My next fiction project may be the first novel in a series. I started my career as a novelist that way years ago with two stories about the same protagonist. The third novel didn’t work out. I haven’t tried to write another series since then but I still like the idea for several reasons, so recently I asked some of my author friends for advice on doing it successfully this time around. Here’s what they told me: I need to begin by deciding if my series will be open-ended, or self-contained. A true series is “a number of things or events of the same class coming one after another in spatial or temporal succession” according to Webster’s. That means each novel is independent of the others in terms of plot and the series as a whole has no end in mind. The Sherlock Holmes novels are a good example of the open-ended series. Each Holmes short story or novel is independent of the others. There’s no theme or character development which grows across the series. This open-ended approach may have more potential financially, because a successful run can last for dozens of titles spanning decades. Plus, they’re easier to write for two reasons. First, they usually involve a formula which readers come to expect and love. Second, the lack of over-arcing character or thematic development makes it easier to produce individual novels that stand alone, which is very important to readers. But because novels in an open-ended series do tend to be formulaic, writing them could become boring after a while. The self-contained kind of series should probably be called a “serial” to be technically correct. Webster’s defines a serial as “a work appearing (as in a magazine or on television) in parts at intervals.” So this kind of series involves several novels each of which tells part of a single, over-arcing story. The serial type of series has more potential for character and theme development than the open-ended series. In fact, one could argue that the self-contained serial approach has more literary potential than most stand-alone novels, because the author can take a thousand pages or more to explore a character or idea, whereas the days of reader acceptance for thousand page standalone novels are mostly gone. Of course, with all the character and thematic developmental potential, the self-contained serial type of series is more difficult to write. They require a complicated plotting effort, because the story must develop over multiple novels to reach a satisfying conclusion in the last installment, while each novel must also have its own fully self-contained plot and resolution, in order to avoid “cliffhanger” endings which leave readers frustrated. So I’d have to first think through the long-term story arc, then divide it into stages, each of which would be a separate novel, and then on top of that I’d have to think through short term or self-contained story arcs for each of the novels. Fortunately, I do tend to plot and outline my novels before beginning the first draft anyway. A “seat of the pants” type of author probably shouldn’t try the self-contained kind of series. Next, I need to decide what’s going to hold my series together. There seem to be four options: using the same protagonist in every story, using the same setting, the same event(s), or the same secondary characters. Many novels use more than one of these possibilities. If I go with the same protagonist, my choices will be guided by the open-ended versus self-contained decision I already mentioned. In an open-ended series, the protagonist usually won’t change very much from book to book. Readers expect him to be a strong character with little or no apparent need to grow (think of Holmes again). In fact, part of the fascination of this kind of series is the main character’s nearly super-human ability to rise to any challenge and win the day unfazed. To carry reader interest over multiple titles, this unchanging protagonist had better be much larger than life. Also, it helps if there’s something mysterious about his backstory. How on earth did this person end up this way? A glimpse of the answer in every novel is usually enough to keep fans reading. Without occasional hints of something deeper in the background, it’s possible this kind of character will become boring for readers after a while, since a big part of the fun in reading most novels is watching characters grown and change in response to conflict. Also, writing this same of character over and over could become boring. (Of course if I’m called upon to write about a character so often I get bored it’s because readers want more books about him, which is a nice problem to have.) On the other hand, if I go with the self-contained, serial kind of series, my protagonist should start with serious personal issues that need to be addressed as the series goes along. Frodo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is one example. Harry Potter is another. In Frodo’s case, there’s the mystery of why he was chosen, and the question of whether he’s up to the challenge. In Harry Potter’s case the issues are much the same. Both Frodo and Harry have intermediate goals which they achieve in every novel, but the biggest questions aren’t answered until the end, and by the time they get there, they are much changed from who they were at the beginning of book one. The one drawback I can think of to writing a developing character in a self-contained series is the fact that it’s very difficult to continue if the series is a big hit. Once the ring is destroyed and Frodo is back in the shire, what’s left? And once Harry is all grown up and graduated, his young readers may lose interest. There are always prequels and spinoffs, of course, but they are much more risky than simply continuing a series that was intended to be open-ended in the first place. Of course, it’s also possible to bundle novels into a series without following a single protagonist from book to book. Successful series