Stand Alone or Series

When people first learn about my books, one of the first questions they ask me is whether they’re stand-alone novels or part of a series. In fact, most of my books are part of series because I think it’s fun to continue to explore the consequences of the actions a group of characters take across several volumes. That said, I also believe that each book in a series should stand on its own. In other words, if a reader has never encountered a book in the series before, they should be able to jump in at any point in the series and not be lost. Moreover, when they reach the end of the book, they should feel they’ve had a satisfactory journey without having to buy another book. I want them to buy the next book because they like the characters, not necessarily because I left them with a cliffhanger.

In my Clockwork Legion steampunk novels, I achieved that by introducing an alien traveler called Legion who has the good intention of wanting to keep humans from destroying each other by meddling in human affairs. Legion starts by encouraging the Russian Empire to “unify” Earth by taking over the North American continent. That story became Owl Dance and the story is essentially resolved in the book. In Lightning Wolves we explore consequences of the war. The Arizona desert becomes an even more lawless frontier than it was before and miners go head to head with cattle rustlers. Meanwhile, we find the Russian invasion is still happening in California. Again, those events are resolved. In the third book, The Brazen Shark, we see the Japanese worried about powerful Russian neighbors and what happens when a samurai force steals a Russian airship for their own political aims. The fourth book, Owl Riders, returns to Arizona and the consequences of leaving a mining machine in the hands of the Apaches.

My hope is each book can be read on its own, but you get a little more out of the story if you read the whole thing. One of the ways I know whether or not I succeeded is by handing a later book to a new reader and asking them whether they were able to follow along or if there were points that lost them. Of course, you can learn more about the Clockwork Legion series at: http://www.zianet.com/dsummers/books.html#clockwork_legion.

Right now, my writing focus is on my Space Pirates’ Legacy series. The first book, Firebrandt’s Legacy, is very much a standalone story telling the adventures of Captain Ellison Firebrandt and his band of swashbuckling space pirates. I’m working on rewriting the second book of the series, The Pirates of Sufiro. It tells how Firebrandt influenced his children and grandchildren’s generation to become heroes. The third book, Children of the Old Stars, is about Firebrandt’s grandson, John Mark Ellis, who goes on a quest to understand an set of beings called the Cluster who destroy starships for no reason people can understand. In the final book, Heirs of the New Earth, those ships have taken over Earth and the galaxy is about to be changed forever.

I’m working as hard as I am to make The Pirates of Sufiro the best book I can because I don’t want people who start with Firebrandt’s Legacy to lose interest and stop. That said, I think a reader could jump into Children of the Old Stars or Heirs of the New Earth and understand what what’s happened without reading the earlier novels. In fact, I just had a lot of fun reading those two novels again. It’s not uncommon for me to pick up a book I wrote a few years before and cringe at some of my word choices or directions I sent my characters, but for the most part, I thought these books still held up. Of course, you can leap into this series right at the beginning by picking up Firebrandt’s Legacy at: http://hadrosaur.com/FirebrandtsLegacy.php. If you want to leap ahead and see how well Heirs of the New Earth stands on its own, I have a few copies of the first edition available at half off the cover price at: http://hadrosaur.com/HeirsNewEarth.php. I hope you’ll join Firebrandt and his heirs for their exciting adventure.

The Race is On

This past spring, I signed a contract for my horror novel The Astronomer’s Crypt about a week before I turned in the third of my Clockwork Legion steampunk novels, The Brazen Shark. Editor Joanna D’Angelo of Lachesis Publishing sent me her edits for The Astronomer’s Crypt on September 15. Editor Irene Radford of Sky Warrior Publishing sent me her edits for The Brazen Shark exactly one week later on September 22. It’s certainly enough to feel like a race!

Despite some coincidental timing, it’s really not a race. Both of my editors have a common goal. They want to help me make the books they’re working on the best they can be. I do have deadlines for both projects—The Brazen Shark is actually due before The Astronomer’s Crypt, but how long after that each book takes to achieve publication will depend on how satisfied my editors are with my work and the production queues at each of the publishing houses. So, even though it’s not a race, it’ll still be fun to see which one comes out first! Either way, these will be novels nine and ten, marking something of a milestone for me.

