March 23, 2021
Note From Rochelle
Tonight I’ll be appearing in conversation with Jeannée Sacken to talk about her new book, Behind the Lens. You can sign up for the 7:00 PM event at the Boswell Book Company website. To learn more about Jeannée Sacken and her new book, check out her interview from two weeks ago.
Today, I’m delighted to welcome my friend and colleague J. Mercer to talk about writing series fiction. The Little Wooden Box, the second novel in her Shady Woods series was just released on March 8.
If her name sounds familiar, that’s because she stopped by the blog last summer to talk about her novel, Perfection and other Illusive Things (https://writenowcoach.com/j-mercer-writing-fresheyes/) and last fall to share book recommendations and writing advice. https://writenowcoach.com/writersread-with-j-mercer/)
Writing Series Fiction
by J. Mercer
There isn’t much better than writing a series if you want readers to be clamoring for your next book, but maybe you’re worried that you’ll get bored with the characters or have difficulty developing plots that work with those you’ve already written. After all, how do you end a book, without ending a story?
First, trust in your creativity. Second, I have some tips!
Don’t be intimidated by the planning. Writing a series doesn’t mean you have to change how you write. If you don’t plan your books out, and can’t imagine planning a whole series, I’d suggest simply giving yourself a little more time for the ideas to simmer in your brain, jotting them down to collect for reference later.
In particular, think a bit more about world building and characters before you go in. The structure and rules of your world help inform your characters, and both of these things help inform your plot. Thinking about them before drafting, even if you’re not a plotter, is like making dinner without a recipe versus having all the ingredients measured out for you ahead of time. With the ingredients measured out, you can more easily pick and choose from the pieces as you go. Of course, you can always improvise, decide not to add something, or add something new altogether, but seeing the ingredients makes it easier to know where to go from one chapter to the next, rather than if you try to grab them out of thin air.
Do consider the series as a whole. What is the underlying story will be that carries through from the first book to the last? One rule of thumb is that each book presents a larger-scale conflict. I don’t love this as a reader; sometimes it can feel a bit of a stretch by the last book. That’s why, though each of my books has an inciting incident and climax, etc., the first book is the setup for the ultimate story arc, the second the inciting incident, the third will build tension, the fourth allow the main character to be ready for the final battle, and the fifth will include the climax and resolution of that overreaching story that started in the beginning. It’s loose, and it might not be obvious unless you’re looking for it, but it’s there.
Regardless of this overarching story that spans the series, make sure your main character wants (and gets) something new in each book. A character’s personal journey can be broken down into stages. If they want something from the start that they don’t get until three or four books later, it will feel like there’s no movement.
Don’t be intimidated by the tendrils you leave in your writing wake—that’s what notebooks or excel spreadsheets are for. Write down anything you add to your manuscript that feels like something you might need to know later, so you can refer back.
That being said, don’t force yourself to stick to the plot you brainstormed in the beginning. Let your creativity take you where it goes so the writing doesn’t get stale for you.
One thing I did to help keep things fresh for me was to add a new character each book. The character in question might have been a bit player in the earlier books, but as the series went on, I had more time to develop them.
If you find yourself stuck, do whatever you do when you’re stuck in the middle of a standalone: read for a while, work on another project, or just give yourself space from the series. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Or, in this case, absence will give you perspective and often illuminate where you went wrong or where you need to go next.
As you finish up the first novel, summarize the main plot points for the next book or two or as long as you have an idea of where you’re going. What you’re looking for here is a plot you’re excited about that might conflict with something in your first book—something in your first book that would be easy to change before it’s in print!
As you get started on the next, don’t begin with an info dump of what’s happened so far in the series. Yes, you will need to remind your readers about some things, but do so only as they come up and are relevant. Especially in the beginning, when your main focus is developing a new story, try to keep your reminders to one short sentence at a time.
Also, don’t start where you left off, at that steamy love scene. Your readers might think they want fifty pages of that swoon-worthy romance, but it’s your responsibility to start where the next part of the story begins. Besides, this will just give them something to look forward to—another reason to keep reading!
Writing a series is a big undertaking but it’s no different than writing as many singular books, so don’t let that intimidate you. In fact, in many ways it’s easier because you come to know your characters so well. I hope if you’re in the weeds or contemplating a series, that these tips help you along the way.
Are you the type of writer or reader who wants to stay with characters and a world forever, or do you prefer moving on after a book or two? Leave a comment below.
About the author. J Mercer grew up in Wisconsin where she walked home from school with her head in a book, filled notebooks with stories in junior high, then went to UW Madison for accounting and psychology, only to open a dog daycare. She wishes she were an expert linguist and enjoys exploring with her husband. Her work has won both Moonbeam and Readers’ Favorites awards, along with high accolades from The BookLife Prize. For updates and news, you can find her on Facebook, but she’s more often on Instagram, talking about what she’s reading and other bookish things. Visit her at her website: www.jmercerbooks.com
For more information on writing series fiction:
For ideas about how to keep your writing fresh when putting together a series, check out The Write Now! Coach’s interview with Nick Petrie: How to Keep Your Writing Fresh