I naturally write series books.
I suspect it’s because I loved reading series when I was growing up. From Walter Farley’s Black Stallion, to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan books to J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, and eventually to Anne McCaffrey’s Pern and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigans, when I loved something, I wanted more.
As I revised my “Books” page on my website recently, I realized that there are now six stories in my Galaxy Award-winning Phoenix Institute series and I have ideas for several more. I decided if the series was to continue, I needed to codify my guidelines for keeping the stories fresh and fun. Here are my top five:
One: Never hold back anything for the next book.
If the story requires something to happen, let it happen. Don’t think “wait, if I do that, I can’t use X character for the next book” or “hey, let me save that big fight for the next book…”
No. Treat every book as if it might be the last book. Resolve the elements that need resolving in this particular story. If you need to kill off somebody, kill ‘em. If you need to give a character a happy ending and send them off into the sunset, do that. Give your readers an emotionally satisfying catharsis. Don’t make them wait until the next one.
When building your storyverse, always keep in mind that many other people besides your characters will be living in it.
Filmmakers do this with production and art design, creating the spaces for the actors to live in. Don’t neglect this even if your books are contemporary.
Don’t overthink it, either. It’s not necessary to put every element of what you’ve imagined in your story. Sometimes it’s enough to just toss off lines about untold adventures, as Watson was wont to do in Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales. Sometimes it’s making sure your spaceport contains separate spaces for military and civilian vessels.
But always consider how your characters live in their world, even the minor ones.
Three: Don’t let your series characters overwhelm the characters of any particular story.
You know readers loved the hero and heroine of the first book but you’re working on the second story and they just don’t fit. That’s okay. It’s nice if other series characters are useful and integral as supporting characters but if they’re not essential, they drag your story down. Your readers were hooked on the first book because they loved the story. Give them another great story and they’ll come back. (I have a favorite character that I keep writing out of stories because he threatens to take them over. No! Back to your HEA!)
Four: Each book should be, as much as possible, an entry point into your series.
I’m one of those weird people who will read a series out of order. I just received an omnibus volume of Steve Miller and Sharon Lee’s Liaden Universe. The three books inside are recent but I had no trouble walking into their wonderful world. If I had to start at the beginning of the Liaden stories(there must be over 20!) I would despair. But they made it easy for me to walk through the door. How to do this? One of my tricks is to use beta readers who haven’t read the other books. (Yes, George R.R. Martin is an exception to my “rule.” There are always exceptions, which is why I call these guidelines. )
Mix up the kinds of stories told in each book.
Phoenix Rising is a classic “becoming a hero” story. Phoenix Legacy is a dark redemption tale. Ghost Phoenix is my international adventure story inspired by Indiana Jones adventures. Phoenix Inheritance brings the focus back to the very personal. And the two novellas featuring Al and Noir, Luminous and Ghosts of Christmas Past, are my urban fantasy ala Batman tales.
I’m reasonably certain that my author voice comes out in each story . I’m equally sure readers are going to find common elements that, as the author, I never notice. But I get bored writing the same plot, over and over. I bet readers get bored with similar plots too. As long as I don’t genre-hop too widely and start adding elements that won’t fit (I doubt spaceships carrying aliens will ever show up at the Phoenix Institute), I’m guessing that readers appreciate some variety.
As for the next book?
I sense it’s time for reckoning with my current bad guys.
Time for the big, fiery, world-changing confrontation and a reset of the board.
Because maybe that’s bonus rule six: Don’t get stale. Up the stakes every so often.