Author Lisa McMann stopped by The Mixed-Up Files Of Middle Grade Authors to talk about hew new middle-grade fantasy, THE FORGOTTEN FIVE: MAP OF FLAMES; world building; and what goes in to writing a series. Here, she shares her process on beginning a new series and what to do about readers who don’t start from the beginning.
Mixed-Up Files: Tell us about your new book.
Lisa McMann: THE FORGOTTEN FIVE: MAP OF FLAMES is the first book in a middle grade fantasy series. It’s about five supernatural kids, raised in isolation, who enter a hostile-to-supers civilization for the first time to search for their missing criminal parents…and the stash they left behind.
MUF: Let’s talk about world building. How does the shape of a series come about? Do you come up with a single story first, or a world you want to flesh out?
LM: I usually come up with the immediate setting first—where are we when the story begins? In MAP OF FLAMES, it’s a criminals’ hideout on a beach with no electricity, no technology, just a handful of cabins in a lush setting that’s isolated from the modern world. Next I came up with the destination—where are these kids going and what does that look like. I wanted a big contrast between the two things here, so I went with a NYC or Chicago-type of city. When I imagined how the kids would get from one place to the other, the map of southern Europe factored in—I pictured the hideout at the boot heel of Italy, and the big city of Estero at the bottom of Spain (though I brought them closer together so it wouldn’t take so long to get there). So that map was in my head, as well as the contrasting locations. In one of my other series, THE UNWANTEDS, the hidden magical world of Artimé is designed to look like a place where my mother grew up, along the shore of Lake Michigan. I took that real life location and added magic to it.
For me the shape of the series comes from two things: developing flawed characters and their relationships, and introducing a plot in which the antagonists push the protagonists too far, forcing these main characters to take action. Both things drive the series, with all kinds of setbacks as the heroes attempt to overcome evil and build strengthening relationships at the same time. The bigger the world and its problems, and the more troubled the characters and their need to fix themselves, the longer the series can run.
MUF: What are the biggest challenges in writing a series, and how does that compare when you write a stand-alone novel?
LM: Now you’ve got me looking back at my career and realizing I’ve only ever written three stand-alones out of 28 books. So maybe my biggest challenge is being able to write a book and actually tie up all the loose ends!
With a series, you are writing a story arc within each individual book, but also a story arc for the whole series. That can be tricky to get the hang of—parts of the plot need to resolve while other parts need to become more conflicted. It’s definitely something that my editors have helped me see and understand in past series’. It really takes a conscious effort to recognize the two different arcs.
MUF: Do you expect that readers will always read in order, or do you find that many people jump in in the middle of a series? If that’s the case, how do you provide back story for new readers without turning off anyone who’s started with book #1?
LM: I absolute wish I could force everyone to read the books in order—I’m a bit controlling this way, haha. But I know this doesn’t always happen. In the early pages of every sequel, I try to weave in key elements of things that happened in the past, kind of the same way TV shows give you the recap of important scenes from the previous episodes. I don’t want this to ever feel heavy-handed or annoying for those faithful readers who read the books in order, though. So it’s a delicate balance to inform or remind but not overdo.
MUF: How much collaboration is involved with your editor on a book series?
LM: I think this depends more on the editor than the writer. Some editors want an outline ahead of time that they can contribute to or approve of. Others are fine with letting an author do their thing and being surprised with the way a book turns out. Both ways work. I prefer not having to write an outline, because I feel like doing that takes something away from the creative process of writing the story—it feels limiting. But if that’s what the editor needs, I’m happy to provide it.
MUF: How do you keep track of your characters and their environment so you don’t forget details?
LM: I keep it all in my head. I might jot down a few notes on my phone app—notes about a key sentence that will carry through to the next book. But it’s also not too difficult to search for the information I need in previous books if I can’t remember something. I know many writers keep copious notes and use other means to track everything—they are likely cringing right now. I just work a different way. I can see a picture of things in my mind. I think my book details take up most of the space in my brain because I can’t remember what I had for breakfast.
MUF: If you would like to share any recent/new-ish middle grade books you’ve enjoyed, we’d love to hear your recommendations!
LM: I love Kelly Yang’s Front Desk Books. And Christina Soontornvat’s non-fiction All Thirteen. On my nightstand I have A Comb of Wishes by Lisa Stringfellow and The School for Whatnots by Margaret Peterson Haddix—excited to dive in!
You can find Lisa at @lisa_mcmann on Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram and /McMannFan on Facebook