Writing a Bestselling Series, Chapter 6: Round Two

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Writing a Bestselling Series, Chapter 6: Round Two

I felt gratified that my first novel was well received, but I discovered that no matter how well you think things through with a novel, you’re apt to make mistakes.For example, I knew that I wanted to write fantasy, but my publisher thought I was doing so well in science fiction, that they wanted only science fiction.

I decided that one way to move into fantasy would be to simply begin edging toward it.  So I decided to write a science fiction novel with a fantasy element.

I also decided to explore a new world that felt more like fantasy than science fiction.  One writer has astutely observed that the difference between science fiction and fantasy is that “Fantasy has trees, science fiction doesn’t.”  So I thought, What if I created a rich biological world that smells more of forests and rivers than of circuitry?

My publisher suggested that I write a sequel to On My Way to Paradise, but I didn’t want to be one of those authors who writes in the same world every time.

In fact, I realized quite early that I loved creating worlds.  So I set my novel in a different universe.

Also, I began thinking a lot about audience analysis.  I read a book at that time on screenwriting, where the author gave a list of the top 50 movies of all time and asked the reader to make a list of the things that they had in common.  I noticed three things right off the bat.  But at the end of the list she said basically, “See? They have nothing in common.  They’re not in the same genre or time period.” Yada, yada, yada.

Well, I noticed that all of the top fifty movies transported the reader to another time and place, and that seemed significant.  Most people read to escape the world, at least in part.  In fact, I suspected that the movie or book that transports the reader best will become the most popular.

I also noticed that in most cases, the movie was written to appeal to a wide demographic—targeting both men and women but sometimes also going for younger boys and girls.

And I could see that the most popular movies were the ones that had the strongest emotional appeal in their genre.  Thus, if they were horror films, they were the scariest of the lot.  If they were comedies, they were the funniest of the comedies, and so on.

(See my book Million Dollar Outlines for more on what makes a bestseller.)

So, I realized that my tactics in On My Way to Paradise were a bit wrongheaded.  I’d written about an aging male protagonist, thus restricting my audience. So I decided to try something new.

My first novel had been written in first person, from the point of view of an older male.  I decided to switch to third person and alternate between my male protagonist and a couple of female characters, so that it would become easier to plot.

For the setting, I had heard a scientist talk at a science fiction convention at BYU about how he had extracted DNA from a supersaurus bone, and that was exciting.  I’d always been fascinated by dinosaurs as a kid.  In fact, on one occasion when I was nine or so, a woman asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I tried to explain by saying, “I want to be a genetic . . . paleo . . . biological engineer.”  Those words seemed to describe what I wanted to do.  She asked, “Oh, those are such big words, so what do those people do?” and I proudly answered, “We build dinosaurs.  Of course, we can’t do it yet, but someday . . .”

So I decided to create a world that had been developed in our far future by such folks, people researching how ancient creatures had acted.  They populated each continent with creatures that had existed at different times on the earth.  Since I was fond of Neanderthals, I decided to make my primary character half human and half Neanderthal, and to make him a young man rather than an older one.

I have to admit when I first considered the idea, I thought of writing a story about a contemporary family that finds themselves stranded on an island where biologists have recreated animals from the Jurassic era, but that just seemed “too Island of Doctor Moreau.”

In case you don’t notice, I still wanted to write outside the box, choosing a difficult world to write in, creating a protagonist who was different from others.  At the same time, I was struggling to create a novel that had more elements of a classic hit, with a strong setting and characters who were likeable.

I created an outline for a rather big novel—one that might take a thousand pages to write—and turned it in.  My editor liked the outline but felt that it was too long, and asked that I split it into two books.

Since I wanted to write a series, that made an odd kind of sense.  I’d start writing a small series first, just two books.  You couldn’t get any smaller than that, right?

So I did some research on Neanderthals and found among other things that their brains had a hypothalamus that was significantly larger than a human’s.  This suggested to me that they might have a more . . . elaborate emotional life than humans, that perhaps they felt emotions more profoundly, or even experienced emotions that we don’t.

So I developed a language for my characters, and a backstory for their history and went to work.

Now, I had begun developing my own philosophy of writing, and I wanted to remain true to it.  I think of writing as a service to others, to readers who want to perform an emotional exercise.  The best writing isn’t necessarily the most ornate, or the most difficult to decipher.  I believed that the purpose of literary criticism should be to tell your story the best way that you can.

I believe that everyone deserves great stories, whether you’re a two-year-old listening to your mother read while sitting in her lap, or an uneducated kid growing up in a ghetto, or a literary scholar reading in your penthouse in New York.

But it seemed obvious to me that the literary prohibitions that had begun spreading with the beginning of the Realist Movement back in the late 1800s were quite frankly stifling, artificial, and . . . led to a literary dead end.

Let me explain what I mean.  A lot of authors, in an effort to garner praise from critics and win awards, will do things that damage their work.

For example, suppose that you try to create an “ambiguous” ending for a story, one where the reader gets to decide how they think that the story ends.  Every college freshman learns that trick, but does it really help a story?  In very rare occasions it can, but the truth is that it nearly always mars the tale.  It obfuscates the ending of the story, forcing the reader to have to try to “decipher” the author’s meaning, and thus robs the reader of closure.

