Tweet chat 23rd July 2021 Writing Series and Serials.

MorningbirdPhoto Pixabay

Participants: Elizabeth Holland, Kathleen Marple Kalb, Gail Aldwin, Beth Hudson, Marianne Scott, Marian Thorpe, Maria Johnson, Rik Lonsdale, Chery Whiting, Gerald Hornsby, Sandy Stuckless, Karen Heenan, Deborah Klée

Please introduce yourself and tell us if you have written a series or serial and if you have not, your thoughts about writing/reading them.

Cheryl: Hi I’m Cheryl – attempting to write my first book (non-fiction) I have so many ideas that my book coach is always saying ‘save it for the next book’ I wonder if this is a polite way of saying ‘it is not good enough for this one.’

Kathleen: I really doubt it is. Sometimes WONDERFUL scenes slow the action. The single best writing advice I’ve ever gotten is from my now-agent: “I love these characters and their world, but NOTHING HAPPENS in the first 100 pages!” I rewrote with that in mind.

Beth: (to Cheryl) Probably not. It’s just that if you throw too much in a single story it won’t be as tight. Ideas aren’t bad, but they might not be suited for the story you’re telling right now.

Rik: Yes, to this. And developing the discipline to remove that extraordinarily satisfying scene that’s been polished to a mirror finish but really shouldn’t be there.

Karen: I feel this deeply. I cut a scene from my third book that I was pretty sure when I wrote it that it was self-indulgence on my part. It ended up being two paragraphs in another scene, but 5k gloriously unnecessary words in the writing. But it helped me know my people, so worth it.

Rik: Yes, to this. I’ve done a lot of prep writing. I’ve written 30k of backstory for my characters for this very reason. None of it in my work, but makes my characters real for me, and helps me be consistent with them.

Beth: I cut a scene I really loved from Goldsong because it just didn’t fit. I did later give it out as a deleted scene.

Karen: I think my cut scene will eventually make it into my newsletter.

Cheryl: I make LinkedIn posts out of my edits – waste nothing I say!

Deborah: I wrote a short story from a chapter that my editor suggested I cut and made it a giveaway.

Elizabeth: Hi all! I’m Elizabeth. I’ve written a Christmas sequel to one of my books. I’m often asked whether I’ll write anymore in the series and I have left it open to explore the love life of the third Harrington brother 

Beth: I really like the idea of a Christmas sequel.

Kathleen: Holiday stories are a lot of fun — there are all kinds of plot possibilities!

Marianne Scott: I’ve written three manuscripts with the same characters. I never intended to it to be a series but I guess it is. Generally, I don’t really enjoy a story that goes on and on. But my characters had more adventures to share.

Karen: I’m Karen, and I write Tudor-era historical fiction. I never intended to write a series. The books are linked standalones, with a different MC for each volume because I like to sort out the character arc, but I’m not ready to leave the world yet. Three books so far.

Deborah: Hi Karen. I like the idea of writing from a different character POV for each book.

Karen: I enjoy it. For Songbird, I finished Bess’s arc, but she appears in both A Wider World (in their shared past) and later in the story. She also makes an appearance in my unpublished third book. She’s just not the POV character any more.

Beth: Hi! Beth Hudson from Iowa, USA. I have written a book and sequel, and have just put out the first book in a new series. The two sets are connected, but have not crossed paths yet. 

Gail: Do you become very invested in your characters when writing a series?

Beth: Absolutely! I also need to work to find them new and fresh things to do so that I’m not just repeating the same story.

Kathleen: I absolutely do! They’re real to me. (And I started writing series because I get so engaged with the characters in the ones I read!)

Eva: Eva, historical fiction author. All my books are connected (however tenuously) but none depend on having read any of the others. I’m not generally a big fan of series-es although there are some exceptions!

Kathleen: Hi, I’m Kathleen, and I write series mysteries. Gilded Age historical series with two books out and a 3rd coming…contemporary cozy series set at a Vermont radio station starting next Feb. I write series because I LOVE them!

