Why I write a chapter summary for the next book

Posted on August 15, 2011 (Subscribe to Blog)

I'm still sluggishly working my way through proofreading edits for Lake of Spirits. I've decided that I hate commas. Just when you think you have them nailed in place, they squirm free and start moving around. Worse, someone slips you a slightly altered rulebook and you end up second-guessing everything you've done.

I won't go into actual examples, because I'm pretty sure very few of you care as much as I do. I'll just say that my proofreaders have found a whole bunch of commas that should be there and a whole bunch that shouldn't – or, as I said above, they've just squirmed free and moved to different positions in the text.

Also, should I write "fore hoofs" or "fore-hoofs"? Or just "forehoofs"? Or should it be "hooves" rather than "hoofs"? ...although this is more of a British vs. American thing, and I decided long ago to go with "hoofs" and "roofs" and so on. Sigh. I can spend ages looking for an answer to the stupidest little thing, and sometimes I just end up changing the wording.

Anyway, I digress. The point of this post is to say that Lake of Spirits is still in the editing stage but should be ready for publication this month as planned, and meanwhile I'm starting on a chapter summary for the fifth book.

The next installment, continuing directly where Lake of Spirits leaves us dangling, has been rattling around in my head for ages, and now I've started a written summary to get it clear. Writing a summary forces me to think hard about details, about how the story progresses from one stage to the next, instead of having a collection of only vaguely related scenes floating around. Often the story changes quite dramatically from what I had originally imagined, making me realize that what was floating around in my head earlier just wasn't practical.

Years ago, I would have started into the manuscript without much thought about how the plot gets from A to B and eventually to Z, and I'd find, after ten chapters, that I was writing myself into an impossible corner, or sending myself off the beaten track. This is what happened during Island of Fog. I wrote the first third of the book countless times, changing it around and ditching stuff I'd spent ages on; for instance, the fourth chapter became the first, while the first three chapters were dropped entirely. If you'll recall, Hal and Robbie wandered deep into Black Woods and found the fog-hole, but in my first draft I started out with a lot of fun but ultimately slow and pointless stuff. One example I remember is when the children (and originally there were twelve of them) snuck out at midnight to meet in a secret place around a campfire, as they did on a regular basis. I thought it was fun and interesting, but really all they did was talk and it all seemed a bit blah when I stepped back and thought about it.

Another scene, which came around Chapter Eight in my original manuscript, was when Hal crept out of the house one night, climbed into his dad's pickup, and waited. His dad was planning to go off for one of his monthly meetings Out There, in the dead of night. And so he did, with Hal hiding in the back of the pickup as his dad drove to the edge of the island. There, a bridge appeared, rising up out of the water as if by magic. They drove to the mainland, and eventually stopped in a field where there were other "dads" waiting. They'd talk about their secret communities and question whether any transformations had started taking place...

There was a bit more to it than this, but the fog itself was originally something "different" to what's in the published book. I still like the idea of it to some extent: a sort of magical cloak that hides the inhabitants but not the island itself. Hal and his friends would see "wraiths" in the night, ghostly figures that they couldn't understand. These wraiths were actually real live people wandering around the island in the real world, and they, too, would see wraiths from time to time – only they were seeing Hal and his friends. So it was like one island with two realities occupying the same space.

Another part I really liked was a tunnel under the lighthouse. You remember where Emily found those crates stuffed with smart clothes, at the base of the lighthouse? Well, in my old version of the story, under those crates is a hatch leading down to a man-made tunnel that stretches under the sea to the mainland. What better way to reach Out There? When the children got the generator working, the fluorescent strip lights in the tunnel flickered on and off, and it was altogether creepy down there... especially when a distant figure started running toward them.

And there was a scene on the mainland with an exploding boat, that a critic told me was too James Bond-like. He was right. The thing is, in that old version of Island of Fog, there was no virus and everybody lived normal lives – but Hal and his friends were effectively invisible.

Ultimately, I couldn't get it to work. I wrote and rewrote that first third of the book, around eight chapters, and "wasted" a lot of time on it. No wonder it took six years, on and off!

