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Writing a Series – 6 Tips for Success

~How to Extend the Story~

When I started writing my first romantic suspense Beneath the Skin, I had no plans to make it into a series. But it didn’t take long for me to start imagining the lives of the secondary characters and wondering if they could win true love too.

So when I pitched the book to Rhonda Penders at Wild Rose Press, I told her it was the first of a series of four books – The Skin Quartet.

Well, on August 18th, book 2 in the series Close to the Skin is scheduled to be released. Now I will find out if I have accomplished what I set out to do.

Writing a successful series is hard

To write a successful series, the author needs to accomplish 6 things.

ONE – Keep the details consistent

This one was a real challenge. No one wants to read a series where characters’ eye color and other characteristics flip around.

Not planning to write a series I hadn’t keep the best ordered notes for Beneath the Skin. I also had used Zara West Suspense Beneath the Skin Writing a series - 6  Tipsa variety of filing methods. I had a looseleaf, a bulletin board, word files, and Pinterest boards

When I hit Book 2 suddenly I needed a unified resource if I wasn’t going to spend forever trying to search out a detail such as a character’s favorite ice cream flavor. I hit upon using One Note (a free program that comes with Microsoft.  Evernote is a similar program, readily available)

But I tried a lot of other methods as well.  The results of what I learned are presented in my online workshop The Story Bible. (Note: I will be offering this workshop for From the Heart Romance Writers in September 2018).

TWO – Stay organized

Another important thing I learned was to keep all my data together. I originally had separate files for each book. This meant I was constantly moving from one to the other. I quickly learned that the best organizational method is to keep all the data for the entire series in one series file.

THREE – Keep track of the passage of time

Having a great Story Bible means that I can quickly locate a name or an age or a location or hair color. But it needs to be supplemented with a calendar. In my case, my series books are consecutive. That means that characters grow older in each book. Not by much -all together the span is about four years. But when one main character is only 14 in the first book, four years will make big difference in his life.

FOUR – Maintain the tone and conflict level.

I wanted to keep the same tone and page-turning level of excitement that reviewers praised after reading Beneath the Skin.

Since each book in the Skin Quartet deals with different characters who relate on different emotional levels., this one was a particular challenge. You want the characters to be unique but linked in some way even though time is passing and the characters are growing, maturing and changing.

In my case, I solved this problem by keeping the villains the same in each book. Because they change much less and are driven to the same end goal – tormenting the hero and heroine,  they provide a unity of motivation and consistency of character.

FIVE – Make the books stand on their own.

Close to the Skin by Zara West Writing a Series - 6 TipsDespite the fact that I was writing a series, I wanted to make sure that every book in the series could be read as a stand-alone. I hate picking up a book and not knowing what the author is referring to. In a recent poll I did on Facebook, every single commenter said they would not like to read book 2 in a series before book 1. However I have seen it done successfully.

But boy is it hard to do well. A series writer has several choices.

  1. You can summarize what has already happened near the start of the story. But that often slows down the reader and can prove annoying.
  2. You can give a few hints of past events and hope the reader will understand enough.
  3. You can tie the past events into the current characters’ lives as motivations or problems.

For Book 2 in The Skin Quartet, I have my main character suffering from post-traumatic stress following the kidnapping she experiences in book 1 Beneath the Skin.

For me, having each book follow the next in time was another great way to make ensure the stories stand on their own.

A NetGalley reviewer has written that Close to the Skin works as a stand-alone. I hope other readers agree.

SIX End with a happily ever after.

Having been burned by several books which end in a cliffhanger, I was doubly motivated to make sure every book in my series had a happily ever after.  I decided that the best approach was to write a complete character arc for my romance couple. At the end of the book, their story is done – ending happily ever after.

Success?

Since Close to the Skin has not been released yet, I have my fingers crossed that I have succeeded in making both a great Book 2 full of characters my Beneath the Skin readers have come to love plus created a cast of characters who can stand on their own and draw a new reader in.

Note: Book 3 in the series Within the Skin is currently in production at Wild Rose Press.


Read about the whole series here: The Skin Quartet


Buy Links for Beneath the Skin 

Amazon  |  B&N  |  iTunes  | KOBO  |  Wild Rose Press

Buy Links for Close to the Skin

Amazon  |  B&N  |  Wild Rose Press


How about you? Have you written a series? What did you struggle with?

Are you a reader of series? What do you like about them? What do you dislike?

Post your comments below.

 

5 Comments

  1. Your post sums up my last six months (and probably the coming six months as well)! I just finished book 2 of a series and am working on book 3. You mentioned every pitfall I came across. I use Evernote, mainly because my dayjob uses OneNote and I didn’t want any confusion. Both are very helpful and I know some authors swear by Scrivener (though I found myself swearing at it instead.) I made a story bible and I spent a lot of time trying to keep track of time, tone, and details. It’s your #5 that still stymies me. While each book has an arc and a conclusion to the particular quest the protagonist is on, the story does continue and so each book ends with some issues unresolved. Those first chapters are really, really, really hard to write without getting buried in backstory. I’m interested to see how you did it! As a reader, I don’t mind cliffhangers as long as the next book is handy–and isn’t that what we authors want? Thanks for the validation your post gave me. It felt difficult and it’s good to know I’m not just a wimp 🙂

    • zara west says:

      There’s a lot of information out there about writing a series, but I think most authors fall into them like I did and have to explore and try out different things to make it work. It is hard to do well that’s for sure.

  2. Hywela Lyn says:

    My SF Romance series was completely accidental. I had no idea it would be a trilogy when I pitched the first story to The Wild Rose Press, although I did have a half finished ‘sequel’. Each book was a complete story in itself and the second book had several of the characters from the first book and was set on one of the planets mentioned in the first book, but was a ‘standalone’and I don’t feel the reader needs to have read the first book to follow it, and reviewers have confirmed this. After a while, an important ‘secondary’ character from the first book insisted on having his own story, and so my original two books became a trilogy. Book III relates more to book 1 than book II does, but again, I feel it can be read as a ‘stand alone’. In hindsight I wish I’d known it was going to become a trilogy, because the three covers could have reflected the fact that it was a series (I did request a small ‘supernova star’ graphic to be incorporated into each cover design, but I’m not sure if most readers would connect them as they’re not that obvious.)

    I am currently reading a series where every book ends on a cliffhanger and I feel obliged to purchase the next in the series. I find this rather annoying and wouldn’t bother if I wasn’t so invested in the characters who are really well written and compelling, but I still feel it’s a bit of a cheat.

  3. Sandra Dailey says:

    I appreciate you including, Make each book stand alone. I can’t till you how many times I’ve picked up a book and realized I’d have to find the three before it to know what was going on. I don’t usually bother.
    I’m thinking about starting my first series and I’ll be sure to note your advice. Thanks, Zara.

    • zara west says:

      I have the same problem. I know some readers don’t mind, but many times you just can’t find all the books in a series or you are given a book midway into the series.

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