Character Development In A Series

METADATA-START

I’ve been thinking about how one manages character development in a series after some of my writing buddies talked about how they’ve stopped reading an author they love because the protagonist doesn’t seem to learn from the past. It’s not a trivial question, because I am as guilty as the next reader of wanting my favorite characters to change, learn, and grow – but not too much. I still want to recognize the protagonist, even as I’m cheering for the character to evolve. Ann Anastasio and I never intended our first book, Death By Chenille, to become a series, but here we are writing our fourth novel with the same characters. We started out with characters who were flawed, yes, but essentially grounded. We wanted to tell the story of normal people in an unusual situation (saving the world from aliens who disguise themselves as bolts of beige fabric). As each new book in the Chenille series unfolded, we tried to keep our characters essentially who they were, but let them learn enough to solve the next problem. Is that enough to satisfy our readers? I’m not sure, but I’d welcome your input if you care to read the books (you can get them for your reader on Smashwords.com, for a few bucks).

Now that the shameless self-promotion is out of the way, here are a few possibilities for character development in a series:

  • You can start with a character that has a boatload of problems, and solve them one novel at a time.
  • You can start with a character at a specific age (younger is better), and trace her evolution in real(ish) time.
  • You can write entirely plot-driven novels where the protagonist has to learn something new in each novel or die. That also solves the problem of how to end a series when you are bored writing about the same characters.

Only you can decide how much change is enough for your character, and how much of a reset you are going to do in each novel to maintain the loyalty of your readers. For me, I’m going to try changing one thing at a time. My goal will be to maintain the core values of my characters, but give them a little wiggle room to surprise me.

METADATA-START

Luck and wisdom!

What Do You Expect . . .

. . . from your writing? My friend Ann Anastasio and I have published three novels, are working on the fourth, and have ideas for a fifth. Before that we wrote and performed one-hour musical comedies as Broken Dishes Repertory Theatre. Our hard work and natural talent have earned us a few fans, the laughter of some happy audiences, and enough money to buy a couple of really good lunches.

And we’re fine with that. Mind you, we’d be fine with fame and fortune, but that hasn’t been in the cards yet. It may never be in the cards. Perhaps we’re just putting a good spin on our work (“oh, we never expected to be the next big thing”). Perhaps we’re seeing ourselves for what we are – funny ladies with a story to tell in a world of people with stories to tell.

Still and all, we’re not expecting our writing to make the world over in our image. We’re not expecting our writing to suddenly add inches to our height and subtract inches from our waist. We’re not expecting anything but the chance to tell one more story, and hope that it makes one more reader laugh.

Luck and wisdom!

Waiting For Ideas

After two years of working on the next novel in the Chenille series, I think I know the plot. Ann Anastasio and I discussed themes and characters in some depth before we started writing. We thought we had a reasonable handle on the plot. We were wrong.

Waiting for ideas is always hard, but the more a project pushes back the more you should pay attention. That’s usually a sign that it just isn’t the right time. Maybe you need to understand your characters better, maybe you need to streamline the plot, maybe the universe is trying to align the stars perfectly – whatever the reason, listen to that inner voice. Oh, keep working as well, but don’t let your frustration that the project isn’t progressing as quickly as you would like overwhelm you.

Luck and wisdom!

Using The Theme

There are lots of reasons to avoid writing. I could give you an extensive list, as I have used them all. One excuse I hadn’t used was “I don’t know what my theme is yet.” Of course I know what the theme of The Captain And Chenille is. Ann Anastasio and I discussed that point thoroughly when we put together the notes for this novel. Then, as I looked at some of the treasures on my shelf and thought about why I collected them, I realized that knowing the theme isn’t enough. I also have to use it.

My epiphany was enough to get me through two more chapters. There are thousands of words left to write, but having one more weapon to battle writer’s block gives me courage. The next time the dreaded blank page sends you scurrying for a hiding place, ask yourself, “Am I using the theme of my story at this very moment?” Even if you only write one more paragraph, that’s a win.

Luck and wisdom!

Leaving Choice For Chance – Writing

I’ve been making the blocks for a crazy quilt, and at some point I totally relinquished choice for chance. I had cut strips from fabrics that I thought went together well, but after a bit of sewing my careful arrangement of those strips was a jumble. As I grabbed a random piece that fit the hole I needed to fill, I realized writing a novel is a lot like piecing crazy quilt blocks. “Self,” I said, “perhaps you should revisit your notes for your novel-in-progress with an eye to leaving choice for chance.”

Ann Anastasio and I brainstormed the characters, basic plot, and ending for The Captain and Chenille, but as the writing progressed the characters got mouthy and the plot twisted on its own. Even our ending has taken on some nuances we hadn’t anticipated. I’ve been going through those notes, trying to keep in all the ideas we thought were so clever. Now I’m not sure that’s necessary. I think I’ll prune our outline of the things that clearly won’t work, and set aside some of those ideas for another project. I’ll let the chance element of creating show me what the novel could become. If Ann and I decide our original ideas are more interesting, we can fix it in revision.

