TKZ Members Weigh In on Series Writing

By SUE COLETTA

Before the holidays, one of our beloved TKZers requested a blog post that offered helpful tips in series writing.

Rather than sharing only my views, I thought it’d be cool to gather advice from all TKZ members. That way, we’d be sure to cover the subject in more depth.

It’s a monster post, but it’s packed with fantastic advice. Ready? Here we go …

From Jordan Dane:

  1. Create a large enough world to sustain a series if it gains traction by planting plot seeds and/or character spinoffs in each individual novel. With the right planted seeds, future stories can be mined for plots during the series story arcs. An example of this is Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole PI series where his main character Cole is plagued by his past and his estranged father until THE FORGOTTEN MAN, a stellar novel in the middle of the series that finally provided answers to the mystery.

Crais often plants seeds that he later cultivates in later books. It takes organization & discipline to create these mysteries and track the seeds to save for later.

  1. Endings of each novel in a continuing series are important to readers if your book release schedule has long lags in time. A major cliffhanger can be frustrating for readers to discover at the end of a book before they realize the next novel won’t be released for 6 months to a year.

If your planned series isn’t limited to a certain number of stories (ie Hunger Games – 3 novels) where the overall story arc will be defined, an author might consider writing series novels that read as standalones with a tantalizing foreshadowing of the next story to hook readers. Creating an intriguing mystery to come will pique reader’s interest, rather than frustrate them with a huge cliffhanger they may have to wait a year to read.

See these tips in action in Jordan’s Mercer’s War Series.

From James Scott Bell:

  • Give your series character one moral quest that he or she is passionate about, to the point where it feels like life and death. For example, my Mike Romeo series is about the quest for TRUTH. This is the driving force for all he does. It gives both character and plot their meaning. A quest like this will carry from book to book.
  • Give your series character at least one special skill and one special quirk. Sherlock Holmes is a skilled stick fighter (which comes in handy). But he also shoots up cocaine to keep his mind active. Mike Romeo has cage fighting skills. He also likes to quote literature and philosophy before taking out a thug.

From Joe Hartlaub:

Sue, I love Jordan’s suggestions, particularly #2, about the works being standalones with a foreshadowing of what is to come. Who among us read Stephen King’s Dark Tower trilogy and got to the end of The Dark Tower III; The Waste Land to find the cast aboard a sentient, suicidal choo-choo heading toward oblivion? That was all well and good until we all had to wait six friggin’ years to find out what happened next in Wizards and Glass. 

  • I have one suggestion, which I call the Pop Tart model. Pop Tarts started with a basic formula; they were rectangular, were small enough to fit into a toaster, large enough to pull out, used the same pastry as a base, and started with a set of fillings and slowly added more and different ones over the years. So too, the series.
  • Design a character with a skill set consisting of two or three reliable elements, decide whether you are going to make them a world-beater (Jason Bourne), a close-to-homer (Dave Robicheaux), or something in between (Jack Reacher), and bring in a couple of supporting characters who can serve as necessary foils (Hawk and Susan from the Spenser novels) who can always be repaired or replaced as necessary. Your readers will know what to expect from book to book but will be surprised by how you utilize familiar elements.

From Laura Benedict:

The best series do a good job of relationship-building, along with world-building.

  • Give your main character …
  1. someone to love and fight for,
  2. someone to regret knowing,
  3. someone to respect,
  4. someone to fear.
  • Be careful about harming your secondary characters because readers get attached. If you’re going to let a beloved character go—even a villain—make the loss mean something.

See these tips in action in The Stranger Inside.

From Clare Langley Hawthorne:

Sue – I love everyone’s suggestions so far.

  • Add the possibility of exploring lesser characters like Tana French did in her Dublin Murder Squad series — each installment focused on a different lead character that we’d met as a lesser character in another installment. I thought she did this in a masterly way that helped enhance the series.

From Elaine Viets:

  • Murder thoughtfully and with restraint.

I went wild in my first novel “Backstab” in my Francesca Vierling series, and killed off a secondary character I could have used in other books — Lee the Rehabber. I had versions of Lee, but they were pale imitations.

From me: Rather than repeat previous tips, I focused on subplots and character development.

