Building your stories into chains…

The topic of world-building and series building is a bit near and dear to my heart today, mostly for all the wrong reasons.

I build a lot of universes for my science fiction. I try to keep the independent, and in doing so play with the technological advances, culture, etc, so that each isn’t just a thinly-veiled copy of the previous one. Filing the serial numbers off, we call it.

Not every idea is going to turn into an six-novel series, though. I can only write so many words in any given year, and so I approach the topic of novels with care. In the meantime, I tend to write chained short fiction. This lets me jump in on a topic and just sort of work out a lot of details on the fly as I want to write story number one.

And I always assume that a new story is going to be part of something bigger, at least in the planning stage.

That means details, notes, lots of brain-dumping into a doc file. Character names, descriptions, etc. Everything that was important enough to include gets saved for later, just so I am consistent.

But I had a problem this month.

A couple of years ago, I started two new worlds, mostly to let me go into side topics to keep my Patreon folks entertained by letting them read things well before anyone else got a chance. One of those turned into Yasmin of the Desert.

The other was Ollie.

Running joke around here. I needed to create an administrative assistant who could answer certain emails without necessarily letting the person on the other end of the line know that they were talking to me. Sometimes, you want to present big enough that you have PEOPLE.

So I created the character of Oleg Chilikov. Oleg is derived from the Old Norse name Helgi, derived from heilagr meaning “holy, blessed”. Chilikov comes from Bulgarian/Turkish and means “steel.”

Seriously, Holy Sword is how it can be rendered into modern English, and too good to pass up.

I even introduced him as a character in the Jessica Keller Chronicles, but he only has bit parts and then vanishes again. (And I’d have to stop and look to remember which book. Goddess of War, I think, but don’t quote me. I’ve written a few since then.)

Then one day, I had a weird idea for a Xenoarchaeologist in a deep-space setting. And decided to let Ollie star in it. (He actually has an email at KRP, for those of you who know.)

To be extra mean, I named his ship Boundary Shock. Heh.

So I wrote the first few stories. All was well. Silly adventures in space, intended to be part of a long, serialized story, like I like to do.

Except that something went wrong. As the story unfolded, it started getting too serious for the initial tone I had set out in the first couple of stories. And it was getting worse as we progressed.

So I finished five of them and was about 8800 words into #6 when I literally put the whole thing away for better than two years. Didn’t help that a soft apocalypse hit in there, further throwing me off and I didn’t want to go into that dark place that Ollie and Rufus threatened to take me.

I can’t write dark when I’m happy. And I can’t write happy when I’m dark. Not believably, anyway.

So I put Ollie away.

Fast forward to late summer 2021.

There is a call for SF stories with an intended title of something along the lines of Have spaceship, will travel. A riff on the old television western, for certain fans.

At the same time, I have a Boundary Shock Quarterly deadline coming up in January for the theme of Veterans. What does a soldier do after the war?

Writer brain looks at that and says two-birds-one-stone. We’ll create a new universe and tell two stories. All well and good.

Except that story #1 turned out to be MUCH darker than I had anticipated. Strong story. Great characters. Great conflict, because I have a strong hero and an equally rugged villain. (Your hero and your story are only as good as the villain. Keep that in mind.)

So story #1 works great for Boundary Shock Quarterly. That will be Roland who you will meet in Issue 018 in the Spring of 2022. But I don’t think that the other editor wants me to go dark. They have said to keep military SF to a dead minimum, but I know writers. They’ll try to shave those corners anyway. Grimdark. Hard-ass. The works. I will stand out by being a little sillier.

So I looked around for what I could do in the meantime.

Writer-brain suggests that Ollie might work for the anthology call. He might. Not sure yet. Got folks looking at that story. If it works, great.

At the same time, I was done with projects for now, and looking for what to write next. So I reread all of the Ollie stuff to see. I had expected to have to redraft everything, and I might, except that I managed to reel myself in just before going utterly dark. Or rather, I left myself at a place where I could dive into dark, but then shift back out and explore the lighter tones.

