame in not doing so. These are strange times indeed and taking care of yourself and your family should always take precedence over writing.”

– Brad Hodson (https://brad-hodson.com/)

 

“I’m not doing much writing at the moment. Too much generalized anxiety. Instead, I’m heavily focusing on research and idea creation for an upcoming novel. The research uses a different part of my brain and I can focus.”

– Craig DiLouie (https://craigdilouie.com/)

 

“It is hard to stay away from anything that can give you the news or latest update. It takes a lot but once you can break that habit and focus on something that makes you happy you will notice a decrease in anxiety. Also don’t overdo the coffee. I am an essential medical worker in a hospital with +cases and low on supplies. I had to take my own advice. Focusing on my patients really helps. 

“For me cat pics, memes, and videos helped. And sleep. Don’t forget to sleep.”

– Cathleen Marshall (Twitter: @radcat38)

 

“At the time of writing, 25 March 2020, New Zealand has just entered a four-week national lock down, possibly longer. Already, I’ve been isolation for ten days as my husband recently returning from some international travel. We both work from home in a shared office, so sheltering in place looks much like our usual work week, but my anxiety has spiked out of concern for family and friends, and I have struggled to write. I’ve been more distracted will-o-the-wisp puttering over the sand than knee-deep committed writer. However, I believe creatives have an important role in recording and reflecting this pandemic, so while I am distracted, I have taken to writing spur of the moment haiku to capture head-of-a-pin observations about this unprecedented time, which I may or may not refer to later in my work. These tiny, concentrated, almost subversive moments of creativity have helped to ease my anxiety a little. I’ve even managed to have five of them accepted for publication. On the other hand, my mentees ‒ I currently have six ‒ with time on their hands, have ramped up their writing, which means my in-box is overflowing with dark and twisted manuscripts needing my attention. Add to that, the four requests for cover blurbs, a fantastic commissioned work to edit, an anthology I’m curating, and even a book club recommendation, this isolation has me consuming more stories than ever. It’s the silver lining of the apocalypse, this opportunity to escape into stories, convincing me of the vital role of writers and writing to the wellbeing of our communities.”

– Lee Murray (www.leemurray.info)

 

A Final Note for the Parents

 

Many of you are trying to write while having kids at home (or maybe just partners who act like kids). It’s hard to be a dad or mom while also a writer and whatever other profession you might be juggling at the same time. It’s hard, but not impossible. Your writing has to adapt to the kids’ schedules. 

 

When my daughter was an infant, that meant I wrote at night when she first went to bed or in the afternoon when she was down for her nap. As she aged out of naps and started staying up later, I decided that being a dad and a writer didn’t have to be mutually exclusive. We actually started “writing” together at the kitchen table some afternoons and evenings. I’d work on stories and books, and she’d work on poems and fun lil’ essays. Or sometimes she’d draw. Really, she could do whatever she pleased so long as she did it quietly. 

 

Looking back, those moments working together—yet apart—with my daughter are treasured memories. We may not have been engaging with each other, but we were still together. 

 

And right now, we are all in this together, folks. The pandemic make be keeping us physically apart, but it doesn’t have to separate us socially or emotionally. That’s the beauty of writing and the joy of being a writer—we can forge and nurture exceedingly strong bonds from moments of profound isolation.

 

So with that—write on, friends!

Rob