Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Left Behind & Loving It

Virtual Workshop #1:
Building Series Novels


I've talked about how writing novels is a lot like building mansions, and I'd like to revisit that analogy with some material lists for writing series novels.

Novel series is the sort of book building I do most often. Series can be of various lengths, and although I've been labeled as a long-running series author, I'm more the middle-length type, averaging about seven to ten novels planned per series. Writing these type of books from the beginning of my career has taught me to prepare well in advance for the duration of the building.

Series Novel Materials List:

I. The Durable Premise

A durable premise is the foundation of the series, the driving force of the story that can be sustained for multiple novels. Epic themes, enduring story elements or extensive plot aspects serve a durable premise well. However you work it, you want a premise that can be revived in each novel in the series without repetition. Here are some examples of durable series premise foundations:

Alternate histories (Eric Flint's 1632 novels, John Birmingham's Axis of Time books)

Epic adventure/exploration (my StarDoc series, C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower)

Family or group sagas (Louisa May Alcott's Little Women books; Alison Kent's SG-5 series)

Haunted or paranormal settings, circumstances (Douglas Clegg's Harrow House novels, Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series)

Historical settings (Diana Galbaldon's Outlander series)

Immortality (Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, Christine Feehan's Carpathian series)

Problem-plagued protagonists (Val McDermid's Tony Hill novels, Thomas Harris's Clarice Starling books)

Quests (Holly Lisle's Secret Text novels, J.R.R. LOTR series)

War/Epic conflicts (Star Wars franchise novels, Frank Herbert's Dune dynasty books)

II. The Standalone Conflict

Each series novel should stand on its own and provide the reader with a beginning, middle and end. So in addition to the durable premise you need a conflict that is autonomous to the current novel. This conflict has to have a resolution, but it should also connect with or feed into the durable premise. Like battles during a war, the standalone conflict can be resolved while providing some advancement (or regression, or flip-flop) of the durable premise.

Example: You remember John, our half-demon cop, who must protect Marcia the librarian from a murderous diamond thief. John's tasks are to defend Marcia and stop the thief; that's the standalone conflict. The fact that John is half-demon would be part of the durable premise; especially if I made Marcia half-angel.

When you're contemplating how to come up with your standalone conflict, think about a television series that you like to watch. Every week, you get a new show that has a plot for the episode that is completed by the end of the show, but also progresses the series story line along a little more (or regresses it, or flip-flops it, etc.) The series novel's standalone conflict should work the same way.

III. Memorable characters

Characterization is where I see a lot of otherwise excellent series fail. Series writers who build gorgeous, intricate worlds and then send out bit players to perform short-change their readers. When we read, we identify with the characters -- not the backdrop behind them. Forgettable characters can bury a series in mediocrity.

No two writers put together the same cast in the same way, so it's impossible to come up with the perfect character. What you can do is think about the traits and aspects of people that you remember best from all the books you've read, movies you've loved, and even people you've met through life. What was it about them that resonated with you? What made them stick in your head? Why did you love/hate/admire/envy these particular characters? Write up some lists and study them. These are the prime ingredients for making your own memorable characters, because these are the traits and aspects about which you feel passionate.

IV. Running threads

Running threads are plots or subplots that can be continued in the next/subsequent series novels. I tend to map these out on a grid in my head, and I once did an online workshop with plotting templates for single novels, trilogies and a mid-length series to show what I do in my mind. By the time I got to describing how to plot out seven threads in a three-phase, five-to-seven book series everyone was ready to give up and go home.

I've gotten over templating everyone, and I know that as with creating characters, no two writers plot or subplot the same way. When you're building a series, you have to think outside the single novel playground. A series runs on conflict, and some of that generally should be carried over from previous novels.

I like running threads that feed the durable premise, or eventually become part of it, but I also like small, hidden-in-plain-sight subplots that the average reader doesn't notice until I bring them into play. Your own preferences will relate to how your structure your series, but keep this in mind: the more subplots you and the reader have to track, the more likely you're going to drop a thread or tangle them, the more backstory you're probably going to have to lug over to the next novel, etc.

V. Resolution, Cliffhangers and Consequences

Every series book should have a resolution of the standalone conflict, but it should also give the reader a reason to keep reading the series. I like cliffhangers; I grew up watching television cliffhanger shows and they had a tremendous influence on me as a writer. Other writers like "the next chapter in the saga" approach or the "everything they fixed in the last book just went all to hell" wrench in the works.

Everyone's style is different, everyone has an opinion on it, and I'm not going to debate what is ultimately an individual decision and writing style. Whatever approach you use in your series, it should provide momentum for the durable premise and attract return readers.

One consequence of our very competitive market is that the series writer is rarely guaranteed to sell through to the end of the series plan. My novel Blade Dancer, for example, was planned as the first of an eight novel series. In the original manuscript, the story ends as Jory and crew go after Danea, who is abducted by slavers during the celebration on the homeworld. When the publisher bought only the first novel, and I was already looking at StarDoc being put on the back burner in mid-series, I changed the ending to wrap up the novel. Since then I've made sure that whatever I write as the last book of a series contract, I plan and leave the ending flexible enough so that I can change it into a series finale if I have to.

VI. Series Novelists of Tomorrow

As long as there are loyal readers, I think there will always be novel series. They may get a bit shorter -- the average length of a midlist series seems to be heading toward three to five books these days -- but like our premises and story lines, series novelists will endure. We may have to get creative with how we deliver what our readers want, but like our novels, they're worth the effort.

Post your comments, thoughts and questions by midnight EST on Wednesday, July 26, 2006, and you'll have a chance at winning today's Left Behind Goody Bag: A complete signed set of all six of my StarDoc novels, and unsigned copies of: Alison Kent's Deep Breath, Jo Leigh's Closer, and Holly Lisle's I See You; a Jane Austen writing kit with stationery, indigo ink and a pretty dip pen with changeable nibs, all packed in a blue "All on a Summer's Day" plastic tote bag from Barnes & Noble. I'll draw one name from everyone who participates and send you the goodies; giveaway is open to everyone on the planet, even if you've won something here at PBW in the past.

Related Links:

AbsoluteWrite.com's discussion board thread on The Novel Series.

Kate Elliott's article for The Swan, Why Writing a Fat Fantasy Series is a) really easy, b) very, very hard, c) fun, and d) not much better than beating your head against the wall until it's bloody – all at the same time.

