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Jan 25, 2015

Ten Things I Learned About Writing a Series

Subtitle: The Schattenreich series is finished! For Now. (insert huge winking smiley face, dancing, with fireworks going off in the background)

Current conventional wisdom says that readers love series. I know as a reader, I not only love series, I luuuuurve them. I also like standalones, but I'm a hard core series reader at heart and not just trilogies. Four, five, more books. Give me more. And I'm not one of those readers who demands that each book in a series be a 'standalone' either. One or the other cliffhanger is certainly okay if I am confident that the author will be able to deliver the next book (and conclude the series) while I'm still alive to enjoy it (and still fit-of-mind enough to be able to remember what came before).

So you might think that I figured all those things into my plan when I began writing The Schattenreich series of five books. But, as I suspect is the case with how many fantasy series start out, this was not the case. I started off with a sequel in mind that grew to a trilogy and then a short ways into writing the fourth book, I realized I would need five books to finish it. Bad planning, some would say. I agree, but would amend that to 'no planning'.

'Hi, my name is Sharon and I am a pantser.' This means I write by 'the seat of my pants'. It's not entirely accurate. I do a modest amount of planning for each book. Most of the planning goes by the wayside by the time I reach the middle of the book, but that's okay. I've got a goalpost or a signpost or a looming stake-through-the-heart kind of post (write until the end or die) to push me on.

Primary Fault started out as a physical prompt, a small wooden cat that I own (a gift from my sister-in-law). I picked it up and put it next to my laptop the day I decided to sit down and finally write a novel.

I had ideas brewing from actual events (the archeological excavations in Cologne and whether there really had been an earthquake that could have scared Charlemagne enough to abandon the Praetorium as his seat of government) and some imagined backstory (that culminated in the short story The Raven's Curse, first published in The Phantom Queen Awakes anthology and soon to be rereleased).

Even though a couple of the early ideas were flawed (Charlemagne had many palaces, not just Cologne. And whether he really abandoned the city is pure speculation - there's nothing written to substantiate it). And the earthquake around 780/790 C.E that supposedly 'destroyed' the Praetorium, well.......this paper sheds a different light on the whole destructive earthquake hypothesis.

But I adapted as the series grew, coming up with novel ways of dealing with the earthquake hypothesis and with Charlemagne and a whole slew of other problems that raised their ugly heads while writing. I have now officially written The End to the first draft of the fifth and last book in the series, Triple Junction. Barring any unforeseen problems, expected publication will be sometime in early summer, 2015.

To make a long story (or series) shorter, here are the top things I learned about writing a series.

1. You need to love spending time with your characters.

Because you will be spending time with them. Lots of time. Time you're giving up from being with your loved ones (but not your cat - he/she will be right there with you), BFFs, mothers-in-law, etc. Your social skills will suffer tremendously, and people will wonder why you've started stuttering when you're in a room containing more than three people. Get used to it. You don't have to love your characters, but you do need to enjoy being around them, day and night. They will haunt your dreams and make you get up in the middle of dinner to rush to the computer to add something that just occurred to you that Character A needs to say to Character B at just that moment. Your family may end up hating your characters. It is the price you must pay.
I like hanging out
with Caitlin
I love spending time
with Hagen

 2. Do a scene outline before starting each book in the series. Update it when the book diverges.

It will make your life easier. Period. You can subsequently use it to add information to help you keep track of character motivations and history, important objects and events, plot points, series arcs, etc. It will save you from having to search the finished (and already published) books for things. I define a scene outline as a one- to two-sentence description of each major scene in the book. I am thankful to Tish Cohen for first suggesting this method to me.

3. Keep thinking about where the series is heading.

Even though I'm a pantser, I knew the series had to end. I worried a lot about this, especially as the series grew past what I had originally intended. But I had a shimmer of how things should end up. Sorta. Kinda. And that helped. A lot.

4. Be a stickler for consistency.

This concerns mainly characters, but also includes keeping track of past events (see 2. above) and what impact they had on the characters. Characters are what will make people continue to read your xth book. Unless the series is unending, the main characters will (and should) change and evolve, but they should remain predictable in the sense of what and who they represent. In a successful series, readers want to know what will happen, but more importantly, they want to know what will happen to your protagonists. They want to know about your bad guys as well (which is why I'm going to be publishing a novella with Dagmar Abel in it at some point, and muchas gracias to Martha Hubbard for the suggestion.) Fortunately, the more books in a series you write, the easier this will become as you come to know your characters as well or even better than your own family (see 1. above).

5. Be prepared to adapt.

I know. I said be consistent. But the series might make a sudden turn into unexpected territory. If it feels right, do it. This happened to me at the end of the third book, Double Couple, and I had to adjust my thinking accordingly. I originally wanted each book to be a neat, complete, fantasy-suspense plot with some sort of crime behind it that involved a seismic event. But the characters occupying my version of the Otherworld (Ande-dubnos) decided they wanted more air time. And I had to agree with them. I still have a definitive seismic event in each of the books. But the fourth (Shadow Zone) and fifth books serve the series as a whole rather than any preconceived notion of what they should be.

6. Have things worth fighting for.

Death is not your only option
Early on, one of my beta readers warned me that not enough was at stake in my story. I took this warning to heart. It is difficult, but not impossible, to bring across a sense of urgency in a series where the main protagonist has to survive until the last book (if not the end). So it is vital to make their struggles important enough to overcome this built-in flaw. I have a 2000-year old curse of death that threatens Caitlin, my main character. This is a pretty good hook. But if it occurs in Book 2 or Book 3 or even in Book 4 then I am missing a protagonist. Oops. In the meantime, my job is to keep the reader interested until Caitlin gets slammed by the curse. Or manages to overcome it (what - you think I'm going to tell? Ha!) So I made sure she is subjected to numerous other threats - both to herself and to those she loves - along the way. Only the reader can decide if I am successful or not.

7. To Theme or Not to Theme.

I found it helps to have one and to keep it in mind while writing but not to hit the reader over the head with it. I didn't discover my theme until around the middle of the second book, Shaky Ground. It doesn't have to be anything earth shaking (see what I did there?), and I kept my theme simple (and don't know if anyone will be able to guess it until the end).

8. Timeliness is important.

I believe it is important if you commit yourself to writing a series to satisfy the reader's need to have the sequels on a timely basis. If you are a writer, you may feel differently. As a reader, I want the next book now, if not sooner. But I'm willing to wait a reasonable amount of time. What is reasonable is debatable. But the longer it takes, the more you will court reader dissatisfaction. Life may get in the way, there's no question. But I'm writing for readers now, not for posterity. And I appreciate every one who is willing to wait for the next book.

9. Not everyone will love every book in the series. 

It's not the end of the world. Live with it. But don't let it slow you down. And remember to thank your readers for sticking with your series (thank you!) despite this.

10.  Think about the children   what you will do after the series is finished. Plan ahead.

 The day will come. You want to have your characters back. They no longer haunt your dreams, and you  become morose. Your loss seems insurmountable. If you have jotted some story/novel ideas down during the time you were unable to do anything other than write the freaking series, now is the time to pull them out. Unfinished short stories, musicals, your planned opus on the history of nose hairs - anything - this is the time to start working on them.

Was that ten already? I'm sure I've left out a bunch of important things. If you (as a reader or a writer) think of anything to add, please do so!

photo credit:
dedevanderroove via photopin cc

Thalita Carvalho ϟ via photopin cc

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