Up to now I have only written books as part of a series starting with The Riverhill Trilogy then The Manchester Trilogy and then The Working Girls series and, to be honest, I am well ready for a break from series writing. My next book to be published in August, Guilt, is a spin-off from The Working Girls series so it presented me with the same challenges as with a series. Thankfully, I now am working on a standalone novel, my first of three, and it makes life so much easier.
So, what are the challenges that are unique to a series? Here are a few to consider:
Thinking of Enough Ideas to Sustain a Series of Books
Before you start writing a series you need to make sure you have plenty of ideas. With my first trilogy I only originally intended to write one novel. The ideas for the other two books flowed from the first one as I wrote it so I didn’t have the problem of having to think of the ideas for all three novels in advance.
With The Manchester Trilogy, my intention was to have one long continuous story spanning three novels but with each book being a complete story within itself. At the time I felt confident that it would work as a trilogy and I was fortunate in that the ideas kept coming but I dread to think what might have happened if I had become stuck for ideas especially as the first book was marketed as book one in a trilogy.
With The Working Girls series, each book forms a separate story. It is the setting that links the books as well as the fact that some characters appear in more than one novel. In that respect it wasn’t as trying as The Manchester Trilogy but my main challenge with this series was in managing the timeline per below.
Keeping the Continuity Going
As with any book you have to be sure of things like plot and character development but this is even more challenging with a series as you have to keep it going throughout. There are some series where each book can work as a standalone such as my Working Girls series, but there still has to be something that links it in to the rest of the series e.g. you might have the same characters reappearing in each novel or the novels might have a particular setting in common. This can sometimes be restrictive and you might end up wishing you could break away from the series.
Managing the Timeline
Timelines are my biggest bugbear when writing a novel. I’ve tried various approaches from working it out roughly then completing it at the end to tracking the date and time as I go along. No matter which method I use, I always seem to come unstuck and have to rework the timeline at the end of the novel.
With the book I’m currently writing, I tracked the dates as I went along but unfortunately the novel had a lengthier timescale than I envisioned. This meant that when I reached the middle of the novel I was already in the current day. I therefore need to rework it so that it ends up in the recent past. I find that this task requires mathematical skills more than writing skills and it isn’t one I’m looking forward to.
With The Working Girls series the problems of managing the timeline were multiplied because I had overlaps between the novels. This meant that as well as working out the timeline for each novel, I also had to work out the series timeline. So, when I came to write Sapphire, I had to work out what age she was at different points in each previous novel and where she was in her life at that particular point. Without the series timeline I wouldn’t have been able to manage it as it may have led to contradictions per below.
Being Careful of Contradictions
One thing I always dread when writing a novel is contradicting something that occurs earlier on. There are ways that help to avoid this such as keeping a list of all the characters and their characteristics as well as a list of places and a sequence of events. The latter is where you keep a track of each scene by writing a few lines summarising the events in that scene. Despite all these techniques, there is still always a chance that by the time you get to the later stages of the novel, you will have forgotten the details from earlier. With a series this problem is even more evident.
My spin off novel, Guilt, follows on from Crystal, book 3 in The Manchester Trilogy. Therefore, before I started to write it, I did a full recap of Crystal by checking the sequence of events including the timeline and by reading through Crystal to refresh my memory.
And the advantages:
Reader Feed Through
This is probably the biggest advantage of writing a series, and the reason why publishers love them so much. If readers enjoy one of your books and they find out it is part of a series, then there is a good chance they will hunt for other books in that series. This doesn’t just happen with book one. Often readers will discover a book later in the series and then go back to the previous books.
Reader feed through is also more common with series than standalones because readers often become engrossed in the characters.
Because of reader feed through with series, it is easier to tempt readers to try your latest novel by reducing the price of the previous ones. This also has the advantage that you can keep your new publication at full price and still attract new readers.
Those are the advantages and disadvantages that spring to mind for me but if you think of any others, please feel free to share them in the comments below.
If you would like to check out any of my books, my Amazon author page is: http://Author.to/HBurnside.
6 thoughts on “The Challenges of Writing a Book Series”
I definitely respect writers who keep a series going, because for me, even holding one story in my head requires more mental real estate than I have the space to. Anyway, thanks for this informative post!
Thanks for your feedback, Stuart. You’re very welcome. I find it helps to keep lists for everything. I make a lot of notes on the manuscript as well during the writing process.
Do you make your notes in the manuscript itself? Or in a separate physical notebook? And do you jot them down in the relevant chapters, or do you have a ‘master list’ of sorts?
I do both. I use notebooks at those times when ideas occur to me and the PC is switched off. While I’m writing I make notes at the bottom of the page so I know where I’m up to and which scenes I’m going to write next, but I also write comments in relevant areas of the document where there’s something that needs double checking or where I need to carry out research. Hope that helps.
I know what you mean about needing mathematical skills to manage the timeline. I can’t count for toffee, and I always need to go back after my son beta-reads a book and points out discrepancies with times, dates, people’s ages etc etc. it can be a real nightmare.
Thanks for your feedback, Linda. It’s a comfort to know I’m not the only one who has difficulties with timelines. x