. . . To Be Continued: Writing a Series
(July 22, 1998)
Nancy Gideon aka Dana Ransom aka Rosalyn West’s most recent release, The Outsider, was just named a Desert Isle Keeper Review here at All About Romance, and given that it is the second in a planned trilogy, I wanted to find out more about writing a series of connected books from the author. Writing a series of books is very common in the genre, and when it works, it works wonderfully. At other times, either lead characters from previous books tend to overshadow the current love story, or the author plain runs out of steam. While the target audience for these Write Bytes is primarily readers, many authors find these segments quite useful. Nancy’s thoughts, in fact, were written with authors in mind, although as a reader I found myself very interested in what this author had to say. Read on!
I always vowed never to do a series. Then one day when I was charting my 37 books, I realized that half of them were interrelated. Suddenly, I had three new sets of relatives; the Prescotts of South Dakota, the Basses of West Texas and the Radmans, who are, shall we say, rather international and a whole new set of neighbors in Pride County. All of them are as familiar to me as family and I’m happy to say more than a few readers adopted them as well.
So, what turned one book into four? Laziness or pure calculation? True, the background research was for the most part done after the first book and yes, it was easier to sell my editor on three more books after she’d enjoyed the first. But I can’t claim either thing as my motivation. I just had characters I couldn’t let go and plot ideas bigger than 480 pages could hold. As I was finishing the last few chapters, the future of Ethan and Aurora’s half-breed son in Dakota Dawn wouldn’t stop teasing my imagination. Then, when my proof reader read the finished manuscript and exclaimed, “Wow, Scott would make a great hero in his own book!”, I confess, it took me all of a day to have a story outline finished to send in with that first manuscript. Three books later, I still had more story to tell but unfortunately, I’d run out of century.
After spending two years in the Dakotas, the last thing I wanted to do was put down stakes in gritty West Texas but the minute Harmon Bass came to life in Temptation’s Trail, I was lost. He was my hero; short, shy, savage and completely unpredictable. Even after he’d found the unlikely woman of his dreams in Amanda, his still wasn’t a happily ever after because there was so much left unfinished in his quest for revenge. Why not use that quest to anchor more than one book as a continual thread? Why not use Harm and Amanda not just as background characters but as integral pieces in moving the plot? Five books later, Harmon is still my favorite.
My vampire romance series was the only one planned out right from the start. My idea was to start by introducing the dark, seductive hero, Louis Radman in book one which takes place during the Regency period then, through five more books and continuing characters, bring his search for mortality to a conclusion in a contemporary setting. It sounded good. My editor was enthusiastic. But things didn’t turn out as planned. The books fell into one of the pitfalls of series writing and the best laid plan was ruined; something I hadn’t considered seriously enough in the beginning. Forewarned is forearmed. My warning: If considering a series, proceed with caution. And I was cautious enough to have major reservations when Avon urged me to do a series project for them. The Men of Pride County was born under my new pen name Rosalyn West, helping me overcome my reluctance was the fact that Avon scheduled the first three books of the series to all appear on the stands in 1998!
To begin any series of books, you must have a strong anchor; a story so powerful, characters so compelling, emotions so gripping, the reader absolutely cannot get enough. You want them chomping at the bit to get the next one in their hands. Readers are extremely loyal once you’ve won their hearts with that first book but are easily annoyed if they find themselves in the middle of Book Three without knowing it was part of a series. Many won’t read Book Two without Book One, even if you swear to them that the stories can stand alone. Some won’t read Book One until they have all the books in the series to devour at once.
The best strategy is to sell the reader on your series from the very start, involving them with a hook on that first page that will keep them with you and your project from the beginning. If you know your book will be spun off into either a sequel or a series, promote it as such. Get your publisher behind the project. Come up with a series name and beg, if you can, for some sort of logo to be incorporated in the cover art of each book to tie them together. I was thrilled when Avon put a “flash” stating “The Men of Pride County” on my new series and a paragraph describing the series on the back cover to tie all the titles together. If you can’t do that, ask if you can place an author note in the book explaining the series concept or see if you can get the first chapter of the next book placed in the back as a teaser. This was done in both my Texas and vampire series and the readers loved it. Make sure the earlier books are offered by the publisher in the front of your book. You can do this by creating your own listing following the guidelines you’ll find in most romances: Title, ISBN, blurb and price. If you send this sheet in with your manuscript, often as not, the copy editor will include the information on one of the empty pages as it makes less work for him. If your publisher is going to hawk books between your covers, they might as well be yours! Ask your editor to include review quotes from previous titles either on the cover or on an inside page to entice the reader into picking up your other books. Include previous or upcoming information in any advertising or promotions you do to alert the reader that there’s more than just one story.