  • Whatever happens to your character in a series must be reflected in future books. Our past affects us. Take for example my Mayhem Series. In Book 1, Wings of Mayhem, Shawnee Daniels learns a shocking secret about her past. It’s a seed I planted for Book 3, but I couldn’t pretend she didn’t learn about it. So, in Book 2, I hinted at it (in the form of dialogue) to remind the readers who knew about it. At the same time, I needed to show how this secret affected Shawnee i.e. she become even more distrustful and broken.

In Book 3, Silent Mayhem, this secret explodes Shawnee’s life. It also became the catalyst for more secrets, a conspiracy, and an underlying mystery that ran parallel to the main plot. If someone read the books out of order, it was imperative that I let the cold reader know why and how this scenario was taking place without dumping the information in one chunk. Instead, we need to either sprinkle the (now) backstory in over time (a slow build toward the explosion) or use dialogue between two characters. I chose the latter, in the form of a confrontation.

  • Think of all potential readers. Do all aspects of the book make sense? Will they understand the subplot and character development without reading the previous novels? At the same time, have you hinted enough but not so much that you’ve ruined a previous twist? It’s a dance that can knot your stomach muscles, but we need to be cognizant of the cold reader who picks up Book 3 or 4 or 5, as much as the dedicated fan whose read all the books in order.

From Mark Alpert:

  • My favorite series characters are those who learn something in
    each new book. And this knowledge changes them, sometimes
    dramatically, sometimes more subtly, but always noticeably. Think of
    Harry Potter. He’s different in each book. It prevents the series from
    getting stale.

From PJ Parrish:

  • As you progress through your story keep a running chronology of dates and salient plot points that happen in each chapter. This is invaluable come rewrite time. You can consult the chronology and at a glance know where to find something in your plot. It also helps you keep track of the passage of time in your story.

Example from my own book:

CHAPTER ONE

Day 1

Jan 13, 2018

Louis shows up at church in Michigan ready to start new job on homicide task force. Introduce his boss, Mark Steele. Set up personality conflict between men and Louis’s fear, he has made Faustian bargain.

CHAPTER TWO

Day 2

Jan 14, 2018

First meeting of task force. They get assigned cold cases as tests. Louis picks “boys in the box” case.

From Debbie Burke:

  • If your character is in a happy marriage/career/friendship, destroy that; if he is an orderly homebody, drop him into an unfamiliar, unpredictable universe he can’t escape from; plunk her into situations she would never enter voluntarily but must b/c of circumstance. Whatever your characters’ personal comfort zones are—physical, mental, psychological, spiritual—yank them out of it and throw them into conditions they have never encountered before. Keep them off balance, straddling an earthquake fault.

From John Gilstrap:

  1. Remember that successful series thrive as much on character as they do on plot—perhaps even more on character than on plot.  So, make that protagonist as interesting and unique as you can.  I would argue that the world might not need another divorced ex-cop with a drinking problem and anger issues—unless your take on the old trope is somehow unique.
  1. Take your time when building the world in Book #1.  Plant seeds in that first outing that will allow for plots in the future.  In No Mercy, the first entry in my Jonathan Grave series, I intentionally seeded his world with details that might (or might not) bear fruit for future novels:
  • His substantial wealth comes from his father’s illegal activities;
  • Said father, Simon Gravenow, is serving a life sentence in prison;
  • Jonathan Grave donated the mansion that was his childhood home to St. Kate’s Catholic Church so that it could serve as Resurrection House, a residential school for the children of incarcerated parents;
  • He is intensely loyal to his friends as they are to him;
  • And more.
  1. Know the intended tone of your series.  Yeah, okay, you’re writing a thriller, but what kind of ride do you intend to give your reader?  This is important because those readers will come to expect a certain consistency from book to book.  The Hunger Games trilogy, for example, is relentlessly dark because everyone we care about is miserable.  Jim Bell’s Romeo series, on the other hand, is lighter in tone without sacrificing any of the thrills.  That tone—that voice—is important to the reader.

***

Amazing advice, right? I don’t know about you, but I’m bookmarking this puppy. A huge thank you to my fellow TKZ members!

For discussion …

Do you write a series? Writers, please share any tips we might have missed.

If you haven’t branched into series writing, are you considering it?

Do you prefer to read a series or standalones? Readers, please share your views!

 

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The Challenges of Writing a Crossover & Book Birthday!

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Not many things are more satisfying than finishing a book, seeing the final touches of cover copy and cover, and letting your baby go “into the wild.” Today is the release day for REDEMPTION FOR AVERY – part of the new Susan Stoker –  Special Forces series with Amazon Kindle Worlds.

