What’s Next, You Ask?

by J.T. Ellison

The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.
                                         -Vladimir Nabokov

Ah, the joys of writing proposals.

Just me and my encyclopedia of serial killers, drinking copious amounts of Starbucks, deciding where to go next.

I have an admission. I’m going 100% batshit crazy not having a book to work on. I am driving the people around me batshit crazy. I have the cleanest closets in the southeast, my cat is brushed to a high gloss, I’ve dropped five pounds because I’m actually exercising instead of sitting in my chair drooling, staring at the laptop. In short, I’m miserable.

This is the first time I’ve written "proposals", per se. I’ve verbally
pitched a book (my next, 14) then followed up with a summary synopsis.
I wrote a huge, 13 page comprehensive synopsis for my third book (Judas
Kiss) because I wanted to make sure everyone was on board with my idea.
But this is the first time I’ve written out plans for books that aren’t
already in the works. It’s a fascinating exercise, actually.

I know I want the plots of my next books to be. I’ve got titles for them all — I can’t start on a book if it isn’t named. I’ve got a great idea for a stand alone that’s not necessarily a mystery, and it’s not a Taylor Jackson book. So that’s five "thoughts" that I’ve been laying out. It’s like planning a cocktail party, trying to decide exactly what hors d’oeuvres and drinks might entice your guests. Are they going to want Beluga and egg salad on toast points, or pigs in a blanket? Dom Perignon, or Heineken. Hell, Heineken or Milwaukee’s Best?

There are two questions I’m focused on. Where do I want to go with Taylor and Baldwin, and just how many serial killers can Nashville realistically have? Which means I have to think through the plots first, then worry about how Taylor and Baldwin coexist within them. Thankfully, coming up with plots isn’t exactly a problem for me. Tap into any set of nightmares I’ve had in the past week and there’s a plethora of work. Deciding where the relationship is going, that’s a whole different can of worms. And what does that say about me that I’d rather develop the maim and kill parts than face the love story?

It’s a difficulty in any series, I think, that is set in one locale and has a "relationship." I’ve created an immediate limitation by choosing to make my main character a homicide lieutenant. She has a job. In Nashville. Which precludes rushing all over the country to track serial killers. Which is the reason I got her involved with Baldwin in the first place. He is an FBI profiler, which gives him the freedom to travel wherever the case takes him. It’s a delicate balancing act, and one that I find difficult to manage at times. Especially when deciding how many times a serial murderer can strike in a single town without straining all credulity.

And truth be told, I don’t need to know the answer to that right this very second. But want and need are two different beasts, aren’t they?

You may have picked up on the fact that I’m the teeniest bit obsessive, especially when it comes to my books. I’m also incredibly impatient. As a Taurus (yes, I’m going to blame all this on my astrological sign, sue me) I hate change, have a difficult time not knowing my path, but I’ve always been impetuous, impulsive, even reckless when it comes to decision making. I call that being decisive. The people around me, not so much. Slow down, they say. You have plenty of time to make these decisions. How in the world can you think that far in advance?

And what if you’re wrong? What if you make the wrong decision?

Ha. The wrong decision. I think I make the wrong decision at least 5 times out of 10.
I’m batting .500. Not too bad, considering I’m a flibbertigibbet
writer. I guess it’s just that I’m not afraid to make the wrong
decision, know that as long as it’s not life and death, anything can be

What’s amusing about all of this is I didn’t used to be able to think in advance. At all. There was a time, not more than two years past, where I told my critique group leader no way in hell when she suggested I write a short story. I do believe that was a direct quote. How in the world would I have room enough in my head for a book and a short story? Shortsighted and naive of me, I know. Then I got a deal and had to think about it. I had no idea where I wanted to go with my characters, could only see the story as it was unfolding in the current book. I saw an interview with one of my idols, Allison Brennan, and she
talked of plotting an 8 book series. Or was it 12? Either way, the whole concept freaked me out. And I thought, WTF? Who could
possibly think that far in advance? When I got my deal, I was actually a bit panicked, realizing I would have to make these decisions, and quickly.

Here I am, 18 months later, books two and three done, and I’m writing out my ideas for, God willing, future books? As my wonder twin points out regularly, I’ve come a long way. At least it’s keeping me busy and away from the cat. Poor thing won’t have any hair left if I don’t start working on something new soon. Even the fact that I’m out on tour hasn’t deterred this . . . obsessive need to write. I guess that’s a good sign.

I’m curious about the rest of you. Do you plan things out? Do you think three, fours years into the future? Do you wait until a contract is secured to think about your next steps? What do you do when you’re in between books?

