Writing a Series

This week we have a guest post from Beth Overmyer, author of The Goblets Immortal, mentioned in our last episode.  The sequel to Goblets hits the stands on February 16.  It’s thus a timely moment to take a look at the special complications of writing a series.

Take it away, Beth!

Writing a Series — Beth Overmyer

There are many things to take into consideration when writing a series. Will it be two books (a duology)?  Or maybe it’s going to be a serial, books that pick up right after one another and could be slapped together as a single volume (The Lord of the Rings, anyone?)  How do I keep track of all my information?  Where do I even get started?

Let’s start at the end . . . of the first two books in a trilogy, that is.

Endings

The Goblets Immortal, coverSome writers advocate that it’s important to know where your book/series is headed.  If you aim at nothing, they reason, that’s what you’ll get.  Knowing the ending of the series before you pen page one of book one can be helpful and gives you something to reach toward.  When I was writing The Goblets Immortal books, however, I had only a distant idea of what I was aiming toward.  Not necessarily a clear target, but an emotional note I wanted to end on.

There are different types of endings, and each book in the series might have a different one.  Book one might be a HEA (happily ever after) or a HFN (happy for now), while book two might be a cliffhanger, and the final book might end in a tragedy.  I don’t necessarily recommend this path, however.  Despite liking surprises, readers also tend to want consistency from the author.

And I don’t recommend making every book a cliffhanger.  A lot of readers don’t like them.  A cliffhanger, of course, leaves the characters in a crisis.  The reader might be frustrated that they have to wait a whole year (or more!) to find out what’s going to happen next.  Also remember your genre’s expectations.  Fantasy endings can vary, but a romance or F&SF romance needs a HEA or a HFN.

Let’s take a look at the endings of one series’ first and second installments.

Star Wars, Episode IV:  A New Hope

The end of the story sees the episode’s main conflict resolved (the Death Star is blown up), but there are enough loose ends (Vader’s alive, the Emperor’s out there, Imperial Troops abound) left to keep things open for future installments.  Yet this movie could very much be a standalone.  Many Book Ones wrap things up to a greater degree than Book Two.

Star Wars, Episode V:  The Empire Strikes Back

The near-end offers up a few surprises, but the very end (Han is spirited away on a bounty hunter’s ship) sets up the opening conflict for the next movie.  This movie is less of a standalone, but it could be watched and understood without watching the first movie.

Series Bible

“But how do I keep track of all my information?” I hear you ask.  A very good question.  One simple way to solve this:  reread the first book/s in your series before you write the next installment.  Not only will this give you a refresher course on the details of the story, it will put you back in that world and remind you of the voice you’re writing in.

Series bible for The Goblets ImmortalAnother way to keep track of information is to make a series bible.

It’s impossible to keep every detail about every character (appearance, personality, catchphrases, etc.), location, event, and timeline in your head . . . especially if you’re a pantser or plantser and haven’t written all the details out.  Once book one’s been written, it might be a good idea to put together what is known as a series bible.  In fact, it might be better to develop one as you go along.

A series bible is a document full of details from the books in a series. When you have a question about a character’s appearance, flip back to their page and look it up. Forget the name of a town? Flip back to the locations section of your bible.

When I started writing book two in The Goblets Immortal series, I already had notes on each Goblet Immortal, what that Goblet did, where it originated, where it was at the end of book one, and other important details.  I also had a few character notes.

Getting Started

We’ve looked at endings and keeping track of details.  But how does a writer even get started with a series?

Let me start by giving you permission:  you are allowed to write out of order.  If you have an idea for a scene later down the road, jot down notes or go right ahead and write.  You can always revise it Holes in the Veil, coverto fit your opening better later on.

As with writing any other book, follow your preferred method.  Are you a plotter?  Write an outline for book one, and jot down notes for the books that will follow.  Are you a pantser?  Roll up your sleeves and dig in.  Plantser (a mix of a plotter and a pantser)—jot down some notes and get started writing.

The best thing to do, besides getting some experience under your belt, is to read and study other series.  What did you like about your favorite trilogy?  What made you stop reading your least favorite one?  Don’t make their mistakes, but emulate their triumphs—without outright copying, that is.

Another word of advice: keep a running list of questions that need to be answered in later books.  If a missing magical knife is mentioned in book one but is not referenced again in book two, remind your audience of it before its grand appearance in book three.  I have a document titled “Loose Ends,” and I highlight things in green once I’ve taken care of them.  Things I’ve mostly taken care of, I highlight in yellow.  Things that I’ve decided to let go of, I cross out.

Conclusion

So, there you have it. There are some good resources out there on series writing, though not as many as you would think. For your reading pleasure, might I suggest trying:  How to Write A Series:  A Guide to Series Types and Structure plus Troubleshooting Tips and Marketing Tactics (Genre Fiction How To Book 2) by Sara Roset, and Writing the Fiction Series:  The Complete Guide for Novels and Novellas by Karen S. Wiesner.

Thanks, Rick, for hosting me!

Keep your nose in a book and your pen on the page,
Beth Overmyer
Beth’s Web Site

Good Reading from 2020

We all know that 2020 was not exactly a banner year in most ways.  It did, however, afford some time for good reading.  Since everyone is doing year’s end compilations, I’m going to offer a selection of the new books I perused last year.  They weren’t all newly published in 2020; that just happened to be when I read them.