have been unified by settings, such as an Amish community. Others rely on secondary characters for continuity. I’m told this approach is particularly helpful in the romance genre. In that case once the girl gets her guy readers lose interest, so the girl’s best friend might pick up the lead in book two, with the girl stepping back to a supporting role, then the best friend hands over the lead position to yet a third girl in book three, and so on. Events, such as a war, historical episode or a significant tragedy have also served to unify a series. Deborah Rainey is currently working on a number of novels which revolve around a single fire, for example. She tells me the fire appears early in some of the novels, and later in others, but in each case the lives of characters in the same small town are changed by that one event. It’s a fascinating concept. No matter what kind of series I write or how I choose to tie it all together, I’ll have to be very careful to keep good records. Continuity is going to be hard, because a series will always have many more details to keep straight. So I’ll build files on every character, with a photo from a magazine which I can use for descriptions, plus a defining backstory so I can keep track of motivations, a family tree, and a list of habits, personality traits, preferences and tastes. On top of that, I’ll need to draw maps of all the primary settings so I can keep the geography straight. If I’m writing a self-contained series I’ll need a time line to remember what season of the year it is so I’ll get the weather and holidays right, and to be aware of how old everyone is getting to be as time goes by. If it’s an open ended series timelines aren’t as important. Some “strong” protagonists are virtually ageless, such as Robert Parker’s “Spencer”. One thing that concerns me about this idea is the fact that many of my author friends report declining sales for the last few titles in their series. From our discussions, I think this is due to a couple of factors. First, readers who were there at the start may lose interest after a few books. Not everyone has the attention span required to stick out Frodo or Harry’s entire journey. (I gave up on Harry after book three.) Second, new readers who might be willing to try an unfamiliar author’s stand-alone title aren’t interested in getting involved in the middle of an ongoing series. They assume they’d have to read the prior titles to get up to speed. This is one advantage to an open-ended series. The cover copy usually makes it clear that each book stands alone with language like, “Athol Dickson’s lovable Joe Blow is at it again in this newest installment in the series.” It’s tougher to convince prospective readers of the stand-alone merit of novels in a self-contained series with cover copy like, “In this third novel of the Smith trilogy, Jane Doe once again faces big trouble.” Still, the success of long-term series authors like Robert Parker, John D. MacDonald or Sue Grafton proves it’s possible to retain readers if the author avoids over-complicating the character’s relationships and avoids a large, confusing cast of characters. It’s also important to explain necessary backstory details as organically as possible. This is where “show, don’t tell” becomes extremely important. I think it’s best to just leave out as much backstory as possible. And it can’t be overstated that every novel in a self-contained series needs a particularly strong plot-driven reason to read that one novel, something which doesn’t rely on understanding all the inter-relationships and backstories from prior titles. Finally, one thing I’ll never do is leave my readers with a cliffhanger at the end of a novel. A reader who isn’t satisfied when she finishes the last page of a novel won’t want to repeat the experience with the next title in the series. There’s no doubt writing a series involves a lot of work and thinking that doesn’t apply to writing a stand-alone. But if I can create a fascinating world with characters my readers will learn to love in book after book, it will be worth the effort. And if I manage to pull it off, it will be largely due to the fantastic advice I’ve gotten from my fellow authors and friends who helped me think through this decision. If you’re interested in reading a great series, please click on their names below to visit their websites: Deborah Raney Mindy Starns Clark Sibella Giorello Hannah Alexander Bonnie Leon Robin Lee Hatcher Beth White DiAnn Mills Dorothy Love Erin Healy Athol Dickson is a novelist, teacher, and publisher of the popular DailyCristo Christian news and information website. His novels transcend description with a literary style that blends magical realism, suspense, and a strong sense of spirituality. Critics have favorably compared his work to such diverse authors as Octavia Butler (Publisher’s Weekly) and Flannery O’Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner and three have won Christy Awards including his most recent novel, Lost Mission. His next story, The Opposite Of Art, is about pride, passion, and death as a spiritual pursuit. Look for it in September, 2011. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.
Lisa T. Bergren is the author of over 35 books that have sold over two million copies combined. You can connect with her on Facebook (Lisa Tawn Bergren and River of Time Series), Twitter (@LisaTBergren) and online .
MOTHER – DAUGHTER READS
I always thought that mother-daughter reads were a good idea, but when I couldn’t get my daughters to crack a book without begging, bartering or demanding, it became a mission. For years, the only books my girls would read were those they “had” to read for school and maybe one or two others a year. And this from kids who were daughters of a writer, girls who were both in advanced English. I started to wonder just what was going on out there—were we losing the way to find and capture young readers? Or just mine?
