My first book was never supposed to be a series. I’m now on my third series and starting a fourth soon. If you want to save yourself a lot of headache, check out these tips from what I’ve learned about writing series intentionally and unintentionally. Let me also clarify that these series I’ve written are in science fiction and romance, but I have several in YA Fantasy near completion as well.
Why should You write a series?
Series are great for gaining a consistent audience and sales. If you start with a book that interests readers, they’ll want to keep reading and buying your books. This is especially key if you hate advertising and don’t want to manage a ton of books. With a series, you’ll continue to advertise the first book in the series and (if the book is strong enough) you’ll get sales on further books in the series without doing any marketing for them.
Know Reader Expectations
The first question you need to ask yourself is does the genre I want to write a series in commonly have series? If so, how many books are typically in those series? How long are the books (word count)? What sorts of themes, settings, and characters do well? What twists, subplots, climaxes, and endings seem to be successful? If you can solidify what works, what doesn’t, and you feel you can align your story in a way that in some manner fits reader expectations (not necessarily all of the above because breaking the norms can also make your series successful if done thoughtfully) then you’re likely ready to start a series.
A Story Concept Big Enough
Seems simple, but truly having the expansive ideas to fill multiple books is critical to making a successful series. It’s common for book 2 to fall flat or sink into a reader-interest dip because so much of the excitement authors outline happens in the beginning with introductions and at the end with the finale. So you’ll want to setup the series plot and the individual book plots in a way that continually builds the whole series plot. Do this before you get started writing book 1 if you can.
That said, I wrote my first book with no plan to expand on it. But when I reached the end, I found that the climactic point wasn’t as intense or inspiring as I wanted it to be. I started changing details and adding subplots that in the end needed to be resolved later. So I started writing book 2. The same thing happened again with book 2, and I ended up publishing a third book. Now, I’m writing book 4 with the idea in mind of a much larger collection of three series with books written and in progress in each. But it has been chaos to organize after the first book was written. What’s worse is book 1 is from the middle series in the collection. Major face-palm…
Having an idea of the grand nature of the series going into your first book will help you pack enough detail and mystery in the subplots, and leave enough loose ends, to keep readers engaged and wanting to read book 2.
There must be enough left open-ended at the culmination of each book that leaves the reader with questions, concerns, and interest in the next book, while also balancing enough satisfaction that they don’t give you bad reviews for feeling like nothing was resolved at all.
I didn’t plan ahead initially, and book 1 isn’t as strong as it could be. Because of that, I struggle to get enough read-through of my series. So now I have to go back and edit and relaunch book 1. It’s a huge pain and takes away time that I could be spending working on new books.
Take a look at this quick plot series concept chart (it’s a PDF) I’ve designed. Maybe it will help you get started, or you’ll find a way to improve upon it for yourself.
It’s a good idea to spread out your details and the critical series plot events and character introductions throughout the series. With a standalone novel, it’s common to provide a ton of background information and character intros in the first act. With a series, you don’t have to do that, and you won’t want to. Save some of the good stuff for later. Tease your readers along a little with tidbits of what’s going on periodically throughout the story. Solve some things, leave others alone. You want the series to end strong, so save the best pieces for last.
A Story Concept like a Mother-in-Law
She’s going to live with you for awhile. You better like her or at least be able to tolerate her.
If you’re going to invest yourself in writing a series that could take you months to years (depending on the length, number of works, and the writing time you have) you have to want to invest that amount of effort into your project.
Series burnout is frustrating because you know you have a readership that wants to see how the ends will be tied up. They want resolution. They expect that next or last book. The farther you get in a series, the more series details you’re going to have to look back on to make sure they’re correct. The pressure and the effort to complete it will close in on you. All of your subplots will have to line up. It’s a ton of tedious, time-consuming scanning and checking your facts. You have to be committed.
Characters worth Befriending for the Entire Series
I can’t say for sure how many times I’ve heard my husband complain about a TV series he was watching and, after the main character or the beloved secondary character died, he just couldn’t watch the series anymore. The same can be said for books.
