Tea & Series

I’m  trading in my coffee shop blog this month for a visit to the Fortnum & Mason Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon in London to discuss elements of writing a trilogy/series. There’s a shared experience, particularly among readers with stories that go beyond book one. The way I want to discuss with someone—anyone—after finishing a great series about the characters, the plot twists, and ooh the ending I didn’t see coming. The first book gets me hooked. I dive into the second book expecting a lull. I look forward to the thrilling conclusion in the third (or fourth, or fifth). How fitting is the topic of series-writing while sitting down to a three-course tea? I think it is meant to be. This trip is a bonus as I’m sitting with my dear friend who’s known me long enough to know I’m in love with this place from the moment the elevator doors open and I step inside.

From the first seating to the last, not a moment of quality is spared at the tea salon. I pick up a menu devoted entirely to just that, teas. I don’t have ask, is there enough? Do I have enough? When I write…when I think of potential story lines for a series laid out in my mind, the thought is often short-lived. If I try to imagine the offshoots of problems and backstories that can be used as a catalyst for conflict, the answer to the question is usually a resounding “No.” No, I do not have enough content for three plus books. No, I do not have enough trouble to sustain the tension between characters. Can every problem be solved in the first book? If the answer is yes, then a series isn’t realistic. It’s okay for a book to stop, well, at the end.

First Course

Writing more than one book using the same characters involves some dedicated world-building. I sit at a beautiful table dressed in white linen and a tea pot spoiled in pale blue with gold accents. Set the tone of the entire story, not just one room, one house, or a single city. Bring in elements of the bigger picture. Does the setting take place on Earth? Space? Another dimension? Whether the story is in another time or in the backyard of your imagination the tiniest details are important. It’s the first time your readers are seeing this world. Can you visualize the scene of stepping off the elevator and being greeted by the calming music coming from the woman sitting at the grand piano?

I take my seat and embark on a meal that isn’t meant to be rushed. The selection isn’t lacking what with the options of Black, White, Oolong, or Green teas. I go for the Iron Goddess with the orchid aroma. Afternoon tea consists of different courses, each one punctuated by finger sandwiches, scones, and tea cakes. The range of options will get me to the end of the meal without wanting more. Like a series, the plot must be maintainable and cannot lack in conflict—conflict is what gives a boost to the second book. The resolution should be appropriate, while leaving the door open for characters to work towards solving their problems. Stretch their story line and give away elements about their own histories throughout the chapters. Not up front and all at once. I don’t want the patisseries before the Coronation Cauliflower.

Our waiter brings the three-tiered serving tray with our food selections. It’s all uniform and detailed right down to the honey and apricot jellies. A sweet middle in what could potentially be lacking.

Second Course

Any solid series needs a healthy dose of struggle and action. Characters who are essential to the story cannot be killed off in the first book. Although, some may come to know loss, are better saved for pivotal points for the main character when he or she needs to grow the most. It’s that moment, they feel fire and can continue that drives the reader into empathizing with their pain and rooting for them by the end. Carry the tension over with fresh energy to the second book. By now, I’m familiar with the hero, the heroine, the and the villains and they each have a story to tell. I don’t want the same problem recycled. I want a story that strings out the problem of the first book with the introduction of new dilemmas in the second book. Whatever troubles the main characters, whatever or whoever works against them, also has a past worthy of being discovered. Utilize the untold stories to create tension. It is with this idea that I decide to go darker and select a black tea for my second tea.

Third Course

My afternoon at the tea salon is going to come to an end. I’m onto the tea cakes and considering ordering a glass of champagne. Did I get my questions about the menu items answered? Do I know what makes a tea rare? The third book should have every question answered; every conflict extinguished. The conclusion should be satisfying, leaving no room for second-guessing if the author will return for just one more installment. I don’t like to reach the end of a great story, but I’m afraid dragging it out would ruin the entire series and that should be considered when it’s time to let the characters go and when the story is truly over. At the tea salon, I can get anything off the menu more than once, but if I keep ordering, I’ll eat until I’m uncomfortable and I’d rather stop while I’m ahead. Don’t settle for writing a halfhearted series. Take the time to write a royal one.






