Shark River

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Dindi is kidnapped to be the bride of a shark... To escape she must untangle a terrible curse caused by a love and magic gone wrong.


This stand-alone novella is set in Faearth, the world of The Unfinished Song. Available here ONLY.


The Unfinished Song - This Young Adult Epic Fantasy series has sold over  70,000 copies and has 1,072 Five Star Ratings on Goodreads.

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May 24, 2015

Writing a Series With A Strong Middle…An Update

Writing Craft

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

When the middle novel/s seem like mostly “filler,” the problem is that the characters are basically treading water in terms of plot. Sometimes, the characters literally spend whole chapters stuck in some place in the world, uncertain what to do… it’s the author who actually has no idea what to do, but the characters are made to suffer for it. Sure, there are times characters mope for years, or centuries, depending on their lifespan, whinging they don’t know what to do, but we don’t really need to see this.

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

Another failing of poorly-thought out middle books is that they become sloppy retellings of the earlier books. The characters go through the same motions again against a new villain, or new characters replay the same basic storyline as earlier characters.
Sometimes, an author uses repetition advisedly. Maybe a character is facing the same kind of problem because she didn’t really grow as completely as she needed to when she faced it the last time, or maybe another character is having the same problem because that person needs to have a common cause with the hero. But this kind of deliberate echo usually resonates in a way that unthinking repetition does not. Most importantly, it advances the story in a way that mere repetition does not.
I constantly read new Writing Craft books, and recently I read one called Story Architecture (which I’ll be discussing in more depth over a couple posts next month) that helped me name that narrative element that must replace mere repetition. Reiteration. As I intuited in my first post on middles, a reiteration “echoes” and “resonates,” by showing something in a new light.In Mask, Dindi is not too happy to find herself facing some of the same problems she did the year she spent as an Initiate. For instance, she’s now an Aspirant in the upcoming Vaedi Vooma… the “dance war” that will determine the new Vaedi for her entire tribe. And somehow (hmm, I wonder how?), the other Aspirants find out that she used to be the “Duck.” You know what they say…once a Duck, always a Duck. So how can Dindi put this behind her?She’s not the same girl that she was back in Yellow Bear, though, so maybe those who think to taunt her had better be the worried ones…

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

Sometimes, writers who try too hard to avoid the first two problems veer off in such a different direction that what you love about the story is destroyed in the process. I actually find this worse than the first two. I’d rather race through a filler novel, where the heroine slays Son of First Book’s Demon than have half the main characters killed off. (Unless you have already established from the start that Major Likable Characters Will Die, Suckers! *cough* G.R.R. Martin *cough*). The most important thing is to be true to the story: true to the characters, true to the world, true to the theme. Maybe I’m old fashioned but I believe an author should leave the dance with the Main Character she brought to the party.

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.

And, honestly, when you love someone so much that their rejection would destroy you, it’s not that easy to let yourself be vulnerable. After all, Dindi knows Kavio put duty above love once before. He walked away from her. (This is another reiteration, as memories of what happened on the Tor of the Stone Hedge return to haunt Dindi and Kavio.) How can she trust him with her heart again?There’s also a romance between a new couple in Mask, Mirror and Maze. Just because I like a lot of Romance in my Fantasy. This love story will be resolved by the end of Book 9, but Dindi and Kevin’s love problems, I fear, are only going to increase until the end of Book 12. Some of their problems will be of the Tragic Misunderstanding kind, but some will be even worse… the Tragic Understanding kind. Sometimes all you need is honesty to fix a love problem, but sometimes even honesty is not enough. And that’s all I’m going to say about that for now.My point is to constantly ask: What is the heart of the story? How can I be true to that heart? In theme, in tone, in character. In Story Architecture, the book doctor Horwitz says (I paraphrase): “Your novel is about one thing. It can be about two things, or three things, as long as those are actually one thing.”

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.