Writing a Series

Writing a book – or, rather, writing a story that deserves to be turned into a book – is a tough business. Anyone with the germ of an idea needs to translate that into something serious. I don’t mean that humour can’t exist inside a novel, but the concept of writing something must be treated with respect.

I’ve been fortunate to be blessed and cursed with a fertile imagination; it’s something that I’ve cultivated over the course of my lifetime, and I find myself conjuring up stories from some odd recess of my mind where I hadn’t realised anything actually lurked except recipes and a desire to see morons locked away in a darkened room somewhere and never heard from again.

But come forth they do, and occasionally – very occasionally – they form into ideas that I struggle to fit into a single storyline. As a result, I find myself in a quandary; do I expand the solo story and turn it into something with subplots, or do I expand it out into a series? I’d like to say, in case my publisher reads this, that I always choose the most commercially-viable option. But, I must confess, that’s just not the case. The commercial aspect of anything I’m writing is there at the back of my mind, but it doesn’t fully influence my decision to write a story. What does influence my decision to get something down is whether or not I can actually sustain a plot throughout an interesting weave of events.

It’s just that, when I get to 70,000 words or so, if I find myself to have more to say, then I want to say it in one form or another. With my first two published books – Fall From Grace and Leap of Faith – the second book followed on from the first after a decent interval of two years, both in real life and in the world I had created / liberally borrowed from the real one. I’d enjoyed writing the three main characters and, when I realised that they were all reflections of part of my own personality, I’d come to the conclusion that I wanted to explore that in more detail. I felt like there was still more of a story to tell with this trio, so I started writing … and stopped 75,000 or so words later. It’s not that simple, of course, as the first draft was something like 95,000 words, and I had to wrestle with my own ego and a very talented editor to get it into shape.

I’ve been asked on a number of different occasions if I’d ever write a third book in that series, and the answer has always been the same; “No.” I don’t have been desire to continue writing those characters; not because I don’t like them anymore, but because there’s nothing more I can legitimately write anymore about them that will be interesting. Their stories are “places in times”; unique and individual for the plots and experiences they had, but not particularly able to be placed into other settings without a crowbar and a lot of convoluted plot lines that undoubtedly won’t make sense.

So I’ve moved on to other stories and places and people, and that’s what makes writing continually appealing for me; the fact that I can explore new things that crawl up out of my head. When I started writing Elysium’s Shadow, the book which Inspired Quill published in October 2017, I always knew that it wouldn’t be a stand-alone book, as there was a bigger universe that I hinted at in the book and wanted to explore in more depth.

What I didn’t know, however, was how many books that were going to appear in the series. Some writers know what the entire series is going to look like from the very earliest moments – look at J K Rowling and the copious notes and plotting she created in those early days; she always knew that seven books were going to cover Harry Potter’s life and experiences at Hogwarts. Do I know what my series is going to look like right from the off? Gracious no, the very thought of it makes me shiver with undisguised horror.

The universe that formed around this first story was actually quite expansive; I’d written quite a lot of backstory on the history of this universe (it’s set about five hundred years in the future), helping me understand what had taken Earth and humans on a particular path. That influenced the book dramatically because, whilst I didn’t plot it out, the background to the world told me how characters would react in certain situations, and why a rebellion had been set up in the first place.

And, of course, I set up the end of the first book to raise a lot of questions. That was deliberate, of course, as I wanted to take the series in a new direction, but as I didn’t know what direction yet, I needed to keep it vague enough that it would work wherever my creativity took me.

I then blame Sara, the Seer-in-Charge (Managing Director in Old Speak) at Inspired Quill Publishers, for what happened next. She had kindly taken on responsibility for editing Elysium’s Shadow personally which, given the hundreds of other demands on her time as Lord Protector of All She Surveys, was no mean feat, and I was very appreciative. I’ve written before about the level of trust needed between an author with a healthy ego (and any author proud of their work should have a reasonably healthy ego) and an editor wanting to get the best out of the project.

So when Sara sent me the edits, I began working on them with gusto, and I was intrigued to note that she had some particular comments to make about the sub-plot I’d included. Long story short, we agreed finally that it didn’t work and it needed to be removed; it hurt a little to start with, as I was proud of it and knew that I wouldn’t be able to fit it in anywhere else in the series. But then Sara and I came up with a brainwave; using it to create a short novella that could come out before the second official book in the series was released. I certainly wasn’t going to argue with that, and it gave me the opportunity to release something else within the universe that I’d crafted.

