Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Should you write a series?

Last October, THE 731 LEGACY, the last installment in our Cotten Stone thriller series was published. It ended the 4-book series. My co-author Lynn Sholes and I are about to finish writing a new standalone that could develop into a series if the literary gods smile down on us. But in taking on the task of a new set of main characters—something we haven’t done in many years—it got me to thinking about the pros and cons of writing a series as opposed to a standalone.

I think the biggest advantage is that we know our main characters really well having lived with them through four books. We’ve watched them act, react, and grow. Dealing with a character that we're familiar with presents less challenges that starting from scratch with a new main protagonist. And with that knowledge, we can concentrate more on plot. In keeping our series heroine fresh in each book, we always begin by asking, “What does she still need to learn?” The answer to that question is our challenge for new character development in the next book in the series.

Of course, with a new series main character, we have to learn all the idiosyncrasies and motivational forces as we go through the development process. Rather than springing off the starting line, we must first crawl, then learn to walk all over again.

There are a number of things to remember when writing a series. Don’t assume that your reader has read the first book in your series when he picks up number two or three. Add a few reminders with enough details so if the reader didn’t read the first book, he can still understand what’s going on. Make sure that each book in the series has a solid resolution. Include themes that thread through the series. Document your characters and their reoccurring haunts such as where they live, their jobs, their families, births and deaths, habits, settings. You never want to show a lack of historical knowledge about your characters in a later book.

One of the biggest challenges of a series is backstory—how much do we have to retell with each new book? Where do we draw the line between bringing the new reader up to speed that may have started reading in mid-series and boring the established fan who has already read the previous books and just wants us to get on with the new story?

For the series authors out there, are you happy to keep the story going through multiple books. How do you keep your characters fresh and interesting. Do you ever get the urge to cleanse your creative palate and take a chance now and then by writing a standalone?

Join us on Sunday, July 19, when Julie Kramer, thriller author of MISSING MARK and STALKING SUSAN will be our guest blogger.


  1. I wrote two books in a series which are languishing on my hard drive right now. Since they haven't sold (yet), I started a new series. I love my new protagonist, but it was hard getting used to new characters. The old ones were like those comfy, soft, worn out jeans you can't bear to part with.

  2. I can't seem to think in standalones, so everything I've ever started, has been a series. Sometimes I only wrote the first book, and when I couldn't sell it, I didn't write any more, but the ideas were always there for more. I prefer reading series, because it's like visiting with old friends, and that's probably why I write them. I know a lot of people feel the same way. From a purely mercenary standpoint, I suspect it's easier to build a readership that way. People will come back to see what's happening with the character this time around, while they may not be as willing to check out a book with characters they don't know. I think it's probably easier to make someone fall in love, so to speak, with your character than with you as a writer. my 0.02.

  3. Great post! When I was writing the manuscript for Dying to Be Thin, I wrote it as a standalone. My agent represented and sold it as a series (for which I quickly wrote two more synopses). I think each book needs to have its own arc and resolution, and there should also be a main arc and secondary arcs that span the entire series. Of course, as a writer it is possible that we won't know exactly when a series will end, so there may be arcs in a series that do not get completely resolved. Currently I'm writing a thriller, and again I'm approaching the manuscript as a standalone. Unless I kill off the main character (which is never a good idea), it could become a series. But right now I have several ideas for standalone thrillers that I'd like to develop, so I'm not in series-thinking mode for this one.

    Note: As a best practice, I believe that an unpublished writer should not pitch a manuscript to an agent or publisher as a series. For example, when we're writing a query letter, we shouldn't say "this is the first manuscript in a boffo series." The story needs to speak for itself.

  4. Joyce and Jennie. You both bring up a great point about comfort. There’s comfort for the writer in dealing with characters who have become “friends” and with the reader for the same reason. If you fall in love with a character, just like a real person, you want to hang out with them again. Both of you mentioned that you started a series. Perhaps it would be better to think of all your books as standalones. That way you can concentrate on the here and now with an eye for future development. But I would approach all projects as a standalone until you get published and are asked to turn your book into a series.

    Kathryn, you’re reading my mind. Great advice.

  5. I fall in love with writers and how they tell stories more than the serial aspect of the stories they tell. Meaning, I like a goodly amount of authors that write stand-a-lone novels and I like as many authors that write series. It's about the writing - and the writing of his or her characters - not the fact that is might be a series or not.

  6. Great discussion, I was just worrying over something like this. I have three books that are stand alones. My agent immediately started talking about series and I panicked. I had not planned on writing a regular recurring character. My first thought was of one of on author who had been a favourite of mine in the past but ran his series character for several books too many and wore the tires too thin on that vehicle.

    But the going back over the books I suddenly realized that I had written a series without my own knowledge. As it turned out I had a continuous backstory through all three that carried several of the same characters from book to book although not always in the main story.

    So even though each is a stand alone with a loose connection to the others, they could also be seen as a series.

    In other words, I subconsciously did what I dreaded and now kind of like the outcome.

    I don't intend to continue writing series novels, but in reality probably will without my right hand always knowing what the left is doing.

  7. I think it's good to mix it up and try your hand at something new. That being said the book I just wrote that isn't part of the Ursula series could be the start of a new series too...I found it hard getting into a new cast of characters and maybe now I have, I want to stay with them some more:)

  8. I'm working on the second of a series - still trying to get the first published. I've been trying to get friends to read it who didn't read the first, to find out if there's enough backstory and how to fit it in. I do like reading series, but writing one is different.