How to Write a Series of Novels
Series of books are relatively common and can be a great way to tell your story. If you’re not used to writing a series it’s quite easy to slip into a bad writing habit.
Book 1: Stuff happens
Book 2: Different stuff happens
Book 3: Other different stuff happens
If you look at any great series of novels, you’ll find that it rarely looks like that. Successful and acclaimed series only continue because what has previously happened dictates the need for the next book.
Book 1: Stuff happens
Book 2: Stuff happens because of what happened in Book 1
Book 3: Stuff happens because of what happened in Books 1 and 2
Good advice for writing a book is that everything is connected, and everything happens because of what happened prior. The same is true for series. Remember that subtle reference you made in Book 1? That becomes the catalyst that brings Book 4 into focus. You really need to look at a series as one big story so that it all remains connected. You don’t have to write it that way, but that should be your mindset when going into writing a series.
In a perfect world, you should really write your entire series before you do anything with the first book. Write a first draft of all of them. It’ll help with making sure that all your plots are in line with each other and that any undertones or overarching themes are present throughout the entire series. It lets you foreshadow, hiding clues and Chekhov’s guns that you need for later plot points and developments in the earlier books and, generally, helps to make the whole thing more cohesive. Once you have the first draft of all of them, start working your way through them all. Get a second draft of the whole series and then focus on the first one.
Depending on how long your series is—and how much time you can dedicate to writing—this could take a very long time. If you’ve only got four books in the series and you’re managing two thousand words every day (which some writers do) you are still going to be looking at about a year for the full set of second drafts. If you can make that, great, but, personally, I can’t match that pace consistently. Based on my average word count, it would take around six years until I’d be done with a four-book series. This approach isn’t that practical for the majority of people who don’t write full-time.
You should know what’s happening in your first book when you’re writing it. After that, you should have a very strong plan for what’s happening in your second and then a good idea about the rest of them. You should have a very solid grasp of your main character’s development throughout the entire series, and a lot of the supporting characters as well. What types of people are they going to be when the series concludes, and why will they be that way? What will happen to turn them into those people, and roughly when? Why is your antagonist doing what they’re doing?
If it’s a never-ending series—like James Patterson’s Alex Cross or Lee Child’s Jack Reacher—then this is less important as each novel tends to stand on its own whilst remaining connected to the others, with some characters or themes recurring as and when they are required. Ian Fleming’s James Bond series works in this way, as does Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. There are plot points that carry across the entire series but, generally, each book works as its own entity as well as being part of a larger body of work.
What avenue you’re going down for publishing should play a part in how you write the series. If you plan to go down the traditional route, it’d be great if you told the publisher it was a six-book series and they bought them all on the strength of the first, but it doesn’t always happen like that. What you’re likely to be pitching is that they’ll buy the first one and—if it does well—they might want the follow-ups; which then depends on far too many factors that are out of your control, unfortunately: how hard your agent pushes the book, if the publisher is interested in a series, whether the first is profitable enough for them to invest in more, and so on. As such, if you can, try and close out your first book as if it were a stand-alone novel. Definitely set it up to be the start of a series but there is a very real chance that, if the rest of the series doesn’t get picked up, it will still work. So write it in such a way, if it fits, that it could be either the end of the story or the start of something bigger.
If you’re self-publishing you can ignore all of that. Write it and publish it. When you don’t have other people deciding if you get the follow-up books published, you know that the rest of the series will be released. With this, however, there are a few different elements that need to be considered. You don’t want to publish the entire series in one big go, even if they’re all ready. Publish them one at a time. How long to leave between them is up to you, ultimately. Have a look to see how often other authors publish their instalments as a guide, but publishing a new book once or twice a year isn’t a bad target to reach for.
Writing a series can be a lot of fun. You get to spend a bit more time with your characters and create a bigger story. It isn’t right for every occasion or every author, but if you’re inclined to write on then it can be quite rewarding. It’s more work than your stand-alone book, but it can be worth it in the end.
© 2017 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.