Monday, October 23, 2017

3 More Mistakes I Made So You Don't Have To: Series Writing, Not Understanding My Genre, and Expecting to be an Exception

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

***Quick note before I jump into today's topic. A main character in the book I'm working on is Japanese American, and I'm looking for sensitivity readers. People who can point out nuances of Japanese culture that I don't know about and/or tell me what I got wrong about the experience of being Japanese American. If you can help, please send me an email: Stephanie(at)***

My nine-year-old daughter said to me a few days ago, "I never fail."

I said, "That would also mean you never learn."

She said, "Let me rephrase that. I never fail because I always learn from my mistakes, and since I learn from it, it's not really a failure."

Mistakes can't be avoided, but they aren't nearly as painful if we learn from them, especially if we can share our knowledge with others. Lucky for you, I've made lots!

In the last few weeks, I talked about how I was an obsessive rewriter, and how I thought that I would become a "real" writer once I discovered my perfect novel writing system. Today I'm sharing three more:

Writing a Series

Don't freak out!

I know lots of you are writing series or want to write a series. I'm not trying to dissuade you from that. Series are lovely things. As a reader, I adore them. And for some writers, they're a great way to build readership.

There are lots of good things about series, but because I don't often hear the bad stuff talked about, I want to share why I wish I hadn't started my career with writing two series.

I originally intended Me, Just Different to be a stand-alone YA novel. But series were huge (Twilight was the rage when I signed my contract) and my agent suggested I brainstorm a couple ideas for potential books two and three. I did that, and my publisher bought The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series as a three-book deal.

But sales for Me, Just Different were slow from the beginning, and the book never took off the way my publisher and I had hoped. And who buys books two, three, four, etc. in a series? People who read and loved book one! So even though I had new books coming out every six months, I had a very narrow window of people who I was able to market them to because so few people had read the first book.

A similar thing happened with the Ellie Sweet books, though there are only two of them. Shortly after the second Ellie Sweet book came out, my life was derailed when my three-year-old son started having seizures. The stress and extra constraints on my time led to me giving my writing a critical look and saying, "What, exactly, am I doing here?"

At that time I had five published novels, and three of them were follow-ups to a book one that didn't sell very well. I decided it made no sense to keep signing multi-book contracts. I wanted contracts for one book at a time, and I was only going to write additional books if sales merited it.

But here's a quick side note on why these two series may not actually be a mistake: I still get emails from readers who loved the Skylar Hoyt and Ellie Sweet books. Emails that say things about how Skylar's story helped them through a hard time with their parents' divorce, or how Ellie finding her own confidence helped them to find theirs. I would not trade these emails for anything, including better sales numbers.

So even though I'm still committed to only writing stand-alone books for now, I'm not as regretful about my two series as I once was.

Not Understanding Why Character Age Matters

When I wrote Me, Just Different, I put my main character in eighth grade. I liked this because it seemed like so many Young Adult stories were about juniors or seniors in high school, and I thought this would make mine stand out.

The first editor I pitched the book to told me she liked the book and wanted to recommend it at her publishing house, but that I needed to rewrite it with Skylar being older. I pushed back a bit, and she explained that Skylar was twelve, the age of many main characters in the Middle Grade genre, but that the maturity level of the story was Young Adult. She told me, "Most sixteen-year-olds don't want to read books about twelve-year-olds."

That made sense. I totally get the temptation to push back on this because it’s what we like to do as creatives. Plus it’s easy to look at a series like Harry Potter or Percy Jackson and think that’s justification for writing a younger character in a more mature story. But those series have both been exceptionally successful (more on that in a bit) and it's unreasonable to expect the same result.

If you're wanting to be traditionally published, you want to minimize as many stumbling blocks as you can. There will already be plenty of others you can’t do anything about, so for a first novel, this isn’t a battle I would choose to fight.

Planning On Being An Exception

One of the first craft books I ever read was On Writing by Stephen King, which is a great one if you don’t mind some language, and it’s a classic for a reason. I hardly ever teach a class where I don’t mention it. 

BUT I'M NOT STEPHEN KING. Do you know how long it took me to realize that? I don’t write what he writes, and—I think this is the most important part—I'm not pursuing a writing career in the 1970s. I'm pursuing it now. So there are things that get to be true for Stephen King that are never going to be true for me. 

The same is true for whatever literary hero you hold up. I discovered contemporary YA author Sarah Dessen in 2004 and loved her voice and stories. She was doing something very similar to what I wanted to do, so when I made decisions I often patterned my career choices off what I thought worked for Sarah Dessen, including how she blogged and wrote. But in publishing just a few years can make a huge difference. She started her blog five years before I started mine, and was already a NYT bestselling author at that point. I couldn't just do whatever Sarah did and expect similar results.

