Writing a Series: Featuring r.r. campbell, Author of the Empathy Series

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Happy Tuesday!

Since I’m working on book two of the Voyance series and am a definite binge-reader when it comes to series, I wanted to give the discourse of writing series and everything that goes into it, what to consider, dos and don’ts, and different authors’ processes a platform to talk about this, interweaving it with my own posts on the subject. The goal is to make this a bi-weekly series with different posts and perspectives on writing a series.

Today, I welcome r.r. campbell, author of the EMPATHY series to my blog to give us an in-depth look at his series-writing process and what inspired his EMPATHY series.


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r. r. campbell is an author, editor, and the founder of the Writescast Network, a podcast collective for writers, by writers. His published novels include Accounting for It All and Imminent Dawn, which debuted as the number one new release in LGBT science fiction on Amazon. Its sequel, Mourning Dove, is now available in print and ebook with most major retailers.

The author has been an invited speaker at conferences and seminars including the University of Wisconsin Writers’ Institute, WisCon, and AllWriter’s Workshop. His work has also been featured in Five:2:One Magazine’s #thesideshow, Erotic Review, and with National Journal Writing Month.

r. r. lives in Stoughton, Wisconsin with his wife, Lacey, and their cats, Hashtag and Rhaegar.

For more:

rrcampbellwrites.com | writescast.net empathyseries.com | accountingforitall.com

Twitter and Instagram: @iamrrcampbell

Facebook: facebook.com/iamrrcampbell

Goodreads: goodreads.com/iamrrcampbell

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1.     What is the most important thing to consider when writing a series?

I think one really has to have a firm understanding of what the central question of the series is going to be. In the EMPATHY series, for example, our series question is whether Chandra will ever be able to communicate with her wife, but every book within the series has a unique question that in some way ties back into our exploration of that series question.

Except that might not be entirely true. Why?

Because in the EMPATHY series we go from four perspective characters in Imminent Dawn to nine in Mourning Dove, and the third installment, Event Horizon was originally going to have twelve or thirteen. As that book ballooned, however, I realized I would need to separate the book into two concurrent installments, now known as Event Horizon and Rubicon.

The former will meet the criteria established above, namely that its central question will tie into the central question for the series, but Rubicon, since it won’t feature Chandra as a perspective character, will have a central question that is less immediately tied to answering the question hanging over the series as a whole. The events of Rubicon will still have an effect on Chandra’s ability to achieve her overall goal, but we’ll be seeing how matters in a more overworld plot are indirectly—and sometimes directly—affecting her ability to do so.

To tie all of this back into your original question, I still encourage writers to know what their central question for the series will be when they set out to write or outline it. That said, the EMPATHY series is a perfect example of how epic-length tales can require us to play with that advice when the story grows.

 

2.     What influenced your decision to create the EMPATHY series?

The series originally started as a short story, simply titled “EMPATHY.” It was meant to be a retelling of Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, but with more of a techie twist. After I finished what proved to be an almost novella-length short story, however, I had a hunch there was so much more potential in the internet-access brain implant technology and in the world Chandra inhabits.

With those inklings as my guide, I made Wyatt—our ruthless tech magnate—a perspective character before adding our relentless investigative journalist, Meredith, and the advancement-hungry administrative assistant, Ariel. It took me a couple of years to shape their storylines into the techno-thriller that Imminent Dawn became, but I remain really pleased with how it turned out—and readers seem to be of a similar opinion!

 

3.     How many books do you have planned for the EMPATHY series? Will there be any companion stories or spin-offs?

Right now it’s looking like we will end up with six or seven books in the main series. We have Imminent Dawn, Mourning Dove, and Event Horizon either published or drafted in full, and Rubicon is about a third of the way through its first draft. It’s possible the book following Rubicon will have to be split into two, but if it isn’t, we’ll end up with Conslunarity and Nightshade finishing off the series.

With Mourning Dove just having been released, I’m eager to see how readers feel about the direction the series will take going forward. It’s a bit of a departure from the techno-thriller feel of Imminent Dawn, but I think Mourning Dove is a much more emotionally-grounded adventure than its predecessor in the best way possible. As the series advances, though, we’ll get back to having some of the more in-your-face climaxes readers have come to expect in the forms of heists and high-stakes international techno-troubles.

I also do plan to write a handful of EMPATHY Origins spinoffs someday, which will focus on beloved characters from the main series who don’t get POV chapters in the series itself. I think it’ll be a nice way to continue to explore this world across time and distance in ways we can’t do to the same extent in the main series, however sprawling it might be.

 

4.     How do you handle complex world building and character arcs over the span of a series?

I’m an outliner for everything—except character arcs. I often go into a book with knowledge of a character’s motivation and the path those motivations will lead them down, but it isn’t until after I’ve written a full first draft that I can circle back and zoom out on that journey in a way that lets me see how I might sharpen their arc over the course of that particular book.

Where the series is concerned, I do have a better sense for whether a particular character is likely to be a changer, a stayer, or something in between. The shape that ultimately takes is served by the presentation of their arcs in those individual installments, however, so I imagine Nightshade will require a great deal of attention where it comes to ensuring every character winds up with a satisfying end, arc-wise.

