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I want to write a novel series. Now what?

   
   

(Author of Writing the Fiction Series: The Complete Guide for Novels and Novellas)

“The disease of writing is dangerous and contagious.” (Abelard to Heloise)

C

ollowing a series can also become a relentless obsession and it’s the hallmark of why readers read series, why writers write them, and why publishers publish them. The mania is spreading. So, how do you get started?

Whether you’ve been pondering starting your own or you’ve finished a first book and don’t want to let go, there are a lot of things to work out when writing a fiction series.

Developing a Plan for Your Series

If a series doesn’t have a “tie” that connects each book, it could hardly be called a series. Developing the Ties from one book to the next prevents readers from questioning the point of the series. These Ties can be any or even all of the following:

  • Recurring character or couple (think Aloysius Pendergast in Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Pendergast Series or J.D. Robb’s Eve and Roarke from the In Death Series)
  • Central group of characters (such as George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and the members of Kate Jacobs’ Friday Night Knitting Club)
  • A plot or premise (as in Robin Cook’s Jack Stapleton Medical Mysteries or Dan Brown’s treasure hunts in the Robert Langdon Series)
  • Setting (Forks, Washington in Twilight or Harry Potter’s Hogwarts)

As in the series examples mentioned above, what connects the books in a series should be evident in each entry. Ensuring this kind of continuity requires advance planning. Ideally, you want to start developing your series as early as you can. To get things going, let’s consider what separates series writing from novel writing.

1) Understanding Story Arcs Verses Series Arcs

Every work of fiction has a Story Arc or a continued storyline. The Story Arc is short-term since it’s introduced, developed and concluded within the individual book. In clear contrast to a stand-alone novel, a series almost always has a Series Arc as well. A Series Arc is a long-term plot thread that’s introduced in the first book, alluded to in some way in each middle book, but is only resolved in the final series book. The only exception to this rule is an open-ended series in which all the books are stand-alones and there’s no need for a Series Arc that resolves in the last book. Earlier we mentioned examples of open-ended series like the Stapleton and Langdon ones.

Series that will have a definitive end do need a Series Arc whether clearly or subtly defined. The Series Arc is generally separate from the individual Story Arcs though they must fit together seamlessly to provide logical progression throughout the series. As an example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the Story Arc is the sorcerer’s stone plotline. The Series Arc, in the most simplified terms, is good overcoming evil. The Series Arc runs progressively and cohesively beneath the individual Story Arcs in each successive book.

Is it necessary for a series that’s not open-ended to have a Series Arc? Absolutely! In a series that will have definitive closure, you’ve presented a nagging situation in the first book that must be settled satisfactorily in the last. Without that, readers who have invested time, money, and passion will feel cheated. To write a series is to promise an acceptable resolution. If, in the course of Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven Series, Kendra and Seth didn’t defeat the evil threatening the Fablehaven preserve and stop the plague that could have led to a hoard of imprisoned demons escaping into the world, Mull would have left his fans crying foul because he broke the pledge of a satisfactory resolution implied in the first book.

Spell out your Series Arc for yourself as much as you can so you can work from that premise from start to finish.

2) Evaluating C-S-P Series Potential

Readers fall in love with characters, settings and plots. They want conflict but don’t want you to hurt their heroes. They want different but don’t want things to change. But a character, setting or plot that doesn’t change also doesn’t evolve, doesn’t remain life-like, and eventually becomes boring.

Series characters, settings and plots should have longevity and intriguing potential that continues to grow, never stagnate or wane, throughout the course of a series. While none of these should ever have a radical transplant from one book to the next, it’s crucial they’re affected by changes. Consider the three P’s that make characters (and just as certainly settings and plots!) three-dimensional:

  1. Personality (always multi-faceted with strengths and weaknesses, and capable of growing, being molded, deeply delved, and stretched)
  2. Problems (combining light and dark, good and evil, simple and complex—not necessarily in equal parts)
  3. Purpose (evolving goals and motivations wide enough to introduce new and unpredictable themes into a series but narrow enough for focus in individual stories)

