Sunday, March 18, 2012

Why Write A Series?

You've probably heard all the conventional wisdom about why you might want to write a series. How you need more than one book out there. How someone who buys one book and likes it will want to read the others. In my opinion those are not the best reasons to write a series.

I write a series is because it's fun and it's challenging. I like my characters. I want to see what is going to happen to them. I don't know what's going to happen to them until I write the next chapter in their lives. If you are fond of the people you have created, you might like the challenge of a series.

A series is a lot of work. After the first book you must carry things forward in a consistent and developmental pattern. You must remember the details. You can't change things. Your characters must be alive in your mind as real people, with real histories and real interactions. All that personal history moves forward in each book. As the series progresses, your characters change in ways difficult to show in a single book. You must deal with issues seeded by the past events of the earlier books. That's the fun part. It's also the challenging part. A series gives you a wonderful platform to hone your skills as a writer.

The mechanics of writing a series is part of that skill development. It's a major hurdle. How do you create a later book in the series and still have it stand on its own, so a reader can pick it up and fall comfortably into the story without knowing what happened in the books before? How do you put in just enough back story to support the current effort? There are no guidelines. There is no handy manual to follow.

I'm not saying I've mastered the skill, no indeed. At the moment I am a quarter of the way through writing the fourth book in the PROJECT series and it's getting complicated. My protagonists now have a lot of history together and it affects everything--plot, dialogue, description--you name it. It gets even more complicated because I am the kind of writer who has only a broad idea of the details of the book when I begin. An opening scene, a theme, something exciting in the middle, the good guys probably win at the end.

Digression: Check out
A great guest post on plotting by Debby Harris that I wish I had written...

There are plenty of excellent series writers out there to learn from. J.K. Rowling comes to mind. Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. McCall Smith's The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Lee Child's Reacher books. Robert Crais' Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. Michael Connelly's Lincoln Lawyer series and the Harry Bosch books. Any of these writers can teach you a lot.

Reasons to write a series:

  • You have a set of characters you know and are familiar with to build on
  • You don't have to start completely anew
  • You have a built in story thread because of the prior interactions
  • You develop more skill in characterization
  • You develop organizational writing skills

Reasons you may not want to write a series:

  • You are faced with keeping readers interested in those same characters over time
  • You must have your characters change in ways consistent with all that has gone before
  • You must work with the inner psychology of your characters in ways somewhat different from a one-off story
  • Your organizational skills will be challenged
  • You are forced to dig ever deeper for originality and freshness of plot, motivation and setting

I can think of several well-known series writers (here unnamed) whose books I no longer purchase. Those writers got lazy in their success. Their books became boring and careless. They failed to maintain that freshness and originality mentioned above.

Writing a series is not for everybody, but if you love your characters you might consider it. Don't you want to know what's going to happen to them over time? Only a series gives you that freedom. Go for it, if you want a different kind of writing challenge...


  1. Lee Child's is probably my favorite series out there. I also like series where the town or setting is repeated, but looked at from a different angle in each book. Harlan Coben's Essex County comes to mind as does Stephen King's Castle Rock. And of course, I'm excited to begin reading yours, Alex!

    1. What Lee Child does with Reacher is extraordinary. The series is an amazing example of keeping a character interesting over, what 17 books now? Beginning with Reacher's life style and moving on from there. Bits of past history, details now and then, reconnections to older characters--Child is a master of this.Wish I could do as well...

  2. My favorite series is the Cadfael Mysteries by Ellis Peters. I love them. I don't think I could keep a series going myself, but I did start something new and realized I could work it into a sequel to my novel if I work at it. I took my main character to a point just before she got married then ended with an epilogue that showed what had happened in general with the main characters after she had been married for a quarter of a century. So this new idea could be developed into part of that in-between story that was only summarized at the end but never really told.

    1. Hi Diane, I also like the Cadfael series. It's rich with the details of the historical period and the monastic life. Great villains, plots, problems for our beloved monk.

      Sounds like you could continue the story of your protagonist a quarter century later...thanks for your comment.


Comments are always welcome. Tell me what you think! I've had some difficulty getting comments to show publicly on this blog, but I'll get back to you, even so...