Then, as I started writing the second book in the series, two things occurred; I realised that I wasn’t going to be squeeze everything into a trilogy (which was the original plan of action – the power of three and all that), so began to work out a structure for four books. And secondly, Sara mentioned about a throw-away line in the first book where I mentioned a tiny amount of back history that I’d only got inside my head. She was intrigued to know more, and that got me thinking about that entire knowledge that only I had access to. Maybe I should share it with everyone else?

Well, of course, if I did that, then I’d need to do it as a full book and a prequel to the main series of four books. Well, long story short, I’ve now got a series of five and a half books to create, from an original idea of one story. I envy people – writers – who have the entire story line prepared and ready before writing, and I mean all of it. The entire thing. I’ve got a general idea about where I want my series to go, but I also want there to be an element of surprise in it as well, for me as well as for the reader.

Let me finish with a few notes on this to watch out for when writing a series. I’m by no means perfect when writing, but am perfectly willing to learn and share what I’ve picked up so far.

1. Watch out for continuity & production issues

This happens with depressing regularity, where a writer allows errors to creep in as a result of not checking what’s happened before and being only half-bothered by what’s meant to be coming next. If you’re doing anything half-cocked with your series simply because it would be a hassle to find a better, more creative way of handling it, you’re making your own production problems. Readers will feel your impatience and probably wonder why you’ve not bothered making things better.

2. Unanswered Questions

If the author is never going to answer a nagging question, why invest anything, especially time and passion, in the series? Leaving a series arc dangling isn’t something an author can do in a book series unless she sets up the series from the first as an open-ended one that probably won’t have definitive closure. While each book in the series must have satisfactory individual resolutions, all series-arc questions must be answered in the final book of the series or readers will be furious, perhaps enough to ban you from their reading list for life. With the first book in your series, you’ve presented a question and asked your readers to be patient as you string out the development of this theme through several books. You’ve promised that an answer will be delivered in the last book. If you don’t deliver it, you’ve stolen time, money, and even reader emotions, all with a careless shrug of purposeful neglect.

3. Don’t choose a story concept that can’t stretch across multiple books

Is your story big enough to stretch across multiple books? If you are writing in a genre like fantasy where series are popular, you may feel pressured to produce a group of books, but only do so if the story calls for it. Otherwise, you might find yourself with a condensed concept that simply cannot support multiple novels. A big part of learning how to write a series is learning what themes and plot ideas will benefit from expansive treatment.

For example, consider the film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. The trilogy of films for The Lord of the Rings was based on a trilogy of books, so three films was the obvious approach to adapting the books. However, The Hobbit is a standalone children’s book. In the hope of recreating the success of the first three films, it was decided that The Hobbit would span three films as well. Because there simply isn’t enough in the book to make three films, the filmmakers turned to other works set in the same world by J.R.R. Tolkien to flesh out the film. Despite this, many critics and moviegoers thought the movies felt padded and forced and that the story would have been better told in a single film.

2. Don’t keep your series going if you’ve run out of ideas

Often, writers fall so in love with their character they can’t stop. This applies to all types of series. There are books that simply shouldn’t have sequels, detectives who should have retired from sleuthing years ago, and fantasy quests that ought to have ended many adventures earlier. If you have an overarching story to tell you need to have a rough idea of where the series is going. Before you start drafting the books in a series, think about where the natural end might be.

4. Don’t ignore the passage of time

Some authors can successfully sustain series across decades. However, one thing you should consider if you are writing characters set in the real world is how they will age. If you have been writing a mystery series for twenty years, your character may not age quite that much in that time, but he or she also should not remain the same age. Think how little sense it would make if a character were thirty years old in a book published in 1990 when the internet and mobile phone usage barely existed and then imagine if the same character was still using the same methods and technology in 2015 at the age of thirty-two. Consider how you will handle the passing of time in your series.

5. Don’t be so consistent that there’s no intrigue and change

Even in a long-running mystery series without a larger arc, your protagonist should not be exactly the same in book seventeen as in book one. Think about yourself and the people you have known for many years. Even with people who do not change in major ways, there are subtle shifts in their attitudes, living situations, appearances and other aspects. Consider the ways in which the events of each novel will alter your characters.

Some of the most popular and beloved works of fiction have been series. Examples include Agatha Christie’s stories of the detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books to George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. However, there are a number of potential errors you can make while learning how to write a series. From starting with a flawed concept, being unable to end the series, and struggling with consistency to failing to follow through, these are all pitfalls you can avoid. By anticipating these problems ahead of time, you can plan a series and check yourself along the way to ensure that you avoid them.

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