Thursday, April 21, 2011

Writing 101: How to Write a Series of Novels

Let’s skip conventional wisdom for a moment. Ignore the suggestion that authors maybe shouldn’t write or plan a series until the first book is published and sells. We’ll talk about that later. For now, set all that aside briefly and let’s learn how to actually write a series of novels.

Note: This post is more about writing a series of novels which is a story told in multiple volumes until completion, and less about writing novel sequences which is usually an open-ended series. The techniques described in this post can be used for both however.

Immerse yourself in your created world
See the big picture
Be both a pantser and a planner
Keep a Series Bible

Living in another World

If you’re going to write a series, you’re going to have to pack your bags, say goodbye to the “real” world and move into the world you’ve built inside your crazy little head. You’re going to have to live in this fictional world for the duration of the writing. If it’s necessary that we immerse ourselves into the world of our standalone novels, it’s even more of a requirement for a series. Is that something you truly want to do? It sounds much cooler than it actually is. I’m a little schizo myself.

The Observer: You

If you were here for our introductions last month you might remember Lauren and I made a little promise that you wouldn't go bald. This was a lie. Sorry, but you’re like an Observer now.

This guy = You…for the purpose of this lesson.

As the observer, you can see the entire picture of your story in one glance. This picture isn't complete. It's in constant flux, always changing, but you can see the changes as they happen. You can anticipate how the ripples created in the past will affect the future and vice versa. For you, dear author, God of worlds, there is no past, present or future. Only story. One story, and it all happens at once.

The words pantser and outliner do not exist in this parallel universe. You’re going to have to do a lot of both. There will be no distinction between the two concepts.

You have two goals, Observer:

  1. You need an overarching story question and conflict that will connect all the books.  You must have enough story to span several novels. This is where your worldbuilding comes in. The more worldbuidling you do, the more potential story you can mine from it. Regardless of how many actual books are in your series, the main overarching story needs its own beginning, middle and end.
  2. It is strongly advised that each book also has its own story question and conflict and resolution. Each novel in your series should standalone. The simplest way to think of each book in a series is each being one chapter in the whole of the main story.

Time And Relative Dimension(s) In Space: Your Timeline

You must be meticulous with your list making. Always pantsing, always planning. They are one in the same. Any changes or additions you make in earlier books will of course affect the books that follow. Anticipate the ripple effect.
Don’t wanna be bald guy? Pick a Doctor then. I’m Dr. Dre.

Like the Doctor in Doctor Who you possess the ability to jump around in time. Even though you're still working on Book 1 you can still write scenes for Book 6.

When I think of new ideas that could potentially throw my off plans for the future of a series I immediately write a very basic outline of what could potentially occur in the future of the series. Example: If in Book 2 I write a new scene where my MC finds an object that stops time and I previously had never made any plans for this object, I'll go into my list for Book 5 and/or Book 7 and include the outline of how this time stopper could possibly come back into play in those books.

This works in reverse as well. Say you drum up a cool concept that would fit perfect for the plot of Book 4, which is far from being written yet. You can foreshadow this new concept in Book 1 or the current book you're writing. Go back into the list you created for Book 1 (or create a new list) and outline various ways your new concept could be foreshadowed. When you discover the method that fits your story, include it into your draft for Book 1. When Book 4 rolls around, it'll looked like you planned it...because you did.

When drafting each book I suggest approaching each of them as if the previous installment doesn’t exist. I mean that in the sense that in the same way you weave backstory throughout the first book, you should try and treat the sequels in the same fashion. No books came before Book 1, yet it has it's own history. Book 2’s past is Book 1. Pretend each sequel is the first in the series to avoid the dreaded info dump and weave necessary information from the prequels throughout the current story without calling attention to it the same way you did with the actual first book.

Recommended Tools:
FreeMind (Windows)
Timeline 3D (Mac)

The Intersect: Your Series Bible

Keep a series bible. When writing a series you’re going to need one of these. It will save your brain and your life. I’ve kept a bible for a series I began writing in 2008, and in the last three years my wittle bible has growed all up. It has enough entries that would rival wikipedia. Not really. But there’s notes in that thing that I will probably never ever write about. There’s notes that I’ve forgotten about completely. There's also notes that I've mined and was able to compile three separate series out of them.