I brought home book after book, hoping it’d be the one to draw my teens’ fervor—the one that would open their minds to the power of story and the mind-sharpening work of imagination (with no sweat involved other than reading). Even Harry Potter didn’t meet the mark. Stacks, I’m talking stacks of books came and went at my house. And then came Twilight.
I’d heard it was all the rage. I’d heard it was about vampires, but was a surprisingly moral tale. Most importantly, I heard teenage girls were rabid about it. So I rushed out and got a copy for Olivia. I think I bribed her to read the first twenty pages. And magically, blessedly, she was hooked. She read the whole thing in a week, staying up late at night.
So then I was curious. I wanted to know the formula: XX characters + XX plot = reading bliss for my teen (and later, to some extent, her younger sis). Turns out, it was romance. Romance with a serious obstacle that seems insurmountable. With a lot of action and suspense. And a drool-worthy hero and a heroine that could be any American girl. Ahh, I thought. Okay, I get her reading bent now.
We went on to read the whole series, and went to the first movie together. We talked about things we both loved—the other-worldly aspect of the Cullens (and later the werewolves), the suspense that made our hearts beat fast, the passionate—but largely chaste—romance. We also talked about what I didn’t really care for—principally falling for a man who fights the urge to kill her (“I don’t want you to think that the love of your life, your hero, is the man you fear.”) We talked about what made a man a true hero, what made a man worthy of a woman’s love. They were good, formative conversations.
Since then, we’ve gone on to read a lot of other YA novels together. I buy those I think will likely garner a good Bergren Girl Rating, and pass along those I know they’ll like—if not love. Pre-reading allows me to address anything I’m not really comfortable with—and I’ve begun to write reviews with any red flags for parents and younger readers (you can find them on my web site ). There are a lot of alarming characters and situations in today’s YA fiction—as well as wonderful characters and challenging situations that are great for readers to “try on” and think through via fiction—but it’s best if parents can discuss the Big Stuff when they’ve finished the last page. That’s the beauty of fiction…we get to “experience” difficulties and obstacles in a fictional setting, helping us to be prepared when/if we face those things in real life.
What a lovely portal into a teen’s mind and heart, right? To ignore the opportunity is to miss a significant chance for meaningful connection and development.
Happily, youth fiction has gotten pretty sophisticated. I find a lot of it engaging for my mind and heart, as well as my daughter’s. They say that a teen’s time of life has a lot in common with midlife—reexamining priorities, goals, relationships, identity. Perhaps that’s what makes it such a great genre for mothers and daughters to read together.
I’ve heard from lots of teens—and their moms—since my new YA series, The River of Time (Waterfall, Cascade, Torrent) began to release. And that makes me so happy. But truth be told, I wrote it first and foremost, for my own girls, Olivia and Emma. Which reminds me…I need to discuss a few points with them about it…
People are funny. And not always funny ha-ha. When Lost Mission hit the shelves last September, a few people told me it was well written as far as that went, but it started off too slowly. I was prepared for any criticism except for a slow start, since the story mentions two miracles in the first four pages alone. (A church bell seems to ring by itself, and a fresco is “not painted by human hands.”) I even tossed in a couple of boys who are nearly burned alive. These folks did admit it “got better” later on, but still, apparently the miracles and near death experience were barely enough to pique their interest.
Maybe I should have burned the boys.
Of course I know a novel has to hook the reader from the very first word these days. Even an Amish romance must be thrilling from the get-go, otherwise the jaded citizenry will wander off to channel surf their countless choices in realty television shows, or “meet” a dozen perverts a minute on Chat Roulette, or even worse, read somebody else’s book. But I did think I had done my duty, hook wise, with two miracles and a couple of burning boys in four pages flat, so color me confused.
In situations like this it’s good to consult the specialists. I decided to check out the first four pages of a few stories that have done pretty well, and what I found there was instructive: Aunt Polly fails to spank her nephew. Yawn. Tom Sawyer goes back on the shelf. A man—we don’t even know his name yet!—rents a house. So much for the first four pages of The Great Gatsby. On page one of another novel we learn the Hudson River valley is uncivilized, and we learn it some more on page two, and more on pages three, and four, and by then it is clear The Last of the Mohicans wouldn’t last long in the hands of today’s impatient reader. In fact, none of these so-called “classics” would pass muster nowadays, yet people in the olden times seemed to think they were okay. So between then and now, what changed?
