More about Series

So last time I wound up focusing mostly on trilogies.  I figured that this time, I’d focus more on series books, and things to think about or look at.

I feel like there’s really two kinds of series books.  There are the stand-alone series, and the metaplot/contained series.  The former are books that follow a certain character with continually changing circumstances.  Each book is self-contained, and while it may build upon things that happen in previous books, the changes in character or situation may not be as dramatic or significant.  The draw here is that people can see something in the main character that keeps them coming back for more.  You always want to know about what crazy hijinks they’re getting themselves into.  This is more like the Hardy Boys, the Babysitters Club, and several big mystery novelists following a certain hero or heroine.

On the other hand, you’ve got the series that’s building up towards something, or maybe several somethings.  The best example here is Harry Potter.  It follows Harry over the course of seven years, but each year has its own trials and tribulations.  You can see the characters grow, and you can see a much larger plot weaving itself together over several books.

Now the downside.  Pitching either type of series, outright, and expecting a publisher to buy into something this long is very, VERY difficult.  Most deals you see are for one, two, or three books.  On rare occasions, you’ll see a four book deal of some sort.  But while having a seven-book outline might make so much sense to you as the author, unless the series takes off odds are most of those books would never see the light of day.  The point of the matter, then, is to make those first one or two books shine so brightly that your audience, not to mention your publisher, is clamoring for more.

Besides, the fact is that along the way, changes made to book one, or book two, might completely invalidate whole parts of the outline for later books.  So rather than being so emotionally invested in a seven book outline, take it a few books at a time.  Present an outline for a book plus a sequel, or two sequels if all three ideas are really strong.

Look at other series books on the market.  Which ones came to a satisfactory conclusion?  Which ones ended prematurely?  Like it or not, it’s something to keep in mind.  If a series is successful, of course a publisher’s going to want to keep it going.  It just makes good business sense.  But no one really knows how a series is going to do until its actually out in the market, dipping its toe into the water.

  • Is your main character flawed enough for several books? This becomes important, because you want an audience that’s going to relate to the character in some fashion (whether in admiration, because of their humor, or because you want to see how they’re going to muck it up next).  A character that overcomes his own personal obstacles in the first book isn’t going to be as appealing in a second book, or a third one.
  • Is each book in the series a solid story on its own?  If a reader stopped with this book, would they be left hanging?  Or would they have to read more to find out how things resolved? In a longer series book, each novel itself ends up being one chapter of a greater story.  In a standalone series, each book is its own separate adventure.  But just like with books in a trilogy, it should answer enough questions that the reader doesn’t feel cheated.
  • Does that first book intrigue the reader enough to want more?  Alternately, is the main character interesting enough to carry several more stories? The point is to make the reader want more.  If the book is urban fantasy, is the twist to the world unique enough?  There are several series out there that take something you think you know, and turn it on its side.  The characters, the setting, the relationships.  There’s something unexpected there.  And people keep reading because they want to see more of this world, or how these relationships change.
  • Do you know your audience? This goes with the above where I mentioned looking up other series already on the market.  If your first book in the series was compared to the first book of someone else’s series, how does it measure up?  Does yours tell a unique story?  Do you push things far enough?  Ask yourself how you can make things stronger.

Just a few things I think its important to consider, when it comes to planning a series.  Most agents won’t take on even a trilogy if that first book isn’t the strongest it can be.  Same with a series.  Focus on telling that first book the best you can.  And if you’re lucky enough to have a book 2 or 3 as an option, keep pushing yourself.  Make each book the strongest and best book yet.

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