Writing a Successful Series. Tips.
As Julie Moffett managed to
steal write my blog
about RT last week, I realized, I had to pretty quickly come up with something
else to talk about.
I decided I‘d recap some of the tips I'd outlined for the panel Julie invited me to speak on: Series, sequels and spinoffs.
A book series can be linked either by the same characters continuing their fictional lives through ongoing books, or different characters linked by location, family ties, job, or various other options. In my opinion, books that have the same recurring main characters but have stories ending in a number of cliffhangers, are actually serials. Some people disagree.
Julie Moffett (who writes the same recurring characters in her Lexi Carmichael series) emphasized the need for developing an over-arching series arc. Some overriding question or mystery that starts in the first book and needs to be solved by the last. Then each individual book in the series has its own separate plot that will need to be resolved within each single title. The main characters should show growth in some way throughout both the book, and the series, until the series arc is concluded.
I don’t have an overriding series arc. I have some story questions that spread over more than one book, but my series is connected more by job (most of my characters work either for the FBI or are associated in some way with the FBI in some of the earlier books) and also by theme. One reader described my books as “Good people, doing bad things, for the right reasons.”
Most people are a little scared of my brain.
All my books can be read as standalones, but the strength of the series is you get a little more depth, a little more background if you start reading the books from the beginning. I don't summarize each of the previous books' plot in the subsequent books. And I try not to give away the bad guys.
We all know not everybody likes to plot. But I find the only way I can write complicated stories is by detailed plotting and some crazy “what-iffing.” I like to plot out the emotional growth of the characters, the romantic interaction (attraction, first kiss, first time they have sex), the suspense, the evidence, and the progression of the police investigation—because it all has to make sense in the end. It doesn’t mean the plot doesn’t change or morph as I write, or even that I know everything that is going to happen. It just means I’m heading in the right direction to hopefully have it make sense.
I start the plotting process with Post-It notes. I also use Post-It notes to jot down ideas, little snippets of conversation, major plot points that come to me at the weirdest times. When the story feels like it might actually be something that might make a 100K novel I use Scrivener to plot it out in more detail. Scrivener is a software program designed for writers. It allows you to see your story in a much more flexible format. It also allows you to develop character profiles, allows you to store your research material within the same file, and allows you to move scenes around.
There's a habit that many writers, especially Romance writers have, which is to make the current book hero the biggest, the baddest, the most handsome, the richest, the toughest, sexiest alpha dude imaginable. And then, if they are writing a series featuring different H/h, they write a book featuring another male in this same world. As a reader I find it very hard to fall for the new, secondary alpha hero because, to me, the writer already gave me the most important hero in the series.
So when writing my series I try not to make one hero so dominant that the other men are lessened in some way. I try to give each of the characters the starring role of their own book without diminishing the others. It’s not an easy balance.
Keeping Characters True To Themselves Tips.
Every character should sound or be a little different from the others. Be identifiable from their world view, in the language they use, in their priorities. It's really important to try and keep the voice of those characters consistent throughout the different novels, even when they switch from being a primary to a secondary character, or vice versa.
I do this in several ways. I have a notebook where I jot salient points about that character down. I reread sections that they've appeared in other books. And I sometimes re-listen and reread my entire novels. Yes, this is time-consuming and sometimes, frankly, torturous, but it immerses me in the characters’ world and reminds me what I was thinking when I created them. A quick and easy prompt is having a Pinterest board for each book. The actor that I pick for a character enables me to visualize that character more easily as I write about them.
I've been writing my Cold Justice Series for about five years, but anyone who pays attention will note that the actual timeline of the books only covers approximately four months. There's an awful lot packed into those four months. I used to write plot points on my computer calendar, but it gets a little weird to have the kids’ dental appointments next to a body dump. So what I do or what I've just started to do, is to input that timeline data into a program called Aeon.com. This allows me to actually insert when my characters are born, major life events, plot points that cross over the different books, and the timeline of each book. It allows me to know when my heroine’s baby is due (because the readers already know!!). Unfortunately, I'm working backwards when I'm adding this information. It would've been much smarter to start using this program when I started writing the books.
The Top Tip To Writing A Successful Series:
For me!! Keep the time increments between books short. I said I've been writing the Cold Justice Series for about five years, but only takes up, so far, about four months. This keeps the series moving at a fast pace, it means that the readers don't feel like they've missed anything, and it gives the author a lot of flexibility with what happens next. This can create problems as real-life events shift and change, like we’re talking about a war going on that was happening at the beginning of the series and has since stopped. So another tip is to keep some of the real-life events a little vague. Same for some secondary characters, if you're thinking of using them possibly in future books, do so in a way that allows you to be flexible with their back story. Not so vague as they become indistinct, but nothing too concrete that keeps them out of the next story.
One last tip:
Someone once said to me something along the lines of “if you write books about the FBI’s BAU aren’t you going to get sick of writing serial killer stories?” But it was never my intention to just write about serial killers. Another key to writing a successful series is not to write the same book over and over again. My books are all Romantic Suspense stories set loosely around the BAU. I don’t believe I’ve written the same plot twice.
OK, I know that’s quick and dirty, but I have a sick child I need to check on and a dog who needs a walk, and book eight to finish. Hope you get something useful out of this blog J