Last week in Part 1, I talked specifically about the Kitty books, and how they evolved from the first book that I pessimistically assumed would be the only one, to the nine-volume series, with several more on deck, that it is today. (The ninth book, Kitty’s Big Trouble, is out tomorrow!)
This week, I’m talking about general lessons I’ve learned over the course of writing the series. Keep in mind, I’m specifically addressing ongoing, open-ended series here, which is different than a series that tells a story over multiple volumes.
I think the most important thing to remember about writing an ongoing series: the guidelines for how to write a good book don’t change. Each novel needs to be a novel, with a plot, characters who grow and change, interesting writing, and a cohesive narrative. You don’t get a free pass just because you’ve written about these characters eight or ten previous times. You can’t assume your readers will be sympathetic and let you get away with sloppy writing, plotting, characterization, etc., just because they love you and your characters. Some of them might. But the chances are too good that this eighth or tenth book will be someone’s first introduction to your world — to your writing, period. What then? Do what we all should be striving to do, all the time: write a good book.
I consistently get two questions about writing series, and both of those I think are critical issues to consider: how to make sure each book has a stand-alone story, and how to deliver backstory. As I mentioned, I’m working on the 11th Kitty novel. How do I bring new readers up to speed, or remind old readers of what came before? (Since not everyone can do what the really obsessive fans do, which is reread every book when the new one comes out.) And how do I make each book interesting in its own right?
First Issue: Making sure each book stands alone.
This one’s very important to me, because I’m sensitive to the plight of the person who habitually picks up a series in the middle. Because I’m one of them. Plus, I really want readers to feel like each book is a satisfying experience. How to do this: I pull in stories from outside the characters or ongoing storylines. I’m always, always looking for new ideas to bring in. I can’t keep going over the same internal and relationship plots over and over again. It’s one of the things that drives me crazy with other series, and I try not to do things that drive me crazy. Love triangles, endless on-again off-again relationships — I get bored. I get to a point where I just want the characters to get over themselves. This doesn’t mean neglecting the characters’ personal stories and arcs entirely. I have to stay true to the characters, no matter what happens. But I can explore the personal stories through a variety of external conflicts.
You might have noticed, this is how TV drama and thrillers do it. American TV series episodes often have an A plot and a B plot. The A plot is the Enterprise meeting an all-powerful alien who Picard has to convince that humanity is worth saving, the B plot is Data learning how to paint. On Castle, the A plot is the murder mystery, the B plot is Alexis’ secret admirer at school. Sometimes the plots relate to each other, or the solution to one offers the solution to the other. But having two tracks gives me a chance to tell different stories in the same book. The relationships are always going to be there. But I can better illustrate the relationships by having the characters respond to outside stories and conflicts, rather than focusing on them and inventing false-sounding conflicts.
I also follow The X-Files model to an extent: some episodes are mythology episodes, some are monster of the week. House of Horrors and Goes to War are essentially monster-of-the-week episodes — self contained stories that don’t really advance the over-arcing series plot, but were still fun, interesting, and advanced Kitty’s personal story. Big Trouble and Steals the Show are more mythology episodes — I give away a lot of information about the big baddy and focus more on the series arc. (I think The X-Files was brilliant for its first four seasons. Definitely a model to follow on how to write a series. But it lost its way about halfway through — it lost track of its own mythology, its own endpoint. I stopped believing there was an ongoing story. This is what I’m trying to avoid.)
Second Issue: Backstory
In May I went to a writers workshop/retreat, and we held an informal lunchtime symposium on writing series (a good portion of the writing excerpts brought in for critique were chapters of second and third novels in series). I want to share something participating author Paul Witcover said during this discussion: Even first novels, or stand alone novels, have a backstory. It’s just that we don’t worry about including it all.
I think this is incredibly important to remember: When you’re writing subsequent books in a series, you don’t have to tell a new reader everything that came before. You only need to tell them what they need to know to understand what’s happening right now, and you can do it in a sentence or two. Don’t explain everything that happened in every previous book. Don’t spend paragraphs explaining anything. Remember — the same guidelines for writing a book, any book, apply here. Keep the story moving, don’t get hung up on irrelevant details. You may think the reader needs to know every detail of the back-and-forth in the epic love triangle. But really, the reader doesn’t. They’ll be able to figure it out.
Example: Cormac is one of the most important secondary characters in my own series, and he and Kitty have a huge, complicated backstory. But I try to limit his introduction in each book to a couple of sentences. Here’s his introduction in Kitty Takes a Holiday, the third book:
A job. With Cormac, that meant something nasty. He hunted werewolves — only ones who caused trouble, he’d assured me — and bagged a few vampires on the side. Just because he could.
Here’s his intro in Kitty Goes to War, the eighth book, after a lot more history has happened:
Cormac had saved our lives and ended up in prison for it. He’d had to put his life on hold; we hadn’t. Cormac and I had had a thing, once upon a time. Then he’d brought Ben, his cousin and victim of a recent werewolf attack, to me. I’d taken care of him, Cormac went to jail, and Ben and I got married.
My goal with these short bits of backstory is to get as much information into as short a space as possible. This reminds long-time readers what’s happened. But new readers get only the basics: Cormac has spent time in prison, he and Kitty have unresolved issues, these three characters have a complicated history. That gives a new reader a basis for understanding what happens moving forward. They don’t need a complete summary, just the foundation. They’ll be able to see the details in how the characters behave with each other. There it is again, show don’t tell.
A corollary to this: make sure you’re starting the book in the right place. I’ve read a couple of first-in-series urban fantasy novels recently that started late. The first chapter showed me what the heroine’s life looked like after her traumatic introduction to the supernatural, and related that traumatic introduction in a paragraph or two long infodump. This made me furious — that traumatic introduction should have been the first chapter, told in visceral terrifying immediate detail. The mundane reality after should have been the second chapter.
Third Issue: Continuity
Keep a series bible. I didn’t, because as I said I didn’t think this was going to be a series. Since then, I’ve been slowly building one up. I have files for the in-world chronology of the series so I can keep track of what happened when, I have a file listing everyone in Kitty’s pack, I have files to keep track of descriptions of people. It’s the little things like that I have trouble remembering. Continuity’s a bitch.
I know that “write a good book” is a terrible piece of advice. Of course we all want to write good books, that’s the point, isn’t it? But if there’s one thing writing ten books in a series has taught me, it’s that this is the guiding principle I go back to time and again: what makes a good book? How can I make this book that I’m working on right now a good book? Do that, and the series will take care of itself.