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Some Tips for Writing a Series

Categories: Breaking In (Writer's Digest), Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Guest Columns.

When you find yourself in the position of planning or being contracted for a series of books—whether for two or twenty-two—it’s important to keep track of the details, and have a final goal in mind for your characters to reach.


    


Guest column by Jess Haines, author of
Hunted by the Others, the first in an urban
fantasy series. Jess also writes short stories
and screenplays, and has experience in in
technical writing and editing. See her
website here
, or find
her on Facebook.

 

First, you have to decide on some basic elements:

  1. How is your series linked? Is it all written from the perspective of or following the same character from start to finish, or does it follow different characters?
  2. What is the major, overarching conflict?
  3. Who is the main character(s) and what do they want to accomplish?  What do they have to do with the conflict above?  What are some of the major obstacles they will have to overcome?
  4. Who is the main antagonist(s) and what do they want to accomplish?  What do they have to do with the conflict above?
  5. Who else is involved? Why?
  6. Which point of view will you be writing this from?
  7. When and where is this set?
  8. If a fantasy, what kind of fantastical elements are involved, and what are the benefits, drawbacks, and restrictions involved?

Based upon the answers to the above, know your limits. Use those questions as a starting point to flesh out your world and make it believable.

PLOT THE TIMELINE

One of the best ways to keep track of the overall story arc is to plot a timeline of significant events. Even if the timeline stretches far beyond what is covered in the books, it helps you keep track of what occurred, when, and why. Even if it is no more than a sentence or two beside a date, it will give you bounds to work within, and a greater sense of purpose as you fill in the details between one major event and the next. You’ll know where your characters are going, which helps you to plot out the answers to the questions of how and why. It also gives you a way to track what occurs between Point A (main character gets pulled into conflict) and Point B (main character puts an end to said conflict).

UP THE ANTE

Remember, your characters have to continually face increasing odds and challenges in a series, so don’t play your trump card in the first book. There should be ripple effects from the characters’ actions, so make sure you take these things into account and plan accordingly. Make note of them. Don’t keep your world static—have the actions and reactions of all the various characters, including behind the scenes, have an effect on each other. Even if you’re using different characters book to book, as long as it’s all set in the same universe, there should be some action/reaction going on at all times. Characters should grow and learn over time, too, so make sure if they’re making mistakes that it’s not the same mistake over and over again.

YOUR “BIBLE” (OR “CHEAT SHEET”)

Another tip is to keep a “cheat sheet” of sorts. Use it to keep tabs on things like minor characters, background info that might have bearing on the novels, snippets of statistics or information that you may need to refer to later, etc. You can also keep a database tracking major character attributes (height, weight, skin color, eye color, certain groups they belong to, notable quirks in speech or personality, physical ticks, habits, etc). This can be an invaluable tool to refer to when working across a series where a minor character may only pop up once every few books—and you need to know exactly what they look like so your sharper readers aren’t left wondering why the character had blue eyes in the first book, and brown eyes in the second.

ADDING QUIRKS

Lastly, you should consider keeping a style sheet—a document that tracks “quirks” to your writing style. For example, if you want to insert text messages and emails into your story, but need to show how the text should be formatted differently to separate it from the rest of the novel (e.g., extra indent, justified, font size 12, use Courier New instead of Times New Roman), make a note of it on a separate document. This goes for spelling or grammar quirks, too. This can be a handy tool for you, your agent, your editor, and the copy editor.

What all of the above boils down to is—be organized. Be prepared. Be knowledgeable about your story and your craft.  It will make for a far stronger series in the end.

This post is an online exclusive complement
to a spotlight on Jess in the Sept./Oct. 2010
issue of WD. If you don’t have a sub to
Writer’s Digest, what are you waiting for?
Get one now!


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7 Responses to Some Tips for Writing a Series

  1. Denae says:

    Examining and documenting the links and connections in the series can help a writer create a cohesive series that grows and changes over time. I think these are all valid points, especially since I’ve read some of my favorite authors share these same bits of advice.

    I really appreciate your section on "up the ante." Creating a series where actions ripple throughout the books and there are persistent effects from the events takes a lot of organization, but it really pays off when a reader can share in the adventure.

    Another good tool for staying organized might be a map of your world. Big or small, it can help bring the travel details to life and visibly reveal the path of your characters and the limits of the world.

  2. Russo says:

    This post was very helpful and you motivated me to buy a sub to writers digest. Thank you!

  3. Definitely consider the possibility of a series when you’re creating characters. I’m dealing with two kids I really didn’t plan on having in this book, but I’d made a throwaway reference to one in the first book, so I’m stuck with him. And the other character wanted to be front and center, and she had a child–it was an important plot point in the second book, but at the time, I didn’t know she’d be back.

    (Now, if I’d only had a contract for a 4 book deal instead of ‘we’ll take this one and think about another one later" I might have created a much better bible.

  4. Glad you guys like the post! Hope it helps!

    Best,
    -J

  5. Great post. I’ve always been a little intimidated by the idea of writing a series but these tips break down the process so well that I’m sure I could do it.

  6. Lynn Rush says:

    Nicely said. Series are difficult to write. Your tips really help!

  7. Kristan says:

    Great advice! I think "up the ante" is particularly sage, whether in a series or a standalone or whatever. Sometimes we writers love our characters so much that we hate to hurt them — but really, pushing them way out of their green zone, through their yellow zone, and right into that scary awful red zone, is just the thing to show them (and readers) what they’re made of.

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