Carrie Patel: Five Things I Learned Writing Song Of The Dead
With Ruthers dead and the Library Accord signed by Recoletta, its neighbours, and its farming communes, Inspector Malone and laundress Jane Lin are in limbo as the city leaders around them vie for power.
A desperate attempt to save Arnault from execution leads to Malone’s arrest and Jane’s escape. They must pursue each other across the sea to discover a civilization that has held together over the centuries. There they will finally learn the truths about the Catastrophe that drove their own civilization underground.
IT FEELS LIKE A YARD SALE
Writing a series can be an endeavor of several years and hundreds of thousands of words. You spend multiple books developing a story, creating a world, and tormenting your characters. You craft myriad shiny details with loving care. You draft and revise your books until every page and paragraph is bursting with life and drama. And then, when you finally reach the last one, you realize a fact both horrible and wonderful:
It all has to go.
But it’s up to you to make sure it goes somewhere.
All those plots, places, and characters you’ve toiled over—you have to finish them and step away. Because you’re going to send them home with other people, and what happens to them then is out of your hands.
That means answering questions you raised in your earlier books. Bringing character arcs to a close. Finding a target for all the momentum you’ve spent two, or three, or ten books developing.
And that likely means dusting off notes and drafts you’ve long since set aside.
As you’re digging through your old material, you’re going to find some things that surprise you. Maybe even some things you don’t remember putting there. Sometimes, however, those forgotten details can be some of the most valuable.
You’re going to find some junk, too. Plot threads that aren’t going anywhere and story hooks that have grown dull. And that’s okay. You don’t need to follow up on every last spear carrier and supporting player (and you probably don’t have room to). Part of the trick in finishing a series is appraising all of the story you’ve accumulated and knowing where the value is. At the end of the day, it’s fine to quietly sweep the incidental bits into the trash to make room for the things that really matter.
Just make sure you can polish and pretty up the things you keep.
THE END IS REALLY ANOTHER BEGINNING
That doesn’t mean you’re going to write another book about the same characters or even the same setting, but it does mean that the endpoint you’ve chosen for your storyline should be significant enough to suggest a new direction for the people and places that survive your series.
And that’s a subtle trick to pull off. It’s not just about the last few pages, it’s about everything that’s come before—every simmering tension, every inner conflict, every broken system.
Your world and characters are either constantly undergoing change or actively resisting it. The end of your series shows how your protagonist either overcomes her flaws or accepts them. How your supporting characters either achieve the goals they sought or set their sights on others. That the streets either get cleaned up or descend into chaos.
You could say many of the same things about the end of a standalone, of course. But if readers have stuck with you through multiple books, then you face a greater responsibility to show them that all those chapters and pages meant something. That they were going somewhere.
Which sounds simple at the outlining stage, but then you realize your characters have ideas of their own.
YOUR CHARACTERS AREN’T THE SAME PEOPLE
As your series has progressed, they’ve probably grown and changed. They’ve turned against allies, embraced enemies, and done things they never thought they’d do. Their goals may be very different at the end of the series from what they were at the beginning, and their methods of attaining them may have altered, too.
They’ve grown. They’ve changed. And that’s okay, because so have you.
As a writer, you’ve learned how to better tell their stories. You’ve developed new interests and ideas, which have led you to discover new facets of your characters. The best characters, in my opinion, are a lot like real people: endlessly complex and full of surprises.
There’s a lot of writing advice to the effect of “know your characters inside and out, from their childhood traumas to what they had for breakfast.” I think this advice is well-meant but misguided. The key isn’t to know your characters perfectly, but rather to continuously discover them. If you insist on knowing them fully and completely from book one, you may find yourself shoving them into a box over the course of your series, breaking their arms and legs so that they’ll fit into the space you’ve carefully built for them.
And then you’ve got a corpse, and corpses don’t bring much life to your story.
It’s better to leave your characters room to grow and to trust future-you to discover them along the way.
But when you do, you’ll probably discover something else, too.
FUTURE-YOU WILL KIND OF HATE OLD-YOU
Old-you is an asshole. Old-you made promises to your readers and constructed obstacles in your story. Then, she skipped town and left them for future-you to handle.
Worse, old-you killed a lot of the characters who might have helped.
What to do with this flaky, murdering jerk?
Well, once you get past the indignation, you’ll probably thank her. Despite the mess she’s left, she’s given you a lot to work with. And you’ll find that all the commitments she made on your behalf are kind of a good thing. They won’t allow you to sleep in and play it safe. They’ll force you to get out and take risks.
Like a lot of close relatives, you’ll hate her, but you’ll love her, too.
DON’T OVERSTAY YOUR WELCOME
Leaving the end of a book is a lot like leaving a party—once it’s time to go, it’s best to say all of your goodbyes and get out of there. Resist the temptation of long digressions and awkward repeat farewells, or you’ll end up sleeping in the bathtub.
It’s important to give yourself room to wind things down in your story, but you don’t want to keep going so long that you run out of momentum. There’s a principle from something called the Hollywood Formula (explained beautifully here on Writing Excuses) that basically boils down to this: stronger endings execute their various resolutions in relatively quick succession.
That’s not to say your book has to end in one Michael Bay plot explosion, but if you can find a reasonable point of convergence between your character arcs and plot conflicts, you’ll probably end up with something that’s more emotionally resonant, more elegantly plotted, and better paced.
And if there’s something more removed from that convergence that you feel the need to communicate, remember that there’s always the epilogue. An epilogue can show your readers where your characters and world have gone without dragging them through every step of that journey (because, let’s face it, if it were story-worthy, you’d probably just write another book about it). A good epilogue is like a follow-up email—it’s a short, sweet way to thank your readers for the fun you’ve had together, and it’s more likely to get you invited back than regurgitating everything into the bathtub.
And on that note, I’ll take my leave.
Carrie Patel is a novelist, game designer, and expatriate Texan. She is the author of the Recoletta trilogy, which includes the science fantasy murder mystery The Buried Life (2015), the political thriller Cities and Thrones (2015), and the upcoming The Song of the Dead (May 2017), published by Angry Robot. Her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and PodCastle.
As narrative designer and game writer, she works for Obsidian Entertainment, an award-winning development studio known for story-driven RPGs. She worked on Pillars of Eternity, which was nominated nominated by the Writers Guild of America for Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing, and its expansions, The White March Part I and II. She is currently writing for Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire.