Friday, 2 May 2014

Multiplying the Magic: On Writing Series

By Jeanette O’Hagan

A good series is a delight to the reader, author and publisher. How many of us remember those series we loved and avidly followed as children – Anne of Green Gables, Biggles, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five or the Faraway Tree, Narnia, Sherlock Holmes – the list goes on. And as we got older maybe we moved on to Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer, Isaac Asimov, Janette Oke, Karen Kingsley or perhaps Stephen Lawhead. Well, you fill in the blanks with your favourite series author.

Series come in different guises depending on authorial choice, genre and reader expectations.

Serials: Serials have a common element – usually the main protagonist and/or setting – that remains relatively constant from book to book, with each book a standalone story. This is a common format with detective fiction such as Doyle’s Sherlock Holms, Christie’ Hercule Poirot or Miss Maples series or McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. It also works for situational comedies like Wodehouse’s Jeeves books or adventure stories like Biggles or James Bond.

Linked series: A linked series is especially common in romance where a new romance story is told against the backdrop of a common setting. The new heroine and/or hero may have been minor characters in the previous books while passing mention of past romantic leads is made in the new books. Rose Dee’s Resolution Series or Amanda Deed’s Ellensvale series follow this format.

Family or Historical Sagas: The books in the series tell the story of continuing generations or group. For instance William Stuart Long’s 12 Volume Australian series (which runs from convict times to the early twentieth century), Janette Oke’s Prairie books or Carol Preston’s early Australian novels based on her family history.

Connected series: In a connected series there is an ongoing narrative thread with significant character development and changes as the series progress. Trilogies are common, the classic being Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings though Collins’ Hunger Games, Roth’s Divergent series and Lynne Stringer’s Verindon trilogy are further examples. Quartets (Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle) or more are possible. Both R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter come in 7 volumes. This format is popular in Science-fiction and fantasy though it can be used in other genres, e.g. Larson’s Millennium series or the notorious 50 Shades. The books often (though not always) end on cliff hangers – or at least have significant loose ends - and are usually best read in order.

Series are popular for a reason. They bring both benefits but also pose challenges for readers, publishers and authors.

Readers
As readers, a series can give us a sense of reassurance and anticipation. The blend of the familiar and the new is satisfying. Not only have we come to trust the author but have fallen in love with the characters, setting and/or premise of the series. If there is an ongoing narrative arc, anticipation intensifies and we can’t wait to read the next book.

There can be frustrations as well. If a book is not clearly labelled, we may only realize we are reading Book 2 or 4 in a connected series after we're several chapters in. Or, as has happened recently with Hunger Games and Divergent, the final book doesn't live up to reader expectations. And then sometimes a series just goes on too long and begins to get stale or lose focus.

Publishers
Publishers like series because they build reader loyalty and publishing momentum. Perhaps too the author is less likely to be a one book wonder and more likely to produce new books regularly. On the other hand, the publisher takes a risk if they commit to a series as they may be committed to publishing more books even when the first books don’t sell.

Authors
For the author, a series can provide a framework in which to write and builds on previous research. A connected series, allows the writer to explore intricate plot lines and issues and to establish elaborate and complex narrative worlds. 

Still, it can also make writing more complicated. I’m certainly finding writing the third book in my Akrad series, much harder than the previous ones I've written. Each work has its own narrative arc that resolves at the end of the novel but there are also ongoing narrative arcs throughout the series. Juggling all these narrative threads can be tricky. And it may make submitting to publishers more tricky too. If we have completed stand alone books, we can submit then simultaneously. Not so with a series. 

Even so, I’m thoroughly enjoying the experience as my world and characters continue to grow and thrive.

There are many great stand alone books that resonate and stay with us, but I wonder how many of our most favourite works are series? What about you – what do you like about series? What frustrates you about them? And given a choice, would you pick up a standalone book or the one that’s part of a larger narrative world?


Jeanette has practiced medicine, studied communication, history and theology and has taught theology.  She is currently caring for her  children, enjoying post-graduate studies in writing at Swinburne University and writing her Akrad fantasy fiction series.  She is actively involved in a caring Christian community. You can find her at her Facebook Page or websites  JennysThread.com and Jeanette O'Hagan Writes.

21 comments:

  1. Hi Jeanette, great post. There is more to the label 'series' than first meets the eye. I personally prefer to read a series although you mentioned my pet peeve - picking up a book in the middle of the series by accident! I do wish publishers would label each book clearly as reading them in order deepens the experience so much more. My favorite books are those of a series and explains why I am drawn to writing my own.
    All the best with the latest in your Akrad series!

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    1. Thanks Catherine. Yes, that's my daughter's pet peeve - so often at the library she picks up a good book only to find it is book 2 in a series! What series are you writing and how far along are you?:)

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  2. I enjoy a series, Jeanette, except for those that actually leave you hanging and don't resolve the ending in an effort to get you to purchase book II. It should have just enough information to get you wondering about a character or two, but not leave you frustrated!

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  3. Hi Rita. I think a lot of readers don't enjoy that. That's why I've written my novels so that each work is complete itself with a strong resolution but still has enough loose ends and questions to move into the next book. I think authors like J K Rowling do this well. But, especially as I go on, I am finding that balancing narrative arcs & how much to hide and/or reveal etc is not simple to write. Still, I enjoy the challenge and hopefully my future readers will enjoy it too.

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  4. I love series.
    My most frustrating time was back when I was 13, and discovered that most of the old "Pollyanna" books, by various authors, were out of print. I had my parents drive me around to several old second-hand bookshops looking for as many as I could find, which turned out to be one. So having a list of follow-up titles at the start of an old book from the 1950s, then being unable to get hold of them, has to rate high.
    What I like best is being able to return to characters we've grown to love, even if the sequels focuses more on other characters, and being able to develop complex and intricate plots which would make books thick as bricks if they weren't broken into series.
    And it will be great when your Akrad series is all complete :)

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    1. Hi Paula,
      I didn't know that Pollyanna came in more than one book. That is frustrating though when books in the series go Out of Print and you can't get them all.
      Returning to characters we grown to love and having complex and intricate plots are two of the things I love about series.
      It might be a while before my Akrad series is complete as I have plots for a few more books :)

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    2. I read Pollyanna and Pollyanna grows up. I think I may have read one or two other of the books. I remember I had a really old copy of one of the books someone lent me and I had the first 2 in newer copies. Mum also read them as a child. I always wanted prisms because of this book.

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    3. I think there may have been as many as 15 or so, although most people have only heard of Pollyanna and Pollyanna grows up. I remember the prisms too, Jenny.

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    4. Ah yes, I remember the prisms too :)

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  5. I tend to read mostly stand alone books but am reading one at present which is peart of a series. As others have said books in a series should be clearly labelled so we don't start on book 2 or 3, although sometimes I have done that, not knowing about the earlier book and still found I enjoyed it and knew what was happening. The thing is if that happens, I never go back and read the earlier one though.

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    1. Hi Dale. Clear labels are a must I think. My aim if for my books to stand alone - but it's hard not to have spoilers for previous books in later ones. So I'm also hoping to write the books so they are still enjoyable to read even when 'the secret's out'. Still, it's going to be a different experience - just like Darth's Vader's revelation to Luke Skywalker - 'I am your father' can't have the same impact if you watch the prequels before the original movies. So I can understand why you are reluctant to backtrack.

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  6. Hi Jeanette, I enjoy reading series books, and returning to the familiar story world. I also prefer to read in order. Although, the order may not matter depending on the type of series. For example, I read the fifth book in Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series first when it was a new release, and quickly read the first four books back to back. Sometimes I'll save books and wait until I can read a couple of books in the series together. I did that with Julie Lessman's Passion book series.

    I like series that contain stand alone stories with an overall series story arc. For example, Dangerous Passage by Lisa Harris has an intriguing series mystery/suspense element that will be resolved by the end of her Southern Crime series.

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    1. Yes, usually with serials or linked series it doesn't matter too much what order you read them in., and maybe even for family saga.
      I agree, I like the stand alone stories with overall series arc. Lisa Harris' series sounds intriguing. Still I also enjoy trilogies where there is usually a minor resolution or even a cliffhanger at the end - though it helps if you don't have to wait too long to read the next book :) but I can see how this would not suit everyone.

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  7. I love series also and I to dislike the ones where the previous book sets up the next one but you have to wait up to a year for the next one. I love the ones that do end the story and the next book is the next part of the story. Books like this mean if you do miss a book you can still work out whats happening.

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    1. I seen some readers comment that if they know the series ends on a cliffhanger they will wait until all the books are released before starting the first one.

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  8. I do enjoy reading a series, but agree with other commenters: it's good to know in advance whether the book is a standalone or part of a series - and what type of series. Many linked series or serials can be read out of order, but a connected series can't.

    I'm always make a point of mentioning if a book is part of a series when I write my reviews, because it bugs me to read out of order if you need the background from the earlier stories for this one to make sense.

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    1. Hi Iola That's a great idea to make it clear in reviews whether the book is part of a series and how it fits in. It seems to be a common bugbear not knowing the book is part of a series before one started reading it.

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  9. One of the down sides I have discovered over time of writing a series or even a sequel to a previous novel is that this has to be explained time and time again to potential customers at my book table after I speak somewhere. Even if there is clearly the Number Two on my one novel that is a sequel to a previous one, people want to ask whether they should read the first book before they tackle the second etc. Then there is the issue of selling out of the first book yet still having stocks of the second or vice versa at times. So at the moment (!), I have decided I will stick to writing stand alone novels. But I do understand the freedom that series give to develop characters further and also the delight readers experience of continuing to journey with characters they love.

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    1. Thanks Jo-Anne. I've seen other comments that publishers sometimes let the first book go out of print, which makes it difficult for readers starting to read the series. Perhaps with e-books less may become less of a problem as they don't (usually) go out of print.

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  10. Thanks, Jeanette! I am currently reading a great series - Silvermay. I had borrowed the second in the series, Tamlyn, from the library but found in the first couple of pages that it had a prequel and I wasn't getting much into the story as I should. So it's taken time to find the first but I'm glad I did,

    Yes, I think the great thing about series is how they extend the enjoyment.

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    1. Thanks Anne. Yes, and I think in extending the enjoyment and building a more complex world with greater depth of character development (if done well) - the stories can stay with us much longer. I'll have to add Silvermay to by To-Read list. Is it YA or aimed for older audience?

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