Ryker Townsend FBI profiler series - novella (31,000 words) $1.99 ebook, July 21, 2016 release

$1.99 ebook – July 21, 2016 release

The challenges of this 31,000 word novella centered on crossing my Ryker Townsend FBI Profiler series into Susan’s Navy SEAL world, using one of her novels (Protecting Summer) and a key character, Sam “Mozart” Reed, from that book.

Challenges:
1.) Blending two worlds – My dark crime fiction world had to blend seamlessly into Susan’s romance action/adventure world of the military. That meant I had to bump up my romance and also deal with two very different kind of men. Ryker Townsend is an isolated loner by necessity, an intellectual with a mind like a computer, and hardly described as an alpha male. Navy SEAL Mozart Reed is definitely alpha male with a disciplined military demeanor and a fascinating puzzle. I wanted to create a situation to force these two different men into an investigation.

2.) Paying homage to Mozart & Susan’s World – I did my research on Susan’s writing and read the book that dealt the most with Mozart’s past, the way I would force these two worlds together. In Mozart’s childhood, when he was only 15, his younger sister was abducted and brutally murdered by a serial killer. Well, that’s right up my alley and that backstory worked well with my FBI profiler series.

3.) Portraying Someone Else’s Character While Doing Justice to Your Own – SEAL Mozart Reed is a strong character, fully capable of being a hero of his own book. But I had to be sure my character, Ryker Townsend, held his own with an ebb and flow to their dynamics. Each man became key and could easily dominate the story, but the blending of these two dynamic forces became a joy. I wrote them like Butch and Sundance.

4.) Getting the Facts Right – Sometimes a preceding book is a little vague on the facts, by design. An author may choose to write vague details about a character’s backstory or leave out scenes for the sake of plot. I was lucky to have Susan’s brain to pick. I’d send her a message and she’d write me back right away. I swear she lives online. I’d ask questions about where the body was finally buried or embellished on an unwritten scene, but I didn’t want rewrite her previous novel without paying respect to her original work. She was very gracious and we both poured through pages to make sure I could add details not contemplated in her originating novel. She also had books that came after and we compared timelines to be sure I didn’t leave out a baby, for example. When my project was done, she read REDEMPTION FOR AVERY and we tweaked a couple of nuances to make it the best collaboration we could. Susan Stoker is a very generous author.

Here is the synopsis of REDEMPTION FOR AVERY:

When he sleeps, the hunt begins.

FBI Profiler Ryker Townsend is a rising star in Quantico’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, but his dark secret could cost him his career. When he sleeps, he has visions of his next case. He sees through the eyes of the dead, the last images imprinted on their retinas. His nightmares are riddled with clues he must decipher to hunt humanity’s Great White Shark—the serial killer.

While he’s investigating the shocking slaughter of a seventeen-year-old girl at Big Bear Lake, the tormented soul of another dead child appears to him in broad daylight. Twelve-year-old Avery Reed reaches out to Ryker—a disheveled and haunted girl, unable to speak—held earthbound out of love for her grief-stricken brother, Sam. Avery’s presence draws Ryker into a sinister conspiracy and she has a desperate message for her brother, if she can make Ryker understand.

Navy SEAL Sam ‘Mozart’ Reed has been haunted by the brutal death of his little sister Avery when he was only fifteen-years old. He vowed to seek and destroy the killer who splintered his family, wiping out everything he’d ever known. Nineteen years later, his darkest wish came true when he found Hurst, her alleged killer, and stopped him from murdering one last time. But when Mozart learns the FBI has reopened Avery’s case, he fears the worst. His SEAL team may have ended the carnage of a serial killer years ago, but for the first time, Mozart has doubts that Hurst had been the man who took Avery’s life. A heartless predator is still butchering young girls. Mozart’s worst nightmare is back with a cruel vengeance.

INVITATION:
To celebrate the launch of Susan Stoker’s Special Forces series with Amazon Kindle Worlds, we are having a Facebook Party on July 23 at this link:

https://www.facebook.com/events/604059626438678/

I’ll be online 3:30-4pm EST. There will be lots of giveaways all day with other authors joining the party.

FOR DISCUSSION:
1.) Have you ever crossed over one of your worlds with another? Did this crossover involve another author’s work?

2.) How do you celebrate YOUR book birthdays?

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