The Accidental Series


Once upon a time I set out to write a novel and, quite by accident, wrote two.

When I had finally locked onto the idea for the story [see Girl Meets Book], I began to write, letting the tale evolve as I went. New to the craft, I followed the school of thought that a story should be as long as is needed to tell the story. A year and a half later, give or take a few meltdowns, I finished the first draft. To my own vaguely impressed horror I realised I had written just over 1100 pages. In the month following, presented with deadlines, I hastily edited the bastard down to a meagre 800 and titled it The Unkindness. This was meant to be a reference to ravens, but could also allude to printing costs and lost sleep. I hoped the aptness ended there.

‘The story should be as long as is needed to tell the story.’

In the absence of a better plan, this is precisely the kind of thinking that leads to a bend-at-the-knees-when-lifting tome. But there it was. I felt a bit guilty about asking others read this early and immense draft. I also worried about the fate of a book that size, given that publishers tend to avoid enormous books from new authors. The reasons for this are myriad and depressingly reasonable.

But what to cull?  The story lines were all interwoven, so there were no large sections of easily jettisoned material. Remove one thread and the whole tapestry would fall apart. It appeared to be a case of a story that wasn’t too long but a book that was.

But there was cause for hope.

“You’ve written two books,” said the estimable Dr Kim after reading it.

I was dumbfounded. Given how painful it had been to write one novel, writing a second should have been something I’d remember.  I resisted the idea initially, but soon realised she was right. First came a wave of relief.  Brilliant!  Problem solved! Cut the thing in half, whack “a To Be Continued scene” at the end of the first book and something akin to “Previously, on Buffy…” at the start of the second. Instant series!

Then reality sank in, as it does, with a sinking feeling. Turns out, there is a big difference between writing a story the size of two books, and writing a story that can be told across two books in such a way that each book can hold its own.

The first problem was finding the point where the story could stop and then begin again. To compound this, I have two major storylines, one present day and one historical. This meant re-working each so that their new endings occurred at the same time.  Moreover, the task of avoiding a stark, cliff-hanger ending proved difficult.  Not surprisingly, the original story had been written so that the ultimate resolution came at the very end, but now Book 1 needed to stand on its own in the absence of that grand finale. The solution was to hone in on the subplots, then re-work and clarify them so that they began and ended beneath the greater arc of the series. All up, it took another year and a half to tear the story apart and, from that, create Book 1.

I now believed I knew what I was doing and proceeded on to Book 2 with giddy optimism.  I knew where each storyline was meant to continue, and the finale was already written.  It would be so much easier.

That was in March.

Of last year.

Granted, I’ve had a big break from writing in the last twelve months — a form of writers block I like to call Baby Interruptus. Much of my free time in early pregnancy was spent in a kind of nauseous fug just this side of a coma.  I didn’t bother trying to write with a newborn in the house — I’m not that crazy.  Now my beautiful daughter is four month’s old and, when I can, I write during her nap times. It’s erratic at best and there’s always that maternal alert system on in the back of my mind like a nervous, hyper-caffeinated meercat. Paradoxically, I haven’t had any caffeine in ages (also not helpful).

Although writing in any cohesive way is a challenge at the moment, sometimes the planets align, the muse rocks up, and the words flow.  It’s then I realise that Book 2 has its own unique issues.  In fact, they are almost precisely the opposite of those of Book 1. The problem doesn’t lie in where to begin, but how to begin the story so that it is as compelling to a reader who has just finished Book 1 as it is to someone who read it a long time ago, or perhaps never at all. That’s where I am now, reintroducing characters, plots and settings, worrying over how much backstory is needed, and generally building a new Once Upon A Time.

When the planets align.

When the muse rocks up.

But mostly when I pretend they do.

I don’t think there’s much I can do about the meercat.

Thus is the tale of the accidental series. It’s a big punt and probably the most ass-backwards way you could go about writing a series, but I have to admit I’ve learned a lot about the mechanics of novel writing this way.  And if I pull it off, if I do it right, maybe it’ll look like I planned it from the start.


Posted on August 8, 2012, in Fiona McMillan and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hi there … I’ve just come across you via your short story on Luna Station Quaterly #10 … excellent twist on the zombie theme.

    I understand about the accidental series. About halfway through my book I realised that I needed to write its prequel. As I wove my way through that, two more books told me they had to be written before I could get back to the original story – which is (so far) Book 4 of a five book series. So, be warned, this could happen to you too! Bwhahahahha.

    Congratulations on your meercat-ness.

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