The Challenges of Writing a Series

Back to a post focussed on writing! For the last few weeks, this blog has meandered around a bit, probably because I’m in the midst of my own version of writer’s block. Hard to advise aspiring authors on how to write when you’re sort of stuck yourself.

I’m about two hundred pages into the third book in the Inspector Ramirez series.

At this stage, I can see the difficulties in writing a series successfully. How much information do you give out about the characters? About their backstory? About previous plots?

A third book will still be the first to many readers. I think if you repeat too much information from earlier stories, you run the risk of boring your return readers. Or of giving away too much of the twists and turns  in the earlier books to the new ones.

The first two books proceed sequentially, over a two week period. With this one, which takes a place later in the year, I find myself trying to imagine what happened over that interval and how much of it requires explanation.

(Many authors, of course, have their books set a year or two apart. But I like the political uncertainty of Cuba over the late 2006 to mid-2007 period, with Castro in hospital and his brother ‘temporarily’ leading the government, and I wanted to stay there for a while. Besides, I’d find it hard to leave that long a gap in my characters’ lives.)

In a series, of necessity,  some of the same facts have to be disclosed about the characters. There has to be a way to make that stuff fresh each time, but I haven’t figured it out yet.

The plot is relatively straightforward. I know my twists and turns, who did it. This time, my struggle is with the characters: trying to find ways for them to evolve and deepen in their interactions with each other.

And finally, because I have events unfolding in two countries, I’m trying to figure out at what point to connect the two threads. That one stumps me. I don’t want it to happen too soon, or leave it too late. I haven’t decided which country’s characters will solve the murder, Cuba’s, or Canada’s. Or in which country my killer will be when that happens, or how to keep the tension high.

Normally, I try to write at least a chapter or two a day. In a good weekend, when things are cooking, I can write several thousand words. (Managed to kick out 16,000 in one weekend last summer … I can tell you, my keyboard was smokin.’) But these days, I’m getting a few paragraphs written daily and that’s mostly filler. 

It gives me a whole new appreciation for authors like Ian Rankin, who have managed to keep their lead protagonists going for years. (I can now also completely understand why Rankin finally closed the door on Inspector Rebus, and began a new series.)

Some authors find a series easier to write than stand-alones, because they already know their characters. But I can certainly see the appeal in making each novel self-sufficient.

Update, January 15th. Happy to say the writer’s block is gone! 5,000 words today and plot issues resolved. Yayyy!!!!

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5 Responses to The Challenges of Writing a Series

  1. Anne Devereux says:

    Hey Peggy! This is actually something I’m struggling with while still knee-deep in revisions for book 1 of my own series. Mine is more of a plot problem (as the same plot spins out across all 3 books), i.e. how much should I resolve at the end of book 1? If I tie up every loose end, what’s left for books 2 & 3? Will a publisher expect book 1 to be able to stand alone, and if so, how do I accomplish that and still leave a continuing plot arc to span books 2 & 3?

    So yeah … Ack!!

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    • Peggy Blair says:

      Totally hear you, Anne. My UK agent wanted my second in the series to be one that a reader could pick up as the first book they read and not feel confused, in other words, as stand alone as possible. However, if someone reads The King’s Indian first they’ll know most of the twists and turns from The Beggar’s Opera, since the second is as much a sequel as part of a series. It’s a challenge, for sure. (For example, you can’t have characters hanging on the edge of a precipice in Book one and drinking coffee in Book two without giving away that they survived, right?)

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  2. Anne Devereux says:

    Exactly; which is why, as a reader, I refuse to read series out of order.

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  3. Anne’s a very well behaved reader! I’m thinking about the question of revealing facts about the characters in a fresh way when you’re into your second or third book. I do try to do this, but I also don’t sweat it a lot. In one series I read, once in every book, the hero would reach for a cigarette, remember he’d given up smoking, and wish he hadn’t. I think it was written pretty much word for word each time. It gave me a warm feeling of familiarity with the character, made me feel comfortable in the story, as if I were with an old friend. Of course a writer can’t do that with every fact — but one per character, probably yes.

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  4. Peggy Blair says:

    Interesting, Hilary. I hadn’t thought of that. But I spent so much time giving backstory in the first one to each of my characters that I do find it a challenge trying to figure out what to repeat and what to leave out.

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