Saturday, July 21, 2012

Writing series, part 1

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I've been getting a lot of questions about series writing, so today I thought I'd take a stab at it, and see where it goes from there.

I am writing my first series ever right now, with the exception of my part in The Keepers  series, which is not a traditional mystery series but rather a series collaboration between three authors, Heather Graham, Harley Jane Kozak and me: related books set in the same paranormal/urban fantasy world with the same core characters.  That is totally AMAZING fun, btw – sort of like repertory theater, only with authors as director/writers.  Love it!

But I wrote my new crime thriller Huntress Moon  with the absolute intention of making it a mystery/thriller series, and while I do have plans to do sequels to two of my other books (Book of Shadows  and The Space Between, which MUST be a trilogy!), I didn’t write those two thinking of them as series, they just turned out that way in the writing process.

Writing a series deliberately from the get-go – that’s a whole different thing.

The thing is, I don’t read many series.  The ones I do, I’m obsessed with, but have never been one of those who have to read in order. I really expect a book to work completely as a standalone, whether it’s in a series or not, so I’ll pick them up randomly and work my way through them in whatever order I get to them.

I’m not much of a TV series watcher, either.  I watch many more movies than TV series.  Well, not so much lately, since feature films seem to have hit a total low creatively, thanks to the corporate culture in Hollywood, which has driven all the good screenwriters to cable TV and jacked the quality of cable series up to mindblowing proportions.  I think it’s a second Golden Age of Television, honestly.

Hmm, I may be digressing, but it’s true.

But you all should KNOW my prescription for any story problem or question by now.  MAKE A LIST.  Yes, the Top Ten List I’m always preaching about!  You need to look to your own favorite series and series writers to identify what you most respond to in a series, and take your inspirations and lessons from them.

Here’s my list.

- Lee Child’s Reacher series
- Mo Hayder’s Jack Caffery/Flea Marlowe series
- Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series
- Denise Mina’s Paddy Meehan series
- Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli and Isles
- Val McDermid’s Tony Hill/Carole Jordan series
- Karin Slaughter’s Georgia series
- Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor series
- F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack series
- John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series

And, well, I have to add Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, but the rest of the Hannibal series I try very hard to pretend never happened at all.

(Now don't just sit there, go ahead, make your own list...)

Now take a look at your list and try to identify what the series you've listed have in common.

The first thing I have to say about all of my above authors is that – it’s not the series, it’s the authors.  I would read anything any of the above put to paper, and pretty much have already, repeatedly. And I’m actually often more interested in books OUTSIDE the series than the next one in the series.

Writing a book, any book is an obsessive, encompassing, borderline psychotic thing.  (I threw in that “borderline” just for a laugh. Because, you know...)

Writing a series is all that, exponentially.  You have an ongoing, multidimensional, multi-generational parallel world inside you ALL THE TIME.

Does anyone else feel like that’s just – crazy?

Some worlds crazier than others.

I worry about Michael Connelly a little, or maybe I mean a lot, walking around with Harry Bosch in his head all the time. Because Harry is so fragile, you know.  To be constantly accessing that mindset, to be living in Harry’s skin... wow.  What would that do to you? You just want them both to have a BREAK from that, sometimes, but  - yeah, like that’s going to happen.

I guess I should be worried about Lee Child, too, because Reacher isn’t exactly the pinnacle of mental health. But Reacher has better social skills than Harry.  Even if Reacher never sticks around, he does make strong human connections consistently.  It just seems more balanced, somehow.  There was a point around the book Nothing to Lose, and then again in 61 Hours that I thought Reacher might finally be losing it entirely, but he seems to have pulled it together since then, at least for the moment.  I feel like Reacher can take care of himself because he’s actually aware of the need for help and really expert at recruiting it, while I always feel like someone should be taking care of Harry.

Notice how I’m talking about those characters as if I know them?  Well, don’t we?  That’s kind of the point of a series, right?  There is a lead character, sometimes two or three, that you want to get to know, that you commit to for a long-term relationship.

And for me, those characters are complicated and haunted and flawed.  Which might be putting it mildly – most if not all of the above characters seem to be genetically set on “self-destruct” and half of the suspense of the series is whether or not they’re going to survive the next book at all, or with sanity intact.