My article for The Swan about series writing (my title looks so short now): When Once is Not Enough

88 comments:

  1. Anonymous1:31 AM

    I have one planned series that Double Dragon books recently bought the first book of. I plotted it based off of the templates you provided during those classes long ago. They have served me VERY well. I have seven books plotted in my head (some fully, the last few just sketched.)

    I love series and writing them, but I'm starting to play with ideas for stand alone books or very small series (2-3 books at most). I'm finding that to be even harder than trying to plot a series. LOL. I keep hoping SOMETHING about writing is going to turn out easy. :P

    Crista

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  2. There's some good thinking in this. What caught my eye was in thinking of the limited-series run, which allows for a definite resolution of the main conflict (assuming you get that far).

    Thinking along those lines allows for changes to take place among the main characters. They can age, undergo personality changes, even die. That can allow for more variety in a series, which is not a bad thing.

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  3. I'm four books into a 'Problem-plagued protagonists' series. The framework for each book is a cargo job, usually acquired under suspicious circumstances, and while delivery is important it's the getting there which makes for the plot. Often the cargo is secondary to the main problems facing the characters.
    To me the characters are the most interesting part of any book. I don't read for the broad sweeps of countryside or the roar of spacecraft engines, and I don't care how advanced the technology is or what the king's sword looks like. I read for the human element, to discover how an engaging character is going to haul themselves out of yet another hole.
    By the way, bewildering stories posted a nice review of Hal Spacejock last week.

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  4. Years ago, back when I was a teenager, I didn't really like series. Being a fantasy reader, it was incredibly difficult to find a stand-alone book. Most were part of a trilogy or longer series. I guess I didn't like the fact that a lot of the books didn't have any kind of resolution at the end.

    These days I find myself gravitating towards series, as a well thought-out one brings me great satisfaction in terms of worldbuilding and character growth.

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  5. I enjoyed both Lynn Flewelling's series (Nightrunner and Tamir Triad) and the characters in those didn't so much change as undergo complete transformations. Not a hint of cardboard cutout.

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  6. I understand that for aspiring authors, writing a trilogy or a series is probably not the way to go, unless the series is unique or very, very good. However, do you think it's worthwhile trying to get a short story set in that world published first? Now that I think of it, Anne McCaffrey's Dragon series started out that way. Was Stardoc ever a short story?

    FYI: that's a hell of a goody bag!

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  7. What Jaye said about the goody bag.

    I don't have a durable premise for my current character, but my current world has a durable premise--I think.

    I'm not a fan of the Problem Plagued Protagonist. I tend to lose interest--which is why the romance-type series sometimes works better for me.

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  8. This is a great post, and something I think about a lot. I think the biggest trick (nowdays) is creating the (seemingly) effortless, unique stand-alone novel that can be easily turned into a series.

    That being said, do you think some authors are headed in the wrong direction when they turn some books into series? I can think of several off the top of my head that should have stopped long ago, but I think publishers keep throwing money at them so they keep writing.

    Have you ever created a series that you suddenly DIDN'T want to do? Like it was fun at the time and then it turned into a pain in the butt?

    Curious, cause my agent has two novels and he's in love with the one that I'd be happy never writing a sequel to, and the one I'd love to turn out 6 sequels on, he doesn't care for.

    Or is this the way of the world with everyone? :)

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  9. I haven't got the attention span to write a series, but I'm completely in love with reading limited run series of 3-5 books. Longer than that, and I start getting bored.

    And yeah on the one helluva goody bag!

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  10. As a new reader to your blog, I have to say thank you for the wonderful information! My only question would be how to query agents or publishers when writing a series. Do you tell them how many books you have in mind or let them know there is a possibility for more?

    Thanks!
    ~Jenn

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  11. Anonymous7:52 AM

    Thanks for the great food for thought. I, too, was frustrated with series SFF when I was growing up. I didn't have any money, and for some reason the library never had a complete series of anything. These days, I enjoy them as long as there's a resolution of the book's conflict. Deliberate and obnoxious cliffhangers drive me crazy!

    Julie Anne

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  12. Your timing is great, as I'm doing final revisions on my science fiction series' first book. *-* I've been studying other series, picking out things that I liked and eliminating tricks I don't (I can't get around needing to leave dangling threads at the end of the books, but blatant cliffhangers drive me crazy).

    The durable premise is something I just tackled this weekend when I wrote out the story arc for the entire series. I knew I needed a premise to carry through all six (currently, I'm up to six) books, but I hadn't spent much time on it. I was surprised at how much I knew of the background, and having the premise laid out has made the standalone plots even easier to construct. I now have all of the pieces of the puzzle, and I can fit them into the proper place. If I hadn't written the arc...I don't think I would have been able to pull off the series very well.

    I am curious, though, on how to submit the book. I know I need to mention that I have planned a series (after all, book two is being written now), but announcing that it's going to be six books sounds a little presumptuous. Is it better to just shop the book on its own and then discuss the series when it's bought, or is it better to be blunt from the very beginning?

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  13. Thanks, PBW. This entry is extremely useful. Especially the segment regarding running threads.

    Although if you have intended to end the StarDoc series at Rebel Ice, I would have knocked my head on the wall so hard I'd knock myself out. I personally can't wait for Plague of Memory.

    As a reader, I hate cliffhangers and having to wait forever for the next book. As someone who hopes to get published one day, I see the wisdom of cliffhangers in retaining attention.

    Thanks for the great post, and of course for offering the goody bag!

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  14. Wow, this is great info, and what an awesome goody bag!! My problem with my series is the character arc. To keep things interesting and the lead (heroine) growing and changing through all books, I started killing off characters. Not too great a move for "romance" because I killed off the hero.

    One of my favorite series as a reader WAS the LKH Anita Blake stories, but that character arc has become ridiculous. How to grow a character, give new powers, new wisdom, without turning her into an omnipotent sex goddess? That's the challenge. :-)

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  15. Bridget Medora8:48 AM

    Thank you for this, PBW. I'm planning a three-book series and this will be a huge help in nailing down the specific plots of the second and third (first is all done).

    I second the questions about how to approach agents with this. Since the first novel of mine is entirely standalone, should I mention the other planned two in the query, or wait until more serious interest is shown?

