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Writing in Series

I love romance series.  Reading them.  Writing them.  It seems even when I set out intending to write a stand-alone, by the time I get to The End I’ve got a cast of characters I can’t wait to come back to. 

The good news if you’re obsessed with writing series?  Series sell.  In the Data Guy presentation at last year’s national conference, it was clear that writers who wrote series were (on average) making almost twice as much from each book than those who exclusively produced stand alone titles.  Which really makes sense, if you think about it. 

Derek Thompson, author of “Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction” said in an interview on NPR that “What most of us gravitate toward are familiar surprises. New products and ideas that remind of us old products and ideas.”  And in romance novels, what is better than a book by an author we love, in a setting we love, with characters we love, but an all new pair getting their HEA?

I could not read the Bridgertons fast enough.  When I get a new book in Nalini Singh’s Psi-Changeling series, I will hoard it for months before reading it just to appreciate the thrill of having it available to me.  Have you ever put down a book and immediately picked up the next int he series because you couldn’t bear to stop?  For me that’s Kim Law’s Montana series and Darynda Jones’s Charley Davidson (to name drop a few Rubies).  And lately I have been obsessed with Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series.

Which has gotten me thinking – what takes a series from good to irresistible?  What are the elements that really hook us and keep us coming back for more?

I think it boils down to three things – 1) the world, 2) the characters, and 3) the series arc. 

The world could be small towns or sexy vampire balls or a certain moment in history, but it has to be fully developed and give us that sense that we really are there when we’re reading – and we can’t wait to get back.  I think world-building also includes the tone of the book – the author’s perspective on the place and time that seep through and color everything in unique shades.  (e.g. Not all Regencies are created equal because Regency authors bring themselves to the world.)

The characters have to been vivid – and those secondary characters have to be real enough to intrigue us.  I may only have to see them for a couple of pages, but if they feel like real people, with real problems, I cannot wait to see what’s beneath the surface and get that character their HEA.  One of the things I have been loving in Elizabeth Hoyt’s new series is the way she will tempt us with a hint of who will be the next hero and/or heroine with a few scenes in that character’s POV that give us clues about the conflict in the next book.  By the time I get to the end of one book, I’m already invested in the next hero/heroine and can’t wait to read the next book.  Hello, binge weekend.

And lastly is the series arc.  This, for me, is where Nalini Singh is a cut above the rest.  The ongoing fight – whether against the big bad or toward some kind of event or resolution – can be a compelling reason to keep reading.  And for me it really helps to stave of series fatigue – where a series seems to be going on forever and never evolving – if the overall series arc keeps me on my toes.

Finding ways to keep it fresh can be one of the challenges of series.  I know some fabulous authors that I’ve just sort of stopped reading over time because series fatigue got me and I felt like I was reading the same book over and over again. 

And that isn’t my only pet peeve.  Don’t you just hate it when the action of a book suddenly halts so we can get an update on a previous heroine’s baby for no reason?  Or when we get so heavily into sequel-bait for the next book that it feel like the author forgot all about the plot of the one we’re reading?  Or – Nora forbid! – when an author actually destroys the lives of a previous couple in the series?  Or worse, kills one of them off?  Those books go flying across the room at my house.

Yeah, I love romance series, but it isn’t all sunshine and roses.  And there can definitely be downsides to writing them – you can get into a situation where you have twelve dedicated readers who are desperate for the next book, but the series didn’t really take off enough for you to justify investing the time in finishing it (and I hate leaving things unfinished). 

But if you hit on that magical alchemy of world, characters, and series arc, you could be the next Elizabeth Hoyt.  At least that’s what I keep telling myself.  😉

What are some of your favorites series to read?  What makes a series irresistible to you?  Do you enjoy writing them?  Have any pet peeves you see popping up in series?

 

 

22 responses to “Writing in Series”

  1. My peeve is serialized novels that are called “series” – a novel that ends on a cliffhanger but doesn’t finish the story – then continues in the next one and the next one. I detest those! When I reach the end of a book, I want it to end. I’m okay with characters showing up, or even being the main event in the next one, but give me a HEA for each book please. 🙂

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  2. jbrayweber says:

    I love series with a fresh or simply different take on the world—mostly that of paranormal or urban fantasy. What I don’t like about a series is the hamster wheel. The stories might be good, but the overall arc drags. It’s not that I want it all to end quickly, but I may get bored instead of intrigued. If I’m “eh”, then I might not pick up the next book. As for writing them, seems I can’t help it. It’s as if once a secondary character is brought to life, they demand to be heard, too.

    Great post, Vivi!

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    • Series fatigue can get to me too when nothing seems to be growing or changing in a series, but if I love the characters I still can’t resist. I think for me that’s the kicker, like you said. Those secondary characters you love.

