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I love romance novelists.
The authors I know who write romance work damn hard to please their readers with stories that move them emotionally. They also write series characters and spin-offs that keep readers involved in their worlds, and today Adrienne deWolfe explains her tips on how to do this.
After writing my debut novel, I had the extreme good fortune of talking my Bantam editor into letting me write two spin-offs, based on characters from Texas Outlaw.
Last year, the Fates smiled on me again when my ebook publisher approached me with the proposition, “I’ll print your two Avon paperbacks as an ebook series if you’ll write a third novel.”
Why did my publishers want a series rather than single titles?
Well, according to my Bantam editor (who was weeping when she told me never again to kill off a dog on her watch, no matter HOW minor its character,) my characters touch the hearts of readers.
I’ll never forget the (now ancient) U.S. News and World Report article that quoted American literary agent Ethan Ellenberg. Since I was unpublished at the time, his words of wisdom were fire-etched into my brain:
“If you move people emotionally, you sell books.”
However, many factors make a reader rush to her favorite retailer to purchase your spin-off or sequel. Some of these factors (like market trends, cover art, or your book’s position on your publisher’s list) may be completely out of your control.
Let’s look at a few factors that an author can control:
As any professional publicist will tell you, Joe Public has a short memory. Readers are easily distracted by the bazillions of titles that retailers throw at them. You’re not going to do your career (or bank account) any favors by waiting more than a year to release your next book.
Sure, some authors’ careers survive lengthy dry spells, but that’s only because those authors had a mega following before they went on hiatus.
My ebook publisher, ePublishing Works, tells me that ebook readers want to download a series of books rather than a single title. I’m acquainted with several rising Indie stars who are writing 200+ page books every two months (despite full-time day jobs and a house full of children.)
So in this age of digital publishing, learn to write short and fast. Otherwise, those precious spots on your publisher’s list will go to the up-and-comers, who are far more prolific than you.
Develop Fascinating Sidekicks
My first writing mentor, now a #1 NYT bestselling Romance novelist, used to counsel us wide-eyed newbies, “Nobody loves a protagonist who is cowardly or stupid. Let your sidekicks and villains fill that role.”
Sidekicks, with their broad range of personalities, are a fertile breeding ground for spin-offs. The caution, here, is that not all sidekicks are hero material.
Because you have a lot more latitude to create “gray” personalities with sidekicks than protagonists.
In my case, I didn’t plan on elevating the villain from His Wicked Dream (Book 2, Velvet Lies) to hero status in Seduced By An Angel (Book 3), but I started playing with the idea of a love triangle. By Chapter 2, my “villain’s” sense of humor had charmed me. Suddenly, I was staring down the barrel of a real dilemma (as we Western writers like to say.)
My brain wouldn’t let me kill Cass. The only solution I could bear was to redeem Cass’s dastardly ways, but that meant stripping him entirely out of Book 2 – without creating a major plot revision.
Moral of this story?
Don’t let secondary characters run your life!
Seriously: a lot of things you wouldn’t dream of doing in paperback are now possible in ebook. However, I wouldn’t recommend your going through my labors to redeem a villain in mid-series. (Too time consuming.) Choose a less dastardly secondary character to elevate to hero status.
If you choose to ignore this sage advice (masochist!), keep in mind that some crimes can’t be forgiven by some readers. In a Romance novel, for instance, rape is taboo. Few Romance readers will buy a spin-off in which the rapist is featured as the “hero.”
Raise the Stakes in Every Novel
Think of Book One as the “egg” from which the rest of the series must logically develop. Your protagonist must show growth over a lot of pages, so it’s wise to make his growth slow. Keep a few of his key conflicts unresolved so you have a plot thread to start the next book.
In one fantasy series that I was following, I couldn’t help but notice that the characters started to stagnate. The author was rehashing Book One’s conflicts in Book Three. The ending of Book Four had a “race to the finish line” feel, as if the author had shoved a ton of plot resolutions into the last 20 pages.