    Anyway, I've known since I was an adolescent that whenever I wrote a novel, it would wrap itself up completely, no matter if it had a sequel or not. Around that age I read a time travel fantasy I adored -- until the deliberate obnoxious cliffhanger ending that resolved nothing. Even at age ten or twelve, that cheap shot turned me off from looking for the sequel, and actually now I can't remember the title or author -- that's how fast it killed my love of the story. I knew then that when I wrote, I'd never cheat the reader like that. Maintaining reader interest in the series is one thing, leaving them unsatisfied is another.

    And ditto on the goody bag! Wow!

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  16. Series seem to be thriving in the mystery genre. Unfortunately, a lot of mystery series seem to get so involved in solving puzzles that they neglect character development: Our Hero doesn't change. How do you let characters grow while keeping the continuity that readers want?

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  17. Thanks for another good post. Also, thanks for the link to Kate Elliott's article.

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  18. PBW, you rule. Thank you for taking the time to post this.

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  19. Thanks so much for this information! I'm trying to finish up the first story in a planned trilogy, and you've given me a lot to think about and work with.

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  20. Should you always be prepared for your novel to become a series? Even if that was never your intention. Would you tick of your agent too much by telling them that you are not interested in this particular novel becoming a series, or is the angent like your mommy and you must do as he/she says or you'll be grounded?

    I have so many questions, but I will resist asking too many. I have been leaarning a lot just by lurking here. Thank you.

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  21. Great post.
    Got me thinking about what series I like/don't like or what the element is that makes me give up on a series...
    The thing I've noticed is that when a book in a series fails to move the characters forward much I tend to give it up. Another killer can be when a favorite character doesn't appear in the sequel... makes me feel as a reader like the writer doesn't understand their readers because why would they get rid of somebody everybody likes?

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  22. Thanks for the great information! Personally, I know I don't have the attention span to write a long series. I think three novels is the comfortable number for me -- anything more and I know I'd start to struggle. It might be a result of reading a few long-running series (10+) and seeing the challenges of keeping things interesting while not completely destroying the character arcs in the process.

    And to echo everyone else: WOW! That's an amazing goody bag!

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  23. Crista wrote: I have one planned series that Double Dragon books recently bought the first book of. I plotted it based off of the templates you provided during those classes long ago. They have served me VERY well.

    Okay, so I didn't scar Crista for life with my templates. :) Congratulations on the sale, that's wonderful.

    Bill wrote: What caught my eye was in thinking of the limited-series run, which allows for a definite resolution of the main conflict (assuming you get that far).

    Rather than diving into an open-ended series, which is how I started, I've been thinking more in stages with my series, as in "I'll write Books A, B, and C under contract like this as stage one, and then, if the series sells, I'll write C and D to do stage two, and if they sell, E, F and G should go in this direction for stage three..." Almost like putting together mini-series within the series.

    Simon wrote: I read for the human element, to discover how an engaging character is going to haul themselves out of yet another hole.

    That's it, that's why characterization is so vital in SF and any genre. You put it so much better than I did.

    Mallika wrote: These days I find myself gravitating towards series, as a well thought-out one brings me great satisfaction in terms of worldbuilding and character growth.

    I didn't read many series when I was younger, either, with the exception of Agatha Christie because all her books were in print and stocked at the library. I think we become more patient as we get a little older, and are willing to wait for the next installment.

    Simon wrote: I enjoyed both Lynn Flewelling's series (Nightrunner and Tamir Triad) and the characters in those didn't so much change as undergo complete transformations. Not a hint of cardboard cutout.

    Unfortunately I read The Bone Doll's Twin at a time when I was very upset over my best friend losing a baby, and it depressed me. The writing was excellent, though. I'll have to give her another shot.

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  24. Zillin10:23 AM

    Whew. I'm having too much difficulty with my current WIP's size to even think about series plotting. After only 60K I'm losing focus. . . could it be that writing fast is neccessity for those of us with short attention spans? The more I work on longer projects, the more I start to realize that the only way I'll ever finish is to knock the thing out quickly.

    Your list of series types was a big DUH moment for me--these all look obvious, but they're things I hadn't thought of before (like family sagas, rather than epic quests or wars). There's a sort of series I could get into. Goodness knows that something like A Song of Ice and Fire would be ten+ years down the road for me in terms of plotting ability. Any thoughts on subplots? What makes a good one, how big of a role should they have in a story, how do you tie them all together? I'm a noveling novice and I'm still struggling with making plots that have twists and turns, rather than a linear progression from A to Z.

    Loved Blade Dancer, BTW. Bought it in hardcover. There aren't many things left open-ended for Jory or Kol, but I'd love to see what happens to Birdy and some of the other characters in the universe. =) (And that goodie bag looks fabulous.)

    (My apologies is this is a double-post, Blogger and my browser do not get along.)

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  25. Oh, excellent, EXCELLENT points.
    Thank you.
    Think I've done these things. The question, of course, is have I done them well enough.

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  26. Thank you for your excellent guidance once again. I always come away from your entries on writing ready to face new challenges with new tools to help me succeed, and I think that is a generous gift that you give us. In a lot of ways, you've become a 'virtual mentor' to many of us, I think. Thank you.

    Ris

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  27. I'm another one who wasn't scarred for life by those old templates, though I've only recently started plotting a series.

    You track all of your subplots and running threads in your head? No notes, no nothing? Color me very impressed.

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  28. Unfortunately I read The Bone Doll's Twin at a time when I was very upset over my best friend losing a baby, and it depressed me. The writing was excellent, though. I'll have to give her another shot.

    I have a comfort line when it comes to reading, and the Tamir books crossed right over it. However, I found the Nightrunner books engaging and well written, and so I kept going with the Tamir series. It's certainly worth it, although not the most cheery start you could imagine. I can well understand how a tragic event like your friend's loss would turn you right away from the books. Sometimes you really don't want art to mirror life.

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  29. PBW, thanks for this. I find it very interesting.

    There's nothing more exciting than finding a book you love & then discovering that there are more like it!!! But I prefer books that can stand alone, or be read in the context of a series. Too many books numbered 2 & subsequent, have that terribly awkward first chapter where they try to catch the reader up. Kind of like the soap opera intro "previously on ..." Cliffhangers also suck. Each novel has to be a good stand-alone.

    And yes, as previous commenters have mentioned, there are a couple series out there that should have died a merciful death several books back - they're clearly brands that the publisher and/or author can't bear to let go of, but the quality has just gone down....