Science Fiction

  • Starsight, coverStarsight (2019). For some reason, I still haven’t been thrilled by Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy (other than his completion of The Wheel of Time, which was masterful).  I must be missing something, given his rep.  But I was intrigued to see him venture into science fiction with Skyward (2018).  His heroine, one of the young pilots defending an embattled human refuge on a far-off planet, is a near-outcast, fiery and determined.  She shone in Skyward; the sequel, Starsight, took her in new directions amid unexpected developments.  Her story appears to be complete as a duology, though the Wikipedia page for Starsight says there are two more books in that universe to come.
  • In the category of “best book about mercenary librarians,” I enjoyed Kit Rocha’s Deal With the Devil (2020). Dystopias aren’t usually my locales of choice, but I couldn’t resist a tale of near-future ninja-like librarians in a collapsed America, with a post-apocalyptic mission somewhat in the vein of A Canticle for Leibowitz or the Encyclopedia Galactica.  The strong romance elements didn’t hurt either.  There are more books in this series too, but I haven’t read them yet.
  • I’m still learning how best to appreciate John Scalzi, and his fabulously eccentric sense of humor. I didn’t take to his reworking of H.  Beam Piper’s Fuzzy stories, but his Collapsing Empire trilogy (2017-2020) was great reading.  It kept me eager for more, despite the atmosphere of inevitable disaster (see above re dystopias) and the deadly political infighting.  The story has just enough likable characters and just enough victory to keep it from being a downer.  It’s also a fascinating study in how to do space opera that’s sufficiently weird to qualify in today’s market—a subject in which I have great interest.
  • Arabella the Traitor of Mars, coverArabella the Traitor of Mars (2018) completes the trilogy whose first volume I discussed a while back. Still great fun, and a satisfying conclusion.  I suppose this counts as science fiction, though the premises—a solar system filled with breathable air in which open-decked ships actually sail between the planets—are so wild that one doesn’t want to examine them too closely:  way down toward the soft end of the “Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness,” but succeeding in spades under the “Rule of Cool.”
  • Kevin Wade Johnson’s Roads Between Worlds (2013) gives us a different take on the many-worlds theme, with unusual and engaging characters wielding conceptually mysterious talents. I’m pointing to the Amazon page here for reference, but Johnson is moving his books to another platform and I gather there may be a brief hiatus before they’re available again.

Fantasy

  • Shorefall, coverShorefall (2020) is perhaps the winner in the category of “books that seemed like endings but weren’t.” I read Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside (2018) with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club a couple of years ago, and was fascinated by its exotic magic system, colorful and diverse characters, and steampunkish city setting.  As with Starsight, the sequel both doubled down and expanded the universe in new directions—a combination I’m coming to think is crucial for a series.  Right up to the end of Shorefall, I had the idea this was a duology; until at nearly the last minute I realized, OMG, it isn’t over.  Bennett raises the stakes almost unbearably in this second volume, and now I’m going to be watching the skies to see the “Unknown” listing for the third volume on Goodreads turn to something definite that I can anticipate.
  • Sorcerer to the Crown (2015) and its sequel The True Queen (2019), by Zen Cho, win the award for best Regency fantasy of the year. (One might suppose that “Regency fantasy” would be a vanishingly small category, but it seems to be a growth industry, from The Enchanted Chocolate Pot to the many series of Gail Carriger.)  Dragons, dilettantes, Malaysian mages, and British political intrigue blend in this very entertaining series.  There’s a third volume expected here, as well.  The pull of the trilogy is hard to resist.
  • Among Others, coverJo Walton writes not only crackerjack commentary on fantasy and science fiction, but some of the most offbeat and philosophically sophisticated fantasy around. I try to avoid buying hardcopy books these days—I’m running out of bookshelf space—but I sent away for a copy of Among Others (2011) to keep after I read it from the library (and promptly lent my new copy to my daughter).  It’s not easy to tell where the story is going—it keeps you guessing; but the end is satisfying and appropriate.
  • Beth Overmyer’s The Goblets Immortal (2020) is a promising series opener, with plenty of adventure, sympathetic characters, and a unique system of magic. Aidan and Slaíne are an unlikely but engaging pair, on the run from their pasts, seeking to solve the mysteries of the Blest and the curious effects of the Goblets.  The next book in the series, Holes in the Veil, comes out February 16.  Join us here next time to hear a bit about how Beth developed the series.

Neither

  • Dash and Lily's Book of Dares, coverAs we wind up the Christmas season, I want to give a nod to the Dash & Lily books by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn (2010-2020), even though (a heavy burden to bear) they’re not science fiction or fantasy. I caught the Netflix series based on the first book, and was motivated to hunt up the books themselves (read two, one to go).  Loved these characters; just the right combination of snark and warmth to celebrate the season.

Nonfiction

Uncharacteristic as it may seem, I spent some time this year engrossed in nonfiction works too.  Many of them I can claim as research for my next project—or maybe it’s just that when you’re focused on X, everything you read seems to have some relation to X.  The nonfiction catch included—

Happy reading in 2021!