Series Writing: A Conversation with Jim Hines (part one)
Jim Hines (jimhines) and I have been friends for a while, and so when he and I both wrapped up four-book series this summer, I suggested to him that we might have a conversation about the challenges of writing — and most particularly ending — a story that stretches across multiple books. We’ll be sharing the results of that conversation with you today and tomorrow, the first half here, the second half over on Jim’s site.
Who are we? Well, Jim is the author of seven fantasy novels and more than 40 published short stories. He’s written about underdog goblin runts, ass-kicking fairy tale princesses, and is currently writing about a modern-day librarian who pulls ray guns out of SF books. He’s also a moderately popular blogger, and caretaker of various fuzzy beasts. As for me — if you’re not already aware — I’m the author of six fantasy novels and more than 30 published short stories, which puts me just a little behind him. I’ve written about people split in half (mystically, not with an axe) and faeries hiding out underneath London, and I’m currently writing about a nineteenth-century gentlewoman who travels around the world to study dragons and get into trouble, not necessarily in that order. I am a mildly popular blogger, and alas, have no fuzzy beasts to take care of — unless you count my husband.
Our most recent books are, respectively, The Snow Queen’s Shadow and With Fate Conspire.
Without further ado . . . .
Marie: There are a million books out there that will tell you how to write a novel, but I’ve never seen one that tells you how to write a series. Nobody tells you how to do that; it’s something you figure out the hard way, after you’ve got a contract — no pressure! And it’s hard enough figuring out what to do in the middle, but sticking the landing . . . that’s the real killer.
With Fate Conspire was really my first experience with ending a series. You had the goblin trilogy, so at least you’d done this once before; but me, all I had under my belt was the doppelganger duology. Those weren’t even conceived of as a series, not originally; I wrote the first book to be a stand-alone, ending on something major happening, and then built the second around how people reacted to that event. It was a before-and-after model, which is relatively simple — kind of like one long book. The Onyx Court series, on the other hand, was very different. Each plot stands more or less alone, but there’s a certain amount of thematic and character arc across the four, which I felt needed to pay off in a satisfying fashion — but without making the book something that would only make sense to people who had read the whole series.
How about you? What was it like writing Goblin War, versus Snow Queen’s Shadow?
Jim: Don’t you love writing a sequel to a book you never planned to write a sequel for? Goblin Quest was similar, very much written to be a complete, standalone book. I like to joke that of course I planned it all out and knew exactly what I was doing for all three books, but that would be total dung.
Writing the second goblin book was difficult. Ending the series was even harder. Even if each book could stand completely on its own, I was still ending a series. Expectations were higher. I wanted something big, something that brought a sense of closure.
I think closure was my biggest concern. I love that people e-mail me and try to convince me to do another goblin book, but generally it’s because they love the characters, not because they feel like they’ve been left hanging. There needs to be a payoff, like you said. And before I could figure out how to write that payoff, I needed to figure out what the underlying themes and questions of the series were.
Unfortunately, I generally don’t figure out my themes until after the fact … if ever. With the princess books, I was halfway through book four when it clicked that I’d spent the whole series deconstructing and challenging “Happily ever after.” So in addition to wrapping up some plot threads (will T get together with S or won’t she?), I needed something that brought closure to the various ever-after storylines. For the goblins, it was more about survival — so I needed to address how Jig and his fellow goblins were going to survive in the long run.
Your turn! What themes did you find yourself struggling to resolve in book four? And I’m curious, was there a point where it just felt too big? Writing one book is overwhelming enough, but when you’re talking about four books worth of story and characters and setting and details…
Marie: Closure is exactly the kicker, isn’t it? I got the same thing in response to the doppelganger books, people wanting me to write a third one. I won’t be surprised at all if I get the same thing after With Fate Conspire. (In fact, I hope so. Otherwise it might mean I’ve ticked my readers off so thoroughly they’ve given up on me . . . .)
In my case, it’s complicated by the fact that I may actually continue the Onyx Court series someday. Each book takes place in a different century, the sixteenth through the nineteenth; it would be cool to add the twentieth and twenty-first to that sequence. But right now that’s just a possibility, and not one that will be happening any time soon. So I had to approach Fate with the mentality of, this is it. This is the end. How do I make it satisfying?
It helped a bit that when I decided to write sequels to the first book, I knew right away what some of the series’ over-arching structure would be. There’s actually three layers to it, which sounds very fancy when I think about it. Midnight Never Come (#1) and A Star Shall Fall (#3) share the characteristic of being more interpersonal, while In Ashes Lie (#2) and With Fate Conspire (#4) are driven by larger-scale conflicts: ABAB. It’s also AABB, in that the first two books take place pre-Enlightenment (an important sea-change in society) and have Lune as one of the major protagonists, whereas the later books are more “modern” in feel and focus on other characters. And finally, it’s ABBA: Ashes and Star form a pair around the Great Fire of London, whereas Midnight and Fate are about the creation and dissolution of the Onyx Hall. I also knew, as soon as I sketched out the progression of the series, that its focus would gradually slide down from the royal court of Midnight Never Come to the lower classes of With Fate Conspire.
But all of that didn’t help me very much when it came time to plot out what was actually going to happen in the fourth book. Before I started writing, I sat down and did something I should have done from the start, namely, made a list of all the characters and locations and so on that had appeared in the story so far. Then I had to decide which ones were going to return in book four. My reflex, as you might be able to sympathize with, was to include ALL of them. There are two problems with that: first, it leaves no room for new stuff to be added, and second . . . this is supposed to be a book about the final days of the Onyx Hall. Lots of people are dead or fled, bits of the palace have disintegrated out of existence, etc. If everybody’s still there, it isn’t very convincing, is it?
Honestly, though, I think the biggest squid to wrestle came from history itself, rather than my own narrative canon. You want to talk “too big”? Try Victorian London on for size! They called it “the monster city” for a good reason. And I wanted to include a variety of stuff, not just the usual upper-class tea parties: Fenian bombings and the construction of the Underground and photography and dockworkers and evolution and all the rest of it. For everything I managed to work into the story, though, there’s four more that just didn’t fit, no matter how cool they were.
Did you feel the same impulse to go back to people and places we’ve seen before? Or did you have a lot of new things you wanted to incorporate? And whichever route you went, how did you try to ensure that you don’t (as you said) leave people hanging? Wanting to see more of the characters you love is one thing, but quitting while there are still unanswered questions or unresolved conflicts is another.
Jim: See, that’s exactly why I don’t write books set in Victorian England…
Speaking of “unresolved,” we’ll break there, and you can pick up part two on Jim’s site tomorrow. (I’ll advertise the link once it’s up.) Feel free to post questions either here or there!