First there were sequels. Then came trilogies. Now quartets and even quintets are popping up. It seems that everywhere you look, authors are creating series of books, and more and more publishers are asking for them. If you’re thinking about joining the bandwagon, read on. There are a few things to consider before you get started.
Type of Series
Did you know there’s more than one kind of series? While others may disagree with the terminology, I divide them into two categories: continuing characters and connected characters.
What’s the difference? In a continuing character series, the protagonists remain the same, while secondary characters and sometimes settings change. Think of Nancy Drew, Miss Marple and, more recently, Harry Potter. In each case, you know who the main character is, and part of the pleasure of reading one of these books is knowing that when you finish it, there will be another adventure coming, featuring your favorite people.
Plot-driven books like mysteries, thrillers and suspense make ideal continuing character series.
Connected character series are different. In them, when the first book ends, those protagonists’ stories are complete, but seeds have been sown for at least one secondary character to star in a subsequent book. It’s common, but not mandatory, for the protagonists of one book to make cameo appearances in the next one.
Although settings may vary from one book to the next, it is also possible that the setting itself becomes a character. That’s what happened with my Texas Dreams series. The stories form a connected character series, with the hero of Scattered Petals being introduced in Paper Roses, and Tomorrow’s Garden’s hero making his debut in Scattered Petals. In addition to those connections, the town of Ladreville and a cast of secondary characters form a common thread.
Character-driven books like romances and general fiction are good candidates for connected character series.
Number of Books
Once you’ve decided which type of series is right for you, the next question is to decide how many books will comprise that series. In the case of continuing characters, the answer is frequently “I don’t know.” That’s because those series are often open-ended.
Connected character series, however, are typically finite. Since trilogies seem to be particularly popular now, my recommendation is to think in terms of three books. And, if you’re writing a continuing character series, I’d suggest including at least three books in your initial proposal so that there’s no question that it’s a series.
Although there are many challenges associated with writing a series, for me, three stand out.
1. Maintain consistency from book to book. Readers are intelligent. They’ll remember that Susie had green eyes in Book One, and if those suddenly change to brown in Book Two, unless you mention that she’s wearing colored contacts, your reader will be disappointed in you. I keep a chart with all characters’ ages, hair and eye colors and other dominant characteristics. Unfortunately, I did not include characters’ horses’ names on that chart and, halfway through Tomorrow’s Garden, found myself paging through Scattered Petals to see what I had called Lawrence’s horse. Note to self: include horses on chart.
If you’re using the same location from book to book, I highly recommend having a map that shows where houses, rivers and other landmarks are located. Once again, readers will notice if you change the street names between books. Even if you’re using a real town, it’s important to know where the characters live so that you’re consistent.
2. Create each book as a stand-alone. I know, I know. We’re talking about books in a series, so why am I suggesting that each one be a stand-alone? For me, there’s nothing more frustrating than picking up the second book in a series and feeling as if I’m a stranger at a party where everyone else knows each other. They’re all talking about people and events that are unfamiliar to me.
If you write each book with the idea that it can stand alone, you’ll make readers happy. The key is to ensure that each reference to a prior book has a brief explanation, bringing the reader “up to speed.” The challenge, of course, is to not give away key plot points from previous books. Is it easy? Of course not. That’s why it’s a challenge.
3. Make each book as compelling as the previous one. For me, this is the most difficult challenge of all. I’ve read so many trilogies, including some written by New York Times bestselling authors, where the first and third books were excellent, but the middle one fell short that I started asking why. Was this an extreme case of the sagging middles that we’re all told to avoid? Was it like sophomore slump? I suspect part of the problem is that, as authors, we’re excited about the first book, but when we get to the second, we’re anxious to finish the series, and the second book suffers. Don’t let that happen.
I wish I could give you concrete advice on how to avoid the middle book doldrums. All I can say is to be aware that this is a potential problem and one that afflicts even bestselling authors. If you have critique partners, ask them whether this book is as good as the previous one, and if the answer isn’t the one you wanted, ask yourself what you can do to improve it. Your readers expect excellence. Don’t disappoint them.
For me, although there are undeniable challenges involved, writing books in a series is great fun. I love the challenge of creating a town and peopling it with interesting characters, then returning to it a second and third time. I love introducing characters in one book, then following them into a second book. I love every aspect of it except one: saying good-bye.