Luck and wisdom!

Red Barns

It’s funny how chance encounters create life-long interests. My friend Ann Anastasio made several barn quilts because she liked how barn design differ from state to state. I barely noticed that barns had design, much less that they vary. Now I watch for barns (I also watch for big rigs since that long trip through Nevada with nothing to see but trucks, but that’s a story for another day). Suzi Parron has a redwork kit of barns that are darling, and when she spoke at AVQ I bought one on a lark.

These designs come from her travels on the barn quilt trail, which is different from the barn quilts Ann made. Suzi has written two books about quilt blocks painted on barns or other structures, which you can find on her website.

The block shown above has a horse peeking out the door. There’s something about a critter in a quilt that draws my attention, even if it is just an outline with a French Knot eye.

This next block has a lovely curve to the roof that reminds me of the lines to a boat. I also think of it as Dutch, but I couldn’t tell you why.

Somehow I managed to either use the floss in the kilt wastefully or mislay several strands, because I ran short for the last block. Rather than try to match the color, I decided to turn that bug into a feature. I stitched the outside edges of the barn, the ground, and the foliage in brown, stitched some of the slats in what was left of my red, stitched most of the rest in a dustier red, then stitched the remaining slats and quilt block in a variegated red and brown. Since I had always planned to make separate projects with the blocks, it doesn’t matter that this one is different from the other three.

Luck and wisdom!

When Writing What You Know Works

The short story “SeeApp” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2019) is a brilliant illustration of why we are advised to write what we know. James Van Pelt taught for 36 years; he may have never been in a school like the one in his story, or met anyone like his characters, but everything feels right. The descriptions are in his bones, and the words flow off his fingers. This is why my co-author Ann Anastasio and I set our first book in a quilt store, and grounded all our books in the quilting world. We know those places like our own kitchens, and we know the people in them. It was easy to create the settings and characters when we had our combined lifetime experiences to draw upon. Once that was on paper, the stories took off on their own. I’m convinced everyone has at least one story to tell, so give it a try. Put the world you know best in words, and see where that takes you.

Luck and wisdom!

Sharing and Self-Promotion

Forgot to take a picture of us at the boutique, so here’s one of my book covers

I rented a booth at a holiday boutique to sell my books. Knowing that I can promote other people’s products much better than I can my own, I invited two friends who write in basically the same genre to share my table. To my great delight, the scheme worked. We all sold books, and we all had a great time. To me, the moving target that is self-promotion is easier to vector in on with friends. It seemed that even the shoppers who didn’t buy our books spent more time listening to our pitch when there were three of us at the table. You might think bringing in competition would hurt my chances of making a sale, but it didn’t work out that way. Next time you’re planning a book event, consider helping another author and see how it helps you.

Luck and wisdom!

PS – Shameless self-promotion alert, you can buy The Chenille Ultimatum here.

Gifts of Inspiration

Last week I was at Art Quilt Santa Fe, reveling in fabric and paint, when the Chenille series came up in conversation. I gave a brief synopsis of the first novel – quilters saving the world from space aliens who disguise themselves as as bolts of beige fabric – and my co-author Ann Anastasio added, “They kill the aliens with chenille, thus the title Death By Chenille.” One of the group then gave us the title of our yet-to-be-written fifth book – The Chenille Bearer.

This is why you need to talk about your writing whenever you can. I don’t mean hustling sales at every opportunity, or blathering on about your book even when people are clearly bolting for the nearest exit. I mean using your 30-word synopsis and ending with a hook. If the audience isn’t interested, someone will change the topic of conversation and all will be well. If you are lucky, the audience will ask more questions, maybe even ask where they can buy a copy of the book. If you are very lucky, someone will give you a nugget of inspiration. Take the gift, be grateful, and keep writing.

Luck and wisdom!

Marketing Advice I Can Use

Like all independently published authors, I am entirely responsible for marketing my novels. While I am more than willing to talk your ear off about my books should I corner you at a party, I’m not so great at finding bigger venues. I’ve organized a couple of book launches, but they turned out to be more tea party, less launch. I read as much about marketing as I can, but most of the advice I’ve found applies to younger, wealthier people living smack dab in the middle of New York, the kind who don’t have to factor in grocery shopping and the laundry between sessions on social media and schmoozing with influencers and trend-setters.

Still, the universe does provide if you wait long enough. My quilt guild is planning a holiday boutique. Since the key to all marketing advice is always ask if you can join in, I asked if I could participate. As far as I could tell, the only requirement for vendors was that all the items for sale must be handmade.

“Could I sell my books?” I asked. “Ann Anastasio and I wrote them ourselves, so that’s kinda sorta maybe handmade.”

The committee agreed that my books qualify as a handmade item, and I slapped the table fee down before they changed their minds. This boutique might not appear on the international book festival calendar, but I’m grateful for any chance to meet potential readers.

Luck and wisdom!