Author and Odyssey graduate E. C. Ambrose will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. She writes The Dark Apostle historical fantasy series about medieval surgery, which began with Elisha Barber (DAW, 2013), continuing with Elisha Magus, Elisha Rex, Elisha Mancer, and the final volume, Elisha Daemon (forthcoming February 6, 2018). As Elaine Isaak, she is also the author of The Singer’s Crown and its sequels. Her writing how-to articles have appeared in The Writer magazine and online. A three-time instructor at the Odyssey Writing Workshop, she has led workshops across the country on topics like “Crafting Character from the Inside Out” and “10 Mistakes I’ve Made in my Writing Career so That You Don’t Have To.” Elaine dropped out of art school to found her own business. A former professional costumer and soft sculpture creator, Elaine now works as a part-time adventure guide. She blogs about the intersections between fantasy and history at ecambrose.wordpress.com and can also be found at facebook.com/e.c.ambroseauthor or on Twitter at @ecambrose. Under any name, you still do NOT want to be her hero. Learn more at www.TheDarkApostle.com.
In February of 2018, Elisha Daemon, the fifth volume of my Dark Apostle series, will hit the bookstores, thereby achieving something that many fantasy series never do: ending. I look upon that day with both excitement for the fulfilment of my plans and trepidation because I can no longer say quite what will happen next. The characters I’ve been living with for ten years now will be left behind. It’s like breaking off a longstanding relationship. “It’s not you, Elisha, it’s me—I have to move on.” But it will also be the moment I can reveal the ending I’ve been working toward for so long.
I remember that feeling when I was brainstorming the arc of the series and discovered the perfect ending. There’s this lovely moment in Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas when the title character gets an idea: a wonderful, awful idea. My ending concept felt just like that. I wrote my first blog entry on my own site about it, entitled “Another Grinchy Idea.”
But before I can tell you how I developed that ending, we need to talk a little about how the series began. The Dark Apostle’s pathway to publication was a bit complicated. Before I had the opportunity to start submitting, I had written all five books by “pantsing,” that is, writing by the seat of my pants. I then went back and retro-fitted some additional connective material to bind the five together, and called it good. When I found the editor who loved the first volume, he thought otherwise. The volumes I had written did not escalate as a whole toward a satisfyingly grand conclusion worthy of the reader’s investment. Before they signed the books to publication, they wanted a better arc across the series.
There are series books, like detective novels, where each volume is a separate adventure about the same characters and milieu, with character arcs and conflict that rarely cross into the next volume. That’s not what most fantasy readers are looking for. In a fantasy series, not only must each volume contain a satisfying arc that provides character and conflict development, but the volumes must add up to something greater. They must build on each other, increasing tension and adding layers of conflict until the ultimate climax, an explosive moment of emotional pay-off.
I can’t say I went back to the drawing board—I had never been there to begin with. I brainstormed an outline in which my current books 2, 4 and 5 (3 was an outlier from the start) provided the plot and direction for books 2 and 3 in the new concept. But how to make the series arc bigger and bolder in the final volumes? I started with some ideas from my editor, including some ideas I wasn’t too thrilled with. That outline was meh. It felt familiar, and I knew I had to dig deeper.
In a novel, or even a short story, I find that the seeds of the perfect ending are planted at the beginning. So I started extrapolating from the first volume and the elements of the other volumes that would be preserved in books 2 and 3. What useful material had I already given myself? What cool concepts could be expanded upon and which characters might have a greater role to play? Perhaps most importantly, what conflicts would reasonably and enjoyably require the length of five books to explore?
I crafted the new outline using a combination of list-making (the clues and concepts I’d already established) and mind-mapping (placing the question I confronted at the center of a large sheet and brainstorming related concepts), then looking for connections and directions. My editor loved the new outline—yay! Now, all I had to do was execute it.
It is curious to be working on a conclusion while readers are somewhere in the middle, speculating about what might happen and expressing what they’d like to see. Carrying off some of the scenes I envisioned, and in particular, that very Grinchy idea for the climax, felt like a lot of pressure in the writing, much more so than simply drafting a novel. Readers were already following my trail of breadcrumbs—I had to stay a few steps ahead.
What made the series climax idea so special is how closely it binds the new material of the final volume with the origin of the series and the character, bringing the work full circle with characters old and new, extrapolating from the groundwork I laid in a direction I hope will seem both surprising and inevitable. I hope my readers will gasp aloud as they realize the implications, then smack themselves for not realizing sooner. I am aiming for the perfect combination of “Oh, no!” and “Of course!”
These readers invested in Elisha’s struggle several years, and many pages, before. They, and he, deserve something extraordinary. I hope I will deliver it!