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If you want to construct a writing career that spans decades and provides a decent income, it seems a good idea to write a series that readers connect with and keep buying over the long term. I recently heard PD James (aged 91) and Ruth Rendell (aged 81) speak in conversation with each other. They are both Baronesses with innumerable honorary degrees and between them have over 100 published books. James has the Adam Dalgliesh and Rendell the Inspector Wexford mysteries which have formed the backbone of their literary works for the last 45+ years. They are excellent role models for the aspiring author who wants to create a long term writing career.
When I considered the novels I wanted to write, I also relied on the models of James Rollins‘ Sigma Force novels as well as James Bond and Lee Child's Jack Reacher for various aspects of series writing. I did write Pentecost with a series in mind but I failed to prevent some of the continuation issues I am now facing with the second book in the series, Prophecy.
Here are my issues and suggestions on how you can avoid the same pitfalls. Please also let me know your tips in the comments.
(1) Continuation of character history, physical and personality traits
I thought I knew my characters well but when it came to writing scenes and fleshing them out in Prophecy, I realized I couldn't remember certain aspects. Does Morgan have a violet slash in her right or left eye? Where does Jake come from? Did Morgan actually meet Martin Klein, the Brain of the ARKANE Institute? How old is little Gemma? Where did Morgan's parents meet and why did they split up? I had rough notes from writing Pentecost but no official character sheets to follow. I ended up re-reading Pentecost and copying sections of the book into different pages per character and using them as guidelines for Prophecy so these pages now act as character sheets which I will add on for the next book.
(2) How much to repeat in case people don't start with the first book
With series books there is always an aspect of setting the scene again. You have to explain characters or part of the fundamental storyline in subsequent books in case people start reading that one first. I think each book should be a stand-alone as well as being able to be read in sequence but it's hard to know what to repeat and also how to phrase it without sounding repetitious. For example, I have to explain that ARKANE stands for the Arcane Religious Knowledge And Numinous Experience Institute and that it has a secret base below Trafalgar Square in London from which they solve religious and spiritual mysteries. ARKANE is consistent across the books. I don't want to bore previous readers so I can't include too much detail but I need to explain it for new readers. The challenge is balancing these respective needs.
(3) What I remember vs what I actually wrote
When writing a book we cut out a lot of scenes and extraneous material in the rewrites and editing process. Because Pentecost was my first novel, I had so much source material and research as well as a lot of rewrites and editing. In approaching Prophecy I found I couldn't really remember what I included in the book and what was still in my head or on discarded passages which of course, the reader wouldn't know about. The only cure for this is to re-read the first book again (or the whole series again if you are further on). I must say I was very scared to re-read Pentecost, wondering if I would be upset with it and want to rewrite that instead! But I am still happy with the book and I refreshed my memory on the details.
(4) Retrofitting cover design and branding
I guess I didn't take the future of the book series into account when Joel Friedlander and I worked on the Pentecost book cover (an exciting process!) We did the best we could for the book itself but didn't really consider over-arching branding for future books. I don't want to redesign the Pentecost cover as it is awesome but in designing Prophecy, a lot of effort is going into matching the branding aspects. If you are writing a series, it's worth considering an overall cover and branding strategy before you begin.
(5) A story in itself but also part of a series
Each book must be a stand-alone story with its own plot, character arcs etc but the challenge of a series is also to tie the new book into the old one and close off the open questions left hanging at the end of the prequel. It must also open new questions that will be tackled in the next book so you can get people ready to buy the next in the series. Ideally, one would plan the whole series end to end and indeed some fantasy authors do this kind of extensive world-building. I have been a ‘pantser' in this regard, flying by the seat of my pants and just waiting for serendipity to give me new material to work with. I'd like to get this process more organized with the next few books. I always had Prophecy after Pentecost but now I have at least 5 more books planned, it would be better to at least roughly outline a path through that so I don't end up writing this post again next year!
(6) Does the protagonist change within the book or over a series of books?
I discussed this recently with David Baboulene, author of The Story Book in terms of Jack Reacher. Lee Child's protagonist doesn't change, he is always the loner hero, but others change around him. There is no central character arc but there are other people who change. In a similar manner, James Bond never changes across the multiple adventures. This is the type of model I want to follow but that doesn't gel with most writing advice that focuses on a central character arc.
(7) How to cope with timescale over multiple books
A thriller must always have some kind of ticking clock that keeps the pace going. There must be high stakes worth caring about and potentially dying for. This makes the adventures pretty hard core for the protagonist and across multiple books it seems as if they are super-human. But we don't want to see Bond taking a day off in his pyjamas or Reacher taking a soak in the hot tub (or perhaps we do??!) So I kicked off Prophecy a few weeks after Pentecost had finished but find with the ending of Prophecy I am immediately heading off into the next adventure with a scene that links to the next book (working title Pharaoh.) The issue as subsequent books are added is around whether to change the seasons and age of the characters, or to keep them eternal like Reacher and Bond. It's manageable with 2 books but some series writers are at 25+ so there has to be some development – or does there?
What do you see are the problems, and solutions, for writing a series of books? Are there authors who get this right, or wrong? I'd really appreciate your comments below to add to this discussion.
If you're looking for help with your first novel, or you want to improve one you already have, come and join author of 11 novels and 8 bestsellers, Roz Morris and I for How To Write A Novel online seminar series starting Nov 14th. Click here for all the details.