There are other fashionable ways to obfuscate a story.  For example, Ernest Hemingway used to take off the beginning or the end, so that the tone hinted at what happen.  The problem with that is that in many cases, the reader really is robbed of closure, once again.  For example, in Hemingway’s story “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” an old man goes into a bar and gets drunk.  He’s in a terrible mood, a blasphemous mood.  But Hemingway doesn’t tell the reader that the old man got news by telegraph earlier in the day telling him that his son had been killed in the war.  Nor does he reveal that the old man commits suicide that night.  Thus, the reader is left a bit bewildered, wondering what happens or what the point of the story is.

Some authors load their tales down with allusions to obscure works that no one has ever heard of in order to show how well-read they are, while others pile on ornate language to demonstrate their gifts.

You get the idea.  There are a lot of techniques taught in writing classes that not only don’t help your work but actually damage it.  Authors who use these techniques are often writing for praise, for self-aggrandizement, rather than for a real audience.

I gave a talk on the subject in about 1990 to a group of winners from the Writers of the Future Contest.  (You can get a taste of the information by googling “Rant Fantastic” by Dave Wolverton.)  In the talk, I told why I rejected many of the literary prohibition taught by William Dean Howells, the father of the Modern American Realist Movement.  (To a strong degree, these prohibitions are still accepted by many modern writers.  It’s not that they think about them, just that they’re “In the water,” so to speak.)

After the talk, Algis Budrys, a long-time critic for the Chicago Sun Times, was impressed enough that he asked if I would be willing to take his place as the lead judge for the Writers of the Future Contest. I agreed, and he began bringing me in slowly over the next couple of years.

So I went to work on Serpent Catch while doing some judging on Writers of the Future.  I was still ill with chronic fatigue and could barely put in an eight-hour day.  I found that I had to go to work for two hours, lie down in the sick room, work for two more hours, go back to the sick room, and so on. Using that technique, I was able to manage eight to ten hours per day.  I kept this up for the next two years, and began growing stronger, but by working full-time, then trying to be a dad when I could, I found it very difficult.

I made a point to work on Serpent Catch on my Saturdays.  Like many of my novels, I wanted this one to have some complexity to it on a philosophical level.  In my first novel, I had a character dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.  Since I’d been suffering with it at the time, it seemed appropriate.

In Serpent Catch, I had my protagonist, Tull, using Neanderthal magic in an effort to save his world from imminent ecological collapse.  That was the “outer story,” but at the same time, in his inner story, he is struggling to save himself and his younger brother from the lingering effects of child abuse.  That was something I’d had to deal with, too.

I have to admit, I wasn’t trying to win over any critics.  You see, I’d realized that my tastes in literature and my goals as a writer were at odds with what contemporary critics were doing.  I’m a fantasist and a formalist.  So, I was going my own direction, and I knew that the critics wouldn’t get it.

When I published Serpent Catch, it came out with little fanfare.  It debuted on the same day as Jurassic Park, which seemed to be extremely bad timing, given that both books dealt with cloning dinosaurs.

Once again, Orson Scott Card loved Serpent Catch and its sequel, Path of the Hero, and gave them rave reviews, but mostly the books were met with silence by the critics, and neither was nominated for any awards.  Card called the first book “a masterpiece,” and said of the second that it “moved beyond the first ranks of science fiction and into another realm entirely.”

Serpent Catch was given a particularly nice cover, and the book outsold my first novel, so it was a financial success.

But just before Path of the Hero came out, my publisher was bought out by a large German publisher named Bertelsman, a house that was anti-science fiction.  They immediately fired most of the science fiction editors, and began to let all of the science fiction authors go.  Since my book was under contract, they went ahead and released it, but did an unenthusiastic job.  Serpent Catch had sold about 60,000 copies, which would suggest that for Path of the Hero they should print perhaps 100,000, but the publisher printed fewer than 30,000.  Of course, if the publisher doesn’t print enough copies, people can’t read it.

My editor called me afterward and said that she felt she’d made a mistake by having the novel printed as two books.  She said, “You know, if we had printed it as one massive book, I think that it would have been hailed as a classic.  As it is, most people will never even see the second book.”

She was right.  Sales were pretty dismal, coming in at 19,000.  A huge part of the problem might have been that the cover was too dark, but I think that it was mainly just an unenthusiastic push from the publisher.  If you’re new to this business, you may not recognize what a low sales number is.  It means that when a buyer from a chainstore would look at future books, he’d try to figure out how many copies to order based upon past sales.  In this case, the poor numbers meant that my next book would never get ordered heavily by the chains.

In short, my career had hit its first major bump in the road.

But there were a few bright spots. There was a bookstore in the San Francisco area that used to have a shelf with the “Fifty Best Science Fiction novels of all time.”  I was pleased when I stopped in and found that my first three novels occupied the first three spots on their shelf.  So perhaps some people “got it.”

I’ve always loved those books, but felt bad that I’d been so sick when I wrote them.  I’d wanted to give them a bit more time, make another editorial pass or two.  In 2012, some twenty years after the books had been published, I woke from a dream one night, in which I was writing a new scene, thinking that it would be a great transition between the two books.  Of course, I realized that it was far too late to edit them.  Then I thought, “What the heck? Why not go back and make another pass, clean them up?”  So I went back and edited the books, lengthening them in the process, and the two fat books became four.  I have the Serpent Catch series available now through Wordfire Press.

What were my takeaways?  I could have learned all kinds of lessons from my first series, but I learned this:

  • Don’t ever split a large book into two.  You don’t want to try to sell two halves to the book.  I did find that people like to read a series, but want a longer series than two books.
  • Be yourself.  Write to your standards, your taste.  The road will be lonely, because you’re the only one on it.
  • Know that when you put a book out, there may be elements beyond your control that bring it down.  You can control the quality, but you can’t control much more.

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