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  30. Anonymous12:26 PM

    As a reader, I have a love/hate relationship with series. On the one hand, if I'm captivated by the first book's characters, I'm thrilled that it continues and I get to find out what happens next. On the other hand, I've been very dissatisfied with how the individual books within some series are wrapped up. I don't want to feel like I HAVE to read the next one to find out the resolution of the story.

    It's a fine line, I know.

    Pam

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  31. Catherine H.12:38 PM

    I just finished reading Stephen King's, On Writing, and I just happened to go online to check out the usual supects (blogs) for the day. I found it very interesting to then to find your post describing a slightly different approach to writing.

    Your entry is very interesting and informative. I really enjoy it when writers who have been writing for awhile share their modes of working. Especially when they can really hone it down to the core of what they do and how they do it.

    Well done and thanks!

    Catherine

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  32. Katnic12:50 PM

    I hadn't thought of writing a series until an editor at a pitch session suggested it to me. I went back into the manuscript and brought a minor character out into the forefront so he can continue in the next book. It was really fun. However,this workshop made me realize that I have still have some work to do before I send out this requested full. Darn it. Always MORE work. But thank goodness I found you!

    Thanks for doing these workshops!

    Katnic

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  33. This was all really great information, as I love a series novel like nothing else. I just never want my books to end.

    I also appreciate that you think the individual plotline for the story needs to be resolved.I was having a discussion about this the other day, and I'm sick of movies and books that don't really end.

    I'm not asking for every little thing to be wrapped up, but there should be a feeling of finality. All the major individual storie lines should be wraped up. I don't think having a sequel should be an excuse for sloppy storytelling.

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  34. Better than a workshop.

    Thank you so much. I'm starting my urban fantasy series and this really helps.

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  35. There are days when I read this blog and walk away thinking "I heart PBW." Thank you for expressing these points so clearly. I'm sure they'll help

    I'm building the world for my first wip and realized that if I do this correctly, I'll have set myself up for several story lines and potential plots. It made me do a happy dance because I just love this place I've created in my head.

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  36. Wow, thanks for the great explanation. I just finished book two of my series. It's great to have this advice as I go back and rewrite. I already knew book one needed reworking and this gives me food for thought as I plan that. Thanks again.

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  37. Thanks for the links; good lunchtime reading. A few years ago I started reading more mysteries, and I was a little disconcerted by the number of sequence series (versus multivolume series, to use Kate Elliott's terminology). Having read a lot of SF/F series, I was used to the idea that a series should have a strong arc, and if you were a bit lost in Book #2 it was your own damn fault for not reading Book #1. Since then I've come to appreciate the craftsmanship involved in a Book #2 that can be read independently, but I still can't bring myself to jump into a series in the middle. Happily (perhaps amazingly?) I've had good luck finding backlists of interest.

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  38. When plotting out a TV series, I keep three things in mind: the arc of a particular episode, the arc of the season, and the over-all character arcs that will continue through the entire series.

    It's a little different with books, but I do keep an eye on the three-arc structure. I think, "How does this affect just this novel? How does it affect the series?"

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  39. I find that in my work, I'm unable to stop my ideas from turning into series. I always start writing something with full intention of it remaining a stand-alone novel, then my brain enjoys presenting me potential ways to continue it, to make it into a much longer work. My current project ballooned from a stand-alone concept to a plot that may require eleven seperate novels to complete.

    Have you ever faced something like this, where a story forced itself to be larger than you intended? Is there actually a good way to deal with this, or is it good to just let it evolve into something new?

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  40. I've finished my first book in my first series and am patiently waiting word on wether it has sold or not (ok, maybe not so patiently but I am waiting), and I've figured out the common threads for the three books I've planned to finish the series. What I do after though will probably be something along the lines of what Mercedes Lackey does with her Valdemar books, have them be a series of series. I've become rather fond of my world and would like to explore more of it.

    I'm sitting her at my desk trying not to drool over the really cool give away you've thought up. So let me just add a very very big thank you and you're awesome.
    Ann

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  41. Thanks for the tips! I've got book #1 of a planned 4-book series almost completed, and (though it will be awhile before I have to worry about this) it's nice to see a pro's take on the various ways to approach writing series novels.

    I am especially glad of the way you described durable premise vs. standalone conflict... I have each plotted out for myself, but hadn't found such elegant ways to describe them.

    Thanks again!

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  42. Anonymous3:26 PM

    Thank you. The articles were very interesting. While I haven't planned a series, they still gave me good advice that I can use in my planned standalone novels set in the same universe.

    Kaelle

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  43. Anonymous3:56 PM

    Thanks for the post. The concept of the running thread not only helps set up series but adds realism to the story; how often are all of our life problems neatly wrapped up at the same time?

    Michael Snell

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  44. Thanks for some wonderful information. You've given me some food for thought. I especially appreciate your advice on how to end each book of a series. One of my pet peeves is picking up a book and finding it's the second or third in a series and you have to read the earlier installments to understand what's going on. So thanks again.

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  45. Jaye wrote: I understand that for aspiring authors, writing a trilogy or a series is probably not the way to go, unless the series is unique or very, very good. However, do you think it's worthwhile trying to get a short story set in that world published first? Now that I think of it, Anne McCaffrey's Dragon series started out that way. Was Stardoc ever a short story?

    A lot depends on the genre, I think, but you can always pitch book one of a series as a standalone novel. When you have an interested editor, then you can talk about whether to series or not to series.

    Some genres are naturally series-friendly, like private investigator mysteries, paranormal romances, urban fantasies, and thrillers. This is not to say you can't write a standalone in this genres, it's just where I'm seeing a lot of series pop up these days.

    And yes, loooooooong ago, StarDoc began with a little 10K short story called Border FreeClinic. I should post the original someday; it's always funny to me to see where I started with it.

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  46. Milady wrote: I don't have a durable premise for my current character, but my current world has a durable premise--I think.

    Plenty of writers use setting as premise -- Anne McCaffrey's Freedom series uses an unusual planet as the durable premise, for example. The characters, who are stranded on this mystery planet that seems abandoned by its former alien occupants, go through all sorts of trials and tribulations in each book. Yet as each book moves along their stories, everything feeds into the durable premise of the planet, and revealing it's secrets. Very cool books, too. :)

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  47. Jessica wrote: ...do you think some authors are headed in the wrong direction when they turn some books into series? I can think of several off the top of my head that should have stopped long ago, but I think publishers keep throwing money at them so they keep writing.

