I was recently asked for tips on how to write a series of novels, because I wrote and published the George Hughes trilogy. However, the title of this blog post is deliberately misleading, because I actually have no clue how to write a series.
The honest truth is when I wrote the first of the George Hughes series, George goes to Mars, I didn’t intend to write any more. Nor did I intend to write a series when I wrote the as yet unpublished fantasy epic Goldeweed. The latter was meant to be one story, which subsequently spiraled into two volumes, and later three volumes. It may well end up being four or even five, depending on how much gets cut from the final version (at present the whole thing is considerably longer than War and Peace).
The only time I have actively considered writing a series was in the early planning stages of The Thistlewood Curse. At that point, I thought it might be fun to have many novels featuring paranormal investigator Lawrence Crane and Detective Laura Buchan. But in the end, I decided against it, and stuck with what I always knew would be their final case together, as detailed in the finished novel.
However, despite feeling like something of a fraud, I have scratched my head and come up with four principles for what I feel is important in writing a series of novels.
There is nothing wrong with following a formula – Being formulaic isn’t the same as being predictable. If you look at Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, or Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels, or JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series (with the notable exception of the final instalment), they all follow a formula, but are always gripping and unpredictable within their respective formats. I have written elsewhere about this very subject.
The George Hughes novels definitely follow a formula. For example, the early stages of each novel feature a school bullying incident. In the first story, George is bullied. In the second story, he defends someone against bullies. In the third, he almost becomes the bully. Each story also opens with an assassination attempt, followed by a journey into space with his regular crew, mysteries that arise during the voyage, planetary exploration, initial contact with alien races, a series of hair-raising escapes and action sequences, key developments in George’s relationship with secret agent Giles and best friend Meredith, betrayals, and eventually variations of alien invasion finales (the neatest variation of which I think occurs in the third novel).
Make them standalone – Using the above examples, even those that must be read sequentially (ie the Harry Potter series) are satisfactory, self-contained stories in their own right. There is too much emphasis placed on franchise building on both screen and in print these days, and whilst it can work to include ongoing story arcs, they should be in the background rather than the foreground.
In the George Hughes series, each novel is a stand-alone adventure against a different major villain, but after the big climaxes, there are brief epilogues that tease what will happen in the next book. For example, in the first story there are occasional references to Martian war god Zargok, but it is assumed that Zargok doesn’t really exist. Until the last couple of pages which tease book two…
Don’t be afraid to sideline supporting characters or introduce new ones – It is good to introduce new characters when they are integral to the story, but without strict discipline they can swamp the narrative and make it overcrowded. You also don’t have to include every surviving character from the previous book, no matter how important they are in the long run. For example, JK Rowling had no problem omitting arch villain Voldemort entirely from the third Harry Potter novel (and technically from the sixth as well).
In the case of the George Hughes series, the most important recurring characters are George, Meredith and Giles. At times, I ruthlessly sidelined characters I liked a great deal, to keep the focus where it was needed. For example, Ed is a critical supporting character introduced in George goes to Titan, but I had to force myself to keep his appearance in George goes to Neptune to only the very start and very end, for the overall good of the story.
Only write the next book if you are convinced it is an absolutely integral addition to the series – This is an important principle. There are many series that have continued perfectly competently, but after a certain point, the novels cease to be essential. I procrastinated for six years before I wrote a sequel to George goes to Mars, but the sequel idea was so good in the end I just had to write it. The same thing happened with the third book. George goes to Mars still works as a stand-alone adventure, but I believe the next two novels are just as essential, if not more so. Conversely, I have had ideas for a fourth and fifth novel, but I won’t write them because whilst the ideas are good, they aren’t as good as the others.
I wish I had more than four principles, because somehow that doesn’t feel like a very satisfactory number. Oh well… Those more qualified than me can always add further pointers in the comments if they wish.