Some writers can get away with keeping the scene/environment the same and changing characters in each book, usually by making the character related somehow in the book prior. There needs to be consistency of one kind or another in the series. But what engages readers most is a character with depth and identifiable personality, one with investment in the end of the series and struggles that are relatable or intriguing.
Create complex characters with important roles to play throughout the series. They don’t have to be the lead role in every book, though it’s best. They must be solid enough in design (with quality strengths, weaknesses, and challenges they must overcome) to be interesting throughout each book and the entire series.
How will it End?
You’re going to have to know the final goal of the series when you start it, and you’ll need to come up with strong mid-series resolutions for the end of each of your books. If you’ve started out not intending to do a series and now you’re thinking “Crap, I’m writing a series but I don’t know what I’m doing anymore,” figure out how you can expand or complicate the ending of book 1. For my book, it culminated with a soldier sacrificing herself to destroy an alien ship that was attacking earth. In book 2, the attack isn’t over, and more of the alien race are coming. They got the warning signal and the empire has been summoned. The series will finish with the ultimate end of a species (I won’t say which one just yet!)
Trilogies are easiest to start with. Like a dummy, I’m doing eight books in my first series, three books in the two series I’m working on/finishing and six in the series I’m starting next month. But if you can ensure there’s a strong progression of character learning or growing, or a change in the world that includes a climax and resolution in each story, you can make it as many or as few books as you want.
A triangle (trilogy) is one of the most stable shapes. Readers like this number of books unless they’re sci-fi space opera fans who often prefer ten or twelve book series. Some historical romance and other genres can get away with long series as well.
Have Series and Character Detail Charts.
I’m not kidding when I say to keep track of every single detail from strange words you make up for alien materials to the color of the most menial character’s hair. Write everything down. It’s especially important to get the spelling right and whether something is capitalized or uses a hyphen or other punctuation.
Make a note if a character always gets a term or a pronunciation wrong so that you can be consistent in even dialect and colloquialisms. Does a character have a drawl? Do they talk like a two-year old? What is the level of their intelligence, skill, or motivation? Write down everything you can about their personalities, what makes them tick, what their weaknesses are, common thoughts or feelings, and typical body language.
When you’re writing the next books, you’re going to be using these cheat sheets a lot. I often find that organizing them alphabetically helps, but sometimes I have to group certain terms together because they’re related concepts that I’ll want to refer to the collection when I’m writing a character working on an engine of a spacecraft or gathering their firefighting gear, etc. These will save you tons of time.
I often use Excel to print out a blank grid or keep a running list in Word. Just watch for auto-capitalization if a term isn’t supposed to be capitalized. That auto-anything you don’t notice happening when you type could end up making you have to go through every word and fix it in your manuscript if you referenced an incorrect term. Sometimes, I just keep the list in a notepad for simplicity’s sake. Then again, my handwriting sucks. So make sure if you use that method that you can read it!
Read the Earlier Books before You Edit
Yeah, this sucks, but it will help prevent you from screwing up something major that readers will likely pick up on. You have to remember that some of these readers will chain read your works back to back even if you don’t. They will catch consistency flaws and often let you know about them.
After you’ve written an outline or the rough draft, read your earlier books and make notes on what details you might’ve got wrong in your draft and ideas for how to intensify your work. Series and character cheat sheets are great, but they aren’t going to remind you of everything a character said, did, promised, broke, etc. in the earlier books. Trust me, if you think you remember everything, you don’t. Take the time to reread those books and check your work.
Book Titles and Cover Design
If you’re a traditional author, or agented, you’ll be talking with them about titling. They’ll likely look at what you come up with and decide for themselves. Cover designs will also be taken care of by them.
If you’re indie or planning to self-publish, start thinking about titles and covers early on. You’re going to need consistency in format, font, and theme for both titles and covers across the entire series. If you don’t create something recognizable, readers won’t necessarily know or assume those books belong together. I know this because, like an idiot, I designed covers and titles that fit my books individually. At the time, I didn’t have the skill to or the awareness of the importance of matching covers and titles.
Since redesigning the covers, my series books have had more read-through. I’ve now planned titles and cover designs earlier in the series writing process for future works and already feel more confident with how they will be received. (You can see examples of my book series covers and titles on this page.)