Without the introduction of something new for series characters, settings and plots, you’ll give your readers nothing to hope for beyond the first book. The best way to plant seeds for series exploration is to evaluate your C-S-P (Character-Setting-Plot) potential. Basically what this means is you establish “Plants” in the first and middle series books that can be used at any time during the life of the series to expand all three of these components. Naturally, the sooner you set these up, the more believable they’ll be when it’s time to fully develop them. As an example, in the Robert Langdon Series, the main character frequently mentions the Mickey Mouse watch he wears—not something most grown men would be caught dead in. In his case, it was a gift from his parents on his ninth birthday, something rife with sentimental value, and, considering that much of this series revolves around 24-hour deadlines, the significance of this object is heightened. If the first time the symbolic accessory was mentioned was when Langdon was thrust in a tank of breathable oxygenated liquid in The Lost Symbol, Book 3, the reader would have been figuratively drowned as a consequence. Obviously the appropriate place to explain the watch would be in a time of passive reflection (in the first book in the series), not during life-and-death action three books in. Luckily, this item was planted early enough that its appearance over the course of the series didn’t feel contrived or convenient to the plots.

Most authors include numerous “Plants” in the first book in a series without realizing it. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t deliberately insert them, too. When considering your C-S-P series potential, do free-form summaries for all of the questions below. Don’t worry if you can’t come up with much right away; simply use this as a jumping-off point as the series progresses. Go on the assumption that these seeds may be planted (and left mostly unexplored) in the early books for development in later titles:

  1. How can you outfit all series characters with heroic traits and habits as well as flaws and vices that can lead to natural growth as well as interesting plots?
  2. What occupations, hobbies, interests, and idiosyncrasies can you give characters that can be gradually developed?
  3. What relationships and potential enemies/villains can you add to expand the series potential?
  4. What lessons, backstory or experiences can be hinted at for later revelation and development and may lead to suspenseful plots or emotional crises?
  5. What life conditions, challenges, trials, grudges, grief, betrayals, threats, heartaches or obsessions (romance, marriage, divorce, parents/children, illness, medical ailment or death) can characters face that may lead to compelling situations throughout the series?
  6. What locations can you set the series and individual books in to expand characters and plots?
  7. What world, regional or local events, holidays, important dates or disasters (natural or man-made) can provide a catalyst?
  8. What quest—fortuitous, cursed or anywhere in-between—can be undertaken?
  9. What item or object can you place that can become the basis for plot, setting or character development?

Keep one rule firmly in mind when you’re planting the series seeds that will give you both longevity and flexibility for the road ahead: Always leave plenty of Plants unexplored! The last thing you want to do is lock yourself in too early. In the early books in the Pendergast Series, it was revealed that the FBI agent’s wife had been killed years earlier. Superficial details about this death were alluded to but kept sparse and flexible enough that, when the authors moved into their Helen Trilogy quite a few books later, they could easily mold this event any way they needed to and maintain believability. Had they locked down specific details early on, the trilogy might never have seen the light of day.

Hints and allusions are ideal—even required, as we’ve seen—when you’re introducing C-S-P series potential in one book and then developing in another. In real life, no one walks around with a list to show others of the people they know, the places they’ve been, or the things they’ve done. These are introduced a little at a time. In the same way, from one book to the next, you explore the facets of C-S-P slowly, developing them beyond the static state they started in as you go along instead of all at once. If you give too much detail too soon, you may find it hard to change or adapt when the time comes to use a Plant.

Additionally, keep in mind that, if no one wants to see more of these characters, settings, and the series premise that sparks plot over the long haul, the series is pointless. Always spin established facts on their axis so the reader will have a new, emotional and unexpected journey in each additional story within the series. Every offering must be at least as exciting as the one before. These are the ingredients that bring readers back for more.

Organizing Series Details

The best way to learn how not to write a series is with no organization whatsoever. Time and time again, you’ll miss countless opportunities to plant and develop seeds for C-S-P series potential as well as forcing yourself to backtrack to clear up issues that arise and can even lead to writing yourself into a corner. Establishing the basics can give you numerous insights for further-reaching developments.

While established authors may be capable of outlining every book in a series before writing even one, that may not be possible for everyone. Maybe the only way for you to figure out where you’re going with your series is to write the first book, then set it aside while you think about the next in the series and as many of the ones to follow as you can: Which characters will take the lead? What story will be told and conflicts arise? What seeds can you plant now in the first book to prepare readers for the next ones? Try filling out the C-S-P potential questionnaire as much as you can. The more you can get your mind brainstorming on these things, the more developed each story will be when it’s time to start working on it. Never underestimate the value of a story (and series!) sitting on the backburner of your mind.