We did, I’m afraid. Once upon a time a troubadour could count on Lords and Ladies to sit and listen in the castle without interrupting him to say, “Get thee to the swordfight already.” Once it was possible to write a novel about a great white whale in which the whale did not appear until around page three hundred. But nowadays, unless there’s pending death, dismemberment or damnation in the first sentence it’s close the book and pass another novel.
Blame it on Robert Adler, that mad Austrian scientist who invented the television remote control. He hoped to liberate us from the senseless tyranny of having to move more than one finger to switch from NBC to CBS to ABC and back again (the only three options back in ‘56), but his impatience with the time consuming walk from couch to television set unwittingly created a slave race of channel surfing zombies.
Or maybe Adler’s Folly was just one more step in the long attention span decline that began with Gutenberg, (real name, “Goose-skin”) the inventor of movable type, a devilish creation which made it possible for the Average Joe’s reading choices to outnumber his brain cells. But really I suspect we’d have to go much further back to expose the roots of this problem, because even Gutenberg suffered from an early indication of the looming plague when he took a little longer than expected to come up with the printing press and got sued by an investor who was “losing patience.”
It turns out slow beginnings aren’t even my only shortcoming as a novelist.
In Lost Mission, I also made the mistake of setting some scenes in the 1700’s and others in the here and now. I never dreamed this would cause so much trouble, yet some people have complained it’s hard to follow the transitions between timeframes. In my defense, I did see this one coming. In the book are subtle hints, along the lines of “Pay attention, dear reader, because we’re about to leave the old timey days.” Lest you think I’m exaggerating, allow me to quote Lost Mission’s first transition. Here’s the setup: at this point in the story we are crossing the Atlantic toward the New World on a Spanish galleon with an eighteenth century friar, and then . . .
“. . . this is just the first of many journeys we shall follow as our story leads us back and forth through space and time. Indeed, the events Fray Alejandro has set in motion have their culmination far into the future. Therefore, leaving the Franciscan and his solitary ship, we cross many miles to reach a village known as Rincon de Dolores, high among the Sierra Madres of Jalisco, Mexico. And we fly further still, centuries ahead of Alejandro, to find ourselves in these, our modern times.”
You see the problem. (I know you do, because you’re one of the few who haven’t gotten bored with this column already and gone off to Google something better.) If a reader can’t (won’t?) follow along with an in-your-face transition like that, it’s hard to hope she will remember basic plot points or character’s names from one chapter to another.
Should an author pander to such people?
Just imagine where that could lead. Think of eBooks with embedded comments to remind readers that John is “the narcissist you met in chapter three” and New York is “the city where this story is taking place.” Such things are certainly feasible in this electronic age, but are they wise? Don’t brains, like muscles, atrophy unless we use them? One does hope to let the reader’s memory and imagination do some of the work, otherwise what do we have? Television, I suppose.
In a culture with 150 channels in the basic cable package, and 116 second delivery times in fast food drive through lanes, and eight minute speed dating (not to mention three minute online speed dating), I suppose impatience with old fashioned storytelling had to reach this fevered pitch. And I suppose it was too much to hope my novels would escape unscathed. After all, some of the people who read them also enjoyed that mega bestseller which is not entitled Your Best Life Later. But it does leave me wondering how a novelist should respond.
Should authors embrace the current reality by getting a character killed, kidnapped, betrayed or broken hearted in the very first phrase (never mind the first sentence) of page one? Should we try for two miracles per page rather than two pages per miracle? Should we (as some are doing) crank out four or five novels a year for fear of being otherwise forgotten in the reader’s rush to choke words down like French fries? This path has the advantage of keeping the author in print. Might it also make authors part of the problem, like drug pushers who claim they only give the people what they want?
Or should we hope there are enough sober readers left who still know the difference between reading a novel and channel surfing? Ah, the high road. Writing for that vanishing breed would be a risky choice for those of us who survive on advances and royalties, but while it might keep us up at night worrying about the bills, at least we could still look in the mirror in the morning.
There is always compromise, of course, a middle path between these two extremes, and that’s what most of us do, including me. But where does compromise lead us? Given the change in attitude from the days of Cooper, Twain and Fitzgerald, it seems the real choices are two: join our culture’s epidemic of impatience and make a living, or write for thoughtful folks and risk going out of print. Imagine you’re a novelist, struggling to survive on words. What would you do?