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Talking Romantic Suspense: Writing a Series

 

Several years ago, when I realized I wanted to make writing a career, “trilogy” was the buzz word. Series were sought-after by publishers because they could rapidly build an author’s name, as well as their backlist. It seemed a logical business move to structure the stories in my head into a series—especially since I’d always enjoyed reading series by other authors, falling in love with their characters and looking forward to “seeing” them again like old friends. But how do you create a series readers will become hooked on?

 

A TIE-IN

A series, by definition, contains items that are related. Therefore, a series of books has someone or something that ties it together.

A Person

For instance, J.D. Robb’s “In Death” books and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series center around a character (in these cases, the heroine) who is the main character in each book. The romantic elements come from that character’s romantic life, and show the growth of the character over a broader time spectrum.

A Place or Thing

On the other hand, one can center a series around an idea, a family, an agency, or some other entity separate from the characters. In romance, this typically involves the wrapping up of a different couple’s love story in each book. Suzanne Brockmann has several romantic duos in each book of her Troubleshooters series, but one is always wrapped up at the end of each book, and they all center around her Troubleshooters agency.

Because I enjoy books that can stand alone and have a romantic conflict all wrapped up nice and neat by the end of the book, I chose the second route and created an agency named SSAM (The Society of the Study of the Aberrant Mind) that bound my books together. This way, I have the freedom to pick and choose heroes and heroines with different skillsets, different reasons to be tied to SSAM, and different personalities for each book. I didn’t want to be tied to the same characters for an extended time period, though many of my heroes and heroines are secondary characters in past and future books. I like that sense that each book is a family reunion of sorts, where readers can catch up with their favorite characters.

 

SERIES GROWTH

Just like with individual books, there should be change and maturation over the course of the series. If your series is focused on a primary character, each book should display some growth in that character, with a more extensive growth arc over the series of books. For the second type of tie-in… well, if characters can grow, then agencies, towns, and families can, too. In this case, the central tie-in element is, in fact, a character in many ways.

The growth arc I created for the Mindhunters series is closely tied to the founder of SSAM – Damian Manchester, who has a point-of-view as a secondary character in each book. His past pain, current struggles, and ultimate resolution are revealed gradually, with a piece of the puzzle in each book, until the end book, in which I hope to give him peace at last.

 

MARKETING

Each book should be able to stand on its own. Readers tend to get irritated when they realize they’ve purchased a book, but will have to go purchase other past or future books to get the rest of the story. The nice thing about a series, though, is that promoting one book often impacts the others.  More bang for your advertising buck.

 

CHALLENGES

  • Keeping it straight. As the series continues, it can be difficult for an author to keep all the facts, character traits, family relationships, and events in line with previous books. See Tamara Hogan’s earlier post about creating a series bible.
  • Keeping it fresh. The author should create new challenges in each book, but also tie them into previous and future books without being too repetitive.
  • Making each book stand alone. Start each book as if the reader hasn’t read the others, and doesn’t need to. This includes “sprinkling” in the series backstory as if it was character backstory. You don’t want the reader to think they’ve missed some key piece of the series, but you don’t want to spend page after tedious page giving the history of the series either.
  • Selling early books. I’ve been told that some readers wait until the entire series is available before buying any of them. This can, of course, affect your sales, but if it’s true, it should result in a nice jump in royalties when the final book is released.
  • Keeping the tension high. Maintaining that sense of the “ticking clock” and imminent danger is necessary for romantic suspense, but readers expect resolution, too. Keeping both over a series of books can be a unique challenge.
  • If you write the same-main-character type of series (a la Stephanie Plum, Eve Dallas, or Harry Potter), one challenge is showing character growth over the course of each book, and then over the course of the series.