    In some rather famous cases, success does spoil the series writer. Whether it goes to their head or they run out of steam or they're too busy partying and start phoning it in, it's going to happen. Others seem to handle the glam and gigantic paychecks very well. Something to remember if you become the Next Hot Young Star in Publishing; don't let it ruin your work or turn you into an overpaid jackass.

    Have you ever created a series that you suddenly DIDN'T want to do? Like it was fun at the time and then it turned into a pain in the butt?

    I've had series ideas tank on me in the middle of putting together a proposal, but that's why my process for preparing a submission is such a long, drawn-out process. I want to know if I'm going to get tired of what I'm writing, because I don't want to get sick of it in mid-series.

    Curious, cause my agent has two novels and he's in love with the one that I'd be happy never writing a sequel to, and the one I'd love to turn out 6 sequels on, he doesn't care for.

    Isn't that just the worst? I had something similar that happen with some romances. I finished a trilogy, was ready to move on, and my editor came back and asked for three more books with crossover characters from the first three. Luckily I was able to put on a spin on them that refreshed the story lines and my interest in them, but I had a couple of days there where I was walking around muttering "Oh, you gotta be kidding me."

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  48. Hi!

    I have a question for you. Do you think that a series works better when in a linear/chronological order? I've experimented with both chronological order and jumping around a bit. Since you've written a series before, I just wanted to know your thoughts on what works best.

    Thanks,

    Catherine

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  49. Sela wrote: I haven't got the attention span to write a series, but I'm completely in love with reading limited run series of 3-5 books. Longer than that, and I start getting bored.

    It has to be an extremely good series to keep me involved, so I don't think it's just you, Sela. A lot of series run out of steam or get repetitive, too, and that may be what chases off some readers. I think the market influences us as well -- there's so many new voices coming onto the market every week; it's hard to resist picking up something new.

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  50. Jenn wrote: My only question would be how to query agents or publishers when writing a series. Do you tell them how many books you have in mind or let them know there is a possibility for more?

    If you're unpublished, I recommend pitching the first book in the series as a standalone, and hold the rest of your series info for when you get a response from an interested editor or agent. If you would rather pitch your series upfront, it's a good idea to keep the details to a minimum and submit an outline of your idea for the series novels versus a detailed proposal for each book you have planned (unless an editor or agent asks for that specifically, in which case, hit them with everything you've got.)

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  51. Julie Anne wrote: These days, I enjoy them as long as there's a resolution of the book's conflict. Deliberate and obnoxious cliffhangers drive me crazy!

    Agreed. And you probably should pass on reading my novel Beyond Varallan., lol.

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  52. Andi wrote: I am curious, though, on how to submit the book. I know I need to mention that I have planned a series (after all, book two is being written now), but announcing that it's going to be six books sounds a little presumptuous. Is it better to just shop the book on its own and then discuss the series when it's bought, or is it better to be blunt from the very beginning?

    (See my comment to Jenn, above)

    The reason I recommend shopping the first book in a series as a standalone (or, as you put it, on its own) is because dazzling, attention-grabbing multi-book proposals are very difficult to write.

    A good way to pitch a multi-book series is to come up with a one-line description, maybe the series premise, i.e.: "This is the first book in a dark fantasy series where the humans are monsters and the vampires are victims."

    A cluttered, confusing multi-book pitch rambles all over the place. Compare the above one-liner to this: "This is the first book in a dark fantasy series; book two will be about Thierry, the vampire who goes crazy in book one, and Jema, whose own mother may be trying to kill her but Jema is dying anyway, and then book three will be about Lucan, the assassin vampire who hates Michael from book one, and Samantha, who is investigating a murder Lucan is being framed for asnd has a strange ability no one knows about, like Jema from book two and Alexandra from book one, and throughout these three books Michael and Alexandra from book one will be part of the secondary plot, which leads me to when Alexandra is abducted in book four...."

    To summarize, pitch the first book on its own, or if you want to pitch the series, pitch the series concept versus the details.

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  53. Crys wrote: As a reader, I hate cliffhangers and having to wait forever for the next book. As someone who hopes to get published one day, I see the wisdom of cliffhangers in retaining attention.

    I think another part of it on the writer's side is that we know how the cliffhanger is going to work out, so it's not a big thing for us, and we sometimes forget that we're leaving the reader hanging. I had no idea how upset readers can get until I published Beyond Varallan, which does have kind of an obnoxious cliffhanger at the end (in my defense, as I was a rookie at the time, I thought of it more as a big revelation.) Some people wrote offering me bribes to get a manuscript copy of the next book, while others wanted to run me down in the street and back over me a few times. :)

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  54. Joely Sue wrote: My problem with my series is the character arc. To keep things interesting and the lead (heroine) growing and changing through all books, I started killing off characters. Not too great a move for "romance" because I killed off the hero.

    Oops. Beeg Romance No-no.

    One of my favorite series as a reader WAS the LKH Anita Blake stories, but that character arc has become ridiculous. How to grow a character, give new powers, new wisdom, without turning her into an omnipotent sex goddess? That's the challenge. :-)

    I don't know if this will make sense, but I still use those three character questions of mine with every new series book, even if I'm using the same protag. Maybe it would help to change them a little each time, i.e.:

    Who are you now?
    What do you want, and how has that changed from the last book?
    What's the worst thing I can do to you this time around?

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  55. Since I always do things different from the way other people do them (the story of my life, lol) I now have a hybrid that's three books taking place in the same world that is, historical time and place (Western Roman Empire from Britain to Gaul, Germany and Italy about 406-415 AD), have different main characters and different story arcs but the same historio-political background and thus an element of connecting story arc, share some minor characters, and supblots - the latter is the mess I'm just trying to sort out: what goes into which book and thus which overall POV. It's not a trilogy like LOTR, it's not a series like Stardoc; the books may work as standalones but I see them as belonging together and forming one super-story with a cast of thousand and all that jazz. :)

    No idea what to call Endangered Frontiers and how to market it once I've finished not only one but I suppose all three books. *sigh*

    And it's not that the revision of my first, Kings and Rebels, is that much different, I could make more than one book out of it as well because it's so going to be more than 120K.

    I should have invented a nice Fantasy world instead; history is such a mess, and the battles never take place the moment you need them. *grin*

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  56. Alison S5:57 PM

    Great post, PBW - thanks.