Rik: Hi, I’m Rik from Dorset, UK. I’ve not written a series, but I’m planning a sequel. I’m in two minds about series. To be honest I rarely read them, though I might read ‘linked’ novels, like Iain M Banks ‘Culture’ novels.

Maria: Hi, I’m Maria! I’m based in NW England, near Manchester. My main focus is my Celtic historical fiction series- two published, one in process of publication. Currently working on the 4th. I also have a fantasy novel which is stand alone, I think so anyway!

Gail: My favourite series is The First Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Deborah: My dad adored those books. I couldn’t get into them myself but I enjoyed the Scotland series by the same author.

Rik: Wasn’t the first one written as a serial in the newspaper? 44 Scotland Street.

Gail: In the Scotsman, I believe

Deborah: Book bloggers have asked for further stories about the characters in both of my novels. I have ideas for further books but I prefer writing something new.

Elizabeth: Short stories are good for this and they can be shared on your blog or newsletter (can you tell I’d love more stories on your characters?)

Sandy: I’m Sandy and am in the middle of a couple different series. I do enjoy them because they allow me to spend more times with characters and worlds I’ve come to love. 

PrettySleepy Pixabay

How does an author keep a pace that motivates us to buy the next in a serial (continuation of the story – ie not standalone) without frustrating the reader? You can also apply this question to TV serials. Examples that work well.

Rik: I think this is what puts me off series. Each has to be a complete story, and if the reader needs info from a previous episode, then either the story has to ‘recap’ or the new reader is lost. The recap must be frustrating for readers of previous episodes.

Sandy: (To Rik) You might enjoy Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books, Rik. Each book is its own story in the same universe, but you don’t have to read book one to understand what’s happening.

Maria: (To Rik) I think this also might depend on how long a gap there is between books? E.g. my 3rd novel coming out next year will be almost two years since my 2nd and not everyone might re-read, so I’ve gone on the side of recapping a bit (not too much though, hopefully.

Kathleen: I think that very much depends on how it’s done. It’s possible to give enough info that you know where we are without actually spoiling the previous “episode” or annoying the reader.

Rik: A whole new skill set to master when it comes to plotting/planning. I wonder if some series develop only because the first was successful and others develop because the author can’t kill their darlings (being a bit contentious here). Is it cynical to ‘write to your strength’? Isn’t it sensible to please your audience?

Kathleen: I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. Readers invest in characters, too (I know I’m invested in my favorite series!) so being true to your characters is good writing AND good business. But writers don’t they shouldn’t force it…there’s nothing worse than someone who was clearly dragged back into doing another installment for the money or the contract! I’ve stopped reading series when I picked up one where the author was clearly phoning it in!

Marianne: I suppose a writer could leave some sort of cliff hanger at the end of the previous series making them desperate to find out what happens next. Any comments?

Gail: But does that make for an unsatisfactory end to the first instalment? 

Rik: I would find that so frustrating. It would feel like the story hadn’t ‘ended’.

Marianne: Not at all. I write mystery thrillers and it’s easy to have complex plots with different characters. I leave one open.

Beth: I’m willing to leave a cliff-hanger, but not for the main conflict of the book. Something needs to be resolved for a reader to feel satisfaction and not just give up on the series.

Sandy: Agreed. There has to be some kind of resolution at the end of each story.

Maria: Great question! It can be tricky having a balance between seeding ideas to keep people hooked for the next one while also not skimping on resolution. Maybe leave a subplot hanging- e.g. I tied most things up in my 3rd, but left a prophecy plot that ties into my 4th.

Beth: That’s pretty much what I’m doing with the Sagathas Bard series. There was a big resolution in Goldsong, hopefully very viscerally satisfying, but there is more going on that hasn’t been resolved yet.