ADVANTAGES

  • Publishers like series. In fact, with my digital-first publisher (Carina Press), series are sometimes more likely to be put into print form (in this case, by the parent company, Harlequin). I’ve seen this happen with my Mindhunters books.
  • Readers like series. At least, this reader does. I like to get invested in the characters I read about, and see multiple aspects of their lives. It’s almost as if they’re part of a family. And if they’re in several books, even if they’re not always the main characters, I get a multifaceted, 3-D picture of them.
  • Authors like series. Writing a series gives you a chance to really delve deep into plot and character development, and you don’t have to do character development from scratch if the character has already appeared in a previous book, but you have more space to flesh them out, too.
  • As mentioned above, promotion of one book is promotion of all of the books.

 

What is your favorite series (from any genre – romantic suspense or otherwise)? What common denominator linked the stories within that series? When you read, do you prefer books that are part of a series?

 

Anne Marie Becker has always been fascinated with people and how they “work”—inside and out—which led to degrees in Biology, Psychology, and Counseling.  Now, her roles as wife, mother, writer, and domestic goddess satisfy her curiosity.  She explores the dark side of criminal behavior and the saving powers of love and hope through her Mindhunters series. For more about Anne Marie and where to connect with her, please visit her at www.AnneMarieBecker.com.

40 responses to “Talking Romantic Suspense: Writing a Series”

  1. Liz Talley says:

    I’ve written two series to date, but the books I’m working on next are all stand alones. Actually, my editor requested I write some stand alones. The biggest down-side of not writing series is coming up with refreshing secondary characters who serve the same needs (mentor, antogonist, etc) but aren’t the same type of person. I really liked having Bubba already there or The Curlique. I didn’t have to think too hard as a writer about the setting or secondaries because I already knew them.

    Now it’s from scratch again.

    I sort of miss my series, but I’m sure I’ll be back to them one day.

    Great post on series, Anne Marie!

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    • Laurie Kellogg says:

      My Return to Redemption series is centered around my fictitious town of Redemption and features characters RETURNING or moving to the town. All of the books can stand alone but have cameo appearances of characters from other books. Readers are asking for stories about secondary characters from these novels.

      Unfortunately, not ALL characters can be from Redemption or it’ll no longer be a SMALL town. So I’m thinking of beginning a new series populated with friends of Redemption residents in 2013 called Beyond Redemption. The series would star protagonists who live outside of the town and who have baggage that makes them feel undeserving of the H’s or h’s love.

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    • June Love says:

      I just love Bubba. 🙂

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    • Thanks, Liz. Interesting that your editor is requesting stand alone books – can you share why that would be preferable from a marketing standpoint? Just wondering.

      And starting from scratch…I’m trying to do that with a new series (in my spare time – snort), and building new characters can definitely be tough. It’s like trying to fit into a whole new family. 🙂

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      • Amanda Brice says:

        I’m curious, too. It seems to fly in the face of everything I keep hearing.

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        • Rita Henuber says:

          I recently heard some publishers are asking for shorter and more books a year. I think everyone is scrambling to figure out what works. Today HQ announced a partnership with Cosmopolitan magazine to launch a digital first series, Cosmo Red Hot Reads from Harlequin. Writing guidelines are at http://www.harlequin.com/harlequincosmo. Stories should be between 25000 and 30000 words and about young women in their early to mid 20s.

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  2. June Love says:

    Anne Marie, I love series and this is a great post! While I like and read both type of series, I tend to gravitate more toward the place/thing type. It’s the appeal of reading different characters and their growth, while still having some sense of familiarity.

    When I wrote the story that finaled in the GH, I did so with series in mind. Four women. Four books. Keep in mind this was years ago, but it was along the lines of Designing Women meets Sex and the City. Like I said…dated.

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    • Me, too, June. I love reading the series where each book has a sigh-worthy ending because the romance is wrapped up and the characters have grown.

      And I don’t think your story is dated – that kind of story will always find a market, IMO. And even if you missed the first wave of excitement in that kind of story, it’ll come around again. Good themes/topics always cycle.

