SERIAL OFFENDER? Not likely! (The Most Fulfilling Reasons to Write Series Fiction)

just-printed-1408010-mSeries fiction: one of the most wonderful reading experiences comes from that first book of the first series you fall in love with. You loved Nancy Drew, or Harry Potter and his friends, or the Boxcar Children, or the Babysitters Club. You finish the last page and you’re dying to read just ten more.

Then you realize there are LOTS more pages in other books about those characters. It’s the reader’s lottery win. The big jackpot.

Then we grow older. Those of us with aspirations of authorship go from reading series to perhaps writing one, or a few of them.

Not all writers have interest in writing a series, of course. But many of us do. Series exist in all kinds of genres: the sci-fi or fantasy trilogy, the sleuth who solves murder case after murder case, historical romance series…. Paranormal romance is extremely popular right now, and they ALL seem to be series about vampires.

They’re not my thing, but people love them. And they keep coming back for more.

Me, I’ve written a sword and sorcery trilogy and have a draft of book one in a follow-up series. Reflecting on my experience with my trilogy, and my favorite aspects of the journey, I figured it would be cool to write a post about the most fulfilling components of writing a series.

I could say I’m writing this to encourage and inspire someone else, but I’ll be honest: I’d be full of bull. The truth is, I haven’t worked on my fiction in about a month now. I need a spark. Motivation.

I figured a reminder about what I loved about writing my first series might spur me to pick up the second again! So here we go:

5 awesome and fulfilling reasons you might consider writing a series (beyond the fact that they are popular).

1. YOU CAN DEVELOP CHARACTERS AND WATCH THEM GROW OVER THE YEARS

There’s no rule that a series has to take place over many years. And there’s no rule that a stand-alone novel can’t: one of the most intriguing aspects of “Gone With the Wind” is watching Scarlett O’Hara develop from an adolescent without a care in the world to a two-time widow in the throes of poverty in the aftermath of the Civil War.

In some ways, the author-character relationship is like a parent-child relationship, and that’s especially so when an author’s series extends through the years, perhaps even generations. Series authors get to watch their characters grow into who they’re meant to be.

Even a series that, time-wise, extends no more two or three years is bound to involve a lot of growth, change, and maturation on the part of the major characters if it’s any good at all.

That’s more development, and more deep development, than you can fit into most stand-alone novels. Because of that, series characters feel REAL. They disappoint you, then make you proud; they might take two steps back before mustering their courage to bound forward again. Then they’ll slip in a minor way in the next book but remember what they learned from past mistakes.

All that feels so very human.

2. YOU KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS WELL AFTER THE FIRST BOOK

One of my most basic rules of writing is “follow the characters.”

You have to let them be true to who they are rather than force them to act how you want them to act. And you can’t do that if you don’t know them inside and out.

Getting to know my characters is one of the most fun, but also most challenging, parts of the writing process for me. It’s difficult because my characters start out as strangers. And it’s risky because each character is a part of me and has pieces of me in him or her, sometimes pieces I’d rather not reflect upon (no matter how beneficial such reflection ends up being).

Creating a character is a major emotional investment. It takes time, and it can slow down the writing process: which is fine, when that is necessary.

The thing is, when you write a series with a number of characters who jump from book to book, by the time you get to writing books two and three you already know the vast majority of your cast.

The writing comes easier. Sometimes it comes faster. You don’t have to agonize so much over trying to figure out what your characters would do in a given situation. You know them like you know your best friends, your siblings, your significant other.

Basically, the path you are following your characters down is much clearer after book one because you know how to recognize their footsteps.

3. IF YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO GET ORGANIZED OR TO PLAN, YOU LEARN.

Planning and organization skills are good things to have in life, for sure. Things like tax payments and credit card bills, they’re good to make on time. Calendars help keep you from missing appointments. Prospective employers like examples of how your manage your time and your activities and are able to keep deadlines.

Writing any novel takes organization and good notes, even if you don’t use an outline or plan things out too much ahead of time. Once the time comes to edit….

You have got to take notes when you read through your work. You need to keep those notes using a system that helps you find what you need when you need it.

If that’s true of a stand-alone work, you can imagine how true it is of a group of connected novels, each of which builds upon and refers back to previous ones.