Kathleen: At least the way I look at it, series mysteries actually resemble TV shows like Blue Bloods or NCIS in structure: our ensemble solves cases each time, but the characters have longer-running arcs.

Karen: For me, it’s about character. If I’m invested enough in a character, I’ll wait/follow along. Cliff-hangers can be helpful (unless they’re annoying). Mostly I want to just keep spending time and learning about someone I’ve grown to care about.

Kathleen: That is EXACTLY why I read series mysteries…and why I will ride through a plot that doesn’t interest me a lot in a given installment!

Marian: It’s about change and believable conflict for characters we care about. But it should develop in a way congruent with the original ideas – no artificial conflict or ‘way out’ story lines.

Maria: Hi Marian! You do this so breathtakingly well in your series

Gail: It’s like wearing an old pair of slippers – reading again and again about the characters I’ve come to know but seeing how they respond to the new challenges the author throws at them.

Beth: In my humble opinion, there needs to be a plot arc within the individual book so that there is a climax and resolution of an immediate conflict, while still having more things to say.

Deborah: Does that mean the writer plots and plans the arcs over several books before starting a serial?

Beth: I know that I’ve got specific story arcs I’m aiming at. I think it depends on what kind of book you’re writing. For instance, mysteries are often separate books with the same characters and a similar format. For a fantasy series like I’m doing, a certain arc is helpful.

Gerald: With a serial – yes. It’s important to know in advance what the overall story arc, otherwise it would just ramble on and on. Important to get those ‘hook beats’ at the end of each episode.

Elizabeth: As a reader I want the first book to leave me wanting more but I don’t necessarily want a cliff hanger. Nothing frustrates me more than a cliff hanging and nine times out of ten they always end in a disappointment.

Cheryl: I get frustrated by books that claim to be a sequel but are in fact a repetition of material within the first book, with little by way of extension on the subject or development of ideas, simply some fancy ‘cut and paste’ I feel cheated!

Sandy: I think the key is leaving at least one question unanswered while offering a satisfying conclusion to the current story. Having another motivation to carry over into the next book/episode is key.

CongerDesign Pixabay

How would you go about planning a serial over 3 or more books? How does it differ from writing a standalone novel?

Sandy: The story needs an arch, but so does the series. It’s like skipping a stone across the pond. Each skip is its own story, while the ultimate journey is to make it to the other side.

Elizabeth: The first step is to look at an overall plot for the entire series and then break it down into sub plots that will satisfy and engage the reader.

Maria: Or if you’re like me, finish book one, then have ideas for book two and so on. It was only when writing my 3rd one that I started to think of more arc ideas that can link into the 4th.

Elizabeth: That’s worked so well for you. To be honest, the only series I’ve really read are supernatural ones which tend to have an overarching plot. I don’t usually have the patience and prefer stand-alone books

Karen: I’m not a big plotter, but thankfully history gives me hooks and some wire to hang a plot on. My characters usually give me the plot, and since each MC appears somewhere in the previous novel, I follow wherever they take me, and then tidy it up later.

Maria: Yep, that’s why I love historical fiction I like the sound of your process!

Beth: In my case, I’ve got the arc for a e-book series laid out, then I’m going to do the backstory in another 3-book series. (After that I will have to see what I’m planning). Writing a standalone novel, you have to have the entire arc completed in a single book.

Kathleen: I really think of mine as being like a weekly TV series. Each time we solve a crime…and there are big character arcs (If/How/When will Ella marry the Duke?) that move slowly through the installments.

Marianne: I was going to argue that more than 3 books in a series is excessive but, about “Nancy Drew”? Oops, I’m aging myself. Ha ha…

Sandy: If you’re an epic fantasy fan, The Wheel of Time and The Sword of Truth are both long series. Wheel of Time is 14 books, Sword of Truth is 12 (I think). 

Gerald: I think you’d need to plan the overarching storyline first, especially the character arcs. Where do you want your characters to grow to by the end of the serial?

