Series and Stand-Alone Books

#NaNoWriMo is about to start, so naturally I’m both excited and scared at the same time. The first year I did NaNoWriMo was in 2012, when I wrote Manifestation (which, two years later, is now a published novel). Last year, I wrote Contamination and Collapse, the first two sequels to Manifestation. I managed about 141,000 words.

This year, I’m writing the as-yet-untitled sixth volume of Arcana Revived. I’ve already done about 7100 words of preliminary writing (mainly because I’m also writing this novel as my Rowan University Master’s in Writing Thesis Project). I’ve had some early feedback on those first few chapters, and there’s a particular issue that keeps coming up.

See, since this is part of a series, I need to make sure that each book can serve both as a stand-alone volume by itself and as a continuation of the ongoing plot of the series. This is something you see done effectively in a lot of long-running series. Take Harry Potter, for example. Each book has its own internal conflict and its own climax, telling a complete story. But the whole series taken together lays out plot threads that don’t get resolved until the end. Yet, you could randomly pick up, say, book five, and still be able to follow everything that’s going on.

The trick to this is to re-introduce familiar characters and elements so that new readers will be able to understand who they are and what’s happening, without piling everything in via information dumps that will bore readers (especially readers who have already read the previous novels.

I’ve been struggling with this, and I’m trying to make adjustments based on the feedback I’ve received so far. Most of that feedback includes questions and comments like “What does this mean?”, “I’m not sure what happened here, but I guess if I’d read the other books I’d know”, and “I’m confused about how this magic works.”

As an example, here’s the first three chapters of the new work-in-progress. There’s two versions below: the original first draft, and the slightly-edited version I made to address the questions and critiques that were brought up. (Spoiler Alert: Obviously, since this is book six, anything below could be potential spoilers for the events in Manifestation).

            Gabby Palladino stood at the top of a hill, overlooking the abandoned suburbs that stretched to the north of the city once known as San Lorien. No one had lived in those houses for months and every house was falling into disrepair, most of it from the aftermath of the mana storm that had devastated the countryside and laid waste to everything within hundreds of miles. Wild animals, many of them once household pets that had been left behind after the storm, now roamed the streets. Cars sat abandoned along the suburban roads. Lawns and gardens were overgrown with weeds. And the only signs of human life were the military trucks, jeeps, and tanks that rolled through the streets, heading south towards the city.

            Gabby drew on her arcana and wove strands of light through the air in front of her. The air shimmered and warped as a web of light formed from the criss-crossed strands. A broad stretch of air twisted and blurred, then slowly came into focus, showing a magnified image of the distant army that crossed through the suburban streets. Warping light was a new trick for Gabby; it took far less effort and consumed less mana than some of her other arcane spells, but it required a lot more precision. It took her a few moments to bring the magnified image into focus.

            “I didn’t think there’d be that many of them,” a voice said from behind her.

            Gabby glanced over her shoulder at her squad. She’d brought four of the Manifested with her. Jaden Farrell was the newest of them, a fifteen year old telepath from Evesborough. She was also the youngest, three years younger than Gabby herself.

That opening basically sets the scene and introduces the characters, the setting, and the basic conflict. Right away, you know who the main protagonist is, you know this is a war-torn world, you know it’s a setting with magic, and you know a war is brewing. Pretty much covers the important points of an opening.

But there’s lots of questions that might be too confusing. What is the mana storm? What is arcana? What are the Manifested? Some of these questions might be things you’ll simply learn more about as the story goes along, but some are such basic, fundamental parts of the setup that they need to be addressed at least a little bit.

Here’s the revision, based on feedback from workshop sessions:

Gabby Palladino stood at the top of a hill, overlooking the abandoned suburbs that stretched to the north of the city once known as San Lorien. No one had lived in those houses for months and every one of them was falling into disrepair. Most of the damage was the aftermath of the mana storm that had devastated the countryside and laid waste to everything within hundreds of miles. The storm had raged worse than any hurricane the country had ever known, and it had carried with it arcane energy that had contaminated everything the storm touched. Wild animals roamed the streets, many of them once household pets before the mana contaminated them, mutating them into monstrous beasts. Cars sat abandoned along the suburban roads. Lawns and gardens were overgrown with weeds. The only signs of human life were the military trucks, jeeps, and tanks that rolled through the streets, heading south towards the city.

Gabby drew on her arcana and wove strands of light through the air in front of her. The air shimmered and warped as a web of light formed from the criss-crossed strands. A broad stretch of air twisted and blurred, then slowly came into focus, showing a magnified image of the distant army that crossed through the suburban streets. Warping light was a new trick for Gabby; it took far less effort and consumed less mana than some of her other arcane spells, but it required a lot more precision. It took her a few moments to bring the magnified image into focus.

“I didn’t think there’d be that many of them,” Jaden said from behind her.

Gabby glanced over her shoulder at Jaden and the rest of her squad. She’d brought four of the Manifested with her. Each of the Manifested had been touched by mana, either during the storm or before it, and had been changed ever since. Like Gabby, their manifestations had brought them arcane powers, though each person’s arcana was different from anyone else’s. Jaden Farrell was the newest of them, a fifteen-year-old telepath from Evesborough. She was also the youngest, three years younger than Gabby herself.

The edits here are minor, and each was made to address a specific concern raised by my classmates during workshop sessions. It explains that the mana storm was a disaster that spread magical mutations. It explains that the Manifested are people who were altered by the storm and gained magical powers. The explanations are brief and to the point, because I don’t want to info-dump. But hopefully, the second version explains enough that the reader won’t be confused (intrigued, curious, and questioning are fine, but confused is bad).

Hopefully as I proceed into NaNoWriMo, I’ll be able to keep these issues in mind, and always feed just enough information to the reader. Though I expect that I’ll have to revise more sections like this when critique partners and beta readers say, “I don’t know what this means?” I’m currently studying some other urban fantasy series, such as The Dresden Files, in order to see how other authors have addressed these issue. Hopefully I can learn from them and manage to do this right.

And hopefully I can wrote 150,000 words this November. Wish me luck.


mani_promoManifestation is available on:

Createspace in paperback

and Amazon in ebook and paperback.

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