You won’t be able to keep track of every least little thing and the worldbuilding will eventually spiral out of control. It can get pretty damn daunting, I must admit. But that’s ideal situation. More is always merry-er.

It’s all in your head. But doesn’t have to be.

Your bible will help you avoid plot holes by keeping track of:

  • Characters: Not just things like hair and eye color, but also their relationships and affiliations with one another. Sidekicks, minor characters, background characters, etc. You can build several characters genealogy charts and list their individual arcs throughout the entire series. If your characters have a power/ability in Book 1 they can’t conveniently forget about it in Book 7 just because the plot hinges on it. Your story bible will remind you of things you will inevitably forget.
  • Locations/Setting: History, climate and culture etc. These must be consistent between books. 
  • Mcguffins/items: Reuse old objects you may have forgotten about. Easily remember which one was destroyed in the battle of whogoesit.
This is only the tip of the ice in your soft drink. There really is no limit to the information you can hoard in your bible. Clip notes from blog posts like this one and stick it in your bible. Download pictures and stick them in your bible. Any kind of research you do can and should go into your bible. It’s all about being organized in the way that works for you.

Recommended Tools:
OneNote (Windows)
PageFour (Windows)
wikidpad (Windows)
Notebook (Windows, Mac)

All the apps I linked to in this post are tools that I personally use that help make the hard stuff a lot easier. Some of the apps are free. Some cost money. Ultimately, none are required. You can do just as well with pen and paper, which worked just fine for all the authors in the past.

Things to Consider

I suggest to always place most of your focus on the current book in the series (usually Book 1) while only planning the sequels, maybe writing scenes here and there. Your first book will be considered canon to the public. Once it’s published you can’t go back and change anything, not without angering fans. You want to make sure it's a solid effort.

Book 1 has to be amazing enough that readers will be satisfied with it all by itself, but they wouldn't mind a sequel or series. If they crave more of your world and characters, then that's even better. But if readers are dissatisfied with the first book they won't be so eager to come back for the sequels. To keep the momentum from book to book, consider holding back a little. Start small and get bigger as the story goes on like an explosion.

Normally, it’s not the best idea to save ideas for later. What if there is no later? When published authors and agents advise us wannabes to not spend so much time thinking about a series because the first book may never pan out and we may be stuck with all these sequels, they are absolutely correct. If the first book never gets published there won't be a book 2. It would be a bummer to dedicate so much time, and spend all that hard work and energy on something that will never come to fruition.

This is where you have to make your own judgment call on whether you'd want to pursue the risky and daunting task of writing a series. There are never any guarantees. And we all fail sometimes. Cool thing is, we're still alive. And there’s always e-publishing…


John DeJordy said...

Thank you for a wonderful post. I have a five book series that people tell me is insane to try to do, but hey - perhaps I am a bit.

I have so much of the world created - places to see - people to meet.

Melanie said...

Oh this post couldn't have come at a better time! I came up with a crazy idea for a book, which is turning out to be a series and there are parts of it that I won't be able to do on my own. I approached my BF about it and he was totally on board!

Since coming up with the idea, we have been writing notes in our "bible" and even have two whiteboards packed full of diagrams and information.

I'm glad to see that we have been following your guidelines!

Kathryn said...

Wow, what a great post! I have this bookmarked on Chrome now. I can't wait to use it for my next WIP! Thanks!

Michael L. Martin Jr. said...

You're welcome guys. Thanks for coming to our blog and commenting!

@John - As I mentioned in the post, a writer has to be a little bit bonkers and posses some kind of audacity to think he or she can tackle a series. A stand alone novel is hard enough. My best regards to you.

@Melanie - Having another person on board with you is even better!

@Kathryn - Glad if I could help. Happy writing.

Hannah said...

This is such an informative post, Michael. Thank you!

Madhavi Ghare said...

Great tips! I've added your post to my reading list... And thanks for the heads up about Timeline 3D... It all makes sense now! :)

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Alex W said...

The only thing that could have made this post better was a Doctor Who reference, I thought in the first portion. Then, BAM! TARDIS and Doctor section! I love it! I'm on Matt Smith and love David Tennant!

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