    There are 2 ways in which I usually encounter new authors - either following recommendation from internet sites I trust, or by browsing in the library. I buy lots of books by authors I know I like, but rarely buy a book, unseen, by someone I've never read before. The trouble with this strategy, as someone else commented, is that libraries seem almost to have a deliberate policy of missing the first volume or two of multi-volume serieses. Therefore, I quite often end up "trying" a new SF author via book 2 or 3 of a series. I realise this is hard on the author, but it really sorts the sheep from the goats. There's a real art in getting in enough backstory to ground the new reader in the world, without turning it into a quagmire of consonant-rich names and lists of objects of power, and I find that I often pick up a book, read the first couple of pages and put it down again, because the book is making no effort at all to engage me. IMO, Robin Hobb is one example of someone writing a long series who goes over the backstory lucidly; JK Rowling (as Stephen King said) is another. With the Anita Blake stories, I reckon there is so little arc that it really doesn't matter which order you read them (at least, I started with about number 6 and went backwards, and it didn't seem to matter), which I suppose is another way of approaching the problem...

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  57. Bridget, since I've covered my thoughts on submitting series novels I won't repeat myself. :)

    Katherine wrote: How do you let characters grow while keeping the continuity that readers want?

    The standard I've noticed, particularly in the mystery genre, is to write a on-again off-again subplot romance or some personal relationship that goes nowhere. Then there's protagonist personal issues (alcoholism is a fav) or a past tragedy that can never be resolved (murdered spouse, losing a child.)

    I don't like subplots that don't go anywhere, they're repetitious and boring. So are series protagonists who never change. I tend to experiment with change catalysts in order to avoid the old standards.

    If you think about your life, and how the events, people and places in it have influenced and shaped you, you have an excellent list of things that change a person. Some will be subtle and/or long-term, others bring sudden, enormous change. One of them is simply time itself, and how we change as we grow older.

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  58. Phelan wrote: Should you always be prepared for your novel to become a series? Even if that was never your intention. Would you tick of your agent too much by telling them that you are not interested in this particular novel becoming a series, or is the angent like your mommy and you must do as he/she says or you'll be grounded?

    Very tough questions. A lot depends on you, the agent, what you want to do with your writing career, if you even want a career, etc.

    Here's the main thing: if you hate writing something, or it bores you, or you resent it, it's going to show through in the work. So if everything inside you is saying "No freaking way am I writing this as a series" I think you should pay attention to it, and the hell with the agent.

    But.

    As a published author, you may be asked to do a lot of things that aren't a part of your vision of your work. Your agent is there to help you sell, and any advice an agent gives should be seriously considered. I'm not saying you have to write anything you don't want to, but if there's room in your vision for compromise, go for it. Negotiate terms you can live with. Talk to your agent and editor (politely) about how you feel. If the publisher want a series and you don't, you could try countering with a standalone book set in the same universe, which is the next best thing.

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  59. Bethany wrote: The thing I've noticed is that when a book in a series fails to move the characters forward much I tend to give it up. Another killer can be when a favorite character doesn't appear in the sequel... makes me feel as a reader like the writer doesn't understand their readers because why would they get rid of somebody everybody likes?

    I think Elizabeth Peters? was the author who last year killed off one of the recurring characters in her mysteries and angered a lot of her fans. Series authors always run the risk of riling up the readers this way, especially if you're so well-known that the readers feel they "own" your characters.

    From the writer's POV, I think you have to do what you think is best. I write whatever serves the story. I have to; to do otherwise would be cheating the readers in another sense -- by catering to them against my better judgment.

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  60. EllenO7:55 PM

    As a voracious reader I am never more delighted than when I find a new series that allows me to disappear into another time/planet/version of reality. I truly admire authors that manage to allow the characters to grow within the series confines, whether that be a 3, 5 or unlimited book arc.

    There is a running joke in between my sisters and I that we are unable to go into a bookstore and NOT find books that are part of a series...*hand reaches for shelf and finds...1st in a brand new series*

    EllenO

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  61. Zillin wrote many kind things, and: Any thoughts on subplots? What makes a good one, how big of a role should they have in a story, how do you tie them all together?

    For me, the best subplots feed or tie in with either the novel premise or, if you're writing a series, the standalone conflict and/or durable premise. Mine often center on or primarily involve secondary characters (subplots also allow me to flesh out the supporting cast a bit more and engage them in the story versus having them stand around and act like window dressing or walking mirrors for the protagonist.)

    Good subplots for me are simple ones that add dimension but don't distract the reader from the central plot of the story. Because most of mine are character-centered, they tend to revolve around loyalties, relationships, desires, secrets, and anything else that can cause problems in anyone's life.

    Other writers like to use setting or other world-building elements to fuel their subplots, and this can be just as effective as the character-centered ones. Robert Harris does it with an ancient water system in his superb novel Pompeii.

    How many subplots or how big they are is really up to you and what you can juggle. I tend to stick to three or less subplots. I know writers who write huge epic novels that balance ten or fifteen subplots.

    One of the most unusual subplots I've ever read was in the novel Pearl by Tabitha King. It concerned an inbred pedigree puppy given to a secondary character at the beginning of the book, and as the story progressed this subplot grew from a minor annoyance blip that showed up every so often to a huge, terrifying finale that made my hair stand on end. Never saw it coming, and yet it was there all along -- and in an eerie way, it echoed the central plot perfectly.

    Subplots don't necessarily have to tie in together, but they should begin resolving as you head in to the last third of the novel. Any subplots that are tied directly to your central plot should keep pace with it, and may be tied up a little earlier to act as lead-ins or catalysts for the novel resolution.

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  62. Peggy wrote: You track all of your subplots and running threads in your head? No notes, no nothing?

    I have a weird brain; it's why they used to take me to colleges and have me perform on stage like a chimp. I should mention that I do write down everything once I put together the novel proposal. Just until I find a psychic editor who can read my mind. :)

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  63. Thank you for a great post. I love reading series and am in the middle of writing one, so this is great material to chew over.

