Book Series – A Whole Other Food Group

For some reason, writers are in a “series” mood, and a lot of queries are inviting me to do the mambo with not one, but several books. I understand the attraction to writing a series because you have characters that you love and can put them into all sorts of different situations. You get all excited about the overall series and can almost taste readers’ excitement over your books, so you pitch the whole enchilada with reckless abandon. Me gots a fifteen-book series, and here they are!

Criteria for a Series

The usual problem I encounter is that the characters simply aren’t exciting enough to get me through the first book, let alone several others. Your characters have to be three-dimensional, walk-off-the-page real. They need to have a backstory that you can slowly reveal with each subsequent book, sorta like pinching the neck of a balloon and slowly letting the air out so it makes that squeaky noise that makes the beagle bark like a madwoman.

The second problem I encounter is WHY? There should be an intentional reason for turning your book into a series other than you’re hoping for longevity. It could be as simple a reason that you wrote the first book and feel there’s more for your characters to do.

Pitch One or Pitch ‘Em All?

I appreciate authors who concentrate on pitching their first book. There may be a time when I see the potential for a series (Hello, Chris Baughman) and ask if the author has ideas for more.

What really kills it for me is the query letter that outlines each book of the series. It feels like a smorgasbord rather than a sales pitch. “Get yer pickles, potato salad, hamburgers, hotdogs, and Twinkies right here!” It’s  important that you to get me to love your first book. If you spend your query pitching all of them, then none of them carry any weight.

If you concentrate on that first book and get me to fall in love with it, then I’m going to get all slobbery if you mention that this is part of a potential series. I highlight potential because it’s my cue that the book is a stand-alone and not contingent upon subsequent books. This presents me with options that I may not have considered…such as the case with our author, Chris Baughman. His brilliant agent, Verna Dreisbach, got me to swooning over his first book, then casually mentioned he had plans for other books about his amazing human trafficking cases. And thus, the OFF THE STREET series was born, and we went from a one-book deal, to a three-book deal.

BoOm.

Me likes optionses (said in her very best Gollum voice).

It’s also important to define what kind of series you’ve written because it’s the difference between “Please send pages,” and “No thanks.”

Stand Alone vs. Cliff Hangers

Selling your series depends on what kind of series it is; Stand Alone or Cliff Hangers. Some publishers, depending on genre, are fine with Cliff Hanger series, and others are more comfortable with Stand Alone. It’s important that you define which yours is.

Stand Alone books have a main story arc that reaches their conclusion in that one book. The characters and their backstories continue throughout the series and blend into each new plot (Hello, Chris Baughman and John Lescroart – who is one of the nicest Big Authors around). Readers are seduced into buying the next book because they loved the first one, due to its story and the fact that they care about the characters.

Cliff Hangers have one giant story arc that’s broken up into a series. Their cliff-hangey endings seduce the reader into buying the next book to find out what happened. Each subsequent book produces its own cliff hanger, so you need to keep buying the next in the series. If it’s a successful series (Hello, Lord of the Rings), then it’s a cha-ching venture where everyone does the Happy Dance.

Risks:

Cliff Hanger series are interdependent. If one book sucks stale Twinkie cream, then it could signal the death knell for sales on future books because it’s a chink in a very-connected chain. If the reader doesn’t care about that one book, they may not care about the overall arc anymore. This happened to me with Terry Brooks’ Swords of Shannara series. I ate up his books when I was in college, back in the Early Jurassic Era. But when he cranked out a few duds, I lost interest in the whole arc and quit reading him.

Conversely, the Stand Alone series can withstand a lesser book and still retain their audience. For instance, a couple authors, whose books I’ve read for years, have put out a few smelly noses, but they’ve also banged out some really good books. They haven’t lost me as a reader because each new book has a new plot with characters that I’ve known and loved for years…provided they haven’t fallen victim to Series Bored-itits…

Fear the Dreaded Series Bored-itits

Series suffer from a unique problem, and that’s when the author becomes bored with their characters. It doesn’t seem to matter that there’s a new plot with each new book, the author has simply run dry with the characters. If the characters are reduced to one-dimensional, chalky stick figures, then who cares about the plot?

Of course, there are many plot-driven series, but your characters must do the heavy lifting because they’re the one constant in the series. They are what keep your readers coming back for more. When was the last time you said, “Oh, I can’t wait to see how that dull, lifeless, boring John Blutto saves the world”?

If you’re writing a series, you need to take The Series Pledge, which states:

  • I promise I will not become bored with my main characters.
  • They are the lifeblood of my series.
  • I will continue to develop their backstories and their evolution in order to make my readers feel all skippie dippie about each new book.
  • If I no longer feel skippie dippie about my characters, I will either kill them or let them ride off into the sunset. BUT I WILL NOT WRITE THEM ANYMORE.

You owe this to yourself so that you continue to write with passion, and you owe it to your readers, who have fallen for your characters enough to follow you with each new book.

The worst thing any writer can suffer is reader apathy.

The other worst thing a writer can do is drown their query with all the books in their series. Make me fall in love with the first one, and we’ll take it from there, OK?

2 Responses to Book Series – A Whole Other Food Group

  1. Aston West says:

    Of course, then you have those stand-alone series books where your readers beg for certain characters to fall in love eventually…and who are you to deny readers what they really want? 😛

    Great stuff above…and one thing I’ve noticed on one particular author who writes standalone series novels, your readers come to expect certain things from a series author. I think what’s happening in this situation is your final oath in the Series Pledge, where the author in question has ceased feeling “skippie dippie” about her characters…but instead of killing them off, she’s turned them all into hollow shells of their former selves.

  2. You speaketh the truth. Writers have to be careful about not bending to what the readers expect because they’re no longer staying true to their own vision of their characters. A slippery slope, indeed.

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