Wine of the Week — We need port, for proper rumination. Graham’s Vintage Port, 1994, actually.


P.S.  Y’all would have been proud of me. Not only did I do my first radio interview Wednesday, I also shared the stage (a STAGE, people) with excellent Florida mystery writer and good friend Frank Foster and our brilliant moderator, Dr. Robert Tate (Florida Southern College). The event at the Historic Polk Theater in Lakeland, Florida was well attended and a total blast. Thanks to everyone in Lakeland, especially Bill Chase and Jim Weeks, for sponsoring the event and inviting me. Pictures up on the site next week after I get home. And if you’re in Daytona Beach Saturday, come out to Barnes and Noble at 2:00 pm and say hi!

18 thoughts on “What’s Next, You Ask?

  1. billie

    JT, I’d never really thought about writers with long series and the process that must entail wrt plot.

    Funny – this thing about having lots of ideas in line is something I wrote about on Wednesday at a new co-op blog mystic-lit. What happens to me is that when I’m doing the deep revision of a wip, I seem to open the unconscious in a way that means I’m getting new ideas on a near-daily basis.

    Right now I’m revising the second novel and working on the first draft of the nonfiction book during November (I’m up to 20k!) with the plan to first draft the YA novel in December and then do an editing pass on the third novel in January.

    Everything I do this month seems to stimulate yet another idea for another book. It’s exciting but I have to keep my focus in the midst of the deluge.

    When will you be starting one of these ideas you’re outlining? I’m intrigued with the process of moving on in a series…

    And, if you want to see what tempts my muse, come say hi:


  2. J.B. Thompson

    >>As my wonder twin points out regularly, I’ve come a long way.<< I do say that a lot, don’t I? 😉 It’s because it’s true – and when I think about how far you’re going to go … it’s just an awe-inspiring thought. What I tend to dwell on is the difference between writing series and writing standalones. Is it easier or harder to come up with new ideas depending on which side of the fence you’re standing on? With a series, you obviously have the characters in place already, and need to come up with new situations to put them in. Standalone writers (like me) are pressed to come up with new characters as well as new settings. Personally, I’m not sure that’s so much harder than keeping a series fresh – loyal readers may be loyal, but they still want to be entertained with something new and different, not the same ol’, same ol’. Kudos to those series writers (present company included) who do this repeatedly, consistently, and well.

  3. Allison Brennan

    Well, just to clarify, I didn’t PLOT out an 7 book series; I have an IDEA for a 7 book series with the same group of characters. I don’t plot out anything.

    When I had to write my option book proposal, I panicked. What if I couldn’t think of an idea for one book, let alone three? But the truth is, I have ideas. They keep coming, even when I’m in the middle of another project. I’m afraid to curse them because I don’t want them to stop. Not all of them are good ideas so they need time to percolate.

  4. pari

    J.T.,For me with both of my series, I know at least where the next 1 or 2 books will be set and their general themes.

    I know some of the ways I want to grow both protags as well–through longer arcs.But I leave a lot open.

    The freedom to define a little, but not too much, comes with being my own writer rather than under contract. Who knows how writing proposals and having to plan more precisely would feel?

    I also have ideas for a mainstream novel, a thriller/suspense, at least two YAs, a bunch of younger kids’ books AND several short stories . . .

    Now, it’s a question of butt to chair.

  5. toni mcgee causey

    Well, plotting out seven books or not, Allison’a my idol, too, and helped me break through more barriers with her good advice than I can count.

    JT, we’re so alike on this point, it’s eerie–I used to never be able to conceive of more than just the story in front of me, but when I sold Bobbie Faye, I had to know the first three books in the series, and have decent notions of where I’d want to take it next. (And I have the same problem: how many disasters would one woman go through before someone locked her away? And how will the relationships develop?)

    I also just wrote a proposal for six other books, different genre, and had a ball. I thought at first I’d never come up with ideas for six more books, and then it was as if once it started, I couldn’t stop it. It’s a little like riding the bike, wobbling a bit, falling off–if you stop there, and assume that’s the best you can do, you’ll never know how you could have flown down the street. But keep going, and with a little practice, it works–and the stories just keep coming. Like Allison said, maybe they’re not all good ideas and some need to percolate, but it’s a joy to have all of these potential stories laid out to think about.

  6. Louise Ure

    I don’t plan future books out in any great detail, but then again, I’m not a series writer. I jot down character and plot notions, but that’s about it.

