I began writing this series because I talk to literally thousands of people each year who want to embark on writing a series, yet have very little understanding of how to go about it. They don’t know that there are pitfalls to avoid, and so they fall into pits. Nor do they understand the unique strengths to the form. Writing a series is an endeavor that might take years of your time and offer tremendous rewards, if you understand how to do it.
Here are some of the basic ideas you might want to think about it.
Is this a tight series or a loose series?
The publisher Tom Doherty of Saint Martins has pointed out that a strong series will have a “persistent world with persistent characters.” This is what I call a “tight” series. That means that you don’t change settings too much. If you send your characters to a particular world, like Dune, then you don’t write two books in that world and suddenly switch settings to another planet. The readers who love your strong setting will object if you suddenly went to a more tame world.
In the same way, if you start a series with a book about Lisa, then switch to the viewpoint of Brock in book two, you will lose readers. The girls who loved Lisa may find Brock hard to relate to, and the boys who would have liked Brock will never have read the first book in the series in the first place. So you will have broken the series before you ever started.
The strongest series usually also have what I call a “persistent conflict,” an overarching problem or objective that binds it together. When you look at something like The Hunger Games, Twilight, or Harry Potter there is usually an overarching conflict that the protagonists must deal with. If Harry Potter spends all of his time fighting Voldemort for seven books, and then suddenly has to deal with the struggles of becoming a teacher at Hogwarts and dealing with unruly children and over-protective mothers, then some readers will leave. In a tight series, the conflict must continually build and escalate until the end.
Now, it is possible to write a series that is “loose,” one that does not have a persistent world, characters, or conflicts. You could develop an alternate world, for example, and create a loose series by telling the stories of dozens of characters in that world. That can work. For example, if I had a fantasy series set in my own “High Sorcery” world, I might tell the story of an apprentice sorcerer who becomes a powerful dark lord. I might write another story about the woman who loved him as a child and then worked to destroy him, until she died. I might then carry on with how her orphaned son took revenge, and so on—switching from one character and conflict to another.
A lot of loose series have a strong central character. My friend Jonathan Maberry is doing tremendously well with his Joe Ledger novels, much in the way that other authors have done well with series such as Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, or Conan. In such a series, an intriguing character is what binds the book together.
But having a strong central conflict could also bind a story together. If you look at a series like Roots by Alex Haley, we have a multigenerational struggle for freedom.
Building the Series
A writer who is hell-bent on creating a valuable series needs to understand how to build that series properly. That means that the author needs to understand how to not only write books that build toward a grand climax, but also understand the business side of the industry.
The author for example might need to learn how to choose and work with a good agent, how to pick a publisher and work with an editor, and so on.
The author also needs to learn how to “build a platform” carefully, so that the he or she learns how to maintain and grow a large audience.
I wish that I could go over the ins and outs of how to write and promote a series here, but a lot of the points are already covered in this blog series or are available through my previous writing tips.
But I do want to point out one thing. Have you ever played the old Mario Brothers games, where Mario has to jump up one platform, then climb a ladder so that he can jump to the next? For a writer, our career is kind of like that game. Whether you know it or not, you already have a “platform.” You have a family, friends, and even casual acquaintances that will take interest in your series.
As you grow, you’ll use social media to build a platform so that you can “capture” those readers and build interest. As you gain the proper agent and editor, promote the work through ads, and write book after book, you will build on that platform, enlarging it. If you get great reviews, win awards, hit sales milestones, get your books turned into movies, and so on, you’ll find that your platform “grows” accordingly. Every promotional opportunity that you get, whether it be speaking at a library or doing a good book signing, is sort of like jumping up onto a higher platform so that you get closer to your ultimate goal.
Now, over the years I’ve been able to write several of my own bestselling series, and I’ve trained other writers who have gone on to become superstars. I think that there is no magic formula for writing a great series, but there are dozens of things that you can do to ensure that your series does “explode” onto the popular scene as if by magic.
We are opening up registration for my online writing workshops for a few days. We also have our live workshop in Phoenix coming up in February. Don't wait until the last minute to get registered--the class may fill up before then. Two new live writing workshops will be up soon. I hope you see you in 2017.