    Nalini

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  64. Anonymous9:31 PM

    Dear PBW,
    Thanks once again for a very interesting post. I had delusions of writing a series when I first started -- now I just want to finish the book :). But one thing that has been metioned, that I'd be intested to hear both you and other writers comment on, is character arc. Since LKH has already been mentioned, I'll throw this out. I was given the first six or seven books of her series by a friend and read them one after the other. Obsidian Butterfly was just out for those of you who are keeping score, and I then got that one from the library. That book and the next seem to be a pivotal point in her series, where the line in the sand has been drawn between readers. She did some things in the subsequent books that divided the readers. As a writer though, I'm interested in how characters change through subsequent books. Perhaps the Ardeur (sp?) was LKH's attempt to fulfill the "What's the worst thing I can do to you now?" question (Anita was pretty straight-laced in the first books) that did or didn't work for her fan base. (Maybe the conflict wasn't developed enough?) I guess, after a lot of typing, my question boils down to what elements are needed/can be used to create a strong character arc?
    Hope this makes sense. Thanks again,
    JulieB

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  65. I've always liked series. What I don't like is that dreaded "as you know Bob" first chapter. I've always thought that could be done better, so each book really is a standalone. I thought Gordon R. Dickson did a great job of that in the Dorsai series. You never needed to read them in any order, but all together they were this whole sweeping history of a people.

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  66. I used to read read a lot of series when I was younger: Animorphs, Young Jedi Knights, Night World, but when I started looking for more romance and discovered romance novels, I didn't think I'd go back to reading long series again.

    But I like your idea of making a series shorter, so that you can still have the fun of travelling on a journey with the same characters and interesting variations of the main conflict and premise, but there's still an ultimate goal to reach.

    When I first got into anime, I was fascinated by the prospect that instead of most television series, some of the writers began with a set ending clearly planned out. For example, some of the best anime series I've watched have had an average of only 50 episodes. I think planning it out so meticulously leaves a limited amount of space for a series to go on and on with little thought to where it's ultimately going.

    I practically cut my teeth on Animorphs and in my opinion, Applegate went down in flames because she went against her better judgement and decided to continue the series indefinitely after she'd intially planned on doing only 11 books. The last half of the (54 book) series was written by ghost writers and I couldn't even bring myself to finish it.

    I can see the good sense you used in ending Blade Dancer the way you did, but I would love it if you could someday continue it. Although I bet that will start getting easier for you in the years to come because you are doing very well for yourself and gaining popularity as a writer. As a loyal reader, I'm so proud of you! ^_~ But as much as I'd love it, I don't want you to burn yourself out and start working on eight novels all at the same time. *g*

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  67. So far, I find my best ideas for continuing a series come during the writing of one novel. I guess as an unpublished and unsigned writer I'm trying not to put all my eggs in one basket. But I do have a great idea to continue the story of my favorite *stand alone*. Now that I've got this posted before midnight, I'll go back and read everyone else's posts. Grin

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  68. I love series, I most enjoy reading them when they're already finished because waiting for a year or two in between installments kills me.

    Very interesting post, I've noticed a lot of what you mentioned with the threads and subplots in your romance novels. It would have been interesting to have had a series based off Blade Dancer, that's one of my favourite books.

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  69. When you speak of a 'series', are you talking more of a group of stories in a connected universe, or are you referring to a serial story, like Jordan's seemingly-endless Wheel of Time, which I gave up on in Book 3?

    Is it possible to have what you describe, a satisfying conclusion in each book, in a series like the WoT?

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  70. Heather wrote: Have you ever faced something like this, where a story forced itself to be larger than you intended? Is there actually a good way to deal with this, or is it good to just let it evolve into something new?

    I wrote a StarDoc spin-off trilogy (Bio Rescue, Afterburn and the as yet unpublished Catch Point) that, thanks to the characters, their world and changes in the surrounding solar system, wanted to become twenty more novels. I stuck to my original plan and kept it to three books, but made some notes on what I would do if I had the opportunity to publish more. My focus right now is to see if I can get Catch Point published to finish out the plan.

    Another thing I do is write short story versions of ideas that want to be novels. Very often this satisfies my writer cravings to do more with a story. I've written a number of StarDoc e-book stories and novellas that I gave away to readers. They helped me blow off story steam, so to speak, during the three years my series was on hiatus.

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  71. Catherine wrote: Do you think that a series works better when in a linear/chronological order? I've experimented with both chronological order and jumping around a bit. Since you've written a series before, I just wanted to know your thoughts on what works best.

    I think there should be some logical continuity to a series, so generally chronicle-type books tend to work better for me. Yet often I read authors out of series order (Agatha Christie, Anne Perry, Anne Rice) and their premises are so strong that I don't feel jolted out of the books.

    I'd say if your series relies heavily on a timeline for the premise, then you might want to follow a chronological order. If your premise is more omnipotent or all-encompassing, you can probably jump around all you want.

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  72. Thank you for this informative post. I have just begun my own series, and it's like trying to herd cats. I've been trying to keep it as simple as possible. I agree that the biggest key is to have a durable premise. For me, it is driving everything. Since it's a YA, one thing that helps me to keep it focused and to the point is the shorter chapters. I try to keep each to 10 pages.

    Thank you,
    Cyndi

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  73. Julie wrote: ...my question boils down to what elements are needed/can be used to create a strong character arc?

    One thing I've found in writing series characters is that you can't rely on the same plot device for the character arc of every book without boring or chasing off the readers. I stopped reading a series I really liked because the same device -- the female protagonist being unable to decide between two hunky lovers -- was used every time without resolution. I don't have much use for stupid women like that in real life, and I don't want to waste my valuable reading time following a character loop being spun for sales versus a genuine character arc.

    A workable and durable character arc should in some way imitate real life. Are you the same person you were five years ago, ten years ago? Think of the changes that happened to you during those years in book form -- what would be your character arc in each one? You don't have to use the same life experiences for your characters, but it gives you a feel for how a person grows and changes.

    Having a catch-all excuse for a character's behavior is also popular, but not realistic. It's like go to school and telling your teacher "My dog ate my homework" every time you're in trouble. Once or twice is fine, and maybe you can use the dog excuse for other things, but whip it out every time you drop the ball? That teacher is going to toss your butt in detention and leave you there.

    The other thing I think is vital is to avoid stalling out in a character arc. If you have a subplot romance, for example, that romance should not hover at any given stage for ten books, but should progress, regress, flip-flop etc. in a natural order. You don't have to move it along rapidly, but you should move it along.

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  74. Dean wrote: When you speak of a 'series', are you talking more of a group of stories in a connected universe, or are you referring to a serial story, like Jordan's seemingly-endless Wheel of Time, which I gave up on in Book 3?

    I mean series books (generally speaking) as serial stories, or stories that are connected by some common thread, usually chronological order. I don't think of standalones written in the same universe as series novels, because they only share a setting; your opinion may be different.

