Stephanie has blogged on here before about how sometimes an idea demands a series, and other times one book is all it takes. Sometimes series are trendy and sometimes editors chant "stand alone!" at us, but if you decide on a series, you still have some figuring to do. So with the debut of my first-ever published sequel but days away (squeeeeeeee!), I thought that today I'd doff my editor hat that I usually wear in my Go Teen Writers posts and don my writer cap to chat with you guys about series.
First, let's touch briefly on the different kinds of series:
A. The Continuity Series
These are all about the same character(s), each with a complete story arc, but subsequent books picking up more or less where previous ones left off. Some fine examples of continuity series are: The Hunger Games Trilogy, The Twilight Saga, Harry Potter, The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt, Blood of Kings...and pretty much every other YA series I could think of. ;-)
B. The Stand-Alone Series
In a stand-alone series, there will be common threads and characters through the books, but each title will have a new hero/heroine and a completely new plot line. The idea is to be able to read them out of order...but there may be spoilers in book 2 for book 1 (like knowing what characters ended up with whom or whether they solved the mystery), so it's still best to read them in order. Examples: Daughters of Boston, The Chronicles of Narnia's later books, The Wrinkle in Time books, Culper Ring Series (yes, plugging myself. Aren't I clever? LOL)
C. The Single Titles Series
This one is a little trickier. A lot of publishers are now doing series or lines by multiple authors that all have a single common thread. For example, Abingdon's Quilts of Love line, where quilting is all that each books will share with any other book in the line. They have something in common, but the books are completely independent. Sometimes one author does these too, like Denise Hunter's Nantucket series...or my upcoming Let Me Count the Ways. In these books, there may be a common setting or theme, but there's absolutely no reference to previous books in subsequent ones.
So let's say you've decided to write a series, and you know what type it will be. When I first started writing, my ideas almost always came to me in trilogies...though more often than not I'd move on to a whole different idea after one book rather than getting past chapter 8 of a sequel. And the more experience I gained, the more I had to ask myself why.
I think writing a series can be difficult for a couple reasons. Aside from the writer getting bored with an idea or character (so been there!), there's a delicate balance to strike. You have to bring readers up-to-speed in book 2 or 3, since it could have been months or years since they read the previous one(s), but not bore them with facts they already know. You have to weave in backstory from previous books without making it scream "Backstory!" (which we all know is a no-no in the beginning of a book). You have to have common themes so they're all tied together, without being redundant.
Though I have 25 manuscripts finished right now, I'd only ever written one full series of 3 (still unpublished) before I signed a contract with Harvest House for the Culper Ring Series. I was confident I could do it, but there were challenges I hadn't anticipated. Having just turned in the final one though, and with Whispers from the Shadows hitting shelves so soon, I now have a list of things that work and things that don't.
Ask a New Question
In Ring of Secrets, the question that my characters always came back to was this: What would you sacrifice to serve your cause?
In Whispers from the Shadows, my characters face a new question: How do you know who to trust?
Book 3, Circle of Spies, asks: Are you free?
Face New Problems
We also have to be careful each book is covering new ground in terms of action. Katniss couldn't just win the Games in all 3 Hunger Games books, right? Her opponents changed with each one, getting bigger and more serious as the series went on, and the action went from one arena to another to the real world.
In my series, though each set in a war, the characters face very different problems, sometimes fighting behind the scenes, and sometimes on the front lines.
Approach the Plot from New Directions
Fresh plot isn't enough though. We also need to be careful not to overuse the same plot devices. Some I found myself trying to repeat (keeping in mind these are historical romances):
- Love triangles
- Love at first sight
- Falling in love with the enemy
- Heroine/Hero distrusting each other
- Secrets between main characters
- Mistaken/hidden identity
One thing I really loved doing in the Culper Ring Series though was pulling threads from book 1 all the way through the series. I had a few tangible things that traveled through the generations with my characters: a book of prayers; a pearl necklace; sign language. These were three things that were so important to the Ring of Secrets that I decided to keep them going. But it's tricky! Because it's not enough to keep them there--I also have to keep them relevant. How do we do that?
My best advice is to use nothing in vain--if it's there, give it a real purpose. Let's take my sign language thread as an example. In book 1, Winter knows a precursor to American Sign Language because her grandmother went deaf, so her father and his friend got some books on signs and used them to create a method to communicate. She and her guardian (father's friend) use it to communicate covertly in New York City. Hero sees it, asks to learn...and uses a sign at the end to help the heroine convince someone of who she is.
In book 2, my hero is the son of the characters from book 1, so he grew up knowing signs as well. We see him use them a few times throughout the book, and his parents use them when they don't want the heroine to understand what they're saying. She, however, asks to learn a few signs later that carry special meaning to the hero.
So, having it in two books, I had to use it in the third (law of threes, you know). But I had to find a new way to make it relevant. I pondered this for a while before I came to my forehead-slapping moment. Through the other two books, the signs were more a tool of espionage than anything...so why not make it fresh by returning to the roots? I brought in a deaf child whose parents want to be able to communicate with her. And my self-absorbed heroine had to face some demons to be able to help.
So to sum it all up, writing a series is a lot like writing any slew of books in that we need to be aware of our fall-backs as writers--and avoid them. We need to keep each story unique and fresh and make sure it's complete...but there are also some quirks unique to a series. You have to have thing that draw them together, you have to draw readers from one to another, which means making them invest in your world.
Questions about the nitty gritty or overall of writing a series? Ask away!