World building is a tough one for me, mostly because I am miserable at maintaining a series encyclopedia. Though I did have a number of documents at one point that helped me keep track of character eye color and the specifications for a given technology, I found it far too cumbersome to keep up with while actually writing. This does mean that I have to break out the old Ctrl + F feature to double back and look for possible inconsistencies as I write the later books in the series, but I really don’t mind doing that. I’ve been living and breathing this series for so long now that it’s nice to swoop back and revisit words I’ve already written.

 

5.     What advice do you have for authors who want to write a series, but don’t have a contract for book one yet? Should they write the entire series first or make the first book a standalone with series potential?

I am a strong advocate for writing a first book that is an actual standalone before writing a full series, particularly if one wants to pursue traditional publishing. So often in trad pub your ability to write a sequel is tied to preorder or early sales volume, so if you do spend years writing an extended series but book one doesn’t do well (critically defined by your publisher and not you), then you’re out a number of years of work.

In my view, it’s best to write book one as a standalone, shop it around, and, while shopping it, start work on a unique project you can keep in your back pocket for later. This is precisely what I did with Imminent Dawn and Accounting for It All, with the latter ultimately getting picked up and published before Imminent Dawn. If I’d gone on to write Mourning Dove while shopping Imminent Dawn, neither of them might have ended up going anywhere since I needed to get my foot in the publishing door with Accounting for It All first.

Another bit of advice I can offer as it pertains to standalones is that if you’re going to pitch a book as a standalone with series potential, that first installment had better really be a standalone. Something I’ve seen come up a lot lately in my work as an editor is a number of manuscripts pitched as standalones that end with a number of newly introduced cliffhangers. When we leave threads dangling like that, we’re not presenting a standalone, but rather a standalone that then runs for five to fifty pages longer than it needs to in order to try to prove to agents and editors that we have series potential.

I’d suggest writers in this position pare back all of those cliffhangers to ensure their manuscript doesn’t leave anything unresolved and, once they have the book on contract, mention to their agent or editor that they do have a version of the book that could set up the series in more detail than the current version.

Again, I’m speaking from experience here, as the version of Imminent Dawn that was originally picked up by NineStar Press was a true standalone. Once it was under contract, though, I approached my editor about shaping the ending a bit differently to set us up for the whole series. Once I had their approval, I just made those changes near the end and some subtle tweaks throughout before—voila!—we had a true book one in a multi-book series.

 

6.     How is your writing process different when writing a series than it is when writing a standalone novel?

With a standalone, I have a pretty straightforward, go-to process—start with an elevator pitch consisting of “[character] must [act] before [deadline] or [consequences],” which I then stretch out onto one of a few different plot structure models. From there, I outline scene by scene to fill in the gaps, and then bam! I’ve got the bones of what I’ll need structurally. At that point, I’m in a better position to know who I’ll need to support that structure aside from my main character, and I can start developing a more clear idea of who they are, what they want, and why. Then it’s more or less off to the races unless I’m writing about something that will require a bunch of pre-write research, as was the case with Accounting for It All.

With a series, particularly EMPATHY, I have to keep much of the above in mind, but I take a slightly different approach for every perspective character and every timeline prior to writing. With Imminent Dawn, for example, I basically used the standalone method described above, but had to constantly be aware of who knows what and when in order to construct timelines that made sense and also heightened the tension as the story advanced.

This became all the more complicated for Mourning Dove, in which we go from four perspective characters to nine. The nice thing about Mourning Dove, however, is that unlike Imminent Dawn, not every perspective character gets full-length novel treatment. That is to say some characters, though they have complete arcs, don’t see those arcs stretched out over ten chapters, but rather four.

To keep track of how everyone’s story comes together, I use color-coded spreadsheets to monitor how often we are or aren’t seeing a given character, as well as to ensure the tension on the page is rising more or less in tandem for every character as the book advances. In this way, we get all of the individual characters’ climactic moments in chapters that are near one another, even if those events would have otherwise happened days or weeks apart on a strictly linear timeline.

Then, once my spreadsheets are ready to go, I can finally start writing a first draft! As I write, I’ll make notes in a Google Doc about questions that come up either about that particular perspective character’s story or what others might be doing at that same time, just so I have notes to double check later. Once a draft is complete, I circle back and focus on those notes first to ensure I’ve ironed out all of the wrinkles, so to speak, before I get into fine-tuning the scene’s presentations themselves.

 

7.     What to you is the hardest thing about writing a series?

Maintaining momentum is proving to be a bit of a challenge, but not for my characters so much as for myself. Once Event Horizon is out later this year, that will make for nearly 350,000 words of EMPATHY-series content released in a calendar year. That is, needless to say, a lot.

I love writing this series and have a clear trajectory for it with each installment, but writing at that pace has precluded me from starting some other projects in the writing world and beyond. Once the manuscript for Event Horizon is out of my hands in the next month or so, I’m looking forward to taking a break from writing this series to focus on promoting it at a number of events and revising or writing at least two other manuscripts before I return to work on EMPATHY book four, Rubicon.