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      • Amanda Brice says:

        I don’t think your story is dated, either, June! Well, maybe the description “Designing Women meets Sex and the City” is dated (which is one of the reasons I don’t love This Meets This types of descriptions), but the story itself probably isn’t.

        (I’d originally pitched Codename as “Veronica Mars meets Dancing with the Stars.” Now THAT’S a dated description, but the story itself is not.)

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  3. Wow! Fabulous post, Anne Marie! I’ve written connected books, where a secondary character from a first book becomes the hero of the next book, but I don’t really consider them series in the traditional sense of the word. I guess because I don’t feel there are enough elements to tie them together.

    I do enjoy reading series, though, but like June probably tend to gravitate more to the place/thing type of series rather than those where the main character has an arc that spans multiple books.

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    • That sounds like a great idea though, Cynthia – the books ARE connected enough to have your reader want to read what becomes of the secondary character (or go back and read his past), but loosely bound, so the readers don’t feel cheated if they haven’t read one of the books. I think I’ve read some by Catherine Coulter (her historicals) that were like that.

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    • Amanda Brice says:

      I consider your books to be a series, even though you can read them in any order. I think connected books are a type of series — not all series have to be chronological. Some os my favorite series are this type.

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    • Rita Henuber says:

      I guess you would call my books connected also. Like a series they require some thinking ahead and foreshadowing.

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  4. Amanda Brice says:

    Great post, Anne Marie!

    To date, I’ve only published the first type of series you mentioned — the one with a recurring heroine. My Dani Spevak YA mystery series features a 14-year-old (later turns 15) protagonist in each of the novels and one short story. However, each of the books can be read on their own or out of order because they stand alone. There is a series arc of a developing romantic relationship, but the main plot of each book is the mystery which is resolved in each book.

    However, later this month (or maybe early next month) I’ll be releasing a novella that’s not actually part of the series, but is connected. It’s a stand-alone spin-off featuring Dani’s friend Analisa. While it’s connected loosely, I hesitate to consider it part of the series, however, because it’s so different. For one, it’s not a mystery (it’s straight-up contemporary YA). For another, it’s a one-off glimpse into a secondary character’s life, but the main series will continue with Dani as the protagonist in other books.

    Then later next year I’ll be releasing a new series. Well, I’m not completely sure if it’s actually a series. But I guess it’s a series of sort. My time travel PARTY LIKE IT’S 1899 will be out in the fall, and I’m planning to write a spin-off companion short story (I guess technically a novelette) featuring one of this heroine’s friends. Same genre — YA time travel, so I guess it could be considered a series, but it’s not going to be the same length. This one will be roughly a third of the length of the novel, and I don’t know if I’ll do a third story. So can two stories of wildly different lengths be considered a series? If so, then I guess I’ll be doing to second kind of series you mention — the one with a tie-in of a place or thing. 🙂

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    • Sounds like you’re busy! 🙂

      After you’ve written both types, I’d be interested to hear what different challenges and advantages you discover between writing the character-centric versus the place/thing-centric series. I’m sure they each have some unique pros and cons and I’ve never tried to do the character-centric one.

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      • Amanda Brice says:

        I have to say that I love doing the character-centric type of series because I already intimately know my heroine. I don’t have to spend really any extra time getting to know her when I sit down to write the next book in the series. I still have to plot extensively, and sure, she has growth so some things about her have changed in terms of her wants and likes and needs, but for the most part that’s all done.

        Writing the novella that featured Dani’s friend Analisa was very difficult for me because while I’ve written Analisa before, I’d never truly explored her. She was an interesting secondary, but I hadn’t had the occasion to get into her mind before. So that was fun to explore a new character, but it reminded me how much I prefer to already have all the character development done and ready. So I think character-based series are probably best for me, because I can do the character exploration once and then don’t have to worry about it again.