The series I listed above have many more strong things in common, besides the fact that they’re mindblowingly well-written.  They’re very, very dark. No happy endings (HEA) guaranteed here; in fact, you know going into any of those books that you’d better brace yourself for what’s coming.  They deal intensively with real human evil, and often with sexual abuse and child abuse, and they deal with it in a way that only a psychopath could be titillated. The characters fight that evil constantly and the battles are always bittersweet; there is no resolution, the battle may be won but the war rages on.  Not only is that a core theme of mine as an author,  I think that’s just reality, and I appreciate that those authors don’t sugarcoat it.

There is a sensuality and lyricism to the writing that is hypnotic and addictive. The male/female relationships are twisted but incredibly erotic. The stories often let secondary characters take major roles (a trick I first noticed with Tess Gerritsen, one of the first series writers I got hooked on – I read her series more consistently than I did those of other authors because she would let a secondary character take the lead role in many of the books, which kept the series fresh for me).

All of those things are what I aspire to with Huntress Moon.  There are all kinds of ways that I’m trying to live my series, so I can do it justice. I’m taking kickboxing for the first time to see how my Huntress feels, physically and mentally and emotionally,  when she has to fight.  (And I have to say that’s a real trip.  It’s not so different from dancing, really, a handful of basic moves that create a language of fighting, and then infinite variations on those.) I’m doing Lee Lofland’s Writers Police Academy in September to go through the law enforcement training that my FBI agent lead, and many secondary characters, would have had, and of course am addicted to Lee's blog, and Doug Lyle's, for fantastic forensics information.  I am living with my nose buried in atlases and Google maps and taking any number of road trips to be in the places that my characters are traversing, so I get that physical experience right.

But most of all I’m grateful to have such stellar examples as the authors I listed above, and many more that I have missed, to look to for guidance about what I am trying create. It is an amazing thing for us as authors that our favorite authors are also our teachers – for life.  All we need to know about how to do this is right there for us on the pages of our favorite books.

So today, make your lists and let's talk about your favorite series. What are they, what draws you to them, what hooks you as a reader, what keeps you reading, what’s your burnout point (if any!)?

What are the core themes you see?

And let me just take a minute to quickly address the question of series PREMISE, which I'll write a whole post about as soon as I can (probably not this week because I'm at the RWA National conference, teaching and signing and the whole conference thing... and there's still time to sign up for the Screenwriting Tricks workshop on Wednesday...)

A reader asked me if you need to do a premise line for your whole series as well as for each individual book.  Well, yes, that would be a good idea, don't you think?  However, remember, when you're in early stages of writing, a premise is just your road map.  The premise can and most likely WILL change in the writing process, as you learn more about what you're actually writing.  So don't be afraid to write a premise line for your whole series and know that it's not set in stone!  It's just to help you take a stab at what you THINK you're writing.  What you actually DO write - will inevitably be different. And that's okay!

- Alex


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A driven FBI agent is on the hunt for that most rare of all killers:
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Colleen said...

Ooh! I'm so happy to hear The Space Between will be a trilogy. I loved that one, the heroine and the guy both, but I confess a feeling of dissatisfaction at the end because I wanted to know what happened next!

It's rare that I like series that continue longer than a trilogy--I get the burnout feeling when the author starts to play it safe with what's already worked, and they don't want to kill off their characters and everyone has to get matched up with a perfect soulmate. It seems three books done well are perfect for building a saga of tension, with enough time to get to a really good and complex climax at the end of #3. And then it's satisfying because you know the resolution for all involved and don't have to wait another year to read yet another book which still may not be the end.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Colleen! I totally agree that there has to be something really going on for me to want to read more than three books, and that's incredibly rare. It's so true that at that point authors tend to start playing it safe - a real pitfall we should all be aware of as authors.

I'm so glad you responded to The Space Between. Yes, there's nothing at all finished or comfortable in that ending. But Anna's just sixteen, I just don't feel it's realistic that she could have solved the problems of the universe in just one story! Maybe it's better not to release a book like that until the whole trilogy is done, but that's not actually realistic either, come to think of it.

Anyway, I'm working on it!

Mary Stella said...

I won't be able to list all of my favorite series because there are so many, but here are a few in no particular order:

F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack
JA Konrath's Jack Daniels
Robert B. Parker's Spenser series
John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee
Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum
JD Robb's In Death
Karen Marie Moning's Fever series

Can I count Heather Graham's numerous trilogies or does a series need to have the same main character?

Beth Ciotta's Evie series which, sadly, stopped at three books. I would like that one to continue and that's not just because she's one of my best friends.

