How much should you plan ahead? One of the first thing you learn when you’re starting out is that nothing moves fast. You spend months—maybe longer—getting the manuscript ready to submit. Then it’s time for queries. Agents might have response times of weeks or more for a query. You’re lucky; you get a request for a partial. There’s another month or more waiting for a response. Lucky again; you get a request for a full. Tick, tick, tick.
What do you do while you’re in the midst of this waiting game? Write the next book. Ah, but there’s the rub. What do you write? There’s no guarantee book 1 will sell, much less a series, or a spin-off, based on it.
After I wrote When Danger Calls, one of the secondary characters wanted his turn front and center, so I started writing Dalton’s book. When I got an agent, she suggested we make it stand alone, so I had to go back and make sure there was nothing the depended on a reader having read the first book. Publishers often don’t want to buy book 2 in a series. So, while she was shopping the manuscript around, what was I doing? Writing another book. I took a hiatus from the Blackthorne, Inc. world and wrote Hidden Fire, the sequel to Finding Sarah.
One thing I didn’t do—perhaps out of laziness, perhaps out of the fear of jinxing the sale of a series, was create a reference work, a “Bible” for either series. I’ve started working on the 4th Blackthorne, Inc. manuscript and the lack of a centralized reference has come back to bite me. And, to compound the omission, I’m editing that second Blackthorne book, and as I read through it, discovering things I’d totally forgotten. And since I’ve got a 3rd, and yet unsold manuscript, I’m realizing there were things I should definitely have established from page 1 of book 1.
And it’s more than just remembering if your character has blue or green eyes, is a redhead, or is six-foot-four.
My Blackthorne covert ops team was rather loosely fashioned for the first book. I didn’t really pay all that much attention to each man’s specialty—I’d created a team of ‘jack of all trades’ operatives, but although each should be able to function in a variety of circumstances, I should have designated a primary specialty for each.
This came into focus as I was reading for edits, and realized that in the 3rd book, I’d established one character as the team’s pilot. However, in book 2, he was functioning as an on-the-ground agent, and I had someone else up in the helo.
Now, I’m not sure I’ll ever sell book 3, much less book 4, but my editor was good with me swapping personnel and assignments for the team in book 2 so that there will be continuity for books 3 (which features the other guy in the helo) and 4 (which features that pilot).
I’m still not an advocate of those long, drawn out character histories before writing the book. I have, however, begun cutting and pasting those passages where I describe a character, where I mention family, and any other pertinent details.
Although I’m a stickler for keeping the names in a book different enough so readers won’t get confused, sometimes, there’s no way around names more similar than I’d like, because when a character who seems to be a walk-on in one book suddenly requires page time in a sequel, there’s no real way around having Jennifer and Janie show up together.
Book 4 features Jillian, a secondary character in book 2. However, in doing those pesky edits, I discovered that Jillian was the name she was using when she ran from her husband, but that her real name was Julie Ann. I’d only used it once in Where Danger Hides, but it was something that had to be taken into consideration.
What should go into a “Bible?” At this point, I’m thinking as much as possible. Do you have to do it before you start? No. But as things unfold, you should make sure you have it recorded in some format that works for you— a document, a spreadsheet, a specialized software program, a 3-ring binder. Don’t neglect even those throwaway character facts. Because that character might come back as the focus of a subplot—or even an entire book.
The same goes for setting. If your character’s living quarters might show up again, make sure you know if he lives in an apartment or a country estate. If you’re coming back to the same town (something I’ve managed to avoid except for the Finding Sarah/Hidden Fire duo), make sure you know what the shops are called, or where they get their pizza.
When you’re just starting, and not sure you’ll ever sell the book, this might seem optimistic—maybe arrogant. And it’s certainly going to make extra work. While you’re writing, you’re totally immersed in the story and the character details. You don’t think you could possible forget them. Think again.
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Causes Terry Odell Supports
Pro Literacy Worldwide, The Nature Conservancy, The Adult Literacy League, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society