To Series or Not to Series, that is the Question….

The idea of a series -- a set of connected books -- has always gotten me hooked as a reader. Johanna Lindsey’s Mallory books take up an entire shelf on my keeper case. Nora Robert’s McKade brothers are my ALL-TIME favorite romance novels ever. When I began writing romance novels, I knew that I wanted to do a series, the Kathleen O’Reilly way. If you take a look at the bookscan list of booksellers, if you take a look at the box office hits of 2007, a huge percentage of the books and movies are related to another book or movie. Series have become a staple of our entertainment culture whether you realize it or not, and what’s not to love? Getting to know characters over time, subplots or character arches that reach over multiple books, and the added bonus of knowing that you have a built-in base from the previous books. It’s a win-win-win, and editors know it. So, you want to write a series. Here are a few suggestions:

Do you want an open-ended series or a close-ended series? I’m a fan of close-ended series as both a writer and a reader because a) it’s neat and tidy. You get to plan for a complete arch with no danger of jumping the shark [i], b) you don’t have to worry about getting bored with the characters and wanting to explode bombs on them and kill them because you’ve written forty-seven of these freaking books and you now hate them, and c) as a reader, I have a short-attention span. I will forget to buy book 31 in a series, I will get bored with a series after ten books, and yes, I have a life outside of reading. Mainly, I want the author to make me a promise and keep it throughout the lifespan of the series. At three to four books at a time, I know as an author that I can keep that promise. Now, you’ve just heard the huge defense of close-ended series, however, there are cases, very good cases, where you want an open-ended series. If you’ve built up a huge world, and made a large investment in research, time, and planning, it makes sense to keep going as long as you can. But, just be careful. Beware the shark. Also, editors will almost never make a commitment for more than 2-3 books at a time. There is a possibility that your open-ended series may turn into a closed-ended series without you planning for it. Make sure you have a solid hook to carry through all books. Sometimes this is plot, and yes, sometimes, it’s a character. A lot of series have an anchor-character, the ultra alpha hero, who everyone waits with bated breath for THAT BOOK. Now, the cool thing about the ultra alpha hero, or most intriguing character is that excitement builds by a factorial of the coolness coefficient for that character. The danger here is that all other characters must be subservient to the coolness factor of that character, or else, you lose some of the excitement for your character.

Open strong, but save the best (or worst) for last. Your first book cannot be flat. It must be strong, palpable with verve, and all your characters must leap off the page, or people will not care if you’re writing book two. You can either set up the most intriguing character up front or you can do the reverse, set up the character most in need of reformation. When I started writing the first book for the Red Choo Diaries, I originally started with Mercedes, the little sister heavily in need of reform. Since it was her blog, The Red Choo, that was the subject of the series, I thought I needed to start there, but I knew that she wasn’t heroine material yet. I talked to my editor after already tearing out many hairs, and she said, (like within three seconds), “Silly, put her in the last book.” DUH! The simplicity astounded me, and I learned a valuable lesson. Some characters need to arch over several books. Save these characters for the end or near the end, and let them learn their life lessons, and then take center stage.

Love your characters. I preach this a lot, and it’s doubly, triply, quadruply important in a series to love your characters – all of them. When they step up for their book, you cannot love the hero from book one better. You must love the hero from this book, or your reader will catch onto your dirty secret. Sorry, but readers are very, very smart about these things. If your hero or heroine is not there yet, you must either wait to give them another book, or else write the dickens out of them until they are loveable in your eyes. There’s a moment in my writing process, usually around Chapter 3, where I discover something I didn’t know about my characters, and they turn cool, intriguing, and loveable as heck. Sometimes it’s a bit of dialog, sometimes it’s something they do, and sometimes it’s a here before undiscovered character trait. After that point, I’m good to go. That’s my system, your mileage may vary, but the important thing is that you really, really, really must love your characters, or your book will be flat. If the hero or heroine from Book one will not shut up, it is important for you as the author to take the pen to them, and edit them into place. This is non-negotiable in romance.

When you pitch a series, you will need a synopsis and proposal (or completed manuscript) for at least the first book, and you will also need another synopsis or blurbs that will cover each book in the series. Editors will want to see this to know that you know where you are going. Also, it’s tough to sell your very first book as a series. Editors want to know that you’re a solid writer and have potential before they make a substantial investment in you as a writer. If you do pitch the first book in a series and you haven’t been published before, make sure the book will stand alone.

It’s better when your books will stand alone. How many times have you bought a book, only to realize that it’s Book 3 in a series, and you haven’t read Books 1 or 2? As an author, it’s in your best interest to make sure that a reader can still have a good time in that book, and hopefully seek out the other books, even if they’re read out of order. An author can’t assume that a bookstore will carry all the books in a series, so it’s very likely that a new reader may read your series out of order. If a reader is too confused by Book 3, they’re not going to look for books 1 and two, and now that’s not just one sale you’ve lost, but two. In my books, they can all be read stand-alone, but the reader’s who following along in order is going to appreciate them more. There are a few books out there that don’t do this, and it can be a very successful move. However, it is a risk, and as a writer, you need to recognize that your numbers will either live or die by that risk. Since this is a closed-ended article, I’ll wrap up here. Series are tremendously popular in romance, they always have been. But it’s a good idea to do some thinking and planning and writing before you embark on a series. Hopefully, these suggestions will make it easier for you.

[i] Reference to the Happy Days episode where Fonzie went water-skiing and jumped over the shark, now defined as that moment when the writing starts to suck the big one.