Thursday, May 2, 2013

Guest Blogger Lynn Viehl: Same Playground, Different Games: How to Sustain a Novel Series

I would like to welcome Lynn Viehl to my blog. She is the author of 49 novels in 8 genres. She doesn't have a website, but she does offer plenty of entertainment on her blog, http://pbackwriter.blogspot.com/.  Today she has written a fascinating article on Sustaining a Novel Series.


Same Playground, Different Games: How to Sustain a Novel Series

by Lynn Viehl

The difference between standalone books and novel series can be expressed in playground terms. When you were a kid and met a bunch of other kids at a vacant lot who just want to play one impromptu game, you stayed for a couple hours.  You may or may not have met them again for another game there or somewhere else;  generally there was no expectation or commitment required.   That's a standalone playground.

When you put in the time to find the perfect place where you and a group of friends you organize can meet and play games together on a regular schedule,  you don't meet once and then never come back.  Even if you play different games, you keep returning -- and that's a series playground. 

This is not to say that the standalone novel is in any sense inferior; both types of books offer different challenges and appeal, and in their own respects both are very tough to write.  I'm a career series writer so that's where lies the bulk of my author experience, but I've written a few standalones and believe me, they're no stroll through the playground.    

In order to write and sustain a novel series you need to devote a lot of time, effort and creativity in building a universe and a cast of characters who can generate multiple book-length stories and inspire readers to keep coming back for more.  No matter what genre you write in, there are some elements that are common to all series books.  Naturally everyone has their own opinion, but here's what I think they are:

Multiple conflicts:  your series should have at least one very large, difficult-to-resolve conflict, and many other smaller, easier-to-resolve conflicts.  Usually this big conflict is what drives the series, connects the books and provides continuity.  The smaller conflicts drive the individual novels within the series, often by spinning off or being related to the series conflict.  While they don't have to be resolved in one book, they shouldn't eclipse the series conflict.  They should also contribute something to moving along the big conflict before they're resolved.

Multi-story Cast of Characters:  Your series cast doesn't have to number in the hundreds, but you do need enough characters to carry the story through several books.  Generally I start with a pair of protagonists who are central to the series and the series conflict, and build other characters out from them.  In my books, everyone has some kind of connection to the series protagonists.  Other writers use casts of characters who are all related to each other (the family tree approach), or who work through chronological timelines (generational stories in the same setting) or who deal with episodic conflicts (as in mysteries where you have the same PI solving different puzzles in each book.) 

Expansive World-Building:  You don't tell the same story over and over in a series, but you generally do have to stay in the same universe.  This is why it's important to build your worlds not only well, but craft them with the potential for expansion.  This is not strictly about setting, either; you can invent one haunted house and use it as the setting for a dozen books -- but to keep your reader interested it had better be a complex haunted house, with lots of mysterious rooms and multiple ghosts and different conflicts that have to be resolved or you'll just end up telling the same story multiple times (i.e. a nice couple moves into haunted house, are scared witless, uncovers tragic secret, battles bad ghost, makes terrible sacrifice, barely escapes with their lives, etc., aka the cliché haunted house story.)     

Another vital aspect of series writing is to build a universe that you as a writer want to creatively explore for years.  This because unless you can knock out ten series novels in twelve months you may be spending years writing in this universe.  If you lose interest, how do you think the reader is going to feel when you start phoning it in?  One of my series continued for eight years, another took me twelve years with a four-year hiatus in the middle.  Altogether between the two series I published twenty-seven novels and novellas, but thanks to putting in the time to creating universes I wanted to write in with conflicts that challenged me and characters who fascinated me, I never once got bored.

Series length is also something you need to think about in advance.  I've written long, mid-size and short series novels, and the one thing I've learned is to always have a series exit strategy prepared.  You may generate so many sales with your series that your publisher will let you write as many books as you want.  For most of us pros, that doesn't happen -- eventually sales and new readers decline and a series plateaus or drops off the radar.  Some writers are fine with not finishing series, especially when a publisher decides to end it before the author is ready to pack it up.  I think series readers deserve closure, though, and I've always tried to give mine that when I know I'm writing what will be the last book in a series.

Nightbound, the third and final novel in my Lords of the Darkyn trilogy, is one of those stories.  While I can't say I'll never write another Darkyn novel -- in Publishing, anything is possible -- I am putting the universe on hiatus for now to see if reader interest will sustain another trilogy.  If not, I have my new Disenchanted & Co. urban fantasy series kicking off this fall, and yet another series currently in development.  Which brings me to my final piece of advice -- don't grow too dependent on any series you write, but try to give yourself the creative space and permission to build new universes and tell their stories.  You might find the games you play in your next series playground attract even more of a crowd than the last.




Lynn Viehl has been generous enough to offer a prize pack to one lucky winner.  The backpack is from Target, and includes the three books which she'll sign for the winner, the green handmade journal and matching memo book (both crafted by The Book Whisperer on Etsy), and a fun sword-pen she found at BAM. 

To enter, leave a comment.  


Edited: Giveaway is now closed. The winner will be announced at Midnight May 5, 2013 MST.

49 comments:

  1. Have you ever done the world-building for a series and ended up with a stand alone novel? If so, did it make the novel better or was it just more work?

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    1. I wrote one novel, Blade Dancer, that I originally hoped would be the first book in an eight-book series, but the publisher only offered a one-book contract so I was careful to make it work as a standalone. That turned out to be a good thing because the publisher later axed that imprint and told me to write something else.

      I can't say Blade Dancer was a lot more work in the world-building department because the universe was shared with the one I'd built for my StarDoc series. I am sorry I never got to tell the rest of the characters' stories, but no one has ever complained that the book was too complicated, so evidently what I did worked for the readers.

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  2. Wow! The more you talk about your craft, the more real your world becomes. I have had an adventure in my mind for several years now, have even walked the book's neighborhood to see how real it is. Maybe this is the year to get it on paper. Thanks for your inspiration. And congrats with the new book! But I will miss the Darkyn.....very much. I have to get another copy of TWILIGHT FALL; SOMEONE BORROWED MINE AND IT'S NOT BACK. I will have to run your collection like a library sign-out.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, Claire, as well as coaxing others to read my books -- that is the best advertising money can't buy. As for the borrower, I had the same problem until I started a collection of used/lender copies of books specifically for the borrowers. I'd pick up these copies for a quarter at rummage sales or flea markets and then use them as lenders -- that kept my original editions safe. :)


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  3. I am impressed with your talent and ability. I also look forward to enjoying your urban fantasy novels when they are available. It is great that you broaden your horizons with your amazing creativity.

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    1. Thank you, petite -- it's a great job, and one my readers make an adventure every day.

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  4. Thanks for the info. This is a great checklist.
    SandyL

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    1. I appreciate you stopping by, Sandy -- good luck!

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  5. Your post was thought provoking and interesting. I enjoy stand alone books very much and always have, but have been lately reading series which I find captivating and unique. Enjoy your exceptional writing which is always special. best wishes and much happiness.

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    1. You're very kind, traveler, thank you. I've been reading a few standalones lately but I'm mostly a series addict; my favorite authors always make me want to revisit their universes. :)

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  6. I agree, interesting stuff. I love to read a book series, especially if I can get them all at the same time.

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    1. Isn't that the hardest part of being a series reader? We always have to wait six months or a year to read the next novel. These authors should write faster, lol.

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  7. This was great for putting series writing into perspective, especially for someone like me who is just starting out on my first book in what I hope will be a series. Thanks for all the good advice!

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    1. I'm glad it was helpful, Diana -- and if I've learned anything from writing series all these years, it's that I always have more to learn. :)

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  8. Awesome post. I learned alot.
    Crystal816[at]hotmail[dot]com

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    1. Thanks, Crystal, and good luck with the giveaway. :)

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  9. This is great advice. I will have to show it to my two self-pubbing writer's group friends, as both are planning to do series. Well, one has his trilogy almost done (he's on his third book), and the other plans on a series. It's good to hear what someone who's made a career out of this kind of thing does.

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    1. It's probably wise for me to note that I never consciously set out to be a series writer, anderyn. I began writing standalone novels, until I wrote one that was so much fun that I had to revisit the universe with a sequel. That first series novel was StarDoc, and along with that sequel got me my first contract offer, so maybe it was always meant to be. :)

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  10. Interesting post. Part of my love of fantasy is the tourist aspect...I enjoy the flea markets and herb gardens in the story as much as the fights and intrigues.

    I love the darkyn books and will be sorry to see the stories end, but thank you for writing them.

    Liv

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    1. I appreciate the kind words for my Darkyn novels, Liv; thanks for investing in them.

      Anne McCaffrey brought the fantasy genre alive for me with her Pern novels, but I think the one book that won my heart completely was Powers That Be, a collaboration book she wrote with Elizabeth Anne Scarborough. Until that book I had no idea how original and breathtaking fantasy world-building could be. If you've never read it I highly recommend it.

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  11. Informative information. I agree that readers want and deserve endings for a series.

    bn100candg at hotmail dot com

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    1. Thanks, bn. I think part of my determination to finish or at least provide as much closure as possible is because of all the series I've read that for whatever reason the authors weren't able to finish. Ann Maxwell's Dancer series is #1 on that list; even after fifteen years I still wish she could publish one final novel just to let us know how it worked out for the protagonists.

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  12. We're having a bad thunderstorm here, and since we've had two direct lightning strikes to our house in the past I have to shut down and unplug the computer for the duration. I will stop in later tonight if possible. Just in case I can't get back online, my thanks to Robin for having me as a guest, and to all of you for your comments. Good luck with the giveaway, too. :)

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  13. Great post! I'll definitely be bookmarking it to come back to. I have a couple ideas for books in a series on the back burner, but haven't really started working on them yet as I'm in the middle of other non-series projects.

    I'm really looking forward to reading your new urban fantasy series as well!

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    1. I'm back -- and I'm glad you liked the post, gypsyharper (love the name you use, too.) Best of luck with all your writing projects. :)

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  14. I have read Blade Dancer, Bio Rescue and Afterburn. Those were the books that got me hooked on the Star Doc series. I thought they were great books and I wished you were able to write the sequels. I never knew where to complain about it.

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    1. Since that imprint was shut down there was never really anyone to complain to but me, Jo. I think as the author I have the primary responsibility to do whatever I can to look after my readers and write for them. At the same time making sure I can make a living at my job is important, too; I have a family to support and bills to pay just like everyone else. Sometimes keeping both sides of the equation in balance can be tough.

      I have considered self-publishing as a solution, and that will always be an option, but for many reasons it would be difficult for me to make that kind of transition. Based on the one book I have self-published for profit (a nonfiction how-to) I doubt I'd be very successful at it.

      If StarDoc and my SF standalones taught me anything, it is to write shorter series, which are easier to sell to publishers, and not promise readers anything I can't deliver. Hopefully one day I'll be able to write longer series again, but for right now I'm just trying to compete and do the best I can with what I can publish.

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  15. Excellent post, Lynne, and hope the lightning leaves your house alone this time.

    I admire anyone who can keep such different series going, playing intricate games on multiple playgrounds. What would you say goes into an essential series 'bible'?

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    1. We were lucky this time, Anna. Earlier this week we had a tornado warning with a funnel cloud passing within a mile of the house. But the dogs and I spent an interesting half-hour cuddling together in the walk-in closet while we waited for it to pass. :)

      When I start a series bible I arrange it a lot like an individual novel notebook, with sections for characters, settings, plots, synopses, research notes and so forth. The primary difference is that for a series bible I mainly list facts I need to jog my memory and note where I can find things in books I've already written.

      My series bible's character section is an alphabetical running list of character names (and believe me, when you write a series with more than ten novels you do end up repeating names unless you first look over your who's who's list from your past stories), brief descriptions (also if anything has changed with how they look), where they are in their storyline, significant others, the novels in the series they appear in, etc.

      I keep all these files open on the computer and update them as I finish every novel, print out new updated copies and use them to replace the previous lists. I also keep things like an RIP list (which characters have died), a Resolved list (which characters have finished stories) and a Future Story list (which characters still have open storylines.)

      For the plot section I write a short standalone plot summary for every book in the series. I'm not a habitual plot repeater but I like to review previous plots to make sure I'm keeping the standalone plots in the series fresh and interesting. To keep track of and plan the series plot I use a timeline with events noted as they happen in all the books (so I know where I've been) along with my projected developments for future books (this so I know where I'm going.)

      A series glossary, especially if you coin your own words or use words from another language in your books, is also vital because you will forget how you spelled something three books back -- I know, I do all the time.

      I used to write all this out, too, but over time I've developed a kind of shorthand code to prompt myself. When I write EJB I know I mean Evermore/Jayr/Byrne, which is a book and protagonists reference. I code my Darkyn's talents with code words; Lucan's is Shatter, Byrne's is Berserk and Jayr's is Flash (sounds a bit like comic book stuff, but it really is an easy way to remember their individual superpowers.) For the Lords of the Darkyn trilogy I code everything Born, Bred or Bound because all the titles start with Night. StarDoc novels were always SDs with the number of the book in the series; I still have to catch myself and write "Endurance" instead of "SD3" when I mention that book to others.

      With all the coding I now use I don't think anyone could make heads or tails of my series bibles, but all that really matters is that I understand them and they provide me with the info I need to keep everything in a series cohesive and orderly.

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  16. I've had problems with world building.
    What finally helped was walking on the small worlds within words first and then figuring out the overall world. It feels backwards, but this seems to work for me.

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    1. I love how you describe it as "walking on the small worlds with words." That's beautiful.

      Developing your process may entail doing things very different from what other writers do. Trust your instincts on this -- I've learned to listen to mine, and while they don't always take me where I expect, they never steer me wrong.

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  17. What a great post! Thank you so much for all of the awesome insights that only an established Series writer has experienced. That was fantastic. I'm in the middle of writing a trilogy at the moment, with a mind to do another set of books set in that world perhaps sometime in the future... And its tough going! I've finished book 2, and now trying to nail down my plans for book 3 - but I really want to third book to make a huge impact, and then wrap up tightly - thus giving my readers some huge satisfaction. I only hope that I can pull it off.
    Thanks once again for the epic post on Series...
    LkH

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    1. Leigh, you are definitely a series writer -- you speak my language! I know exactly what you're talking about with planning ahead and making that impact satisfying for the readers. It's the series writer's favorite obsession. Good luck with making it happen on the page.

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  18. Folks, it's been delightful to visit with you today, but now I'd better head off to bed. Robin, thank you again for having me as a guest on your blog, I had a wonderful time chatting with everyone. Thank you all for the great discussions, too, and good luck to everyone with the giveaway!

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  19. I love that you finish the series for us fans. I don't think there is anything worse than being stuck in the middle of a world you love without closure!

    Do you start with the big arc when you first plan the series, or do the smaller arcs come to you first? It feels like that would make a difference to me between a standalone from the start and a series.

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    1. I work out the series conflict before anything else, Anne, so that I can have the standalone conflicts better relate to the big issue -- although they're resolved faster, I feel they should in some way contribute to the series conflict. This is not any sort of rule, btw; just my approach to making all the books more cohesive. :)

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  20. I love reading about your process, it helps me as a reader to know why some authors do what they do with a series, etc. Maybe it will also teach me patience when a book in the middle of the series gives me anxiety. *cough Rebel Ice cough* ;-)

    I loved your SF standalones. A friend loaned me the first Stardoc book and then gave me a copy of Blade Dancer for my birthday, and I will always be grateful to her for introducing me to your books.

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    1. Lol. Rebel Ice made a lot of readers anxious, Emily, so don't feel like you're alone in that. For my part I had no idea what really was my favorite book in the series would end up being so controversial and worrisome for my readershio. Close proximity to the work often results in the author being a bit dense about how it's going to be received by others, maybe.

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    2. readershio = readership. Still not awake yet here.

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    3. Confession time: I was so freaked out that I resisted reading the rest of the series until Dream Called Time came out, read the last few paragraphs, and then was able to do it. I fully admit to being too invested in certain characters, but if anything I feel it's a compliment to the author! :-)

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  21. I really enjoyed reading about how you sustain a series. I am one of those readers that really love series books. I love when complex worlds are built, being able to catch up with favorite characters even after their story is told. After a couple of stories, you can picture the worlds so well and I generally end up wanting to visit them in real life, LOL.
    Btw, I love your idea for loner libraries. I have lost books (even whole series) in the past by loaning them to a family member or friend that now I just don't want to risk my favorite, keeper books :)
    June
    manning_J2004 at yahoo dot com

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    1. I've gotten to the point now, June, where if I have a favorite series I buy ever used copy I can find for lending purposes -- I like having them so I can back up a recommendation to a friend or a reader I meet somewhere with a book or two to tempt them.

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  22. Great advice; I'm soaking it all in. I'm currently writing my first novel, an urban fantasy and everything you're saying here is very helpful for where I'm at with this. Thanks!

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    1. I'm glad it's proving helpful, Alli -- and good luck with your series. :)

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  24. This is great advice as usual. My question is while writing a series, how do you keep your main protagonists interesting without them getting muddled in the expansive cast of other characters in your universe?

    Thanks

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    1. To sustain series protagonists and keep them from getting lost in the ongoing character shuffle I think a writer should consider a couple of things: how they relate to the series conflict, what is going to keep them fresh and interesting as characters, and why it will take more than one book to tell their story.

      In the Darkyn series, I chose Alexandra and Michael to be the series protagonists because they both relate to the series conflict as major players: Michael is the seigneur of North America, and therefore rules over all the other Darkyn in the country, which puts him in a position of great power and responsibility (and gives him a very valid reason to keep showing up and getting involved in the different stories -- he is in charge.) Alexandra is the first mortal to make the transition in five hundred years, plus she's a reconstruction surgeon, plus she's something else that I don't tell the reader up front (and I'm being careful how I word this to avoid spoilers.)

      To keep them fresh and interesting, and because I like to explore relationships in stories at length versus walking away from them the minute they fall in love, I focused on the challenges Alexandra and Michael face personally after they commit to each other (I think that kept them realistic, too; falling in love doesn't solve every problem a couple faces. In fact, it usually creates more trouble for them.)

      How Alexandra and Michael relate as characters to the series conflict made it possible for me to tell their story over the course of seven books -- their relationship arc mirrors it, in fact. While I probably could have resolved all their problems in two or three books if I'd made them the protagonists each time, I thought it was more interesting to have their relationship play out as a running subplot. As a couple and as individuals they are always involved in the series conflict, and that provided additional continuity from book to book. I admit, it's not the usual approach, but I think it worked pretty well for the readers.

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  25. This has been a great piece. Thank you!

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    1. Thanks, Lisa, and good luck with the giveaway. :)

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