Monday, March 28, 2016

Some Insights on Writing a Series

I mentioned in last week's blog post that another OTP author and I had spoken to a woman at the Tucson Festival of Books. This woman had told us that she wanted to write a book, but she wanted it to be a big hit, a one-hit-wonder, because she didn't think she had more than one book in her.

It would be wonderful for any author to be able to hit it big with just one book, especially their first book. Sadly, the days of an author living off the proceeds of a single book are pretty much over (if they ever existed in the first place!) Even though the process of getting a book published has become almost effortless, selling a book is just as difficult as ever, if not more.

One thing that helps authors find an audience is to write a series. Book series tend to attract a loyal readership and customer base, whether they are romance, historical, or mystery series. And, speaking from personal experience, series readers are quick to recommend their favorite series to their reader friends (I've discovered more series from word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and co-workers than from any other source!) So how does one go about writing a successful series?  I'll focus on mystery, since that is what my Black Horse Campground series is, and offer my own insights.

First, develop interesting, sympathetic characters that YOU, the author, like well enough to stick with for the time it takes to write the series. If the author likes their characters, it's a good bet that the readers will, too. Make characters interesting and complex enough to withstand the natural changes that occur over time and seasons and life circumstances. Don't create main characters who are so whiny and self-absorbed about their lives, no matter how "true to life" they may be, that readers will be rooting for the villain to prevail in doing away with them.

Know your story's setting, whether it exists in real life or is entirely fictional. Don't think readers won't catch inconsistencies in your setting. This also goes for other details in your story, especially the characters' ages, appearances, family history, friendships, and other minutiae that sharp-eyed readers will catch. If you mention in passing that your main character has a life-threatening peanut allergy in the first book, don't think you won't be called out by your readers if that character is noshing on Reese's pieces in book three or eating kung pao chicken in book ten.

It's okay to give a little backstory in order to explain why people are suspicious of the long-lost nephew who took over a business after the owner died in mysterious circumstances in the last book, but it's not okay to give an entire rehash of the previous book(s) to make sure the reader knows why Aunt Mary isn't speaking to the main character. A brief explanation is all that's needed without bringing the current action to a screeching halt. And keep flashback scenes to a minimum. The beauty of a series is that, if a new reader is starting with the third or fourth book and they find it interesting, they will probably want to get all the books and start from the beginning.

If you inject an element of romance into a genre, especially mysteries, make sure your characters are acting their age and not like middle-school kids (unless, of course, they ARE middle school kids!) Do not have them keep a secret from each other that reasonable adults would have no problem discussing with each other. If they have a reason for not jumping into a relationship, make it a real reason, not just because they have been wounded in the past in some way they can't (or won't) talk about. And if there is no way around these types of obstacles (because they really DO contribute to the plot down the road), don't drag it out for three or four books. Love triangles shouldn't take a dozen books to resolve. Neither should the characters engage in serial relationships with new characters in every book. Both scenarios grow tiresome after some time.

Perhaps the most important thing in a series is, don't keep the reader waiting. Or the publisher, for that matter. Series readers would like a new book once a month, but I know I can't write that fast and I also know that the traditional publishing world doesn't work that fast. Most series readers accept (grudgingly) the fact that once a year is the standard amount of time to expect the next book in a series. Never mind that George R.R. Martin went more than five years between "A Feast for Crows" and "A Dance for Dragons"... when you hit it THAT big, you can pretty much do as you damn well please. A good rule of thumb is to have the next book started while you're finishing up the current one. The storyline is fresh in your mind and, when you inevitably get distracted and slowed down by promotional work, you have something ready to work on when you do have the time to write. So don't disappoint your readers, series writers. Always be working on the next book. You already have an audience, so keep 'em happy. Your readers--and your publisher--will thank you.

And so, on to book five....

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