As some of you know, I attended an amazing writer's conference last month. One of the things I learned and promised to cover more in depth was how series are it. IF they are done well.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
- Series are easier to see in a bookstore. A single title takes up a very small space on the shelf compared to a line of books in a series. This is particularly true for chapter books. Visually, the sheer number of volumes draws the eyes to a series. Bingo. Our books have been seen.
- Series are familiar. Young readers and reluctant adult readers tend to gravitate toward series where the world and characters are familiar. Anyone who read Harry Potter knew what to expect. Every time they cracked open a new book, they were greeted with charming Ron, intelligent Hermione and mischievous Harry. With little to no effort, readers were drawn back into a comfortable world.
- Series are family. Because we are so familiar with the characters in a series, they become like a family to us. Readers quickly become invested in the lives of their beloved characters. Every new title in a series is like a family reunion where we can rejoice and commiserate with long lost rellies.
- Series allow readers to be part of the group. Let's face it, kids aren't the only ones who want the secret knock to the clubhouse. It is the human condition to want to belong, to be taken along on the adventure of a lifetime, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. A series is an invitation to join a secret club. It satisfies our need to fit in.
While shelf space may call to a reader in the bookstore and be the reason a series is first noticed, the familiarity and sense of family keeps readers coming back to buy the next volume and the next. So how in the heck do we write one?
TOP TIPS TO DRAW READERS IN
- Character Connections. A successful series must have a group of characters or family, if you will. This group mentality reinforces the desire for readers to fit in. It also allows the writer to reach a broader audience by creating multiple, strong personalities within the core group. When readers can assimilate with a character, they will feel more comfortable joining the fun. Harry Potter has the geeky side-kick, the brainiac, the misfit and the bully. A favorite character for every reader.
- Consistency. A consistent world or home base allows readers—particular young readers—the freedom to explore while returning to the comfort of home. This consistency is extremely important in fantasy and scifi where the world has complex rules, innovative creatures and interesting landscapes.
- Concept driven. More than anything, a successful series must have a concept that readers can quickly identify with. With a series, our concept, or hook, should only be one sentence. Period. Two children enter their favorite tree house and time travel to different adventures. A young wizard must learn to control his magical powers and defeat his late parents' adversary or die trying. Okay, not perfect, but you get the picture. If we can't summarize our series in one sentence, we may have to rethink our projects.
TOP TIPS FOR WRITING A SUCCESSFUL SERIES
- Create multiple points of entry. A series must have many layers that can open up to a new story idea. Unlike a single title or a trilogy, many series have indefinite end points. The story itself is renewable in scope. Readers can be voracious, and a writer's job is to supply unique and interesting stories to feed this appetite. A successful series provides the potential for new problems and off-shoots for new stories. The series writer has to look at the whole forest when writing instead of focusing on a specific tree.
- Create multiple story arcs. To be exact, the series itself must have an overall arc, as does each individual book within the series. In other words, each book must introduce a conflict that is satisfactorily resolved at the end of the book. Yet the series itself must also introduce a conflict that takes the entire series to resolve. Throughout the entire series, the characters must change and grow, and eventually overcome the obstacle that initiated the series in the first place. Yowzer. How's that for complex?
- Be prepared to ride the wave. If you haven't figured out by this point, writing a series takes a lot more time, energy and organization than writing a single title. Because of this, writers must be dedicated to the craft of writing. Did you know that a series releases anywhere from 1-4 books per year depending on age group and genre? To maintain reader enthusiasm, books must appear on the shelves frequently and consistently. Deadlines must be adhered to and writers must write, edit and promote multiple projects at any given time. If you don't love, love, love your characters, do not pitch a series, as nobody can predict the longevity of one. For example, The Boxcar Children is Albert Whitman's top seller and has 127 books in the series.
So we have amazing characters, a broad story arc and the commitment to write as many books as it takes to resolve our overall conflict. How do we pitch our newest concept to an agent?
TOP TIPS ON PITCHING A SERIES
- Write the first book. Seriously. As successful series writer, Lin Oliver stated, "Nobody cares about your idea in publishing. They care about the execution." Get that first book written. Make sure it stands alone, yet leaves a hint of great things to come.
- Pitch your first book as a stand alone with a series potential. From what I gleaned from several speakers, agents and editors don't need to be told a manuscript is the first book in a series. They can usually pick out the potential simply by the style of writing and the whiff of something deeper that needs to be explored. If you have done your job well, they should be delighted to learn you've thought ahead. However, we shouldn't fear mentioning the potential in a query letter. We just have to do it right. NO: This is the first in a series of six. YES: This stand alone project has the potential as the first book in a series. I have completed my series proposal should you be interested in looking it over. For more series query tips, click here (Agent Query Connect) and see what editor Kristen Weber has to say.
- Write a killer proposal. This includes providing a broad overview of the characters, the world and the overall story arc, as well as sample plots for future volumes. Ms. Oliver cautioned that if we can only come up with three or four ideas, we do not have a series.
- Series are an investment. A successful series creates a life for itself.
- Series represent a property or franchise that creates future, renewable success.
- Series can make a publishing company.
- Series are prone to being exploited in film or on television.
Now that you know why a series can be a powerful gig in the writing biz, it is only fair to warn you that they are also one of the hardest projects for an aspiring writer to break in with. It's hard enough for publishers to take a chance on a debut novelist. Contracting for multiple books can be extremely risky. If we want an editor to pick up our series, our ideas and the execution of them must be phenomenal.
So, does your series idea have what it takes? What do you think of the time commitment and expectations for creating a successful series?