I was on a panel at this year’s Public Safety Writers Association Conference talking about issues and challenges in writing a series. As a member of the panel, I didn’t get to fully expound on any one question and, in fact, was not asked to respond to every question. There’s only so much time.
As preparation for the panel, however, I wrote out answers, and I thought I would share them here. This is what the audience could have had from me, had I the opportunity!
Writing a series is a serious commitment. Loyal readers expect more books from you, and quickly! It’s also a commitment to your characters. You want them to experience a complete character arc and not leave them with major unresolved issues. Each book is like your favorite TV show’s season cliff hanger and the final book is comparable to the series finale. Wrap it up. Make it authentic and consistent. And move on to the next project.
Here are the questions our panel moderator, author Marilyn Olsen posed to us (followed by my responses):
1. When you wrote the first book did you anticipate a series?
Absolutely. I knew my characters could get into lots more mischief than one book allowed. As I wrote (and re-wrote) the first book, the second book plot came to me. Then future plots started spinning out.
Before I even finished Mission Impastable, I had created dozens of punny food titles for future books. I will NEVER live long enough to use them all, so I wrote a blog post sharing some with other writers to use if they wish. (http://sharonarthurmoore.blogspot.com/2013/06/whats-in-name.html)
I’m particularly fond of, and hope I live long enough to write: Devil’s Food Wake, Fowl Play, Berried Alive, Doughmestic Dispute, Wok and Roll, The Taming of the Stew, Fried and Prejudice, Much Ado about Noshing, Whisk It All, Roux the Day, Bone Appetit, Under Lox and Quiche, Glazed and Infused, and Crumb What May. But if not, hey, help yourself.
2. What are the major advantages of writing a series?
There are several advantages. For years I wrote professional books, and we periodically revised the books in a new edition. With single title novels, writ is it! You don’t go back and change novels (except for some possible edits).
So writing a series is analogous to writing a new edition. You get to change characters and let them grow. They aren’t frozen in time like the characters in single title novels. Another advantage is familiarity with the main setting (assuming it doesn’t change) and characters. You don’t have to figure them out each time. The dialogue comes more easily because you know what they’ll say and how they’ll react. A third advantage is marketing. The audience knows what’s coming–ooh, a two-fer, a mystery with recipes. A fourth advantage is learning to write in the genre better. When the characters and setting are familiar, you can concentrate on the craft of writing. Less for my mind to juggle.
3. When you write a series do you have a plan for the entire series?
I absolutely know what my characters back stories are and how those will impact future plot lines. I have a character arc for Alli, my protagonist in Mission Impastable, and for other characters. A character I love has to die, and I am planning for that. Another character is confronted with her hidden dark secret and she has to decide how to respond. Someone finds permanent love, or does she? When you know back stories, you can project into the future and plant seeds a book or two in advance.
4. What do you think is the ideal number of books in a series, or do you think a series that goes on and on ( e.g.Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton) is a good idea?
Far be it from me to weigh in on the mega-series authors writing goals. Their success ought to be the answer. If readers stop buying, then they may have written one too many books in the series. But I don’t see that happening yet. Instead, fans like some books more than others, just as with any multi-published author, but they keep these authors near the top of sales.
As a side note, I once read an interview with Sue Grafton who said if she’d had any idea her series would take off like it did, she wouldn’t have chosen the alphabet. She’s tied to writing twenty-six books!!!
I have plotted out five more books in the “Dinner is Served” series. But who knows, with all those titles I have stockpiled, I could end up writing many more.
For me, the ideal number of books is when I grow tired of my characters and need to switch. For someone who already writes in multiple genres that is not as likely to happen as with someone who only writes mysteries.
If I need a break, I write a paranormal romantic suspense or a series of short plays. I never get bored with my writing. If one book has lost some of its luster, I go play with another one for a while. When I return, I get excited again. Having said that, I am thinking of another series set in a herb shop/garden with titles Mint to Be, Thyme to Die, Arsenic and Old Mace.
5. Is it always necessary to end an individual book in a series with a cliff hanger?
I don’t know that a cliff hanger is necessary, but there do need to be questions your reader wonders about that propel them to your next book. With Mission Impastable, I hope the reader wonders what will happen to the killer and whether the relationship with Alli will continue or be ended. I want the reader to wonder if Alli and Gina will take the part-time job offered to them at the cooking school. I want the reader to wonder if their personal chef business will succeed or go belly-up. And just what is up with Evan and Alli’s relationship? Will Gina find love again?
6. How do you let the reader know that the book is part of a series?
My cover says, “Dinner is Served series, Book One”! That’s a clue for mystery readers! But I think any textured book with lots of layers could potentially be a series. I know I have finished reading a book and wished there would be a sequel. I think all authors should write so that people want to know more about the characters and their lives so that a series is not a surprise but a pleasant bonus. All of our books should leave the reader craving more.
7. What is the ideal time schedule for publishing each book in a series in order to keep readers interested?
I suppose the right answer is, how fast can you write them? I think in the romance field publishers ask authors to write two to three books a year. There are so many options out there, that if you aren’t keeping your name in front of readers, they may forget to come looking for you. If I were only writing one genre, I could easily produce two or three culinary mystery books a year. But right now I am aiming for one culinary mystery a year along with other books and plays I want to write.