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  5. Rita Henuber says:

    In a galaxy far far away I read series then became very disappointed by them. All I prefer is a good story. No matter the genre. Recently the series books have hooked me again and I follow several in different romance genres. I’ll admit when I knew the Hunger Games would only be three books I waited until I had time to read them all at once. That was fun.
    As I said I follow several series but I’ll comment on the ones not in the romance genre. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, Stephen White’s Allen Gregory and Lee Child’s, Jack Reacher. Each series has more than 15 books.
    Harry is a homicide detective who takes his investigating personally. He feels a responsibility to the victim and doesn’t let anyone stand in the way of him getting the killer. Allen Gregory is a therapist whose patients get him involved in things that are frequently complicated by patient doctor confidentiality. BTW White decided to end the series and his next book will be the last. Reacher is a man who exacts justice with no doubts or regrets.
    I think each of these series evokes something we all want.

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    • Amanda Brice says:

      I admit that I sometimes will wait until all of the books in a particular new-to-me series are out (or a good number of them are already out) before I start in on the series, particularly now that I own a Kindle.

      I used to be patient and would wait the year in between books, but now if I find a series I love, I want to glom on and read, read, read!

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    • “I think each of these series evokes something we all want.”

      Sounds like, when a reader gets hooked on a character-centric series, it’s because something in that character speaks to the reader, and pulls on a need within them? Just a thought.

      I prefer the other type of series…the ones that feel like a family of characters that I can get to know. But I definitely like having an HEA in each book. I wonder what that says about my psychological make-up and needs? Hmmm… 😉

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  6. Awesome post! I write series too. They revolve around different families, but each one stands alone too.

    I love series where we get to see that the love from the book before is still going strong, even if it’s just a peek. Karen Marie Moning’s Highlander series is my favorite as well as Janet Chapman’s Highlander series. Hmmm…I do like Highlanders!
    ; ) Heather

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    • I love highlanders, too! And Vikings…don’t get me started. 😉 I’ll have to check out those authors. Monica McCarty has a series that I’ve been reading, and one of them is on my TBR pile…my reward when I finish my edits. 😉 Gotta check back with my highlanders and see how they’re doing from time to time.

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  7. I heard that a lot of readers when seeing series in the books description wait until the third book was being promoted. They don’t like waiting, especially years.
    My first release, Obsessed By Wildfire, was part of a Wayback series for the Wild Rose Press. It was very interesting working on the project because many authors were involved. The series was based on a fictional Texas town. As an inquiring author, you had to read the series books and your secondary characters were actually other authors’ characters. You had to gain permission from the other authors to use their characters and my editor had the job of making sure those secondary characters stayed in character. Whew! It was fun.

    My next two books dealt with a Russian Mafia family. My fourth book, SEIZED BY DARKNESS, is the start of a new series which revolves around an elite US Marshal team. The villains are also Russian mafia, but the book is totally unrelated to the other two mafia books. I hope to have five or six books dealing with the C.U.F.F. team, so definitely heading back to read Tamara’s bible post.

    I like reading about old friends. The Earth series, ‘Clan of The Cave Bear’, ‘The Valley Of The Horses’, and ‘The Monmouth Hunters’ was the first series I ever read and loved. There is a fourth story but it took Jean Auel many, many years to write it and I never went back. Plus she sort of pissed me off in the Monmouth Hunters. Halen Coben’s Myron Bolitar is one of my favorite series characters. And of course Suz Brockman is an idol of mine.

    Great post, Anne! Anyone thinking of writing a series should read this.

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    • Amanda Brice says:

      “My first release, Obsessed By Wildfire, was part of a Wayback series for the Wild Rose Press. It was very interesting working on the project because many authors were involved. The series was based on a fictional Texas town. As an inquiring author, you had to read the series books and your secondary characters were actually other authors’ characters. You had to gain permission from the other authors to use their characters and my editor had the job of making sure those secondary characters stayed in character. Whew! It was fun.”
      _______________________________________

      Was it difficult to stay true to characters created by others? I’ve recently signed a contract to be the co-author of a well-known author’s existing series. I’ve had to re-read her books (of course), and she’s going to give me a series Bible, but I’m a little bit worried I’m going to have difficulty recreating her voice. (Although we already do have similar voices, which is why she asked me to work with her.)