How much pre-planning you ultimately do for your series is up to you, but I recommend attempting two things to see how far you can get.

Blurbing the Series and Story Arcs

Building on your C-S-P potential, the next step in figuring out where you’re going in the series is to write blurbs for the series and its individual stories. Play with them and don’t expect perfection the first time. You can work with them more as your series progresses.

When creating a Series Blurb, you’re not focusing on individual stories but on the series as a whole to get the gist of what it’s about. If the Series Blurb is done well enough, it’ll accurately reflect what every book in the series is about in a concise, intriguing summary. Remember your Series Ties while you’re working, since they’ll help you figure out what your Series Arc should be. In no more than four sentences, define your Series Arc by using “leads to” logic (note that the components don’t have to be in order, nor is a resolution required since you may not want to defuse the intrigue or tension):

Introduction > Change > Conflicts > Choices > Crisis > Resolutions

Here’s an example from my Incognito Series:

The Network is the world’s most covert organization. Having unchallenged authority and skill to disable criminals, the Network takes over where regular law enforcement leaves off in the mission for absolute justice. (Introduction) The price: Men and women who have sacrificed their personal identities (Choices) to live in the shadows (Change) and uphold justice for all (Conflicts)—no matter the cost. (Crisis)

Next, try blurbing the individual stories you foresee in the series. It’s all right if you’ve only gotten as far as brainstorming on one or two books. Start with what you have and go further as more comes to you. This process should help your ideas multiply.

In order to begin, you need at least a working knowledge of which characters will take the lead in individual stories and what each Story Arc (conflict) will be. If it helps, try writing free-form summaries covering the who, what, where, when, and why of each story. Now let’s create a back cover blurb using this equation (if you have more than one main character, do this for each):

________________ (name of character) wants _________________ (goal to be achieved) because _________________ (motivation for acting), but faces _____________________ (conflict standing in the way).

By filling in the blanks, you’ll flesh out your Story Blurb. As before, you can mix up the order of the components. Let’s look at an example of the Story Blurb from Dark Approach, the twelfth in my Incognito Series:

Network operatives and lovers Lucy Carlton and Vic Leventhal (name of character{s}) have spent years living in the shadows, the property of the covert organization they gave their loyalty to in the lofty pursuit of justice for all. (motivation for acting) Disillusioned, they’re now determined to live their lives on their own terms. When the Network’s arch enemy secretly approaches the two about defecting—freedom for information that will disable the Network (goal to be achieved)—the couple must choose between love and loyalty. In the process, they jeopardize the Network’s anonymity...and its very existence. (conflict standing in the way)

Blurbing in this way will expand your series and get you excited about writing it.

The appeal of the series is obvious: You don’t have to leave behind characters, place or premise in a single book. You can continue with a whole series of them! While each story should stand on its own, no series book should feel quite complete without the others since readers are invested mentally, emotionally, and even physically. The best news is, after reading the first book in a series, they’ll crave infinitely more as long as each offering is an absolutely killer read.

Five Build-Your-Series-Muscles Exercises

  1. Identify the Ties in your favorite series books and how all the stories connect and build off each other. Series and Story Blurbs should indicate this information.
  2. Note the differences in open-ended series and those that have a definitive conclusion. Which appeals to you?
  3. Outline the Series Arcs (whether loosely or clearly defined) in notable series you’ve read—can you follow the introduction, progression and resolution from start to finish?
  4. Study several series, noting how the authors planted and developed seeds for C-S-P potential over the course of the series.
  5. Consider what sets your series apart from others and what twists you can inject in each book.

*

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Karen Wiesner

In addition to being a popular writing reference instructor and writer, professional blurbologist and freelance editor, Karen Wiesner is the award-winning author of over 130 titles in nearly every genre. Her newest fiction releases are entries in her Friendship Heirlooms Series (Christian romance), Adventures in Amethyst Series (romance/suspense), and Peaceful Pilgrims (comedic women’s fiction). Her newest writing reference is Writing Blurbs That Sizzle—And Sell!. Karen runs a Blurb Service for Authors where you can find information about signing up for her workshops. When she isn’t writing, she can be found reading, playing videogames or piano, and visiting her son—also a writer and copyeditor—where he attends college. Visit her website at www.karenwiesner.com, and connect with her on Facebook.


 

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