    Is it possible to have what you describe, a satisfying conclusion in each book, in a series like the WoT?

    Depends on who you need to satisfy, and I've never read Robert Jordan's books so I really can't comment on them.

    Readers who don't like chronicles get very upset over finding out the story continues in the next book. They want everything wrapped up in one volume and something totally new in the next. These are people you're going to piss off, but luckily for us clearly-labelled series writers, they generally don't buy our books in the first place.

    Satisfaction is in the eye of the series reader, I guess. Even after the series ends, some readers aren't satisfied. I still get e-mails asking me if I'm ever going to write a story about Brooke, a secondary character from my White Tiger Swords trilogy. I wrapped up what I wanted to do with Brooke's character in the third novel, but because her thread ended with the beginning of a romance, a lot of readers still want to know what happens next. :)

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  75. Thank you for posting this. The explanation of a durable premise combined with standalone conflict really solidifies the conclusions I was coming to on my own. The examples are helpful too.

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  76. Excellent insights. I've been a series fan since I was a child. Guess I can blame Nancy Drew. Series have always been welcomed in sf and mystery. When Kensington tried publishing only series in romance, the program lasted only a couple of years. The four and five book series were linked with secondary characters in one book being the "stars" of the next book. I think in order to create that character/reader bond, it must be done with the same characters, book after book.

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  77. Sandra2:48 PM

    Any chance you'd be willing to share those series templates? I've been working with your single-novel template from Forward Motion for a couple of years now and it's been a great help.

    Love these virtual workshops. I'm still struggling with durable premise in my series. It started out one thing, but I didn't stetch out follow-on books. Now that I have 3-4 other book ideas sketched out, I need to see how I can fit the first book into this arc. These notes are a tremendous help, as are the comments here.

    Thanks!

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  78. Reading this makes me think of times I have been disappointed in a series and never thought why but now it makes sense. Most of my disappointments were in the characters. I read the first, sometimes the second book and then couldn't wait for the next one and then I started to notice they were not nearly as good as the earlier ones.

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  79. Oh, how exciting -- a giveaway! I came here from Bernita Harris' blog; she recommended your post on series writing. Always delighted to discover successful writers who are willing to offer advice to aspiring writers, so the first order of business: thank you for blogging!

    I also have a question. Do you happen to know whether it's more common to (1) build a series around a world and shift the focus to different characters throughout the series, or (2) build it around a character (or group of characters) and simply change the scenario and/or location each time... or (3) none of the above?

    I ask because I think one of the biggest problems for series writers is to ensure their central character(s) keep growing and changing throughout, and that's difficult to sustain. That's one of the reasons I chose to focus on a world instead of a character in my series and change protags for each book.

    Is this cheating? :-)

    Thanks!

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  80. Sandra wrote: Any chance you'd be willing to share those series templates? I've been working with your single-novel template from Forward Motion for a couple of years now and it's been a great help.

    I've gotten a couple of other e-mailed requests for them, so I went ahead and put the originals up on the stories/demo blog at these links:

    Single Novel Plotting Template

    Trilogy Plotting Template

    Mid-Length Series Plotting Template

    Keep in mind that these are just general guides and not to be considered the only way to plot novels, trilogies, series, etc. Feel free to adapt them and change them to suit your writing style, too.

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  81. S.W. wrote: Do you happen to know whether it's more common to (1) build a series around a world and shift the focus to different characters throughout the series, or (2) build it around a character (or group of characters) and simply change the scenario and/or location each time... or (3) none of the above?

    I'm going to pick #3. It's more common in SF and fantasy series for the writer's focus to be on the world-building, as genre readers are keen on technobabble and big fat fantasy worlds, which is why characterizations in those two genres sometimes tend to be on the weak/cardboard side. It's the exact opposite in romance and mystery -- the strong genre focus on the characters often leaves the world-building in the dust.

    The uneven focus often misleads readers into thinking that worldbuilding or characterization are more important as story elements. Then there are writers who are simply great worldbuilders but lousy character creators, or the reverse.

    I ask because I think one of the biggest problems for series writers is to ensure their central character(s) keep growing and changing throughout, and that's difficult to sustain. That's one of the reasons I chose to focus on a world instead of a character in my series and change protags for each book.

    Keeping a protagonist fresh and interesting after so many books is very tough, and a new cast in each book definitely eliminates the problem -- as long as your world doesn't get stale. :)

    Is this cheating? :-)

    Not that I know of. My philosophy is that if it works for you, go for it. :)

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  82. I actually really enjoy series books NOW. However, back when I was in high school and college, and my book buying budget was...er...a lot less, I got most of my books from the library or the used book store. It was always frustrating to find only the first and third books in a series, or even worse, only the second. *sigh*

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  83. April D.10:39 PM

    I'd love to win the goodie bag. Thank you for having the contest and thank you for the virtual classes, and the links.

    I like a good series, I thought everyone liked a good series. I wish more writers would create series. Once I spend time with a character, I want to know more about them, and what happens next in their life.

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  84. ThankyouThankyouThankyou for the templates!!! the ROCK!

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  85. A huge thank you for the templates!

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  86. My thanks to everyone who participated in this workshop, and please feel free to continue posting comments. I'm going to move on down the VW line and catch up with other questions; if you have one about this workshop please stop by PBW on Fridays when I do open Q&A and we can discuss it then.

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  87. Thank you so much for making your experience accessible to people like me just starting out with series.

    I've been working on a 7-book historical series as a hobby for several years, tracing the life of my protagonist from birth to late middle age. Because there are lots of sub-plots that wind their way throughout, I am probably going to write and rework all seven books into a complete whole before submitting to a publisher. I'm sure that is probably pretty stupid for a first-time author, but I'm doing a PhD on the same time period so that should help.

    My question is whether you know of any series which change the sub-genre of each book for variety, e.g. romance, comedy, mystery, adventure, etc. It's an ambitious task, but it might help to make each book a stand-alone story. Perhaps you have some advice about varying styles of writing in different books.

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  88. I've got the beginning of what is definitely a duology, but possibly a trilogy. I have to say, epic fantasy trilogies are some of my favorite things ;) I have some threads to throw to the second book, at least. Now I've just got to figure out how to slog through the big battle scene(s) at the end...

    Thank you so much for the advice. It's definitely something to think about...I shall have to get a binder to hold all this writing advice!

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