Because shelf life is so short and stores don’t carry backlist like they used to, it’s not a bad idea for you to have copies on hand for those readers desperate to find that first book. Dakota Dawn was out of stock so fast, I didn’t have time to pick up extras. I still grab up all the copies I can find. Temptation’s Trail was gone from the publisher warehouse in two months and I had to order copies from a local bookseller. Make sure your readers can get your books, if not through the stores or publisher direct, then from you, personally. My favorite story is a letter I got from a loyal reader who had lost her copy of Midnight Kiss in a hurricane and was anxious because she couldn’t find a replacement. I had enough on hand to send her an autographed copy. I also have a local independent bookseller who stocks my backlist and will order titles for me. That saves on me having to turn my office into a warehouse (37 titles take up a lot of room, believe me!).
When planning a series, here are a few up front suggestions:
- Let your publisher know so they can promote accordingly.
- Plot out all the books (at least do sketches) to make sure each is strong and independent. Make certain history will cooperate with your plans. I’d hoped to do two more books in my Dakota series but unfortunately, the area didn’t open up for ranching until the 1870s. After I did my math, either the fifth and sixth books had to take place around WWI or my hero and heroine would have to be about ten years old. Five and Six were abandoned despite reader urgings.
- Make each book stand alone and be able to quickly explain what you’ve carried over so as not to bore old readers or confuse new ones. Vary your plots and character types so you’re not just telling the same story over and over again. If a secondary character is going to have his/her own story, establish them strongly so readers will want to know more about them. When I started my Texas series, all the Bass family members and children had strong and distinctive personalities, each able to support a book of their own right from the start. The hard part was picking which ones and in what order. Decide how you’re going to handle characters from previous books. Are they mentioned at all? Do they have brief cameos or are they firmly entrenched in the plot? When I brought Harm and Amanda back in Texas Destiny, I was surprised by the amount of positive feedback I got from readers that I not only used them, but continued with their story.
The hard part was making sure they didn’t take over the plot! In The Outcast, all of my Pride County characters for the rest of the series are introduced either in person or by reference, a sort of program of what’s to come, even though each consecutive book is complete without the others.
- The biggest priority in doing a series is making each book better or at least, every bit as good.
There are many types of series projects you can undertake. You can use the generational approach moving from historical to contemporary the way Judith McNaught did with her Westmorelands. Using siblings for spin-offs was very successful in Leigh Greenwood’s brothers series for Leisure and also for Brenda Joyce’s Bragg family. A theme can tie together a group of books the way Lynn Leslie ‘cruised’ through various contemporary lines on her own brand of love boat. A specific location with different characters can also provide a link as it does with the Crystal Creek series or with Carin Rafferty’s town of Sanctuary in her witch and warlock series for Topaz, or Pride County, Kentucky. Even a continuation of secondary characters from one book to the next can win readers over the way Debbie Macomber’s trio of angels did. A unified front can be a powerful selling point . . . or disaster depending on how aware you are of the pros and cons.
The pluses of writing a series are many. You have a built in readership, your backlist has more longevity, there is less research if you use the same location, you know your characters and can build on them, you have multi-book contract leverage, promotion is built in from one to the next and there is a greater chance of reprints (Rosanne Bittner’s entire Savage Destiny series was reissued and repackaged with a seventh book added to it!) Avon sent me on an author tour to get the first Pride County book out to as many potential buyers as possible. Those are all strong motivators, but you have to consider the downside, too. If the first book doesn’t sell well, often through no fault of your own, the rest will have an uphill battle to get into the bookstores. If readers don’t like one, they won’t buy the rest. A multi-book contract locks you in to a lower advance if consecutive books start selling like hot cakes. You run the risk of your publisher not buying the rest of the books in the series, as happened with my vampire books with three out and three left hanging, and readers are left dangling and angry as well. Once you start a series with one publisher, it’s hard to sell it to another. Readers, and you as the author, can get burned out on a particular topic or setting. I’m glad I could alternate between the Basses and the supernatural or I would have gone crazy down in West Texas by Book Five! Then there’s always the problem of getting the earlier books as I mentioned before. A risky business but a risk worth taking most of the time if you plan ahead and wisely.
Like most readers, I become easily attached to good characters and don’t want to let them go. In this age of the mini-series, sometimes the sweetest words are “…to be continued”.
Nancy Gideon aka Dana Ransom aka Rosalyn West
Nancy writes for Zebra Books as Dana Ransom. Her vampire romances were written as Nancy Gideon for Pinnacle. As Rosalyn West she writes for Avon. During the latter part of 1999, we learned she had been dropped by Avon.
Sries written as Dana Ransom:
Dakota Dawn, Dakota Desire, Dakota Destiny, and Dakota Promises
Temptation’s Trail, Texas Destiny, Wild Texas Bride, Texas Renegade, and Sweet Texas Dreams
Series written as Nancy Gideon:
Midnight Kiss, Midnight Temptation, Midnight Surrender, and Midnight Enchantment
You can visit Nancy’s web site at http://www.tlt.com/authors/ngideon.htmE-mail NancyRead Elaine Coffman’s Write Byte on Writing a Series