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
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
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
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
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!
Huntress Moon, an Amazon Hot New Release! On sale now: $3.99
A driven FBI agent is on the hunt for that most rare of all killers:
a female serial.