That's why, with Labyrinth of Fire and Mountain of Whispers, and more recently Lake of Spirits, I used a chapter summary. Once I'd ironed out the story, it took only four or five months to actually write it.

And this is why I'm now writing the summary for the fifth book, entitled something like [Unknown] of Dust. Here I am again, trying to find the right word. I might have used "Land," but it's too close to "Island" and also begins with an L (the same as two other books in the series). I would use "City" but City of Dust has been used way too many times, and plus, the story isn't really about a city! Anyway, it'll come to me eventually. The "Dust" part is important, but I reserve the right to change it. World of Hurt seems appropriate, in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way...

This reminds me of the suggestions I received from kind readers when I was trying to think of a title for Mountain of Whispers:

Replacement order, watery events, and ideas for book title

Back to the idea of a chapter summary. One other reason to do this, and to do this now, is to make sure I'm clear about what kind of setting up or foreshadowing I need to include while I'm still editing the previous book. For instance, in Lake of Spirits, Hal has an object (which I won't divulge here) that he carries with him to the end of the book. At that point he could either throw it away or carry it with him. It kind of served its (small) purpose in that last chapter, but in the back of my head I always saw a bigger purpose for that object in the next book. So, now that I'm writing the chapter summary for the next book, I can decide for sure whether that object will be used or not. If not, then I guess I can ditch it quite easily at the end of Lake of Spirits; or, if I decide to use it, then Hal can slip it back into his pocket. I've already made up my mind about this, and therefore the finished book has been edited accordingly.

This is the advantage of thinking ahead. I've been accused by two readers of deus ex machina regarding Abigail's glass ball (in that it seemed to be a convenient answer to a problem), but I don't see it that way because I planned it like that all along, and the glass ball continues to serve the plot in later books. Then again, what's been in my head all along doesn't necessarily translate to the page, so the readers' opinions are valid and, although I stand by my guns on this matter, I'm well aware of the danger of having sudden, convenient solutions presenting themselves. It reminds me too much of Enid Blyton's adventure books: when a group of children ended up quite literally in a hole and needed to climb out, it transpired that one of the children happened to be carrying a length of rope looped around his waist under his shirt – just in case! It was never mentioned prior to that scene, and was a terrible case of deus ex machina that should be avoided at all costs.

I'm really excited about the summary for Something of Dust. Some of the young shapeshifters will end up running around the streets of a city filled with Crazies, so it has a zombie apocalypse feel to it. And if we're putting a zombie tag on Book 5, it's fair to say that Book 6 is looking like a werewolf story. I can feel it in my bones.

I should be finished with the Book 5 summary by the time you're able to buy Book 4 later this month. :-)

Comment by NIGEL ROWE on Monday, August 15, 2011...

Commas are a nightmare. As you say, there are sometimes too many, sometimes not enough! I was taught hooves and roofs, woe betide us if we got it wrong. However, I see now that the Cambridge Online Dictionary says that both hooves and hoofs are now correct!

Comment by MING on Monday, August 15, 2011...

For some reason, this was a really interesting post! I enjoyed reading it, thanks. :-)

Comment by WIFEY (UPSTAIRS) on Monday, August 15, 2011...

Ruined cities! Yay! Zombies! Double Yay! I'm really excited about book 5!

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Monday, August 15, 2011...

Gosh, no, Nigel — not rooves! That would be silly! But hooves and hoofs, oh the dilemma! Here in the U.S., you'd be laughed at if you said hooves. "Oh, how quaint!" they'd drawl. "How very British!" (I don't know this for sure; for all I know, "hooves" is used in the U.S. more than I think.)

Ming... er, thanks... maybe? I'm glad it was interesting "for some reason." :-)

And Wifey, I knew that would tickle your fancy. You can add Book 5 to your collection of zombie novels, but please don't expect it to be as gory as the ones you're used to — this one will be for younger readers, after all.

Comment by GUANOMERE on Monday, August 15, 2011...

We had our own Zombie Apocalypse here in the UK just recently. Namely, the London riots.

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Monday, August 15, 2011...

Guanomere, you certainly did — but it's worth pointing out that that particular zombie apocalypse WAS for kids.

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