Writing a series is daunting.
Each installment must both stand alone and work as part of the whole. You’re forced to keep up with all the elements you exploit in a single novel and make sure they serve the entire entity: characters, plot, settings, everything.
Having written six adult series and ten children’s series, I can say I learned quickly that I had to re-read the previous title before starting the next, every time.
Was that really necessary?
The one time I tried to shortcut the process I found myself more than halfway through the writing of the next title in The Left Behind Series™ when I had a sinking feeling.
One of the global curses I had included was a decrease in the power of the sun by one-third. So my characters in the desert suddenly had to wear long pants, sweaters, coats, hats. Made sense.
But hadn’t that curse been lifted near the end of the previous title? A rather significant development, if I was right.
And I was. A fast re-read of that previous title confirmed my suspicion. The desert was back to full aridity. I had to go back to the beginning of the current manuscript and re-dress my characters!
A Crucial Checklist
Navigating the delicate balance between satisfying your reader with each book and keeping them longing for the next, you must remain vigilant on many fronts.
- Do I risk frustrating my reader by stretching the story to accommodate a series, rather than ensuring that each title works on its own?
- Am I able to keep each installment relatively similar in length and time span covered?
- Have I provided enough variety in voice, narrator, and perspective characters without jeopardizing the consistency of the message and tone?
3 Tips to Writing a Great Series
1. Remember that Publishers Love Series
Left Behind began as a one-book deal. The idea was to tell the story of the Rapture, including the seven-year Tribulation (including 21 judgments from heaven).
Halfway through the writing of that manuscript I realized I had covered only two weeks of the seven years.
With great trepidation, I informed the publisher, Tyndale House, that I was afraid the story would require at least a trilogy. They immediately rewrote the contract and urged me to let the story dictate the length.
My editor reminded me that publishers love series because they get more bang for the buck. If the overall plot can bear it, multiple titles allow advertising and promotion that much more impact for virtually the same price. The individual titles themselves promote the whole.
Halfway through the writing of book two, I had covered two months of the seven years. Another phone call. Another rewritten contract to make the series seven titles.
Eventually Left Behind became a series of 16 titles.
2. Keep Character Arc Paramount
The main reason I couldn’t force 21 dramatic judgments from heaven into one big novel was that with such a huge, cosmic concept, my characters had to be realistic and believable.
If the entire novel was filled with slam bang action, my characters would have become props, stick figures on which to hang a sort of comic book tale.
My message in this story is that while it was cast as fiction—putting made-up characters in the way of these dire prophecies—I believe it’s true and will happen some day.
So to lend credence to that theme, my characters had to be easily identified with. The reader had to be able to see himself in these situations and resonate—or not—with the decisions of very realistic people.
Character arc takes time, and pages. It can’t flag and get boring, but neither can it be shortcut.
In a series, readers expect characters to grow in each book and throughout the entire package.
3. Each Novel Must Satisfy On Its Own
This is where too many novelists stumble.
They succumb to the temptation to “save the good stuff” for the final book. Better to give your all to each title and, in essence, have to start from scratch with each new one.
Naturally, the overall story itself needs to continue, but force yourself to write each novel as if it’s the last in terms of intrigue, suspense, conflict, dialogue, character arc, all of it.
That will guarantee that the reader will get your best with every installment and one won’t dip in quality or serve only as a connector title to keep the series going.