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  3. Hywela Lyn says:

    I agree about the ‘cliffhanger serial’ type series. I’ve read a few of those of for me it seems like cheating. I love (and was inspired by)Anne McCaffrey’s series, especially the Dragon Riders of Pern. For myself, I wrote a short story, which turned into a novel, which turned into a trilogy. I just got so fond of my characters and supporting characters, I had to find out more about them. On hindsight I wish I’d known it was going to be a trilogy, each book is a stand alone, but I could have given a hint that there was another one to follow if I’d realised that was the case and it might have helped sales. I didn’t realise how much those secondary characters were going to nag me for their own story at the time though!

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    • I am such a Pern fangirl! Those were some of the books that first got me addicted to reading.

      And I feel you on the short story that became a trilogy. I’ve never had exactly that happen, but I have had series that got away from me when I was planning to write a stand-alone. It’s so much easier when we know from the start that it’s going to be epic! 🙂

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  4. Elizabeth Langston says:

    I love Mary Balogh’s series. She has a new one going, and I can’t wait for November to arrive and get the next one.

    Sometimes, though, I’ll wait until the whole series comes out before reading any of them. If I know that it will be a 4-book series, I’ll read them all in a binge once book 4 has been released. I started doing that with THE SELECTION by Kiera Cass. I read book 1, which was cliff-hangery. And found out that it would be another year or more before the others came out. It was a good lesson for me as an author.

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    • I had the same experience with The Selection! I was so glad that by the time I read it, the second and third books were already available or I would have been very annoyed. That was one series I really enjoyed, but wish had delved a bit deeper rather than relying on the cliff-hanger gimmick.

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  5. Thanks for the information, Vivi. It’s always nice to know the direction you decided to take is a good one.

    I’m a stand alone reader, but if I enjoyed a book, I will look for more by the author. If secondary characters, who I liked in the first story, are the new hero and heroine, then it’s an auto buy for me. Each story different has to have it’s own story. It’s can’t be a reunion romance again, or fall in love instantly romance again. They need to be different in order for me to keep reading and to buy more.

    Question, did Mr. Thompson give any advice on releasing series books? And, in your opinion, does the magic number three (I’ve heard) also apply to series books written as stand alone?

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    • Thompson wasn’t actually speaking about series books specifically, but about any product that breaks out and achieves intense popularity. It is fascinating stuff – the same but different, which we’ve all been hearing for years. 🙂 Regarding the rule of three – there is a lot of popularity to trilogies, but I actually saw at the Data Guy presentation that interest in a series didn’t actually begin to trend downward until it was six or more books long. Fascinating stuff! (I’m such a number nerd.)

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  6. As a reader, I prefer stand-alones as I love BIG, complex plots and discovering new story worlds, which is probably why I’m drawn to women’s fiction and thrillers. However, I LOVE seeing characters from other books by an author make a brief appearance.

    Sarah Dessen who writes comtemp YA does this very well. For example, a former character will show up at a restaurant for a brief cameo eating fried pickle chips…and I’m like, YESSSS! I’m in on the little secret. 🙂

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    • I love those little authorial winks. Always such a thrill to find those Easter eggs. 😉

      I think for me, if I read a stand-alone and I love it, I’m always bummed if there isn’t another book in the series, but I can see your point about discovering new worlds.

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  7. Tamara Hogan says:

    Another HUGE Nalini Singh series fan here… One of the things I like most about both her Archangel and Psy-Changeling series is that the world-building is muscular, dark, and sometimes violent, yet the characters (most of whom are also muscular, dark, and violent) not only survive, but thrive, finding their HEA and happy family lives in the midst of chaos and danger.

    I also enjoy it when writers utilize characters, events, or settings from one series in a subsequent series, and in doing so, tell a much larger story. Sarah MacLean and Grace Burrowes craft these sorts of Easter Eggs SO magnificently!

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  8. I’m happy as long as there’s a HEA. I don’t like the kind that leave a reader hanging. And I’m always delighted when I enjoy a book and discover it’s part of a series.

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  9. My favorite series is probably the Harry Potter series.

    I’M SO ORIGINAL!

    But for real: it’s a masterclass in series arc plotting! Who had any idea how immense and intense and intimate the whole thing would become? The first book was so light and bright and almost silly. And then she darkened it, a shade at a time, and we slowly realized that she had the whole arc all planned out from the beginning. And moreover, she planned the plot to grow with her readers, to mature and condense along with our own intellectual abilities.

    I mean, maybe she didn’t. But that’s how it seems. That’s why, for me, no series can top Harry Potter!

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    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Harry Potter is amazing, Jamie. You won’t get any arguments here. I think my only issue with it was how long it took between books considering the way she left the Snape/Dumbledore storyline between 6 & 7. I thought I knew where she was going, but I hated the long delay with everyone thinking the teacher who was hardest on Harry was also evil. The implied lesson to readers made me twitch until the last book finally came out and cleared everything up.

      I love the feeling that an author knows where they are going. That’s actually why I stopped reading Game of Thrones – I saw an interview with Martin where he admitted he didn’t know how it ended and my faith that everyone he was killing off was for a purpose evaporated. I want an author to have a point!

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      • Poor George! He’s rich as could be, but I still don’t envy his position. I’d be sweating bullets every time I sat down to write if I were him, with the weight of his audience’s expectations bearing down upon his fingers.

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