Monday, July 11, 2011

Writing A Linked Series - Why some work and some don't

Dear Scott,

I am submitting to you a paranormal series called "The Revenge of the Alien Vampire Bunnies." Book 1 is 89,000 words and is titled, "From Fuzzy to World Dominion." I envision this series to be 6-8 books in length....

Wait right there!!!

I see submissions like this all of the time. Writers have been told time and time again that a series really sells. Readers love stories like this. Hey, it worked for Harry Potter, right? Unfortunately, for many authors, writing a linked series is often the death of the writer. The successes they read never make their appearance.

So, why is it that we hear that series writing is so successful? The answer is two-fold. First, the authors crafted a fantastic stand-alone first book and it did well. Secondly, we simply fell in love with the characters and wanted to learn more.

The success of those first books is crucial. Writers, unfortunatly, have set in their head this over-all series that when it comes to the first book, the focus is not there. Instead, the writer is looking too far into the future and the end result is that book 1, instead of being a strong start, is nothing more than a slow beginning and an information dump for things that are going to happen in the later books. Writers take far too much time trying to establish relationships and to set up secondary characters for the later books. As a result, those characters become too dominant and over-shadow the storyline for the protagonists in the first book. We don't end up loving the characters enough because there simply become too many issues to think about.

The other issue is that because the first book isn't that strong, all of that hard work for the later books is a complete waste. At nationals, I had an author pitching a 6 book series. Wow, that's a big challenge. But here is where the pitch falls apart. The first book really wasn't a stand alone. We needed to read the other books for the things that were set up in book 1 to make sense. Needless to say, this story becomes a "sorry, but I can't take it." The story was simply too co-dependent on the other books in the series.

What you will find is that a strong series just happens. You write a strong book and focus your attention that book alone. Secondary characters pop up and you have fun with them in the story. They pass in and out of the storyline doing exactly what supporting characters should do - support!

Now, when you pitch the book, you can discuss that if the editor or agent likes the additional books, there are potential spin-offs from the other characters or the unique location.

So, is series writing bad? No. Is the approach that many authors take for writing a series bad? Yes!



  1. I agree. The first story has to really stand on its own. There can be hints as to a continuing story, but there needs to be a firm beginning, middle, and end to the plot within that first book. A lot of people mention the Harry Potter series, but forget that on its own, the first book stands: Harry defeats Voldemort, and that could be the end of it if J.K. Rowling had wanted it to be. It's satisfying for the reader. The rest of the books enrich that story, but they're not necessary for understanding or enjoying it.

    Of course, many of us might hope to turn our novels into series. I suppose the best way of querying for that is to say that the first book stands alone, but there is series potential?

  2. Great post! Good to keep in mind with focus on one story. As a reader, I don't like series books where the first feels like a set up and I'm expected to read the next. If the first book is good, I'll WANT to read a second!

    (so far this year I've read at least 3 first titles in expected YA trilogies that I'm not sure I will continue. I enjoyed the first books but not necessarily compelled to keep reading).

  3. I agree that the first book should be your best possible book, and a series sho
    uld not be the first goal. However, I have read a few guidelines where potential for series was "hot". No dolubt by someone hoping to represent the next big discovery. The trend thing, that anyone can be sidetracked by. As a reader, I'm always looking for a good book. I never go looking for a new series to read. So, as a writer, I found this post heartening, as I'm in the middle of revising what I hope will be a very good book.

  4. Thanks for the reminder, Scott. Indeed, a series will only become one (successfully) if the first book is a rockin' stand-alone. Any further elaboration on the story or the characters cannot be envisioned from the beginning. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I've read this many times, so I'm always careful not to mention the fact I have sequels in my query. But my last two rejections have said, "I love this, but we only accept series mysteries."

    Durned if you do; durned if you don't.

  6. And Scott states he wants to know about series potential. Anyway, each should be a stand alone. One author wrote a mystery and mentioned the sequel on her blog and it never materialized.