Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The challenges in writing a series

By Jenny Hilborne
Author of psychological mysteries and thrillers

A question was posed on a recent author interview I completed about the challenges in writing a series and it made me think. Is writing a series more challenging than crafting a standalone?

In a series, the cast of characters (at least some of them) is already established. Threads from earlier books can be developed into plot lines or sub plots for prequels and sequels. Part of the author's work is already done, nest-ce pas? Perhaps, but it doesn't necessarily make it easier.

Every book I've written has presented me with challenges.  Each book was more difficult to write than the one before it. My current work in progress, which is the 3rd book in my Jackson series, is no exception.

Feedback from readers about what they did (and didn't) like about him in the first 2 Jackson books has helped him develop into a more "accessible" character; more personable with less of the "all business" persona he had in my debut, Madness and Murder. I know my detective much better by book 3, but it doesn't get easier.

I'd never planned to write a series. M&M was intended as a standalone. When readers asked for the return of my detective, I was flattered, but...ahem...less than delighted. I mean it in a good way. Of course, I was thrilled readers liked him, but I'll admit, I panicked. The issue is this: M&M spans 20 years and by the end of the book, Jackson is in his early sixties. I'd planned to retire him after one book and focus on writing standalones.

Oh, dear. What could I do with a 60-something cop and how much life could I give him? I thought about adding a hot new girlfriend, but Jackson has a wife, and no plans to cheat. What if I gave him a new hobby? Maybe this:

Or he might suddenly buy himself one of these:

But he doesn't have the time for either. Perhaps when I eventually do retire him....

Had I planned the series, I'd still find it challenging (tho' perhaps not as much).

With common threads weaving through a series, the author has to keep the reader in mind. Will each book lead into the next, demanding the series be read in order? Or can each book in the series stand alone? Though it may be necessary to repeat pertinent information in later books for the benefit of new readers, the challenge to the author lies in not replicating too much of the first story or characters in subsequent books and boring the readers who've read the entire series.

The tenth Warshawski novel was my first Paretsky read and, while I felt I needed to know more about V.I. to follow all the threads, I was still able to enjoy the story. Readers who know V.I. well were not bashed over the head with repetitive stuff from the preceding 9 books.

To provide necessary details in subsequent books, Paretsky tossed in reminders rather than boring repetition. Subtlety is the key.

In writing my own series, I've found I need a good memory (and I don't have one). Aging of characters, eye and hair color, personality quirks - remembering all those things and making them consistent is crucial. I write bios for each character to keep it straight (otherwise I'd have to re-read each book and I'd never get the next one written). For my work in progress, I've included a little more focus on Mrs. Jackson (thanks to the suggestion from one of my readers who wanted to know more about the Mrs. behind the Mr.) and this allowed me to see my main character in a new light. It feels refreshing to write it.

I'm doing what Sara Paretsky did and using reminders to enable new readers to follow along without confusion. I've never been much of a series reader, but that's changing. Seeing how other authors do it is a great lesson.

Readers: what likes/dislikes about a series are you willing to share that we authors can learn from?


  1. Great post, Jenny. You mention a lot of the things I'm excited/worried about as I begin piecing together my next book, which is closer to a series than the ones I've written—even though they have carryover characters.

    As a reader, I picked up a book well into a best-selling series. It was my first exposure to both this author and her character. It was a DNF for me. I never felt a connection to the protagonist and had to assume that faithful readers had learned to love her in earlier books.

  2. I got lucky when I picked up the tenth book in the series, Peg. If the author had written it to where I needed to know all about the protag, it would have been a DNF for me,too . Makes me more careful when writing my own series.

  3. I love a well written series.
    The depth of character and nuance possible with characters with a history known to the reader is hard to match. James Lee Burke, William Kent Krueger, Joe Nesbo, John Sanford, Martin Cruz Smith, Michael Connelly(?sp) are examples of those who do it brilliantly.

    I'm doing final edits on my first novel ("Nerve Damage") and I've been focused on the series aspects from day one. As an author it makes for interesting long range plotting and character reveal.
    Perhaps someone will read it someday :)

    1. As your editor for NERVE DAMAGE, Tom, I can assure you that this excellent thriller is going to be a huge hit and readers will be clamoring for more!

  4. Doyle (Sir Arthur) never intended Holmes to be the series he became. Christie regretted making Poirot so old in the first novel. (btw, as a 60-something, let me tell you, there's a lot of life!) Tarzan after a while became comfort food.

    Obviously, standalones and series have their own challenges. How many of us grew up on series like The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew? Series characters are good friends, and like friends, they have to change and stay the same.

    Jenny, don't the bios help with the memory? There's also websites and software to help keep track of major plot points or character bios. (I'm experimenting with Aeon Timeline and Scrivener, FWIW.)

    I think the characters tell us what kind of story they need. A standalone. A limited series (why are these almost always odd numbers - 3,5 or 7? Lord of the Rings is 6 divided in half). An ongoing series. (They do ongoing on TV and in comics. But those have built-in shelf-lives, I think.)

    1. Yes, the bios do help, David. I looked at Scrivener but I didn't like it. I'm not an outliner, so anything that requires me to lay things out doesn't work. This is the series I didn't plan for a series. And I agree, 60 something does have a lot of life and living to do :-)

  5. You make some excellent points here, Jenny! Good luck with your series - and future standalones!

    1. Thanks, Jodie. I may be calling upon you for editing services in the near future.


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