Multiple-book contracts, a stream of advance checks, work sold before it’s written, readers chomping at the bit for your next book—for many writers, this is the stuff of dreams and goals. For series writers, it’s a common reality. But does this silver lining come with a cloud? What about deadlines, boredom, or review fatigue? What is writing a series really like? We invited three successful series writers to share the nitty gritty of their experiences and dish their best advice.
Pam Withers (http://www.pamwithers.com) is the author of the 10-book young adult series, Take It To the Extreme (Whitecap Books, 2003-07), in which each book finds best friends Jake and Peter involved in a new extreme sport and a heap of trouble. Withers has also published three stand-alone teen novels with Orca Books, and an adult biography: Going Vertical:The Life of an Extreme Kayaker (Menasha Ridge Press, 2008).
Award-winning author Deborah Hodge (http://www.deborahhodge.com) is a nonfiction series veteran. Her long-running Kids Can Press Wildlife Series began in 1996, and her latest, the 6-book Who Lives Here? series (Kids Can Press), debuted in 2008. In between, she contributed to several multi-author series (KCP), and published two stand-alone picture books with Tundra Books: Emma’s Story (2003), and Lily and the Mixed-Up Letters (2007).
The Queen of Disguises (Orca, 2009) is the sixth book in Melanie Jackson‘s (http://dinahgalloway.blogspot.com) humorous middle grade Dinah Galloway Mystery series about a wisecracking, bespectacled and freckled, tween detective with a big singing voice and an even bigger sense of curiosity. Jackson also has two stand-alone novels out this year: The Midnight-Blue Marble (Gumboot Books), and The Big Dip (Orca Currents).
Here’s what they had to say:
Did you set out to write and sell a series?
Pam Withers: I pitched it as a series, and the publisher called my bluff. It was pretty intimidating when they said, “Yes, we’re interested in accepting your first novel, but only if you submit outlines of the next five in the series and we like those.” I took a deep breath and outlined the next five novels. They accepted that first book (Raging River), and then I spent five years putting out a new novel every six months—a coup for an unpublished writer, but also hard work and scary. Sometimes you have to be careful what you ask for.
Deborah Hodge: Each series was different. The Wildlife series began with a one-off book, (Bears, 1996) followed by a second, (Wild Cats, 1996) and later evolved into a series. The Who Lives Here? series was conceived and proposed as a series. My editor and I spent a lot of time working out the format, and collaborating with the designers to get the right look and feel. I also wrote several books as part of existing multi-author series. Although I had good experiences with those books, I missed the creative aspect of working on the design.
Melanie Jackson: I wrote The Spy in the Alley as a stand-alone novel. Dinah was a lively, irrepressible, spunky character who’d evolved in my imagination. I saw Spy as a home for her, not a springboard. I thought it’d be great to get one book published in my lifetime, just one! I was thrilled when my publisher suggested the series.
How and when did you establish the parameters of your series? Is this easier to do if you know ahead of time it will be a series?
Withers: I naively hoped the first book would become a series. I had the characters work for a company called Sam’s Adventure Tours, which I thought would allow for a variety of future adventures. I could then choose any source of tension, character development, location, and additional characters. The major parameter was the new sport in which the characters were engaged in each book—a stretch by the tenth book. I just said they were natural athletes able to pick up and excel at almost any sport.
Hodge: When I knew in advance I was writing a series, I established the parameters at the proposal and outline stage. I don’t know if it’s any easier knowing ahead of time that it’ll be a series. In a way, there’s more pressure to make the right decisions about the format because you know it’ll have to be viable for multiple books.
Do series parameters help or hinder?
Withers: I think established parameters help. The writing goes faster because you know the characters so well; you know what they’d do and how they’d react and it becomes more fun, faster, easier to write, like you’re on a roll. You may feel slightly straitjacketed by their set personalities after many books, but all it takes is a little imagination to get around that.
Hodge: Each style of book has its own challenges. Whether initially a one-off or part of a series, I really agonize over format decisions in the first book. For subsequent books in a series, I know I’m not going to make any major format changes, and this is helpful in steering my writing.