I’m telling you, when I was teaching six hours a week in grad school, taking two classes, and planning a weekend-long conference all at the same time, the organizational skills that writing gave me really came in handy.

On a related note to organization….

4. YOU REALLY GET TO HONE YOUR PERSONAL WRITING PROCESS

Learning to write fiction is a process of trial and error, because there’s no right way to organize your writing or go about crafting your novel.

You try something you think will work. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t…. As you go along you make adjustments, and ideally, each chapter and novel that you write helps you find your groove and settle into the method that works best for you.

Now, most series novels have certain things in common, even though they’re different in some way.

  • They share characters.
  • They generally share narrative styles and storytelling techniques.
  • They tend to be (generally) of a similar length and structure.

Through the course of writing three or more novels that are similar in structure, probably share setting, and have lots of thematic elements in common, you get a GREAT opportunity to compare the tweaks you make to your process with how you did things beforehand.

As a general rule, series novels are similar enough that you can use your experience writing each one to determine if doing things slightly differently in one book made things easier for you, or led to more positive results.

If so, that difference is a good one. You might consider making it part of your writing M.O.

Ideally, as you make adjustments and write each book a little bit differently, each novel in your series should be a bit more complex and involve better writing than the last.

Are there exceptions? Sure, Middle books in a trilogy are known to be the weakest of a set, and if I’m honest I’d say that’s true of my trilogy. But the approach to writing book two really did set me up to get book three going fast (once I realized what the story needed to be.)

5. WRITING A SERIES IS AN AWESOME CHALLENGE AND A WONDERFUL JOURNEY

Whether you want to plan out each novel before you write a word or “go with the flow”…..

Whether each novel is connected to the others very obviously or you have years passing between each installment….

Whether you end in cliffhangers or have each novel stand alone as its own completed story from start to finish….

Writing a series is a monstrous challenge, and a worthwhile one. Emotionally, it’s incredibly rewarding. On a personal level, it really got me examining what I feel my life is, and what it’s for. I got me examining the person I am and contemplating the person I want to be.

Ask any writer who is working on a series, and I think they’d agree: series are hard on the planning level and even an emotional level, but the difficulty isn’t insurmountable, and that’s what makes a series worth writing.

So, if you’re working on a series, how do you feel it’s different than writing a stand-alone novel? If you don’t want to write a series, why have you made that (perfectly valid) choice?

If you enjoyed this post or found it useful, don’t forget that you can sign up to follow my blog by email at the top right of the page. You might also like these related posts:

  1. Three categories of series: which does your favorite series belong to?
  2. What happens when a writer extends a series too long?
  3. Why readers love series fiction: breaking down its strengths
  4. Are cliffhanger endings okay?
  5. How differently constructed can series novels be?
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32 responses to “SERIAL OFFENDER? Not likely! (The Most Fulfilling Reasons to Write Series Fiction)

  1. I had once planed to write one book but then that expanded to three. Ass my journey progressed, back story and character dev (along with loose ends) added another 2 pushing book three to book 5. An alpha reader commented about plot hole that I had planned to cover in a prequel needed addressing so now the series is up to 6 books!

    The point above is that I agree with everything you have said.

    • It really is cool how that happens!!! I started out with what I thought would be a series but the story fit into one longish novel. Then I realized the characters had more adventures for me 🙂

  2. This is a great post. First of all, I hope that you get that spark and can write again soon.
    So, series… My feelings about series are a bit ambivalent. It depends on whether it is halfway transparent where the journey will lead and how long it will be. Harry Potter was great, you knew there would be 7 exciting books… and it’s so amazing when you make your judgement about characters, and then, somewhere along the way, you find out sth that completely tears apart that image (Snape, Jamie Lannister…)… but it has to be a well-written series. If an author doesn’t know when to stop, plots and patterns tend to repeat themselves, and that’s a pity.
    To be honest, I’m not sure how to exactly classify my WIP. It’s a very long story that will probably fit into 4 books once it’s finished, but since the four parts are not closed in itself, I don’t consider it a series, and I’m rather reluctant to change it and close each part to make it series material.
    Actually, I’d like to try to write a series, though. I bet it’s an amazing experience.