Writing and Publishing
Don’t be trigger happy on that publish button. Readers like series books that are published close together. I’ve been researching this and have noticed when I publish closer together that my books get more attention (sales and read-through). I’ve also read comments and questions on many sites from readers wondering why they have to wait so long for books to be finished.
Some readers will understand that we get burned out writing the same genre and the same story for years on end. I admit, I’m one of them. So I alternate what I write: one sci-fi, one romance, one fantasy. Then I start the cycle over, unless I’m on a deadline. I can focus when I have to. But it’s important to consider reader expectations for series availability and interest level in waiting. If people absolutely love your books, you can probably make them wait a bit because they’ll be willing to wait. If the interest is mediocre, you best publish fast or risk losing those readers’ attention.
I recommend getting the series written first, then publishing each book two weeks to a month apart. It will build much more steady interest and sales than if you publish one book every year or two years. People forget about you and your book if there’s too much time between publications. You don’t want to lose them.
If you’re anxious about getting your series read by people, put it up on a review platform like Story Origin, Prolific Works, or Book Funnel. That way, you’ll likely get them on your email list and be able to ask for feedback or early reviews if you want. This will also help when it comes time to publish. The more of a readership you build up before you launch your series, the better the series is going to bring in royalties in the future.
Don’t Write a Dirty Penny
I’ve been following an online writer’s group of people who are financially successful writers. It’s every writer’s dream, right? They were cranking out a book or two a month…and made me cry from the pressure to be and do more than I was because I so wanted to be like them. I haven’t posted anything in the group, just always watching, reading, trying to learn their magic tricks.
I’ve noticed a few people recently mentioning they were slowing down their writing because they and their readers had been catching major flaws in consistency. Someone even used an incorrect name of a character for the first few chapters of a book, changing it half way through. It confused readers.
Reviews always tank when readers are unhappy or unsatisfied. Aim to create books that are more like shiny silver dollars instead of dirty pennies. I know it’s hard to be patient when you’ve worked so hard for so long on these books. But trust me, take your time to get your series ready, polish it, build up a marketing plan, and release the books close together.
I don’t personally use any of these because I’m the mind-map, sticky notes kind of gal. I am constantly moving pieces around and it’s easier for me to just move them than have to shift things on the computer. But it’s important to be organized when it comes to your series. A lot of writers like these programs. Maybe you’ll find one to help you as well.
Google Docs, Google Sheets
Novel Factory novel-software.com
Scrivener (program download) Lots of people I know use this one.
Ulysses.app (Apple program)
A Marketing Tip for Series
Don’t waste money advertising the book two, three, etc. in a series. New readers won’t want to start a series in the middle if they encounter your ad. They’ll be forced to research earlier books and won’t likely be interested in putting out that effort. Some will, most won’t.
I did this in the beginning. I always get 20-30 sales on book 1 when I run an ad, and 3-5 sales on later books (which doesn’t return enough profit on the cost of the ad to be worthwhile.) It doesn’t matter how you structure or order or pair the books for ads. But it does matter if you run sales of the series books at the same time.
My recommendation: If you arrange a sale for book 1 and are going to run an ad on it, set up the later books in the series for the same or similar discount. This will encourage readers to buy all the books at once. The benefit here is that they won’t be as likely to forget about those books in their library if they snagged many or all of them. And they’ll be more likely to read them.
People in this modern era have very short attention spans. When you write a series, at the end of the books it’s important that you provide links to the next books in the series if you can and a way for those readers to review the book they’re in. If they see it the moment they’re done, they’re more likely to stay “in the series zone” and not get distracted by other ads, book recommendations, the dog wanting to go out, etc.
If you’re not getting engagement on a series, you’ll want to start a new one rather than invest your whole life into one series that might be a dud in the marketplace.
A series is a great way to get readers invested in your work and earn you sales with less marketing. It also shows your commitment to your genre and writing, but it is a commitment. Take the time to outline, plot, subplot, design your characters, and plan how you’ll publish.
Patience is important with a series. But if someone like me can do it without intending to the first time, you can do it too. Because you’re one major step ahead of where I was. You’re reading this and thinking ahead. Good for you!
Go get ‘em, writer!