Deborah: I suspect it is the character arc over the books that is what holds it together and keeps the reader engaged and committed.

Sandy: Regardless of what I’m writing, I always look for series potential. Doesn’t necessarily mean it will be, but it could. I usually let Book 1 tell me if there’ll be follow-up stories. While I’m plotting, I’ll look for questions that could turn into plots themselves.

How does a series (stand-alone same characters or setting) help you to develop your characters? How have characters changed or revealed more over several books – those you have written or read?

Gerald: I’ve enjoyed dropping little bits of backstory into early books, hinting at something in the characters’ pasts. However, Lee Child did say (allegedly) about his Jack Reacher books: “Character arcs? We don’t need no stinking character arcs.” A bit like James Bond.

Maria: I think you have much more room to expand, focusing on developments between characters, especially secondary ones who might steal the limelight. I feel like there’s not as much chance for that in a stand-alone.

Karen: I hadn’t planned a second Tudor book, at all, but when working on something new, I kept hearing this annoying voice (who turned out to be the new MC). “They said I would not end well,” was what he said. It’s the first line of his book.

Marian: My characters often reveal things I didn’t plan – and yet when I look back at earlier books the hints are there. My saga takes place over 40+ years, so maturity has quite a bit to do with the changes, but not all.

Maria: I remember you telling me you had no idea Sorely would one day be the POV of a novel when you first introduced him

Marian: That’s right. He was just a minor character, I thought. He had other ideas. Now I can’t imagine the series without him.

Deborah: That is interesting Marian. It is as though the character is fully formed but only revealing themselves to you as a writer in stages. Writing is an art of magic!

Marian: That’s exactly how it feels.

Kathleen: Sayers is really a perfect example: Lord Peter is almost a caricature when we meet him, but over the books, we learn about his WWI service…and of course, he and Harriet Vane eventually grow into a wonderful couple.

Beth: While reading, if the characters don’t grow, I get very frustrated; I read primarily for characters and secondarily for plot. While writing, I need to figure out how my characters will change consistently with their story arcs.

Using a specific example of what I love, the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries deepened and complexified the characters during the course of the series, making them three-dimensional by the end.

Karen: The Wimsey books got so much better over time, and then when you re-read, you have that further character knowledge in your head and enjoy the earlier books all the more.

Kathleen: YES! One of my favorite examples of a good series mystery.

Karen: This is what I enjoy. Seeing Bess through Robin’s eyes in A Wider World, understanding his motivations better and carrying on with his growth. It’s not just aging; it’s finding ways to hurt them so that they grow and change.

Deborah: The series that I have really enjoyed have focused on different characters each time.

Elizabeth: They have the familiarity of characters, setting and tone and yet it’s also like falling into a new world.

Marianne: In my debut novel, Finding Ruby, I killed off a main character which I resurrected in the 2nd manuscript (which is not yet published). It worked.

Sandy: It helps because it opens up possibilities to explore more themes. For ex., you can explore redemption and family values in one, while romance and trust in another. Our characters, like us, usually have more than one story to tell. 

Prawny Pixabay

What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing a series? Include here series with the same characters and/or settings.

Maria: Pros – hopefully marketing, expanded character development, returning to the same world but introducing new stuff. Cons- maybe writers can sometimes feel a bit stunted in their series. Knowing when to end a series can also be tricky.

Elizabeth: Your readers already know the characters and you can jump straight into the subsequent books. They’re also great marketing tools as whichever book you’re promoting your effectively promoting them all.

Karen: Marketing, hopefully – if there are already readers for earlier books in the series. Also, not having to start research and world-building from scratch, and having at least some familiar characters to work with. Basically, the same reason I like reading them.

Gerald: Yes! Having pre-made characters and locations is wonderful!

Karen: Their pre-existence means you already have something to work with, so it’s easier to get them to grow and change if all you’re responsible for is the circumstances you put them through.

