Writing series are all the rage right now in fiction. Everyone is fighting for readers’ attention. Once you have it, a great way to keep it is to send the reader to a second, third, and fourth book. But do you know how to write a book series?
I started writing my first series three years ago. The series was based on a short story I wrote. Before we wrote any of the novels, my best friend (Cory) and I built the plot and the world of the series together. This involved talking through character plot arches and (because there is a fantasy element) designing maps of another world.
Once we had a handle on the direction of the story and the basics of the world, we divided up which one of us would write which sections. The fifth book in the series will be published in a week.
6 Tips for How to Write a Book Series (Without Getting Lost in the Chaos)
While I’m waiting for book five to drop, I’ve started writing my second series. There’s a lot I’m doing differently this time that I didn’t do before. I’m still building out the world and thinking through long character arches, but I’m trying to stay more organized and focused.
I don’t want Future Jeff to run into some of the same easy-to-avoid problems Past Jeff had. Here are six things Past Jeff is telling Future Jeff as I start my next series.
1. Don’t trust your memory.
Here are some things I’ve done when writing my first series:
- Every time Cory and I talk about our current series, I have to ask him, “Have we put that character in a book yet?”
- I accidentally changed how one alien’s name was spelled in book two, and in book three, I accidentally changed the character’s name to something new. (Thank God for attentive editors who caught the mistakes before the publishing dates.)
- The heroes of the series are part of a secret order named the Gracanjo. One month, while hammering out parts of book three and watching a lot of Doctor Who, I inadvertently changed the order’s name to the Gallifrey.
- I still struggle to remember if the name of one of the lands ends in an “a” or an “ia.” Malacandra? Malacandria? If you were to put a thousand dollars in front of me and say, “I’ll give this to you if you can tell me which one it is without guessing,” you’d be keeping your thousand bucks.
- I once changed the sex of a side character without realizing it until an editor asked me if I had intentionally given the character a sex change.
Your memory is often wrong. Do not trust it. Write important things down.
2. When you write things down, put your thoughts in one place.
When Cory and I first started planning the series, I took notes in whatever was handy. Sometimes we’d be on the phone and I’d write notes in my journal. Sometimes I’d be on a walk and I’d put voice memos on my phone. Sometimes an idea would strike while I was working and I’d throw it on a whiteboard in my office.
What I never did was take five minutes to put all those notes in one place. This caused problems.
For example, a year into the series, when we were talking about book three, I remembered that I had a fantastic idea for one of the characters, but I couldn’t remember where I put it. I searched and searched, but I never found it, which sucks because I’m fairly certain it was an amazing idea.
For the new series, I have a Google Doc going. I’m still taking notes in my journal and my phone and on whiteboards; I just take the time to put them all in the Doc so if I need them I’ll know where they are.
3. The minute you write about the world or a character, add it to the facts you are collecting.
In the heat of writing, things come to you that you don’t get anywhere else. Sometimes it feels like the characters or the plot is taking over.
I used to hear authors say things like, “I just like the character go where she wants.” And I was like, “That’s stupid artsy nonsense.”
Now that I’m working on my seventh novel, I get it. Sometimes the characters or the plot take over.
When you go off book, you have to remember what you changed.
For example, in the middle of book two, I kill a character. I didn’t know I was going to kill him until I started writing the chapter. Half-way through the chapter, I just knew it had to happen.
The problem is, we had planned for that character to show up in book three. Killing this character was an important change in the plot that needed to be recorded in the notes.
Another example: character descriptions are the worst for me. How characters look in my mind seem to be in a constant state of flux. I’m always having to search previous books for how I described them. A character will be tall and lean in one book, then when I go to write the next one and decide to call him back, suddenly in my mind he is short and chunky.
This is why it’s important to collect things like location descriptions and character descriptions. After you write a chapter, just copy and paste the descriptions into the collection you are building. The best part of this is that they will be there later when you need them.
4. Give yourself time to dream.
If you are an indie publisher like me, there is a lot of pressure to keep momentum going and publish your next book. But building a series takes time.
Don’t force it. Give yourself permission to dream and plan.
5. Build timelines for characters.
If your characters are going to grow and change, it helps to know where they are headed. And if you are writing a series with multiple characters and worlds, it’s good to know where they’ve all been and where they are coming from.
One of the best things Cory and I did was build an Excel sheet that gave rough outlines of all our major characters. The first column was filled with dates and times. Then each major character got a column.
Because the series spans a few decades, when we were working on later books it was great to be able to open it and see where characters had been while other events were the focus of the story.
6. Leave some holes open because you’re going to think of better stuff.
While planning is important, it’s also important to leave some space. Often the best ideas for the next book in the series hit me while I’m writing the one before it.
If you get a good idea, don’t reject it because it wasn’t in your original plan. Allow yourself to make adjustments as you go.
Have a Series to Write?
Those are my six notes to Future Jeff. If Future Jeff can stay organized, hopefully this series will be less chaotic than the last.
And if you’ve been wondering how to write a series, or if you have a story you’d like to continue for a few more books, hopefully these tips will help you keep the chaos under control, too.
What tips do you have for staying organized when you write a series? Leave them in the comments.
Today, practice expanding a story beyond a single, standalone piece. Think of a book or short story you’ve already written. Then, take fifteen minutes to brainstorm what a sequel to that story might be. What would your characters do next? What new conflict would they encounter?
When you’re done, share your notes in the comments below. And if you share, be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!