After I finished Blood, Book 6 of The Unfinished Song, I realized I’d hit the half-way point of the series. Not coincidentally, I began obsessing about how to write solid “middles.” First I looked at three problems that commonly sag or even sink a series in the middle books.
I wrote: “My goal is to make every book in the series shine. Each one is a critical piece of Dindi and Kavio’s story, none is filler. So I will be outlining the next six books exhaustively before I even begin the revisions on my trunk draft of Mask (Book 7). I know this will frustrate some readers in the short run, and maybe I’ll even lose the impatient ones, but in the long run, the series will be stronger, better, and longer-lasting for it.”
I’m not through the gauntlet yet. I still have a huge amount of work ahead of me. But I thought it would be interesting to show how I have tried to handle the potential problems with “the muddle in the middle.” I’ll note my original thoughts in purple.
[Possibly some spoilers below for the series up to Book 6 of The Unfinished Song.]
1. Instead of Filler… Growth
As I said I would, I did spend months substantially outlining the last six books of the series. Then, when I thought I had things worked out, I finished a full draft of Mask (Book 7)… only to decide that the entire draft still lacked spirit. It depressed me that I hadn’t been able to spot the weaknesses in my outline. It’s sad but true: even a solid outline sometimes doesn’t stop you from wasting time writing a draft that doesn’t shine.
The problem, I believe is that the story was…adequate. So it looked fine in summary. But when it came to the execution, there were too many “moving the plot along” scenes and not enough “I want to re-read that over and over” scenes. It bored me. And if it bored me, how would my readers feel?
I tore the whole thing to bits and started over. This time I wanted to make sure I included all the juicy scenes, the ones I couldn’t wait to write.
I wrote those. And also more “moving the plot along” scenes, because I had to, or thought I did, to connect the juicy scenes together in a logical way. By the time I reached the end of Chapter 2 of the new draft, I’d already hit 50,000 words. My goal for the entire book was 100,000, and there are 7 chapters. Even my math-challenged brain sensed this wasn’t going to work.
Back to Outlining.
Let’s face it, in terms of story arc, it might have seemed as though the series should have ended with the climax of Blood Book 6. Big Battle against the Big Bad Guy, Big Secret Revealed…. So why didn’t the series end there? The reason (I have to tread carefully to avoid spoilers) is that the ending of Blood was really a classic Mid Point, an incomplete victory. Truly, the Heroine and Hero didn’t deal with the main issue and the main antagonist… Death. Dindi made a pledge to the Aelfae in Book 3, but in Book 6, she didn’t redeem that pledge yet. She only proved to the Aelfae that she was worthy to try.
My task in the next three books is a challenging one. In Mask, Mirror and Maze, Dindi may have proved herself to the Aelfae, but she has yet to prove herself to her own kind, the humans. And honestly, she has a lot of growing up to do yet before she’s ready to be a Leader as well as a Hero. The opposite of filler is growth. In filler scenes, the character essentially marks time. In scenes that force the Main Character to grow, real change takes place, and it’s that change that enables the MC to believably defeat villains as powerful as those Dindi must face, including Death herself.
This growth is so crucial that I am writing Mask, Mirror and Maze as one over-arching story. Of course, the whole 12 book series is one long over-arching story, but within that, the story has for Acts, each divided into a trilogy.
The technical challenges of that are that a book like Mask, which follows right after a “peak” book, like Blood, is going to be a tad less high-intensity than the book before it. Part of the work Dindi has to do takes time… Including, of course, learning the new, even more complex dances of the Rainbow Labyrinth tribehold. My job as a writer is to portray realistic, incremental growth that takes long stretches of time for the character without boring the reader.
Which brings us back to those dull “moving the plot along” scenes. In my second bout of feverish outlining, I restructured Mask yet again, this time looking for ways to combine three or four “necessary but too long” scenes into shorter, snappier scenes. To my delight, I found I didn’t have to sacrifice any of the juicy scenes after all. I could reduce worecount and even increase conflict between my major characters by stacking all the necessary bits into super-packed scenes.
Mask is still not going to be as adrenaline-rushed as Blood, but I believe that Mask now does what is should. Turn up the new tensions between Dindi and Kavio and the other major players that have resulted from the aftermath of the battle, tensions that are only going to increase and worsen in Mirror (Book 8), until everything explodes again in Maze (Book 9).
2. Instead of Repetition… Reiteration
Lost memories are one of the recurring themes of the series, of course. Our memories make us who we are–don’t they? As for Kavio, he’s lost his memory, and he needs it back. Isn’t it nice that his good friend Finnadro is there to help out?
There’s another echo of the first trilogy that shows up as a new character. In the first trilogy, Rthan was haunted, so to speak, by a shining blue child who appeared to be his dead daughter…though she was really the Lady of the Merfae. In this trilogy, we’ll meet another, quite different, little girl. She’s one of those minor characters that originally had only a minor role to play in the first Outline. In the next several revisions, I cut her role out completely, because although she was cute and all, I needed the storyline to be more focused. Then I suddenly realized exactly what diabolical use a villain might have for her, and suddenly, she became critical to the whole book.
3. Instead of Jumping the Shark…Seek the Heart of the Story
Oh, how I have struggled with this! On the one hand, I want my characters to grow and change. On the other hand, as they mature and the darkness closes in, and Dindi, in particular, has to become a much more ruthless person than she ever imagined possible, I want to keep some of the innocence and mischief of the first books. The pixies, for instance… in the first draft, I realized, the pixies disappeared. In this draft, they are still not as prominent as before, but they’re around, and even help out in an important scene.
Then there’s the romantic front, Dindi is finally reunited with Kavio. The easy way out would be to have Dindi and Kavio realize they both love each other and work together against their common enemies. Except, I hate when a Fantasy series starts out with a super hot romance between the Heroine and Hero but all the romantic tension is resolved by the end of the first book. Even if the rest of the series involves a good quest, without that element of “Will they or won’t they?” the series loses some of its zing.
I know what my One Thing is. Every storyline in the series ultimately flows into answering that single question, the riddle that Dindi learns in the very first book: Choose the Windwheel or the Maze.
Working on a long epic can be draining exactly because you have to write in the same spirit over a long period of time. One reason I do work on other stories in between major milestones of The Unfinished Song is to flex my brain muscles on other genres and characters. But because I know what my One Thing is, I always come back, re-energized to work on this series.