Gerald: Pros: financial! It’s been shown that publishing books in a series creates a much better read-through from one book to the next. Cons: keeping it fresh! Keeping the characters the same, but also changing them.

Beth: Absolutely! Keeping it fresh is work!

Kathleen: From a writer’s standpoint, it really does simplify things. But it’s more than that — it’s a real luxury to spend time with the characters and watch them evolve.

Marian: I’m not feeling like I have much choice. Every time I think I might be done, another significant charater says, hey, I have a story to tell! It saves on research a bit, too (I write historical fantasy.)

Beth: Pros: Characters people are hopefully interested in following, a world which gets better developed as I write, the ability to work in complexity that would be too much for a single book. Cons: Readers not wanting to wait, difficulty with imparting necessary info.

Deborah: Would you consider holding off publication until you have written the whole series?

Beth: No, because I’m not sure how long it is going to take, and because (since I’m self-published) I don’t have the financial ability to put them all out at once. One of my all-time favorite fantasy series through me a curve in book two before book three came out. Worth waiting for.

Sandy: Advantages are you get to spend more time with the characters and settings. Disadvantages are it makes it hard to keep track of everything and everyone. I don’t like it when I get invested in a character and they disappear for a book or two. 

What are your favourite book series and/or TV series?

Karen: There are many, but Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles have to top the list. Densely plotted historicals with an amazing cast of characters, locations all over the known world, and the best ugly cry I’ve ever experienced while reading. also @marianlthorpe‘s Empire series is wonderful, as is @waraqamusa‘s Sufi Mysteries. And since we’re also friends, I get the fun of hearing about or sampling bits of them as they’re under construction.

Beth: OK, got to agree on these, too. And the characters developed so much!

Marian: A second vote for @waraqamusa‘s Sufi mysteries. And one for Karen’s expanding Tudor Court.

Gerald: I think my favourite has been the Jonathan Kellerman “Alex Delaware” series. Although they are a standalone series, he had several long running story arcs going as well. Also, the set of Len Deighton 3-book series (Game/Set/Match, Hook/Line/Sinker, Faith/Hope/Charity)

Beth: Favorite book series: The Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander, Patricia McKillip’s A Riddle of Stars, the Tufa series by Alex Bledsoe, the Chapel Hollow stories by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, and all of Charles de Lint’s interconnected world.

Maria: Favourite book series – Should I count Lord of the Rings? As this was one book originally, I think? Empire’s Legacy by @marianlthorpe Favourite TV series – 1980s adaption of Jane Eyre, 1990s adaption of Pride and Prejudice, Poldark, Poirot.

Beth: I counted Lord of the Rings as a standalone. I love the original Poldark series, too! Brilliant, and the chemistry between Ross and Demelza… (Angharad Rees would have been worth watching just for her.)

Deborah: I read the Poldark series when I was in my 20s and adored it. Love the TV adaptations too. I would say that is my favourite series.

Marian: Oh, yes. I loved both adaptations, and I’ve read the books multiple times.

Beth: Favorite book series: The Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander, Patricia McKillip’s A Riddle of Stars, the Tufa series by Alex Bledsoe, the Chapel Hollow stories by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, and all of Charles de Lint’s interconnected world.

Kathleen: Sayers’ Lord Peter of course. Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody books. And Joan Hess’s Maggody series. Entirely different — and wonderful — ways to do series mystery.

Elizabeth: I mostly read series in my teens and so they were often supernatural. One of my favourites was Morganville Vampires by Rachel Caine. There was an overarching plot with each book focusing on a subplot. My heart was always in my mouth and I counted down to each release

Deborah: There does seem to be more of an appeal for series in our childhood and teens.

Elizabeth: I wonder if it’s simply because we have the time or we have the imagination to stay in the world once we put the book down

Sandy: Currently it’s the Stormlight Archive series by Brandon Sanderson. The Wheel of Time and The Sword of Truth series are probably two of my all-time favs. I grew up with DragonLance and Forgotten Realms too.