The series sashay

Many of us aren’t satisfied to write just one book with a cast of exciting, thrilling characters. Their coolness often yammers at us in the middle of the night like a ghost hopped up on too much chocolate – Pricey – don’t say goodbye to Kim and Erik…they have more to saaaaay…

And if it’s not that ethereal pest on crack, it’s your mother. And your hubby’s friends – which totally cracks me up because I didn’t realize that big hunky doods would find a soft spot in their hearts for Kim. Seems they have a lust-thing going on. But I digress.

The thing with series is that we love our characters and want to continue the storyline in subsequent books. Voila! The series sashay is born. So we decide to ignore our friends, family, general hygiene in order to crank out Books 2,3, 4, only stopping to order up another round of margaritas from the beagle.

Yay! Writing nirvana! you say – which, of course, is true. Nothing is more fun [to me, at least] than staying in touch with old friends. But now I have to back away from my quill and pick up my evil red pen and deliver some news you may not want to hear. Not to worry, the beagle is standing by with margaritas in hand…paw.

There is danger in writing your complete series before you ever sell that first book. Heck, there’s potholes and water spouts if you write the complete series after you’ve sold your first book. The reason lies with CONSISTENCY and EDITING.

The key element whoopsie

If there is something that your editor doesn’t like in Book 2, then you have to change it, right? Well, what if that “something” is a key piece of information that runs through Books 3 and 4 – which you’ve already written? No sweat, sez you, you’ll make the change.

But what if there’s more than one – like two or three key elements that need to go? Whoopsie! Now you’re considering those ceiling beams and leather belt and whether both are strong enough to hold your weight, huh?

I had this happen to me. A five book deal turned into a nightmare because a key character – a baddie – was little more than a Lon Chaney knockoff. “No way can we keep this character,” I told my author. “It’s painful, and you have to make him something else entirely.”

The author balked. “But this character runs through Books 3, 4, and 5. And this would mean I have to rewrite the other books entirely.”

I care! – she said with as much motherly concern as if preparing to eat her young. I have to sell this book, and there is no way that’s going to happen with Lon drooling all over the pages, hoping to avoid a freaking silver bullet. It’s already been done. You cannot do it.

The author did change the character, but not nearly enough to make me happy. As a result, that book didn’t do nearly as well in sales. In retrospect, I should have put my foot down and insist he go back to the drawing board entirely. But I didn’t. I had a deadline to meet, and he had events already lined up. Big mistake on my part.

It didn’t end there.  Since Book 3 was already written, the major rewrites we insisted on [including Lon Chaney] drained the author, and the whole thing fell apart. I believe the author lost his vision. Without that character and all the major restructuring we required of him, he just couldn’t pull it together. I canceled the remaining three books.

This was a key element whoopsie with a really buzz kill ending. You want to avoid that. Really.

Not all series are created equally

Thar be two types of series: one where the same plot is carried through the entire series – think The Fugitive, where Richard Kimball is accused of killing his wife. The series went on for four years and consisted of Kimball trying to find the real killer, the mysterious man with a missing arm.

The other type of series is where your books contain the same characters but they have a new, different dilemma in each book. Sure, there are strands that carry through all the books, that golden thread that ties them all together, but the plots are all new.

In both cases, I believe each book should stand alone  for the main reason that most readers hate that feeling of being left in the air. Having to wait a year for the next book is a long time to wait. A series like The Fugitive had the main plot running for four years, but each episode was a mini-plot that got solved that week.

To do this in literature requires a deft hand, so handle with care. The reader has to feel some sort of satisfaction with the ending so they aren’t screaming about how you left them with a knife dripping with blood and no resolution.

But I lurve my series! What should I do?

My suggestion for those who want to do the series sashay is to make solid outlines of your books. Write a first draft so you can basically tell yourself the story – knowing full well that at this stage, major rewrites are always going to happen, by you or your editor should you sell the entire series.

Leave it at the first draft stage and pitch your first book to agents and editors with the teaser that this book has series potential. Please don’t tell us that it’s a series because it can often be a death knell. Potential is gentler, kinder, and offers us options.

In the case where you’ve sold the series I recommend waiting for your editor’s blessing on each book before you begin writing the next in the series in earnest. Those “little edits” your editor requests may feel like Mt. Vesuvius with a bad bellyache for you. Always have  plenty of tequila and Maalox on hand.

If you’ve written your first drafts in the entire series and you’re dying to continue writing, then write something else. Begin a new series, or write a stand alone. Do anything but play tiddlywinks with your series. Your editor’s blood pressure and what little remains of her sanity will thank you for it.

4 Responses to The series sashay

  1. Timely advice, Lynn, as I tidy up my third draft of book one and prepare to query. Many thanks.

    Can we blame JK Rowling for writers’ obsessions with books that come in series? Or writers’ obsessions with their characters? Or a bit of both?

  2. Ah, series have been going on far longer than JK. I remember reading Terry Brooks books back in the early Jurassic Era when I was in college.

  3. I’m pleased to say this is one problem I’ve never had. I have enough already to contend with. The thought of writing a series brings me out in a rash. By the time I’ve finished with one situation and set of characters I want to strangle the whole darn lot of them and move onto another set.

  4. Suzanne J says:

    Boy, does this strike a nerve! I just finished major rewrites on book one of a series (book two has already been bought), so big rewrite of book two is coming down the pike to make it consistent with changes. I’m staring bug-eyed at the prospect of doing an outline of #3. A sashay indeed!

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