I learned later that this author’s sales had dropped dramatically (presumably due to the plodding story arc.) Her publisher refused to pick up the last book in the series. As a reader, I could tell something was amiss, but nothing in that series was as disappointing as the “stampede ending,” necessitated by the publisher.
So do yourself a favor: don’t keep throwing the same plot problems – with new names – at your protagonist. Pit your protagonist against increasingly more daunting odds. If you have trouble thinking broadly enough to develop storylines for a multi-book series, recruit other writers (or beta readers) to help you brainstorm.
Avoid Unnecessary Complications
You gave the heroine a five-year-old ward in Book One to demonstrate her protective nature. You’re currently writing Book Three. What are you going to do with the brat now? Can you really drag him through another 400 pages without inventing some really macabre (and satisfying) way of getting him whacked?
My point is that series writers are stuck with the same fictional folks for a long time — 10 years is not inconceivable. During that time, you’re going to grow as a writer and as a human being. Characters that appealed to you during your divorce, might be tough to revisit while you’re deliriously in love.
My advice? Don’t burden your characters with kids, pets, physical disabilities, or other material complications that you have to account for logistically in scene after scene, unless you have a solid plan for turning that “shackle” into a catalyst in each book.
What are your ideas for turning a single-title novel into a spin-off or sequel? Please share them in the comments section, below.
Adrienne deWolfe is a #1 best-selling author and the recipient of 48 writing awards, including the Best Historical Romance of the Year. She is excited to announce that she will be donating a portion of her royalties from her current series, Velvet Lies, to urban reforestation efforts.
Fascinated by all things mystical, Adrienne writes a weekly blog about dragons, magic, and the paranormal at http://MagicMayhemBlog.com to help her research her Epic YA Fantasy series. She also writes a weekly blog featuring tips about the business of writing at http://WritingNovelsThatSell.com. She enjoys mentoring aspiring authors and offers professional story critiques with her book coaching services.
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Top image: Flickr Creative Commons Hearts and ribbons by Devora Resnick
Lorna Faith says
Appreciate all the great insight for writing a series Adrienne:) I’m working on Book #2 in my Historical Romance series. Although I have villains(3 of them with varying degrees of ‘villainy’), I don’t plan on redeeming them …but I think they’ll up the ‘ante’ on their level of tormenting the heroine. I do kill off some very sentimental attachments in Book #2 too, but I guess my question is how far do you take the ‘killing spree?’ I kill off the hero’s parents toward the beginning of the book because it’s WWI and Germany attacks Odessa(Russia)…and I’m thinking of killing off a good friend of the heroine’s too. Do you just play it by ear as far as how many people are maimed or killed off …and is it supposed to get more intense with each book in the series? Anyway, just wanted to say, your helpful advice is just what I needed:) Thanks Adrienne
Adrienne deWolfe says
Sounds like you have the makings of a strong suspense. I’m not sure that there’s a “rule of thumb” for your question, so I’m speaking from instinct here.
Romance readers, in general, want to be immersed in a story about relationships. No matter what historical era you have chosen, your reader wants to experience the vicarious, heart-pounding thrill of sexual attraction and falling in love.
Nevertheless, there is plenty of room for suspense in any Romance novel — and as you’re probably aware, there is an entire sub-genre (with extremely avid readers) devoted to Romantic Suspense.
The trick in a Romance novel is never to let the action and/or suspense elements overshadow the main story line — which must be about the love relationship, if the book is to remain categorized as a Romance (at least, by Legacy Publishers.) If killing or murder-solving become the dominate plot, then you are “officially” writing a Suspense or Mystery novel, which, of course, has its own set of reader expectations.
So, if you want to grow a readership of Romance fans, be sure to set up your plot accordingly.
I hope that helps!
Suzanne Anderson says
First, I have to agree with your editor. No killing of dogs. I always stop reading a book that show a dog dying, no matter how promising the rest of the book seems to be…yep, I’m a dog lover.
Other than that…I really appreciated this article, since I’m currently planning a 3-book contemporary romance series for the first time and find the process daunting.
