The 400,000 Word Mistake
By the time I sold “The Dark Apostle” series, I had already committed a mistake I always advise newbie authors against: I had written the complete 5-book cycle. I had the time, I had an onerous option clause in a prior contract that prevented me from selling for a long time, and I had this great character I wanted to write about, so, hey, why not? Well. . .once my agent brought in an offer on the series from DAW books, I found out exactly why not.
They loved book 1, Elisha Barber—and they didn’t feel the other books lived up to the promise of the first. I was excited to have sold 5 books which were already written, only to find that I would need to re-write 4 of them. Not only that, but to re-envision them—to make them bigger, deeper, more epic. Yikes! This is one of the reasons I advise authors not to get ahead of themselves on writing sequels: if something changes in book 1, you’ve got to rewrite the others. Or, in the next 4 books, as the case may be. . .
(The other reason is simply that, if you can’t sell book 1, having books 2-5 doesn’t help—better to spend your time writing an unrelated book, after jotting your notes for the continuing series—then you have a different product to sell if the first series concept doesn’t fly. That’s how I ended up writing Elisha Barber, BTW—I was creating an alternate book to offer if publishers didn’t bite on my other series.)
The idea that I had to essentially trash about 400,000 words of prose did not rest well with me. I stomped around and kicked things, had a few tense conversations with my agent, then tightened my belt and decided to give it a try. My new editor had some ideas about how the series arc would go. I wasn’t crazy about them, but I wrote up an outline anyway. That one didn’t work. So he had some other ideas, and I put them together with my other ideas: still no good. Then I hit on a great approach, and developed a third outline I am very excited about—and the editor is, too. Elisha Magus, book 2 comes out July 1, with book 3 already in my editor’s hands, and book 4 out with my local critique group. By the end of the year, I hope to draft the grand finale—book 5, writing toward that great ending I envisioned and outlined months ago.
The end result of my failure to follow my own advice has been not only a stronger, bigger, and more marketable series concept, but also an improvement to my own plotting and brainstorming approach. I’m no longer afraid of the outline, but can view it as a tool to come up with something better—a tool I can manipulate to make my future books stronger, even before page 1.
About the author
As E. C. Ambrose, I’m the author of the Dark Apostle series from DAW books, a dark historical fantasy series about medieval surgery. (Yeah, I know, “dark” and “medieval surgery” is kind of redundant, but I want to make sure E. C. Ambroseyou know what you’re getting into.) The series started with Elisha Barber (7/13) and continues in July of 2014 with Elisha Magus.
My short fiction has won the Tenebris Press Flash Fiction contest 2012 and is forthcoming in Fireside. You may also have seen my non-fiction pieces “The Romance of Ruins” and “Spoiler Alert!” in Clarkesworld magazine.
When I’m not writing, reading grim and gory history books, or visiting strange museums, I work as an adventure guide, taking teens into the White Mountains of New Hampshire for hiking, rock climbing, kayaking and campfire stories. All of them have come home alive. . . so far.