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    • Wow, that Wayback series does sound like fun – and quite the challenge. I forgot to include that kind of series here…multiple authors bound by a common theme/town/characters. Thanks for the insight!

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  8. Great post, Anne Marie. Making a hardy copy of this one. Probably my favorite in the series type books are by Carla Neggars. She has two families one from New Hampshire (the White Mountains area) and one from Tennesee. They become intertwined through a relationship. I got hooked on her to begin with because of the location. I love New England and we’d actually visited the White Mountains. Her descriptions are super. Then, of course, as you mentioned Suzanne Brockman’s books. I’m totally in awe of folks who can keep so many characters and plots lines straight. I’m not published yet, but getting closer. In my 4th book I had a character raise his head and nearly take over. He’s the hero in my 6th book with the idea that book would lead into 3 others. 4 women became friends at camp and have maintained that friendship through difficult times and separations. We’ll see. Fell in love with the Moosehead Lake region of Maine last vacation and a whole story line exploded in my head. May have to do that one after Book 6. Thanks again, Anne Marie for this super helpful post.

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    • I had the privilege to hear Carla Neggars speak at a local writers meeting – she was great! I love when beautiful settings come to life and become another character.

      I hear Brockmann has a huge “bible” and plots everything out before she writes. You’d probably have to in order to keep all the storylines woven so tightly.

      And I can tell from your comment that you love what you’re writing – that is SO key to readers loving what you’re writing. If you’re enjoying it, they will too. Happy writing!

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  9. Diana Layne says:

    My favorite series to date was the Troubleshooter series. Way back in the day though, when I first started writing I had an Historical series, but my agent said no one really wanted series. Something happened in the 10 years I stopped writing, but suddenly series were popular when I started back writing (by then though, no one wanted Native American, lol).

    I’m involved in two series right now-like Autumn, I’m in a multi-author series with The Wild Rose Press with a cursed gypsy doll as a common character.

    Then my Vista Security series, which I’d originally intended for the security company to tie the stories together, but somehow, Dave and Marisa from my Mafia story will end up being the recurring characters as they work on their love story. Also, something I didn’t think about as I was writing Trust No One…not really thinking ahead on the series, just grateful I was writing again, I wrote myself into a corner. My next book is set in Russia and I know nothing, nothing about Russia. Oh, the research! Of course, I knew little about NYC either when I wrote The Good Daughter, but at least I’d been there once. Briefly. and there’s plenty of NYC info and TV shows. Russia, or Siberia rather as the story takes place in both places, not so much.

    So to me, the challenges of a series is definitely thinking ahead.

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    • Diana Layne says:

      ps I should have said favorite “non-Ruby” series. Duh. Of course I love the Rubies and their series!!!

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    • Oh a “curved gypsy doll” sounds like a fascinating tie-in! reminds me of that “Red Violin” movie where the violin was passed down through the ages, and the movie told the story. Not sure if that’s how your series works, but it struck a chord with me. 😉

      Thinking ahead is a great point…I knew the premise that would underlie my series ahead of time (at least the majority of it), but I couldn’t see each book and how I would get from A to Z. Now that I’m starting Book 4 (and editing book 3) of a 6-book series, it’s become much clearer. I’m glad I didn’t have to have it all laid out ahead of time…some of it had to come organically as the characters were fleshed out.

      Have fun in Russia! 😉 I would love to go there someday. Sigh.

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  10. Elizabeth Langston says:

    Mary Balogh has several series and they often have slight touchpoints. I’ll buy just about anything she writes now.

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