Taking a Look at the Big Picture

This past week, I had to perform an unusual exercise. I have a couple of studios who are looking at doing a television series based on my Runelords fantasy series. (Don’t get too excited, we’re just exploring the idea at this point.) But in talking to them, we had to look at a 9-book series and begin thinking about the story arc for coming seasons. This required me to take a step back, look at what I had done, and specifically think about things that could be added to the series.

So, I did, and what do you know? I found a whole new series of books that could easily be tucked in between books four and five in the current series.

I have other ideas for expansion, but these ones surprised me.

There is a great value in stepping back from your work from time to time and taking a look at the bigger picture.

Years ago, I studied oil painting with the idea of perhaps working in that field. From time to time, I have had artists ask me to advise them on a work in progress. One fine artist called me in to help with a portrait of Jesus he was painting. He had begun working in the hands—on the veins in them, the worn and broken fingernails—and had spent a month on them. He captured them beautifully. But now the rest of the painting seemed out of focus. Should he do the same to the character’s face? What about the background details? To put everything in detail would take years.

Unfortunately, my advice to him was to put a slightly opaque wash over the character’s hands and blur them out so that they wouldn’t detract from the character’s face and eyes. He did. And I’ve seen that painting in galleries and in magazines for years since, and every time, my focus goes straight to those darned hands. They’re still distracting. The painter hadn’t learned to properly “kill his darlings.”

But as novelists, we do much the same. We get so focused on the details of a few key chapters—perhaps a character or a setting–that we forget the bigger details. When Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings, he had Bilbo Baggins chronicle his adventures in a book titled There and Back Again. I have heard it said that that works as the title for just about any fantasy, and it’s true: just about any fantasy that has a person going into another world could have that subtitle. Alice in Wonderland is a portal story. So is The Wizard of Oz, and Mary Poppins, and Gulliver’s Travels, Lord of the Rings, Tarzan, Homer’s The Odyssey and many more.

But not all fantasies are “There and Back Again” stories. There are other major motifs. I like to call one of them “Weathering the Storm.” The title reminds me of the phrase from A Game of Thrones—“A storm is coming.” It also reminds me of the title of Shakespeare’s fantasy play, arguably one of his best, “The Tempest.” It’s the story of Forrest Gump and many others: a huge storm (often an invading army) sweeps over a land, destroys much, changes everything, and people struggle to adapt and survive.

None of those are what I have been doing in my fantasy series. I’m working off of a different motif. I won’t tell you what it is: go find you own ideas.

But this concept of stepping back to study your painting and look at the big picture has other applications. For example, many authors get so tied up in writing a novel that they never step back and look at their overall careers. I’ve seen many authors start working on a book or series to their own detriment.

For example, let’s say you have a hit young fantasy series and decide to write a science fiction novel, one that doesn’t appeal to your primary audience. That might sound like a nice change, but if you write it, your sales will take a nosedive. Then when you write your next big fantasy novel, the bookstore buyers will take a look at your last sales numbers, think that your career has tanked, and refuse to order enough books to satisfy the demand. Your new big fantasy novels will run out in the stores quickly but won’t be on the shelves when most buyers walk through, and therefore your fantasy series will start to die. You’ll lose momentum, and the publisher may have to cancel your contract.

Thus, you can easily tank your career just by writing one or two “side novels” outside your series. My advice is to write them but perhaps do them under another name, the way Stephen King did.

In short, if you want to protect your career, take a step back from the novel you’re writing and consider how it fits into the bigger picture of how it builds your career. And, then again, if you’re working on a series, take a step back from that novel from time to time and think about how it fits into the overall arc of your storyline.


Fyrecon I will be teaching a master class writing workshop at Fyrecon this June 20-22 in Layton, Utah. I’m also offering a special for Fyrecon. Get the Writing Enchanting Prose workshop there for only $350–a savings of  $150–if you use the code: EnchantedFyre19.  Tomorrow is the last day for pre registration! You can register here.

SpikeCon I will also be teaching at SpikeCon on July 3rd, also in Layton, Utah. Learn more here.

Don’t forget to register for two upcoming writing workshops. Writer’s Peak July 19-20 and The Plot Thickens Master Class September 18-21. More info on MyStoryDoctor.com.

New online workshops will be up on July 13th. The Advanced Story Puzzle and Writing Enchanting Prose.

Million Dollar Outlines is $6.99 on Amazon Kindle and free with Kindle Unlimited! Learn how to outline a novel and become a bestseller.  Get it here.

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