About a week ago a question was posed in a Facebook writer’s group:
“Can you give me any advice on writing a series?”
I weighed in, then I thought that, in a longer version, it might make a good post here on 4F,1H.
I have never had any intention of writing a series, but I have read many. I will start out with advice that I read somewhere. It has served me in my own, single works:
“Don’t hold back on your in your writing, even if you intend to continue the storyline. Don’t be afraid that you will be left without enough material for subsequent books, because good stories and good writing begets more. If you don’t put your best effort into your ‘first’ book, you may not get even that one published, let alone a second.”
In other words, if you come up with many lines, descriptions or scenes with what you think are funny or have good depth, don’t think,
“Oh, gosh, I better save some of these for the next book because I don’t know if I can come up with more.”
You will come up with more if your heart is in the story.
Shoot your bolt; your quiver will refill.
I have read a number of one or two books in would-be series that were dropped. Most had far too many unanswered plot holes. Some of the books made me lose interest to find out what happened because it was too obvious that the writer wanted you to come back to find out the answers, and we never could, because the writer never got enough interest to have that storyline continued to be published.
Leave doors open in your story, but not too many. Leave the reader feeling full and they will come back.
You need to make your readers come back because they were satisfied, at least, to some extent. The Harry Potter books are a great example. There was always more that needed to be revealed, but most of the problems of any one book were tied up at the ends of each. The Stephanie Plum books are the same. Almost all successful series have plotlines that have sustaining threads, with lingering questions, but you can’t leave all of the questions hanging. You can do a cliff-hanger if you are wildly successful, but I would not plan on that, and you aren’t going to be wildly successful without a caring, dedicated, satisfied fan base.
There is one book which was given to me where the writing is actually quite good, and I found the storyline interesting, but things were wrong with it. One was, as you all know, my biggest peeve:
The writer did not do her homework.
She had a religious leader of another faith doing something that was not in the least bit acceptable when it came to his cooperation with the other religious leaders. The likelihood of there even being a group of people of that faith, let alone big enough of a congregation to have a clergyman in this small, rural town was unbelievable enough, but that he was involved with the ecumenical clergy and others in burial rites was ridiculous. This faith keeps strict observances and segregation in cemeteries for people of their faith. I suppose the writer wanted to be inclusive, but it was just wrong and those she wished to include would not be happy with what she wrote.
Then, she described the only supernatural beings involved as having every attribute accepted in lore for one particular type of being, yet the writer denied that they are actually that specific type. No, she claimed, they were something else altogether. Well, the old ,“If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck”, fit there and if they were, indeed, ‘something else’, she never let us know in any way why they were not what anyone else would recognize as a ‘duck’, (as it were). We were not even given a hint; just her word that they were not the ‘things’ that she so otherwise ‘accurately’ described. However, that was just one of many, no, actually, every point in the book that she left dangling.
Not one question was answered. Not one “How” or “Why”. She gave the readers a few indications from cryptic conversations by two characters who died early in the book, and some hints from two other characters’ threats, but the protagonist and the man who was to be her partner, (and was probably intended to become her love interest), did not have the knowledge that they needed to do the work they seem to have inherited.
All information hinged on what the dead characters had not passed down before their untimely deaths, (although both had been senior citizens), no indication from the antagonists as to why wanted their ‘rightful’ inheritance of position, nor any counsel to the main characters from the clergy that did not (yet) happen in this first, and last, volume.
Not much happened to advance the story in this book. The writer erroneously assumed that everyone would come back to find out what was left unsaid or undiscovered. Readers will not, not if they fear that they will only get more unanswered questions, feeling empty inside. I would have read a second volume to find out the rest, IF I knew that I would, indeed, find out at least some of the answers so that I could get involved with the characters and the work that they needed to do. However, I might also be worried that I would be burned again. As I said, the writing was good, but I could not recommend this book to anyone, nor am I sorry that it did not continue, not in the style the first had been written.
Much like the advice I have given to a number of writers who start out, “Don’t use exclamation points unless it’s in dialogue and someone is yelling, and then do so sparingly. Don’t tell your readers to be excited, make them excited.” ,in the same vein for this advisory I will add: Don’t tell your readers that they won’t come back to read more of your work unless you only bait them. Trust them, (and yourself), that they will like what they read and they will want more from you.
Lack of continuity is another big mistake that many series writers make. It happened twice to a NY Times best-selling author I know. One of her ‘trilogies’ never made it past the second book because she changed the storyline from the first successful volume. It was a BIG MISTAKE; she left me hanging on some points from the first book and I was totally uninterested in the direction of the second. How she could have tied everything up in a third slim volume is another good question, the answer that we will never know. She also lost a lot of fans of her long-running, wildly popular and fun series when she took a dark turn in it. She tried to recover, but that was the end of her NYT listings, her book tours, and it cost her in subsequent series publication and sales. (I just read this week that they are trying to revive one of her series. I wish her luck. I hope that she learned a lesson.)
So I will ask you:
Have you written or have you considered writing a series?
If you write a series, what rules or criteria do you follow?
What advice would you give this writer since, more than likely, you have at least read more than one series?
What pitfalls would you try to help a writer avoid?