This will likely mean a bit of a gap between the release of books three and four, but I think this will be in the series’ best interest and my own. My goal is to be sufficiently rested to take on books four and five in one fell swoop before taking another break prior to writing the final two installments of the series.

Simply put, there’s certainly a plan in place, but I need to make sure I pace myself along the way if we’re to really stick the landing in a series as sprawling as this one.

 

8.     How do you handle recapping events from previous books in later books in a series?

This is where I very much rely on help from beta readers, critique partners, and my editor. From where I sit as the writer, it’s hard to know which details have stuck with readers from one book to the next, as I’ve had to, at some point or another, really explore all of them in ways that will have more staying power with me as the author.

In Mourning Dove, for example, there’s a scene between Alistair and a new character. My intent in that scene is to demonstrate that he’s making an extremely high-stakes, unforced error due to his total ignorance of the value of what he plans on using as leverage in a negotiation. Based on the draft I circulated to early readers, only one reader really understood that, so I had to revise the scene to give readers a greater hint as to why this is such a big deal, particularly since the consequences for this scene don’t come back into play directly until book four.

That’s a huge gap in the number of pages and the amount of time readers will have in between seeing that scene and the scenes where the consequences really hit home, so setting it up to be a bit more memorable was important, and how I convey the consequences will have to be equally sharp.

Where touching on broader past events is concerned, I rely on brief reflections from a POV character that hopefully avoid becoming too on the nose. My goal is to present these recaps in a way that doesn’t have readers going, “Oh, the author is doing this to help me,” but rather, “Wow, this character continues to struggle with that trauma,” or “Ha! I’m so glad this character can still be happy about that.” By grounding it in character, I think all we need is a tip of the proverbial cap to get certain events, people, and places back on readers’ radars.

 

9.     How do you keep the tension building as your series goes on?

This is where stakes play a huge role. In Imminent Dawn, for example, we have a limited population affected by the book’s events. They’re affected very personally, yes, but most of the book takes place in an intimate, isolated setting that the rest of the world isn’t really privy to until the book’s final chapters.

In Mourning Dove, the tension escalates: we now have a slew of characters who are forced to, sometimes very publicly, confront the ramifications of their actions and inactions with their lives or freedom on the line.

Event Horizon takes this a step further and makes everything about survival—the survival of relationships to others and with one’s self. Rubicon will further play on this by taking survival stories in another direction, exploring the nature of survival as it pertains to legacy, one’s moral compass, and how far one is willing to go to preserve or compromise either in order to achieve one’s goals.

The later books in the series will center around heists, high-stakes personal and political drama, and disasters that will have continental and global impact. There’s a reason the series continues to expand geographically, and despite this expansion, my goal is to have everything collapse back in on itself once we get to Nightshade, the series’ final installment. I really want to build up an immaculate house of cards that can only support its own weight for so long before the inevitability of forces beyond anyone’s control bring it crashing down.  

 

10.  What are some of your favorite series that influenced you as a writer?

Where influence as a writer is concerned, Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam series and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire have played big roles in how the events of the EMPATHY series are presented. Hugh Howey’s Silo series and Malka Older’s Infomocracy also helped shape my approach to a handful of matters, but I feel like I’m finally converging on something that feels all my own.

As I put the finishing touches on Event Horizon, I am, for the first time, really accepting that this series can be whatever it needs to be in order to be the best story it can be for itself, and I actually feel well-equipped enough to see it through. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on how I approached or presented matters in Imminent Dawn and Mourning Dove and find myself thinking there’s so much I’d do or present differently now.

That’s not to say I feel I did a poor job with either installment; I still stand by them and their stories. What I mean is I think I had to get deep into book three before truly finding my footing and getting a sense for what this series really is. I’m sure that sense will continue to grow and evolve as the series continues, so perhaps it’s just a matter of accepting that, just like my characters, I, too, have much adventure before me. It’ll all just come down to how we meet the challenge together.


In the aftermath of the calamitous Human/Etech research study, Chandra and Kyra struggle to reclaim the life they shared in a pre-EMPATHY world, while Ty, armed with knowledge of EMPATHY's programming language, seeks revenge on the Halmans for the harm that's befallen his friends.

As a North American Union investigation into the happenings on the compound looms, a grief-stricken Peter works to resurrect the memory of his mother from a harvested nanochip, and Heather scrambles to keep her family--and their company--together. Alistair, having abandoned the family business, plots to save his hide and that of his wife while she strives to stay one step ahead of a husband she has no reason to trust.

Far to the north amid civil unrest, a recently retired Rénald Dupont investigates the disappearance of his friend and former colleague, Meredith, despite grave threats from an increasingly skittish North American Union government.

As old and new foes emerge, spouse is further pit against spouse, brother against sister, and governments against their people. In the end, all must choose between attempts to reclaim the past or surrender to the inevitable, an intractable world of their own creation.

Mourning Dove is an evocative, sweeping symphony of love, revenge, and desperation in cacophonous times. It is the second installment in r. r. campbell's epic EMPATHY sci-fi saga.