Serious topics do not always have to be grimdark, people. Sometimes you need a drop-koala sidekick who gets drunk on Human chocolate. That’s Rufus. And a xenoarchaeologist who prefers cargo shorts, photographer vest, and only wears shirts or pants when it gets close to freezing. Ollie’s a little weird, but lots of fun.

So I hit the end of where I’d left #6 and writer-brain kicked me in the shins. At that point I started filling it in.

Forty-thousand words later, and I have finished the first long arc of story. But I have a problem. 1-5 are individual short stories. Self-contained. Split in time and space from each other, in order to let me bounce across the top of the longer story instead of everyone walking to Mordor.

Those five come in at about 29,000 words. Plus #6 which is now 51k at finished draft.

Normally, I write long novel arcs. Or self-contained short story arcs. Pizzafarmer, who you will meet at some point. Flight Officer Brannon. Yasmin is out and I will probably write Vol 3 as a full novel, instead of the shorter pieces that made up Vol 2.

I asked one of my First Readers to just blast through all 80k of rough material, not to correct anything (though he will) but to tell me if I have a novella and a novel, or a longer novel on my hands. I know where the story goes next. Writer-brain has been sitting on all that for two years without bothering to let me know.

If I had a Traditional Publishing career, I’d be in the process of functionally redrafting everything from scratch to turn the whole into a single manuscript, without the odd pauses at the front. Because I am Indie, I have the option to do it my way.

So do you.

Read that again.

You can put out anything that your readers/fans will buy. People, I’ve published a novel written entirely in poetic form. The Forestal. And people buy it. (It is really weird when someone in Japan buys a copy, which has happened more than once. Thank you, Japanese fans!)

I can put out the first five as short stories for $0.99 each if I wanted. I can gather them all up as a novella (probably $2.99 at that point. Maybe $3.99.) Or I can do a little cleanup and just have five shorter pieces at the front and a full novel at the back, all under one title and spine, and send it out for $5.99 like I normally do.

Personally, I’m hoping that the anthology takes #1, at which point I will drop #1 wide when I get the rights back, and probably just drop everything as a single book. Already planning what the ‘next’ novel is. And the one after that.

Seriously, when you have that much world-building done, it flows pretty well.

This is the freedom that comes with Indie. I don’t have to deal with an agent telling me that she can’t sell something until I completely rewrite it to a form that a traditional-style publisher knows what to do with. I am my own best agent that way.

You are your own best agent. Stop listening to folks telling you that you have to do something a particular way, unless they will be paying you.

Heinlein’s Rules #3.

If they will pay you, they can ask. That DOES NOT mean you have to do it, just that they are probably offering you money if you do. The editor gets to ask, because they have the checkbook. Some deadbeat in a coffeeshop better have a successful, CURRENT career as a writer before they are allowed to tell you something is wrong. (Don’t listen to someone who published their last TradPub book before 2010. The world they lived in is long gone and will never come back.)

So write the story as it demands to be written. You have fans of your writing who will buy it. (However many, even if it is just your Mom and a cousin. That’s money. Keep at it.)

I can be a little experimental because I have fans who expect me to color outside the lines occasionally. I’ll still bring the popcorn and space battles at other times, but I’m going to give them a fun, running start at something, so they will be entertained.

Build it the way you see fit. Call it good. Publish it.

Do not make the mistake of redrafting it fourteen times to get it right, because while it might be pretty at that point, you will have stripped out all the emotion. In here, you’ll get Ollie, Rufus, and Mani being a little silly, even as things get dark. Humor, dirty jokes, grand performances, the works.

Because I’ll bring it all back after we get to the old Imperial Capital at Baikonur. Then we’re off on a grand, merry chase, looking for signs of the ancient beings that first created the Ohran Web that connects worlds together.

And I’ll be having almost as much fun as Ollie and the gang.