Friday, May 6, 2011

Hooray for Series!

by Cat Woods

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. 

  • 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? 

  • 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. 

  • 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?

  • 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. 
The moral of the bonus info?  Keep your subsidiary rights.  I repeat.  Keep your subsidiary rights if at all possible.

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?


Jarmara Falconer said...

Thank you for this great posting. I have thought about the idea that my book could become a series, but I would like each book to be a stand alone book in its own right, simply because as a reader I'm put off by the idea I have to read the first book in ten to understand what is going on in the eleventh book I've stumbled across by chance in a second hand bookshop.

Samantha Sotto-Yambao said...

I've fallen in love with series books in the past, but i don't think I'd survive writing them :D

Richard said...

This is very helpful info for me. My current WIP is part of a series, which I am now polishing. I'm tagging this post for future reference.

Mindy McGinnis said...

Absolutely wonderful post, Cat. I think that pitching a book as a stand alone with series potential is the key. My first YA novel was never picked up, and I think the inability to stand alone was a part of that. I intentionally wrote my next YA attempt as a stand alone to avoid that pitfall.

greenwoman said...

I am always in awe of authors who can create a series that goes on, and on, and on, and stays fresh and keeps my interest. I'm not sure I could keep track of everything that way, since half the time I can't even keep track of my car keys.

Then again, I often amaze myself with how well my writer brain can keep track of all my characters and "rules" for my worlds, when the rest of my life is so disorderly.

So perhaps these series writers aren't masters of organization. Perhaps it's a supernatural gift!

I'm sure they'd love to hear that they aren't reaping the rewards of hard work at all . . . ha!!!

Thanks for a great post, as always!

RSMellette said...

I come from a TV background... 'nough said.

Great post! :)

Jemi Fraser said...

I love this, Cat. The students in my class all love series. I just finished reading aloud a fantastic book in class today and they are SO disappointed that there isn't another book to follow. Once I get a kid hooked on a series, I've usually created a life long reader!

Riley Redgate said...

I never wanted to write a series until now. You've awakened a dormant desire, Cat! Be very afraid... =]

catwoods said...

Jarmara~ I am completely with you on this in regards to series. I love when you can pick up anywhere and the novel is satisfying. Then you can go back and start at the beginning for a great experience.

And yet, this makes it a bit hard with the character reintroductions not sounding mechanical and BORING for those who have followed the series from the start!

Great point.

catwoods said...


Like you, I love a great series. Until my conference, however, I had no idea the amount of work that goes into creating them.

My agented manuscript is (in my vision) the first of a series. Recently my agent asked for two more chapter books (one and two of another series). His request exhilarates and terrifies me!

I've always wanted to be a full-time writer and nothing screams full-time quite like a penning a series.

Hugs and thanks for stopping by!

catwoods said...

Richard~ It intrigued me and definitely gave me a lot to think about with my own writing. Best luck as you polish your WIP.

Mindy~ Wiser words have never been spoken. It is essential that our first book stands alone. It give editors a chance to see results and lets readers beg for more because the love your characters, rather than having to buy the next book because the first one felt incomplete. It's a win/win situation.

RS~ television series is where Ms. Oliver got her start. Looks like you're in good company!

catwoods said...


It looks like you would have an instant market in Jemi's classroom--but first you might want to talk to Greenwoman. LOL! And unleash away.

Jemi~ my oldest only reads series. Whenever we find a book one he loves, we happily buy the rest of the set. I think it is in part because he has dyslexia so reading isn't easy for him. Having familiar characters and worlds takes away the frustration of learning the rules all over again when reading a stand alone.

Greenwoman~ you might have something with the disorganization in real life. I'm the world's biggest closet pig (sorry for the public admission, Dear Hubby), but keeping track of the written word comes pretty naturally to me. Maybe it is superhuman...

Stephen L. Duncan said...

Great stuff there, Cat. And very important points to consider. Series are dauntin, but done well, excellent ways to catapult a career.