You're worried about Connolly living with Bosch in his head all of the time. What about Stephen Jay Schwartz? His series is amazing, but talk about dark!

Have a great, successful time at RWA.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Mary Stella, I agree about Jack Daniels (and her CAT!!!). And Beth Ciotta should totally continue Evie as e books. We need to work on her.

Trilogies with different character leads definitely count as series, and Heather is great at it, but it's a different kind of structure, I think. Thanks for reminding me, because I'll have to do a separate post or two just on that.

I don't worry about Steve because I know he's done a lot to conquer his demons!

I am REALLY going to miss you at RWA.

Virginia said...

Hi Alex,
Unfortunately I find very few books who makes me wants to read more of the same series. Even with Hunger games or Twilight I thought that one book was enough lol. Instead I enjoyed all the seven books of Harry Potter. I've been In Edinburgh in May and I visited the pub where J.K. Rowling wrote the first book, it was exciting to think what she made in this place. Also I love some heros created by J.Deaver, Lincoln Child, Preston and Child, Elizabeth George. Kathy Reichs and so on. The fantasy book I wrote is the first of a trilogy too, so I hope that someone will want to read all three books.
Anyway thank you for posting always interesting topics.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Paola, I felt exactly the same about Twilight and Hunger Games - one was enough!

And Harry Potter is definitely an exception - all worth reading, damn her.

Preston and Child and Elizabeth George are authors I love, but for whatever reason I haven't felt compelled to read all the books in either series, although I've enjoyed the ones I've read - I'm not rabid about them the way I am about the ones on my list.

Thank YOU for adding to the discussion!

Mark Boss said...

Thanks for writing about series. I just finished the first draft of the second book in a series I'm working on.

When I started it, I foolishly thought it would be easier than the first since I'd already established the world and the characters, but in some ways it was tougher. You end up trying to outdo the previous book, and yet you're working with more constraints than a one-shot novel. Series present some interesting challenges.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Mark, I know EXACTLY what you mean. I'm sitting here writing Book 2 and thinking to myself, "Is this as good? Is this as good?"

But I'm forgetting my own rules. The only thing a first draft has to be is DONE. The first draft is always going to SUCK.

Ellen said...

I can't believe how many series there are that I've never even heard of! Wow.

Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books are probably my favorite series (despite a couple moments of deplorable sexual politics), followed by Inspector Wexford--although I've read those so far apart, in random order (the name of a fab pie shop in Portland, btw), and interspersed with so many other Ruth Rendell books, that I hardly think of them as a series.

I also read all of a certain series featuring a cook/detective even though the writing and the mysteries have both really fallen off, simply because I've grown attached to the characters and have gotten some really good recipes from the books.

I read all of Harry Potter the summer after I got tenure. That was a good summer.

Looking forward to the series-writing discussion!

Kameko Murakami said...

I was going to say something relevant and insightful, but honestly I'm too busy reading Huntress Moon to be able to do anything other than READ READ READ.

It's keeping me from working on my own writing, and that's both delightful and maddening.

Mostly delightful.



Jim Crigler said...

Re: cable TV: Couldn't agree more. (And I don't even get any pay channels like HBO and Showtime, ’cause I’m too cheap.) More than 60% of what we DVR at our house is from non-broadcast channels.

Re: unintended series (as in The Space Between — a great read by the way): Agreed. When I was writing the first book, I didn’t *intend* to make Mason & Penfield pseudo-partners Re: cable TV: Couldn't agree more. (And I don't even get any pay channels like HBO and Showtime, ’cause I’m too cheap.) More than 60% of what we DVR at our house is from non-broadcast channels.

Re: unintended series (as in The Space Between — a great read by the way): Agreed. When I was writing the first book, I didn’t intend to make Mason & Penfield pseudo-partners …

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Yeah, Ellen, when I first got active in the mystery community I was blown away by the number of series I'd never heard of. And so many good ones!

I LOVE Ruth Rendell but same as you, never remember that she's a series writer, too. I like her plots and her dark turn.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Kameko, music to my ears! Thanks so much for the update. This is the real payoff to all that writing slog - when people read and enjoy!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jim, I don't even have a TV! I watch from Netflix or buy my favorite series on iTunes.

Maybe it just takes a while for the IDEA of writing a series to sink in! ;)

So glad you liked Space. Men seem to more than women, I think because women are used to reading paranormal with a HEA, which, well, you know!