Thank you for sharing your knowledge, this is an article I’ll print out and refer to again, it’s a keeper!
Adrienne deWolfe says
Thanks so much for the kudos, Suzanne! Glad I could help. If you’re looking for Romance-writing tips, you’ll find a whole section on my website devoted to tools for Romance writers at http://WritingNovelsThatSell.com. You may also want to follow the blog there.
Good luck with your book!
Adrienne deWolfe says
Wanted to jump in and thank you so much for featuring my guest post on your website! It’s always a treat to visit with you and your readers. Thanks for all you do for the writing community — and, of course, for offering this great forum for writers to share helpful tips!
Thanks for the tips. I started with Books 1, 2 and 3, then found the need to write prequels which are turning out to be much better writing than the first 3 (of course, since I’ve had more practice now.) I had better watch that rehashing problem though, it’s already showing up in my head as I imagine dialogue. I suspect readers won’t enjoy that as much as I do! And I haven’t finished publishing all the books yet, so there is the ever-present temptation of revisionism, for me that is the greatest problem, working out when something is done.
Adrienne deWolfe says
I can totally relate. My publisher asked me to contribute a novella to a Western anthology, using a character from a previous book. I settled on a prequel to the love story that I was in the midst of writing. Now I have to be EXTREMELY careful to grow each character’s persona and give their relationship new dilemmas in the book-length manuscript! I didn’t think that would be a problem — until I got slapped upside the head with Chapter 3. 🙂 Fortunately, 3 years have elapsed, and they each have new obstacles in their careers — which has saved my plot. Good luck with yours, Jai!
marquita herald says
I have a suggestion (consider it a plea) from the reader’s perspective – writer’s need to put as much thought into the end as they do to the beginning. You know that Mikey Spillane quote – “The first page sells this book, the last page sells the next book” – well it is all too true. It seems everyone is jumping on the series bandwagon because they’ve heard it’s the way to sell books – the problem is too many writers are more concerned with the next book than providing readers with a satisfactory ending to t-h-i-s book. With the exception of a few writers I know do this thing really well, I am no longer buying anything that has “series” in the title.
Adrienne deWolfe says
Marquita, I have long felt the way you do about serial novels. That is why I’ve pledged to myself, and my readers, that each book will provide a different reading experience, as well as an all-inclusive plot (in other words, no cliff-hanger endings.) To that end, my heroes in each spin-off novel are markedly different. So are my heroines. (I hate to read series where the author keeps re-hashing the same hero-persona with a new eye / hair color.) So take heart: not all series writers are insensitive to the feelings of their readers! In the end, my goal as a writer is to invite my reader into my fiction world, take her on a roller-coaster ride, and give her a feel-good ending that doesn’t require her to crack open the next book — unless she just happens to like the secondary character so much, that she wants to see what I do with him when he becomes the hero of his own story! Thanks for your input!
Lynette Gautier says
I have written a spin-off to Pygmalion/My Fair Lady set in London circa 1913/14 and on through WW1 but so far have only been offered a part payment contract. Is this the trend currently would you say?
Can you have a prequel that is not published information for the published book as a crossover and still publish it?
Christy Nicholas says
I appreciate your advice! Thanks for sharing. I’m about to release my second book in my first series, and third is already written. However, some of the advice above doesn’t really relate, because my series is going backwards. Yes, backwards! Each subsequent book is a prequel, as the series follows a family line back to a seminal event in the past, and event that resulted in their possession of a magical brooch.
So far, the first novel is about Valentia, who travels to Ireland in 1846 to find her grandmother’s family. The prequel is about some of that family when they were young. The prequel to THAT is about their grandfather. The struggle I’ve had is to keep the common thread strong and to increase the stakes each time.
My new worry is that this seminal event happened about 1500 years before the stories are set. I don’t want to write 30 novels, each time only going back a few generations – but I also don’t want to lose the commonality in the family line. Any suggestions on keeping that? I am hoping to write several trilogies, each set in a different period of great conflict within Irish history.