The Hook

The hook is on my mind as I enter Dublin Roasters in Frederick, and no, I’m not talking about the arm of a pirate. I’m referring to the bomb dropped right on time at the end of Chapter 3 in a romance novel. This weapon of word choice is meant to grab the reader’s attention and hit them where it counts—swallowing up their attention. I’ve been there, unable to put a book down and there’s no better rush from a reader’s perspective. I want to feel like I need to turn the page.

This isn’t an easy thing to do. This is the sacred hook.

The more I write, the less importance I place on this catch-all as a necessary means to capturing the reader’s attention. I find the author’s writing style is equally as important to me. Quick, witty banter goes a long way or eloquent paragraphs that make me savor the simplicity and beauty of words are just as powerful. My writing style evolves as the themes of my stories change, I focus less on finding the perfect placement of a problem for my characters and focus expanding their struggles throughout the book. I have major points that need to happen in order to move the story along, but I don’t let a formula dominate the natural progression of tension. I want the hook to be continual and rise steadily throughout the pages.

Coffee connoisseurs are no different than readers. We’re a picky lot. Maybe the term snob is thrown around. I think we’re misunderstood. It comes with the territory of enjoying something to the point of knowing what I like and don’t like (in both cafes and books). The bookstagrammers I follow share a mutual love of caffeine in our mugs. We take photos of our coffee and our books, spreading a sense of our style through a single photo, just like the opening sentence of a book. I know, even before the end of the first page, if I will like this story. If I will like this café. Both have something in common.

By the time I order my single shot espresso, I’m intrigued. A coffee house is tricky. The atmosphere must appeal to a wide range of customers while remaining intimate. My eyes take in the interior. The decor is warehouse-style, decorated in strings of white lights on the ceiling and comfy chairs and tables on the ground. There’s art on the walls and coffee to buy on shelves. A sense of responsibility is present in the fair trade signs and photos of staff trips to coffee farms in Columbia. I see a chess board, which gets points. Coffee and games go together, but what’s important is the concept of this place, much like the way a writer controls the flow of the story. What’s going to make me stay? Is it the big reveal in a book or the promise of a place I want to return and share with friends?

Elements of a coffee drink and writing a book are not that far apart. They’re universal. Each begins with an idea. There’s conflict along the way. Dialogue, communication, and training in each craft are required. Readers need a reason to keep reading. A presence of authenticity is necessary. How the author or business owner spins either one is what makes it unique.

Writer’s today don’t have the luxury of ‘building’ the story. The formula of which readers grew accustom to doesn’t work. It’s dated and overdone. A readers wants to be kidnapped by the plot immediately. There’s low tolerance for an author dragging the story at their heels and it can go against a writer’s desire to let the story take it’s time. I struggle with this as my fingers hit the keyboard. How to remain true to the timing of events in the plot while moving along quick enough as to not lose the reader’s interest. There’s thousands of romance novels out there and a bulk of them are offered for free. It’s tough to know how to proceed. Give in to the market or cultivate something else. There’s plenty of places to get coffee. Neither is no longer a novelty.

I’m comfy in this big leather chair and tempted to put my feet up on the table (which I would never do). I consider the key elements in designing and giving the hook a sustainable lifeline.

I begin with Pacing. Instead of dumping the major problems in the first three chapters, try spreading them out. Give away what’s useful. Tease the reader and hint at more problems to come. Add a couple of twists along the way. Keep the reader hostage by making them think they know what’s coming and give them something unpredictable. Reduce the level of information and let the inner struggles and fears of a character shine. Use descriptions without distracting from the story. Those are some that come to mind.

I haven’t left Dublin Roasters in case you’re wondering. I’m at the end of my drink and I’m not ready to go. The best compliment to an author is that you’ve decided to come back for more and the same is true for this place. I’m hooked.

Dublin Roasters. 1780 N Market St, Frederick, MD 21701