Jackson: Parameters make it easier. The characters you reintroduce are like old friends. You know them well, and it’s easy to figure out how they’ll behave and react to developments.
Have series parameters ever become a problem later?
Withers: My main characters are best friends who’d grown up together, with one having just moved away. Fine. That worked for one book, but it’s not realistic for “best friends” to stay best friends when one moves away. It was highly annoying and ended up being a challenge to deal with, both in settings and in their relationship, all the way through the series.
Hodge: Establishing parameters early in the series really hasn’t cause me problems (knock on wood!). However, I’m lucky to have had great editors who allowed each series to evolve in a natural way, and didn’t require me to be too rigid too early.
Jackson: My problem was Dinah’s age—how to keep her as an adolescent suitable for intermediate readers over the years it would take the series to be released. My solution was to schedule Dinah’s adventures close together in time. I may write the books one or two years apart, but in the time of the novels, only a few weeks have elapsed.
What challenges did you face in sustaining the series?
Withers: I occasionally hankered to write differently: in first person, or with a girl as a main character, or with more humor or edgier material. I couldn’t do so within the established framework. I got around that by writing some stand-alone novels between the series books.
Hodge: As I moved toward the end of a series, sustaining a fresh, energetic sound and keeping the content original became a bigger challenge.
Jackson: The plots weren’t a problem. The challenge was having Dinah grow, change and learn in her relationships. The old series books I grew up with didn’t bother about characters evolving. Nowadays, authors know characters have to change or elseâ€¦yawn. Dinah changes as real-life kids do. For example, she is more aware of boys in her later adventures.
How did you keep things fresh?
Withers: By coming up with innovative and sometimes outrageous actions or settings. For instance, in BMX Tunnel Run (2007), the boys acquire night vision goggles and oxygen meters, and bike through old mining tunnels. The research that doesn’t involve the sport itself also helps keep things fresh and interesting.
Hodge: I approached each new book—whether stand-alone or part of a series—with excitement, and I worked very hard to find engaging content that I could present in a child-friendly way.
Jackson: Dinah’s singing career allows her to travel to new places. Her sister acquires a boyfriend, who becomes part of Dinah’s close-knit circle, and in The Mask on the Cruise Ship(2004), Dinah finds another good friend, Talbot.
Did you encounter any surprises—good or bad—mid-series?
Withers: I sprained my back badly and had to write several books using voice recognition software. I almost gave up the series at that point. It was phenomenally difficult to get into the right frame of mind to write a book on extreme climbing when I could neither sit nor walk, but I had a deadline, so I did it.
Hodge: Sometimes the market can change unexpectedly mid-series. For example, nonfiction books for young children shifted toward a more narrative stand-alone style as I was working on the Who Lives Here? series, catching me (and my publisher) by surprise. When you’re committed to a series, it’s hard to change direction in mid-stream.
Jackson: Dinah was so vivid to me. For a long time it was difficult to create a new protagonist who was equally compelling.
How did writing within a series affect your marketing and promotion?
Withers: Fantastically. I developed a niche and reputation, and undoubtedly ended up far more prolific than if I’d been marketing stand-alones.
Hodge: Each time a new book in the series came out, earlier books got mentioned and promoted. This had the positive effect of keeping all of my books in the front of people’s minds. New books help sell the older ones.
Jackson: Dinah became a brand with the second book. When promoting later books, we were able to refer to the praise and honors previous books had garnered. The challenge is to assure readers that each adventure stands alone; they don’t have to read previous books in the series to enjoy the latest one.
How did/will you know it’s time to end the series?
Withers: I started feeling tired of the characters and restraints in book eight, and I worried that if I was tired of them, it would show. But ten seemed like a nice, even number, so I rallied and challenged myself to make the last two the best of the set. That carried me through. But when the series was finished, it was like a ball and chain had been removed.
Hodge: When I start running out of steam and the thought of another book in the series feels like a chore instead of a joy, I know it’s time to quit. Six books seems to be the magic number for me.
