Thursday, August 16, 2018

Baking a Series from Scratch…

By J. Kathleen Cheney, @jkcheney

Part of the Indie Authors Series

Last time I posted here, I was asked by commenters to talk about how to start a series.That’s a huge topic, and it covers a handful of different quandaries.

As I look at it, there are two main areas:
1. How to PLAN a series, and

2. How to make yourself sit down and WRITE a series.
Now, my own series fall into two separate and fairly equal piles—ones I meant to be series, and ones I didn’t.In fact, most of the other writers I talked to about this topic agreed. Some series are planned, others just happen organically.

When I wrote my novelette “Of Ambergris, Blood, and Brandy”, I had no idea at all that it would become a series of 3 novels (soon to be 4), 2 novellas, and a Patreon serial. But once I finished (and sold) that novelette, I could not stop thinking about Oriana and Duilio…and thus ended up writing The Seat of Magic. Then I wrote The Golden City*, then The Shores of Spain. My Iron Shoes trilogy of novellas fell into the same vein.

But the Palace of Dreams novels were always intended to be a series. As were the King’s Daughter novels, the future series Grandfather’s Children, and the short stories of The Dragon’s Child.

So I do know how to plan a series. And I have some advice along those lines, but I don’t want to spend too much time reinventing the wheel, so I’m going to supply some basic links along the way in case you want to dig up more in-depth material.


Know what sort of series you intend to write.

Different genres generally favor different types of series. If you write fantasy or science fiction, you can write a long series with a single story arc but that doesn’t work well in Romance. In Romance, the writer is expected to supply a completed romantic relationship arc in each book. So in a Romance series, if there is an overarching plot, the MCs usually change between each book, giving the reader a new romantic arc to follow in each book. Mystery series usually have a different format, with elements similar to both of the above.

(Jade Kerrion does a great job here of summing up the different types of series)

Create an outline of your plot, overall and for each book.

Once you know what kind of series you’d like to write, you need to put some time into planning. A series can be pantsed, but getting story arcs to ‘land’ properly becomes very difficult if you don’t work that out in advance. You also need to have a valid plot in each novel if you’re going to sell novels, so make sure you have a complete story in each book before putting it in the overall story line.

So sit down and figure out what you want the overall story arc to be. Is it the vanquishing of the Empire? Is it the marrying off of all your children? The building of a bridge, either figurative or literal? And how does each book fit into it?How far along will each book carry the reader toward that endpoint?

*If you intend to sell these books to a traditional publisher, a caveat follows: they can ask for changes to one book that will impact all the others. This happened to me with Dreaming Death, where my editor asked for changes, one of which invalidated 2/3 of the already-written sequel. I had to replot the remainder of the series after that. However, if you’re planning to publish indie, that’s not a worry!

(Writer’s Edit has a great wiki here that goes through the planning process)

Create characters that you want to spend a lot of time with.

When I asked my writer friends what was important when writing a series, they all mentioned this: you need to like your characters. If you’re going to write a series, those characters will be with you for years. If you hate them, you won’t want to continue writing about them. So make characters you love.

The “Grandfather’s Children” board in my office…some of these photographs are 20 years old.

To keep your reader engaged, your characters must be affected by what happens to them. There must be consequences for their actions. Have them grow and change, or the stories will fall flat for readers. Readers connect with those characters; they invest time and worry in them. So make sure they’re worthy of carrying the series forward.

(Click here to see some of the Character Development articles on this site)

Create a world that’s wide enough to include your plot.

Different writers do their worldbuilding in different places along the story writing timeline, but most of us need something to start out with, a basic framework for our setting.This is a huge category, and some people end up being bogged down here. You do have to do some world building, but don’t let it suck up all your time or you will never write anything. (In Plot, Ansen Dibell called this World-builder’s Disease.)

One caveat: If your world is too limited at the outset, it will be difficult to stretch it later on. (It can be done, but it makes your life harder.) So make sure you are doing this part of the homework.

Click here to see some of the Worldbuilding articles on this site.

Now, here comes the hardest part of writing a series:

Sit Down and Write

If you have all of those things lined up: plot, character, world… then your next step is to begin writing. For a lot of writers, this is the hardest part of writing anything, much less a multi-book series.

This is, in fact, the entire purpose of NANOWRIMO—to make the commitment to sit down and write something… anything. It may come out as a horrible and bloody first draft, but if you want to write a series, you have to start with a completed first draft.

I suspect this is the problem a lot of writers see when tackling a series. They look at the daunting 5 BOOKS (or whatever number they plan) and are overwhelmed by the idea of spending 2-5 years on one project. It is rather scary.

BUT… the adage about eating an elephant does apply here. One bite at a time. One 500-word day at a time. One chapter at a time, and eventually, one book at a time.

You will get there if you make yourself do it!

For more reading on writing a series, click the “Series and Trilogies” link in the left sidebar, or check out these articles:
*The Golden City is the novelization of “Of Ambergris, Blood, and Brandy” which I wrote after I wrote the second novel in the series. So I wrote the novels in the wrong order. It happens.

J. Kathleen Cheney taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus but gave it all up for a chance to write stories. Her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, The Golden City was a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel). Dreaming Death (Feb 2016) is the first in a new world, with the books of The Horn coming out in 2017, and the sequels to Dreaming Death in 2018

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The Books of The Horn, available now

The chief of the Oathbreakers, Amal Horn is one of only a handful of people aware of the true power the abandoned underground Fortress of Salonen holds. The Cince Empire wants its secrets, though, and will do anything to get someone inside. When the Horn find a stranger trespassing on the glacier below it, they realize the Cince have formulated a new plan of attack.

Now the Horn Family must decide whether to wake the sleeping Fortress so it can defend itself against the Cince… or kill it forever.

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  1. I can't believe it. After publishing four books, I have considered starting a series. Perfect timing for your article. Thanks again for your help, Janice.

  2. Thanks Kathleen for the help with basic set up.

  3. I've written the first draft of a novel that I think will become a trilogy, so thanks for this post Kathleen. I've found it very helpful.

  4. I believe I may offer hope to other 'pantsers' disheartened by the recommendation that you have to plot or outline a series.
    You don't.
    I'm five books into what I think will be about a ten book F/SF series. (Average length roughly 125,000 words per book.) I'm writing it because I love the characters (some more than others!) and I want to find out how it all ends. I do have a general idea for the direction I'd like the series to go, and a vague hope for the ending, but I won't know until I write it.
    But I absolutely and strongly agree with every other point in the article. So if you're pantsing a series, that does have long plot arcs (rather than just being purely episodic, which would be another approach!), you do need to have lots of things going on in the background and lots of agendas in play, so you have plenty of material with which to weave the plots for the individual books and for the grand arcs for the series as a whole.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I'll have to find someone to write a "pantsing your series" with tips for pantsers :)