    • Thanks, Bellatrix!

      You raise a really interesting question: when is a series not a series, but one story in multiple volumes? That’s fascinating!!! You could always market as vol 1,2,3. Something to consider maybe for down the road?

      • I have definitely considered it. It’s 4 parts, or sub-books, and I’d really love to make one volume out of each. It would be possible to pack two parts into one volume. I have to see how long it is once it’s finished 🙂

  3. Great post!
    One of my WIPs will naturally fall into at least two books, because the books themselves are part of the story (Shh! Don’t tell anyone). There will likely be a third. I am writing it as a single stand-alone but when it comes to production it will be split at the appropriate points.
    Another one, totally unrelated to the above, may serve as an introduction to a series but I haven’t decided on that yet. We’ll see how it pans out. Mos tlikely I’ll write it such that it ends with the option of continuing.

    • I like giving myself the option of continuing…. you wrap things up, so that there’s closure, but there’s that hint of an adventure yet to come…. it’s fabulous!!! Really enthralling 🙂

  4. I have put a lot of time and effort into designing the world in which my books were set, and I have a lot more background information than I was able to use in the first two. So, naturally, I want to return to that world again. I still have more things to say about it.

  5. Agree with everything. That middle book issue trips me up because it’s hard to end it without a cliffhanger. Bring closure to the book without closure to the story is a challenge. Add in foreshadowing and leaving loose ends for more of a slight mess. Though, it isn’t really a mess. I’ve noticed with my series that some people don’t understand. They either don’t realize it’s a series or they expect full closure at the end of every book. I had quite a few people annoyed that Luke Callindor (main hero) was still immature and reckless at the end of the first book. He grew, but not to his full potential and this bugged them. I have 15 books to do this, so I don’t want him to peak in the first one. Anyway, I think this is where the idea that the middle is weak comes from. Not that it’s really weak, but that people don’t get the joy of introduction or the sense of finality like they do with the first and last of a series.

  6. I would like to at least write a trilogy and see if I can make it into a series. I love to read beyond the books ending so many times…and it just isn’t there.

  7. I’ve had big plans for a series for the past three years now but the more I examine the world and the characters, the more I see that it’s better for me to tackle smaller stand along novels before going for the epic three. I love reading your post they always leave me feeling inspired and with a deeper appreciation for writing as a whole.

    By the way we share the same rule, “follow the characters,” to be honest I usually don’t give much thought to plot, while I give an over abundance of thought to the characters. Plot comes later.

    You mentioned your own series in the post, have you published any of it yet? I’d love to read.

  8. I love a series. I’m a big fan of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, particularly the format–various miniseries within the same world. That’s what I’m shooting for. I have three miniseries planned for my world. Whether I can pull them off is a different story. 🙂

  9. Great post! I wonder if you could do a counterpoint post–like how to tell when you should end your series because it’s getting stale?
    I’ve heard Terry Pratchet could benefit from that.

  10. Aw, I read all of those serials and loved all of them. I’m not sure I have it in me to write one, but now that I’m thinking about it, it could be a fun kind of challenge. Hm . . .

  11. Wow very informative post. This has me rethinking my series.

  12. It seems I prefer to think of stories in terms of series. Whether I’ve written the first one or not doesn’t seem to matter. I do have standalones, three to be precise. But I’ve also got two duos, one trilogy, and two series with four books as well as companion novellas.

    When it comes to reading, do I really have to say I’ve got a lot of series on my shelf? ^_^

  13. Pingback: #planwrite Preparation Day 14: Planning A Series | Emilie Hardie

  14. As much as I love a good series I think too many authors today feel compelled to write a series or a trilogy when really it isn’t necessary. I think there is great value in writing a stand alone book without worrying about future novels or additions as it would allow more focus and more effort put into the story itself without so much effort put into adding little bits here and there that are obviously only added to allow for a second or third or fourth book. I can think of a few stories that did become excellent series’ but were originally not intended to be such. The series only came about due to the popularity of the first book and reader’s asking for more and more.

    • I could not agree more, JCC! The fact that a stand alone is great, and does well, doesn’t mean it needs to be expanded into a series if a series just isn’t right for the concept and the characters. I really, really wish Hollywood would understand that!!!

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