Jackson: There seems to be a fading out point for series of around five or so. Dinah has wriggled past that mark, so she’s already outlasted expectations. She’s drawing close to her dream of singing at Carnegie Hall. If there’s a seventh Dinah book, I’ll get her there somehow, and that’ll probably be the end of the series.
Have you experienced any stigma due to series writing?
Withers: I reflected more than once that I was developing a reputation as “that woman who writes about extreme sports.” How lucky that I love this niche, because otherwise I might feel like an actor who had been typecast. Another possible disadvantage: I’ve heard that series books are less likely to garner awards than stand-alones. I don’t know if that’s true or not.
Hodge: A certain series fatigue exists. I’m not sure I’d call it a stigma, though. Reviewers tend to review the first one or two books in a series, then pass on the subsequent books. This also seems to be true for award committees. Conversely, I think booksellers and kids love series.
Jackson: I haven’t felt any stigma, but I wouldn’t be surprised. The detective genre, for adults or children, has traditionally not been accorded the respect that other fiction receives.
How has writing a series affected your career?
Withers: Tremendously positively. It put rocket launchers behind my career and gave me confidence and a base of fans. I went from unknown and unpublished to established in the blink of an eye.
Hodge: It’s allowed me to make a (modest) living, which is a wonderful thing for a children’s author! It also contributed to recognition from teachers, librarians, and children.
Jackson: Giving school presentations about the series got rid of my shyness. I discovered my inner ham.
What was the best part of writing and marketing a series?
Withers: Getting to know the characters so intimately, and meeting young fans who knew and loved the series so much they felt free to suggest what I should do for the next in the series! The discipline of deadlines.
Hodge: It gave me peace of mind that I’d be receiving regular advances and wouldn’t have to worry about how and where to sell my work once it was completed. That was very reassuring. I also care deeply about making books accessible to beginning readers. Since they find comfort in the consistency and familiarity of series books, series writing allowed me to feel that I was contributing to a less daunting reading experience for young children.
Jackson: Dinah has opened up new circles of friends for me. A teacher-librarian is now one of my very best friends, and I still correspond with one of my early young fans who’s now attending high school on the other side of the continent.
What’s the most frustrating about writing and marketing a series?
Withers: There’s not much space between deadlines.
Hodge: Sometimes when I’m writing a series, people think that’s the only kind of writing I’m able to do. I begin to feel a little boxed in, and it becomes necessary to demonstrate my writing versatility beyond those limited expectations.
Jackson: I’m not sure there is a “most frustrating”…
If you could go back and do it all over again, would you choose to write a series?
Hodge: Yes, absolutely!
Would you write another series?
Withers: Yes, but with a break first.
Hodge: Yes, but I would alternate writing stand-alone books with series books in order to try new challenges, stay fresh, and grow as a writer.
Jackson: Sure! After writing my first novel for reluctant readers (The Big Dip), I’m interested in exploring more of that genre.
What do you know now about series writing that you wish you’d known going in?
Withers: That the main challenge is finding a new source of tension between the same old characters, and that you have to guard against repetition of phrases and plot twists from book to book.
Hodge: It’s a big commitment of time and energy. My most recent 6-book series took me 2 1/2 years of solid work, without breaks. It was worth it to have the guaranteed work, but it was exhausting as well. It didn’t leave room in my schedule to create stand-alone books (or cook dinner!).
Jackson: Nothing. I have no regrets.
Any last words of advice for someone considering writing a series?
Withers: Each book needs to be able to stand alone and refer less to the others in the series than did series books of a generation or two ago. In the days of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, I think a much higher percentage of people started at the first book and read the series all the way through. Nowadays, readers are more likely to read fewer of a series, and read them out of sequence. And…a publisher can end a series at any time.
Hodge: If you have a great idea, go for it! If you like creative control, make sure there’s room in the process for you to have a say in the series format. Also, alternate series writing with stand-alone books, if possible. The variation keeps your imagination flowing and allows the public (and your publisher) to see that you’re multi-talented.
Jackson: If you have a passion—writing mysteries, knitting, collecting doorknobs—you should fulfill it, no matter what. Don’t let your dream get away. Chase after it.
by Fiona Bayrock