I signed my first writing contract at the beginning of 2012; a three-book deal for The Powder Mage Trilogy with Orbit Books. The trilogy was sold off the strength of the first book, Promise of Blood, as well as a several page summary of the two subsequent books in the series. At the time of the sale I felt like I was in a pretty good place—I had ambitious plans for the second and third books with new viewpoint characters, new cultures, and a whole different continent to explore.
I started writing the untitled book two later that year and immediately ran into a problem: I hated everything that I wrote.
I didn’t want to continue writing a book that I actively disliked. But I had signed a contract based on this summary and damn it, I was going to stick with it. I worked over the course of several months, pounding my head against the keyboard to build a narrative around all the cool ideas I had sketched out, but it just wasn’t clicking for me. My agent and editor would check in on me once in a while and I’d pull the whole “yeah, yeah, everything is great, go away please” routine like a defensive teenager.
At this point I had been with my agent for a little over a year and a half, and to be honest I was still kind of terrified of her. I was young, with little sense of self as an artist or businessman, and my interactions with my agent were limited to either her telling me to keep editing before she’d submit, and witnessing the obvious witchcraft of her taking Promise of Blood to auction. I did not want to admit to her that I was in a spiral of awful on book two.
When I did finally break down and confess what a hard time I was having (something I should have done many months earlier), she told me something that blew my mind: I didn’t have to stick to that original summary for books two and three. I just needed to write a damn good book.
I feel kind of sheepish admitting all this, because it seems so obvious looking back. Of course my editor just wanted a good book. But as can sometimes be the case that single assurance changed my whole outlook on the project and I was determined as ever to do well. My agent asked for a deadline extension for me and I threw out everything I had written or summarized up to this point (the better part of a 180,000 word novel) and started completely from scratch.
Now that I had tossed out the faulty summaries I needed to figure out why they were faulty. I knew that Promise of Blood ends with a victory for our heroes and I had this idea that I wanted to raise the stakes on a worldwide level. I’d dropped a few hints in Promise that I wanted to follow up on, widening the scope of the books to include a distant empire and intrigue that spanned the globe. But when I tried to write all that the plot seemed to ramble incoherently.
At this point, I fell back on a favorite brainstorming technique of mine: to take a piece of media—book, comic, movie, anime, TV show, etc—and dissect it to figure out what it did right on a purely technical level. Because I was having trouble with a sequel, I turned to one of the most famous follow-ups of all, The Empire Strikes Back.
What did Empire do right that I was struggling with? First off, it didn’t introduce a whole new unknown entity. It stuck with the conflict it had already developed—namely the empire versus the rebellion—and it focused on raising the stakes. Sure, our heroes had destroyed the Death Star, but in Empire our perspective is pulled back to show that it was not as big a victory as we thought and now things were about to get real. So my task on the new draft was to cut out all the over-ambitious junk that I had originally plotted for book two and focus on how the main conflict that I had already developed could continue to advance.
So how would I do this? Despite continuing with the established conflict, Empire introduced new plot elements, new risks, new character development for the heroes, new side characters and villains. We got a glimpse of the Emperor, the sense that things were so much bigger than we ever imagined, but we still focused on our heroes and their adventure.
I often tell prospective authors that a balance of the familiar and the unfamiliar is key in developing science fiction and fantasy. But this applies to more than just initial worldbuilding. It also applies to the expansion of an already existing universe and this was the problem that Empire Strikes Back helped me pinpoint. I had been trying to go too big. I was throwing so much at the reader that even I, the author, couldn’t keep track of it.
So I continued to cut overly-ambitious ideas and focus on the central story and the main characters and villains. And I didn’t stop with just book two, The Crimson Campaign. My newfound freedom to work on the story I wanted rather than the story I thought I had to tell extended to the final book of the trilogy—and a much easier book to write—The Autumn Republic.
Many of you might be scratching your heads and wondering how the heck I got published in the first place. This is all story-telling 101. Shouldn’t I have figured all of this out way back when I first pitched books two and three? Maybe. But real life is rarely that simple. The idea of writing a sequel (let alone the third book in a trilogy) was utterly foreign to me and now that I’ve finished all three books I can look back at that initial pitch and see what I was doing right—focusing on plot escalation and character development—and what I was doing wrong—trying to escalate by widening the scope of the plot instead of focusing on the established conflict. Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for all the trees, and learning from a successful franchise like Star Wars helped me do exactly that.
In addition to being the author of the Powder Mage Trilogy and a variety of related short stories and novellas, Brian is a beekeeper and avid player of computer games. He lives with his wife in Cleveland, Ohio.