The biggest mistake I’ve made in 4 years of writing fiction

Whoops!

I became a fiction author by accident.

After years of college creative writing courses and workshops*, I never really felt like I would write fiction for a living.

*Author’s Note: A college “workshop” is where 15 students who know no more than you rip apart whatever you’re writing because they need to say something in the class to get a good grade from the teacher.

I graduated college after 5 years in 2008. A month prior, I went full-time as a freelance writer. For seven years, I wrote nonfiction, mostly marketing materials, for money.

While experimenting with releasing nonfiction books, I decided on a whim to publish a short fiction book in August 2015. I did this for two reasons:

  1. I always wanted the TV show Life to continue, because I thought there was so much more story to tell.
  2. I thought “Hardwick” was a cool name.

After seeing the response and how quickly I could build an audience, I fell for fiction writing.

I continued writing and developing the Hardwick series as I went along, just coming up with cool stories to tell and enjoying the twists and turns as I wrote them.

In the fall of 2018, I transformed a large portion of my career by taking up ghostwriting fiction as well. Every client I’ve ever worked for has wanted series.

Along with the Hardwick series that now spans four (soon-to-be-five) novels, I’ve developed:

  • A 3-book series
  • A 3-book series
  • A canceled 3-book series (after two books were written)
  • An 8-book series
  • A multiple-book series (currently)

Each of those series has their own unique characters, rules, situations, locations, and so on.

As you can imagine, it gets unwieldy. But having never been in a position to write books so often, I didn’t really know how to handle it.

What happens when you lose track?

In the very first Hardwick story I ever wrote, I mentioned that Charlie Hardwick – the main character – was emailing his mother soon after he was released from prison.

A few stories later, I introduced Charlie’s dad into the equation. Completely forgetting about the little bit of family history I had already established, I had Charlie’s dad keep his mom from visiting Charlie in prison… and then mentioned that she died before he was released.

At the time, I was all, Yeah, that’s pretty cool. Neat twist. Adds some dimension to the tension between Charlie and his dad. Rock and roll. I’m a brilliant author.

Except I totally forgot she was alive in the first story.

And that’s just one time I published something like that! I’ve had other inconsistencies. And heck, I can’t count how many times I’ve been in the middle of writing a story and thought, What was that guy’s name again? or whatever.

Losing track is a quick way to lose readers. Despite any effort or inexperience on your part, or the best of intentions, losing track communicates to the reader that you don’t care about the details – so why should they?

I tried tossing details into a Google Keep label for the Hardwick series, but it was still pretty difficult to work with. One of the main reasons why the series has been delayed so much this year is because I’ve created a large web of conspiracy with lots of plot points but have completely lost track of them – and I can’t continue until I have a clearer picture of what’s going on and where I’m headed with the story.

I didn’t have much of an answer – until I stumbled on it while working with a client.

The moment I understood the “Story Bible”

I have a wonderful ghostwriting client who I’ve been working with since March of this year. We’ve been hard at work on multiple series, and I’ve saved my bacon by at least creating one series that sold reasonably well (the aforementioned 8-book series).

Now that we’ve wrapped up that series – a young adult urban fantasy set in the real-world (basically set in my hometown, actually) – we’ve begun writing a new series.

And this is where the wheels have fallen off my approach to storytelling.

This new series is straight-up fantasy. It involves a lot of worldbuilding, something I’m not as experienced in yet.

While my writing is improving, there’s still a long way to go. The client has been editing my work ruthlessly during this period, which I’ve appreciated.

But she’s also been changing up the story.

Now, I don’t really care about that too much, outside of a few concerns here and there. It’s the client’s story, not mine. However, in reviewing her edits, I’m seeing a lot of changes that affect the rest of the story!

In other words, plot conflicts that I intended to build upon into Book 2 of the series, she resolved in Chapter 10 of Book 1. It changes the dynamic of the story… and it means I have a lot of work to do.

I started reviewing her edits with an open Google Doc, trying to keep track of the major changes so that anything else I write for the series is faithful to the new details.

By accident, I began creating a “Story Bible”.

A Story Bible is a centralized place where all the key details about characters, storylines, settings, and important events can be brought up at will for reference.

It’s a way to keep track of the details easily, and call them up on-demand when you need them.

As I built this document, I decided I should move all my notes from Google Keep into one Story Bible for the Hardwick series.

What do you use for a Story Bible?

You can use lots of different programs. Scrivener is popular, but I’m on a Chromebook, so that’s not possible.

There are plenty of writing apps out there, but I find they all involve some level of compromise.

Even a notetaking app would be great, but I didn’t want to have to manage yet another program or account.

I settled on a Google Doc, in that I could easily export it into another program if needed, and navigating it would be as simple as one-click, thanks to the “Table of Contents” button on the left side of the screen.

I assigned the main components of the story as a “Heading 1”, and then the pieces underneath as “Heading 2”.

For example, Characters is a Heading 1. Charlie Hardwick is a Heading 2.

The Hardwick Story Bible in all of its glory.

This makes jumping around very simple, allowing me to get to the details I need quickly, update them as needed, and move back into writing again.

I’ve resolved to do the same for every series I write, both for myself and others, moving forward.

To do well, you have to know the basics

Building a Story Bible is not an “advanced” tip.

It’s actually super basic. Lots of people do it. You might already do it and are slapping your forehead at how dumb this advice is.

But if you’re like me and you’re learning as you go, you take your baby steps wherever you can get them.

I can’t be a great author if I’m not taking care of the basics. It’s not a time for pride. It’s a time for humility and learning – so that I can continually get better.

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Before Charlie Hardwick was a homicide detective...

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Before he went to prison for murder...

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Written by Tom Meitner, your favorite author. That's why you're here, right?
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