SummersOwlDance

The Brazen Shark continues the adventures of Ramon Morales and Fatemeh Karimi from Owl Dance and Lightning Wolves. Set in 1877, this third novel tells the story of their honeymoon in the Pacific and how they get caught up in a plot by samurai to steal a Russian airship in order to overthrow the Meiji Emperor. This story steps away from the familiar wild west setting of the first two novels and goes further afield. Of course, while you’re waiting for this novel, you can be sure to read Owl Dance and Lightning Wolves! Those who want even more of Ramon and Fatemeh will be delighted to know that book three of the series will not close it out. I am already contracted to write a fourth book in this series, tentatively titled Owl Riders. I’m still working out plots and I don’t want to give away any spoilers for The Brazen Shark, but I can tell you that you’ll get to see a very steampunked version of New Orleans in the series’ fourth installment!

The Astronomer’s Crypt is intended to be the first of a series called “Wilderness of the Dead” which accounts the spooky happenings of a fictional wilderness area in the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico. This wilderness includes Carson Peak Observatory, a ghost town called Toledo with a haunted mine, and a number of caves, which are portals to other dimensions where monsters from ancient history were trapped by Apache warriors. Although this is a new series, you get a taste for my horror by reading my Scarlet Order vampire novels Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order and Vampires of the Scarlet Order. As you can imagine, with a title like The Astronomer’s Crypt, it must be set at the observatory. I can tell you that the second novel is tentatively titled The Miner’s Tomb and we get to know the ghost town near the observatory quite well.

So, with two series in the works, will there be a race between Owl Riders and The Miner’s Tomb? That’s a good question, but at this point, I expect Owl Riders will be written first. It’s the novel that’s actually under contract with a deadline. Lachesis has made a strong verbal commitment to The Miner’s Tomb, but the paper hasn’t yet been signed. Still, who knows what the future may bring!

Finally, I received a lovely review of The Solar Sea from fellow author, Erica Miles. You can read it at Amazon.com.

Outlining Success

One question I have been asked in some recent discussions is whether I’m an outliner or a pantser. In other words, do I outline my stories and books or do I write by the seat of my pants? Over the years, I have written both ways, and I have even combined the two approaches. These days, though, I’m primarily an outliner.

In the most recent issue of the SFWA Bulletin there was an excellent article by C.J. Henderson that dared authors to consider whether or not they were ready for success. People who want to be writers often hear how they need to be prepared to face rejection and failure, but what happens when you’ve stood up to all that and suddenly find yourself with a contract for a book you haven’t written? Part of my personal answer to that question is to be an outliner. Admittedly, this might not work for everyone, but it’s a technique that works for me.

You see, there have been two cases where I tried to write novels by the seat of my pants and failed in my first attempt. The first was Heirs of the New Earth. The second was The Solar Sea. In the first case I wrote myself into a corner and I could see no way out, so I set the novel aside and wrote Vampires of the Scarlet Order instead. In the second case, I was getting bogged down in plot and character details that were neat, but didn’t drive the story forward at all. I ended up abandoning that version of the manuscript altogether.

The problem is, when confronted with a contract for a novel or a series of novels, I can’t afford to write myself into a corner or spend too much time on details that don’t matter to the story’s ultimate outcome. Sorting out the major plot points, understanding the novel’s direction, and turning that into an outline is one of the best ways for me to avoid that trap.

With that in mind, let me present some outlining techniques that have worked for me.

  1. Outline on note cards instead of using the computer. Each note card contains exactly one plot or character point. This allows you to shuffle the points and add new points as necessary until you create a strong plot with good character growth. This is exactly the method I used to get out of the corner I had written myself into with Heirs of the New Earth.
  2. Be mindful of your characters and their reactions as you outline. When you create a plot point, think about how all the affected characters will react. Sometimes you’ll find your story comes to life even as you’re writing the outline. In this way, you preserve some of the organic essence you can get when writing by the seat of your pants.
  3. Don’t outline too tightly. Restrict your outline to simple plot points. This gives your imagination some freedom as you’re writing.
  4. Don’t be afraid to deviate from your outline. If your characters say or do something surprising while you’re writing, let them. Feel free to explore a subplot or a ramification. Your outline is a map, but having a map doesn’t mean there there aren’t multiple ways to reach your objective.

Just to note, I ultimately did write The Solar Sea from scratch by the seat of my pants during the National Novel Writing Month in 2004. So, I’m by no means against being a pantser. That said, I outlined both Owl Dance and my vampire novel Dragon’s Fall. Outlines are useful tools for marking the trail. Don’t be afraid to deviate from the trail periodically and explore the surrounding countryside, though! The outline only exists to help you find your way back to your objective.

Interviewed at Long and Short Reviews: