Thursday 12 January 2017

Writing a series - top tips

I've been pretty busy lately, but the good news is that means there are more books in the pipeline. The paperback of The Time to Kill comes out in the UK on February 9, which happens to be the same week that it's published in hardcover under its American title Winterlong.

It snowed today, so here's an appropriately wintry picture of the new edition:

Book 4: Don't Look For Me is out in the UK in April, and you can preorder it now. I'm currently writing the fifth book, which seems incredible since it doesn't seem all that long since I started writing Killing Season.

It makes me glad I put some thought into the series before I wrote the first book. With that in mind, here's a piece I wrote for the Scottish Book Trust website last year: my top 5 tips on writing a series of novels:

Writing a continuing series has a lot to recommend it. You don’t need to start everything from scratch with each new book, and you have the opportunity to develop your characters and themes across multiple novels. On the other hand, you don’t have the standalone author’s luxury of an entirely blank slate at the beginning of every new project.

Here are my tips for writing series fiction. Bear in mind these are from the point of view of a crime writer, but they’re adaptable to working on any kind of ongoing series.

Build your protagonist to last before you write the first book, rather than trying to turn a standalone character into a series lead

Ideally he or she will be intriguing and compelling (though not necessarily likeable), and will have room to grow as a character over the course of the series. That means you don’t necessarily want to give them too detailed a backstory. If you leave your protagonist’s history reasonably vague, there’s more to discover about them in future books. Just as importantly, you have less continuity to keep track of. 

Don't make your central character too old

Ian Rankin recently spoke about this problem, as Rebus hit retirement age a long time before his author. Even Jack Reacher is now pushing sixty as he hitchhikes toward his twenty-first adventure. If you want your character to age naturally but have a long fictional life, it’s best not to start out with an octogenarian detective. Alternatively, you can just make them immune from ageing. Like Batman, for instance, who started his caped crusading in 1939 but shows no signs of slowing down.

Naming convention - yay or nay?

Choosing titles that are immediately identifiable as part of a series can work really well. James Patterson’s early ‘nursery rhyme’ Alex Cross books and John D. MacDonald’s colour-coded Travis McGee thrillers are examples of this done right. What you don’t want to do is pick a title theme that has you scraping the bottom of the barrel by the fourth book. One Direction song titles will probably be of limited use.

Think carefully about your hero or heroine’s job

Is your protagonist a police officer? A private investigator? A lawyer? A random troublemaker?

A job in law-enforcement will provide all the rationale you need to get them embroiled in murder investigation after murder investigation, but it also means more research and pressure to keep up with the intricacies of modern policing procedure.

A lone wolf character has its own pros and cons, but the big advantage is you get to invent their rules.

A related concern: make sure they’re not so great at their job that they get promoted out of the action. This doesn’t just apply to the police: James T. Kirk hated being an admiral.

Easy on the formula

Series fiction is popular for a reason: people like knowing what they’re going to get, to an extent. Meeting your readers’ expectations while at the same time surprising them can be a difficult balance.

In an ideal world, you want to keep enough familiarity in the books to keep regular readers happy, but not so much that each book is indistinguishable from the last. Formulas are necessary and enjoyable, but each book has to stand on its own and offer something different to the reader.

Focus on the sweet spot: you want familiarity to build content, not contempt. If the reader can recite the plot of the next book before it’s published, you need to mix things up a little.

1 comment:

  1. Great tips Mason. Its inspired me to pursue writing my first novel :)