That's especially true if you’re talking about an anomaly of an author like Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or James Patterson. They are lightning strikes, and it's unrealistic to pattern ourselves after them, thinking lightning will strike us too. We can, of course, learn from literary greats, but we don't want to ignore truths about us and our stories.

Have you struggled with any of these mistakes? If so, share in the comments so I don't feel quite so alone!


  1. I struggle with wanting to be an exception. I have an A Type personality and am always pushing to do better, work harder, check that next thing off the list. I sometimes have to reign myself in and say: "whoa, wait a minute! IF *hitting a bestseller list, getting a 4 1/2 star RT review, landing a movie deal, etc* ever DOES happen, I'll worry about it then."

    I also have the issue of THE SERIES. The contract for my debut novel is also a contract for my debut SERIES. All three books. *Gulp* ;) Like you, though, I hadn't planned on a series...

    1. Series can be really wonderful things for writers, so there's no need to panic. There were many reasons why my books didn't take off, and it doesn't mean that the same will be true for you.

      I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting to be an exception, Taylor. I would love to be one. And all your hard work suggests to me that you know creating and marketing a novel involves elbow grease. Many I know who hope/plan to be an exception say things like, "I don't plan to market the book, because word of mouth is best." So I think you're doing great :)

    2. Thank you so much for this, Stephanie! I left a comment a few days ago to say thank you...but maybe it got deleted?? Oh, well...thank you! I really appreciate your encouragement.

  2. These are interesting things to think about... but I am so glad you wrote a sequel for Ellie!!!! I love those books :D

  3. I really enjoyed this post. I think the thing that I struggle most with in this list is expecting to be the exception. This is something that I need to check quite often - it's so easy to let my imagination step out of the story world and into real-life. But that doesn't help me any! The reality isn't as pretty - and includes something called "hard work" that daydreams tend to forget - but it can be just as fun, because it's on a different level.

    1. And we need both, right? We need that dreamy, what-if side to push us through the hard work. I think it serves a great creative purpose, especially when it encourages us to work harder. Where I see it being a problem is when writers blindly follow a writing idol or using the desire to be an exception as an excuse to not do their best.

    2. That's a really good point! Thinking about it, dreaming does serve as motivation, too. It becomes dangerous when we use it as "an excuse to not do their best" - you put it so well in that explanation. Definitely gave me food for thought there.

  4. I saw the title of this post and thought, "Ha, all three of those sound like me." Time and again I've made plans for a series only to realize it was all I could hand to write and polish Book 1. For years I called myself a YA writer only to realize what I really wanted to write was middle grade. And if there's one thing that's put a stopper on my writing growth, it's expecting my "talent" to do all the hard work for me.

  5. Oh, man! I'm terrible about writing series! I have this unfortunate habit of adding so many plot twists between point A and point B that I end up with two different stories. And then when I get around to drafting book two, it turns into books two and three. And then...
    All in all, my first novel stretched to what will be a six-book series (I realize how ridiculous that is, don't worry). My backburner project is a sci-fi novel that started out as a stand-alone novel... and now the plot has expanded to encompass three books.
    I'm working on ways to minimize my writing style, but all the ideas I've truly found the heart of get bigger in my mind. Any tips on how to make this work?

  6. The series one, ha! Practically every idea I've ever had morphed into an idea for a series. Project AA, Project 7K, Project MF, and now Project W&L.

    Which, Project W&L has gone through the craziest transformation of all. My current project was formerly an idea for a single story, but then I heard a song that for whatever reason put an entire impression into my head of my group of characters over a six part story. (And yes, I know that sounds crazy, but I'm crazy, and somehow it's actually falling into place, I'm having loads of fun, and I'm working better than I ever have.)

    I never actually stuck any of those other projects out to the end, but I have drafted my way through W&L #1 and #2, I'm at the start of #3 now. This time I'm going to finish what I started. At the very least, I'll prove I can stick to one idea. I'm actually surprised I've gotten this far without becoming distracted by some supposedly epic new idea, I'm crossing my fingers I can hold on for the rest of the journey.

    1. Oh, and a mistake I made that I won't ever make again. Whenever I decide on a name for one of my characters, I google it just to make sure it isn't the name of someone famous. It doesn't take long, I almost named a character the same name as a famous actor, I forget who it was though. I'm just glad I caught it early enough that I could get used to his new name.

      Also, though I doubt it would have mattered, I almost named a guy William Harrison, then remembered that he was the ninth president. I switched it so Harrison was my character's alias (He needed an alias anyway).
      Then, just because I find it hilarious, I had his daughter (My MC) point out to him that Harrison was the president. He responded that he highly doubted anyone would realize that. Naturally of course, a couple individuals notice.