    And JT, Nashville can have as many serial killers as you want it to. Remember that willing suspension of disbelief thing?

  7. JT Ellison

    Hi guys!

    Billie, I’m starting now. I have to do a bunch of research for the “next” book, so I’m going to be working on that soon. At least it’s forward momentum. I want to get to the point that I take December off every year, a time to rejuvenate and let plot percolate while I’m dealing with edits and holiday stuff, but that’s a few years down the road, too.

    JB, writing a standalone time and time again would drive me insane, I think. ; ) I like returning to the characters to see what’s transpired in their lives, and don’t want to have them grow too much over the course of one book.

    Allison — still, sheesh. When I heard that I freaked. Now I understand how it can be done, but when I heard you speak about this the first time I was astounded!

    Pari, why does it not surprise me one bit that you have all of these great ideas???

    Toni, we’ve talked about this before. It’s still funny to me to be thinking so far in advance.

  8. JT Ellison

    Louise, you’re right, of course. But I also don’t want any of my readers to be throwing books across the room and saying, good grief, Ellison, you’ve done it again… Nashville’s a nice town, but come on already…

    Which is why the third book isn’t about a serial killer. A serial killer may pop up, but it isn’t the main storyline. Keeps me sane.

  9. Allison Brennan

    LOL, reading Pari’s comment reminded me that I have a whole slew of “out of genre” ideas. They all are suspense novels, but I have a YA idea, a historical idea, and a science fiction/futuristic idea. I have a supernatural thriller coming out next month, just a novella but I’m excited about it and hope to do more. Growing up on Star Wars and Star Trek, I know that SOME day I’ll write something in the future.

    JT and Toni, you are both too sweet.

  10. Naomi

    Ah, between book contracts–when I found myself in that place after Book #2, I was a little frightened. So many possibilities and doors, but which one to walk through? There’s creativity issues, personal issues (including finance), and then there’s the marketplace. How do you mix all these factors together, and what takes precedence?

    Knowing that you are committed to a series makes the path a lot clearer. I do have a certain number of books in mind for my series and I know where it’s going to end. (BTW, I do think it’s wise to at least consider how you might want the series to end. I know some authors with series who have been dropped without a proper ending for their character.)

    But in terms of other book and writing projects? I’ve decided to shuffle them in my deck and take a small break from the series.

    Is this wise? I think that it’s turned out to be for me, but in most cases, no. It’s been so liberating to inhabit other voices. And confidence-building as well.

    I’m a Bull too, but I adore change.

  11. JT Ellison

    I’ve decided to shuffle them in my deck and take a small break from the series.

    Naomi, this really struck a chord with me…

    I thought I wanted to get away from Taylor and Baldwin. I started working on the books, laying things out. Laid out the great standalone too… then realized I didn’t want to write that. I’m anxious to get back to Taylor. She’s just gone through a trauma and I want to make sure she’s okay. Isn’t that bizarre? I know exactly how the book starts and what the conflict is, and I’m curious to see how it goes.

  12. Naomi

    Then go to it. If you have the momentum and enthusiasm, it’s better to go forward with a series, especially when you are at an important juncture in the character’s life.

    After writing three books from an elderly man’s POV, I needed to find my inner younger woman’s voice.

  13. Elaine Flinn

    Series burnout is a serious consideration, not just for the writer, but for the reader. Your protag, J.T., has – besides her profession – a broader population to work within in order to be realistically credible. So your series should have a good run.

    The ‘accidental sleuth’ living in a small community (such as my series, and many others)has to occasionally find her/himself in situations that don’t always personally involve them with a murder – or as a key player in solving one. Keeping credibility, along with entertainment alive is a mean trick.

    So relax, and tag along with Taylor while you can. It’s hard to abandon protag’s who have a knack for becoming friends. 🙂

  14. Elaine Flinn

    Oh, and speaking of Allison – she’s not human. That’s why she can write mega books, have five kids and remain sane.

    I can’t tell you which galaxy she comes from. She’s sworn me to secrecy.

  15. allison brennan

    You can’t dump your series Elaine because my mom loves it and got her best friend Maria into it as well, and Maria is passing them along . . . you have to love word of mouth.

    Regarding my heritage, let’s just say it’s a galaxy far, far away . . .

  16. JT Ellison

    I think it must be Naboo, Allison. You’d look awfully cute with those hair buns…

    Elaine, good advice, as always. I too am a Molly fan, so whatever you need to do to keep her in circulation, do it. I could arrange for a serial killer to visit Carmel, if you need. I have an Italian one coming up soon…


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