Saturday, December 5, 2009

Christine Rimmer on Creating a Series Part 1

Creating an Ongoing Series
by Christine Rimmer

Happy Holidays, Prairie Chicks. So lovely to be here visiting with you again. Today, I thought I’d talk about the challenges and payoffs to writing a continuing series.

I know, I know. Just thinking about writing a continuing series gives some authors hives. There are more plot lines to keep track of, more details to sweat. Some will say that writing a 3 book series isn’t three times as hard as writing one book, it’s about six times more difficult. So why bother?

There are a couple of reasons these books can be exciting to write and also a real career boost. For the writer, a linked series is an opportunity to explore larger themes and story lines. Sometimes our ideas are simply too big for a single book. We need time to explore the possibilities. Or we have multiple characters who deserve a chance to shine in a novel of their own. For the writer, a series can be a chance to stretch and grow. But the real payoff comes in sales. Readers love related books. If they find your series in the middle, they will move heaven and earth to get the earlier books. They will keep them, re-read them and give them as gifts. Do a continuing series well and you have earned reader loyalty for life.

So let’s say you’ve considered the pros and cons—weighed the extra work and planning against the considerable benefits—and decided you’re going to try your hand at your own series. You even have a basic idea for your series—and for the individual stories.

How can you bring it all together?

First, take a hard look at that basic idea—at your prospective series as a whole. What is the main thread—the premise or story question—that ties the books together? How high-concept is it? By high-concept, I mean: 1.) How easy is it to get across simply and directly? 2.) How much potential conflict is inherent in it? (the more the better) and 3.) How appealing is it going to be to readers in general?

If your first response here is, “My premise isn’t high concept in the least,” then why not make it that way? High-concept, to a great degree, is a matter of how well you organize your material. Why not work up a series proposal that will wow your agent, your editor, and through her, your publisher—so the house not only buys your series, but works to give it great packaging, targeted advertising and a strong release schedule?

To start, as you would do with a stand-alone book, work on getting your overall series premise, or story question, across in a sentence or two. Years ago, I propose a three-book series for Silhouette Special Edition called Conveniently Yours, which in time morphed into the open-ended Bravo Family ties series. But for the original three books, it was to be three male cousins, each getting himself into a marriage of convenience. This is the high concept premise I proposed to my editor:

“The Bravo men’s marriages may have begun in name only, but were they destined to be love matches, after all?”

Yes, I sold this series. And they even used my story question as a series blurb on the back of those first three Bravo family books.

If your series is more mainstream, you may be thinking simply in terms of a continuing character who will appear in a series of books and solve a mystery a la Stephanie Plum—or save the world from monsters like Patricia Briggs’ shapeshifter heroine, Mercy Thompson. If you’re writing mainstream romance, you might choose to write the interconnected love stories of four sisters. Or of three brothers separated at birth.

In planning a series for mainstream, you might want to think of how your titles will link, so that readers will recognize them easily as a Stephanie Plum or a Mercy Thompson: a number in every title as Janet Evanovich does with Stephanie Plum, or a two-word title with a consistent tone, as Patricia Briggs does with the Mercy Thompson books: Moon Called, Blood Bound, Iron Kissed, etc. Or anyone remember John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books? Each one had a color in the title: Free Fall in Crimson, Darker than Amber. The examples here are endless, in any kind of a series: mystery, historical, horror; books with a continuing character or a common theme or different members of the same family. Think of Susan Mallery’s Lone Star Sisters series, with related Texan heroines and titles like Under Her Skin, Lip Service and Straight from the Hip. You want to propose related and evocative titles that will signal clearly to readers “these stories are linked.”

And do note the word, “propose.” Chances are when a publisher buys your series, they’re going to want to put their own spin on it. If the series has a formal title, it probably won’t be the one you first thought up. Same with the individual book titles. Be ready for that and don’t get locked in. But do show your agent and publisher how your books link.

Coming up with a rich and evocative series title also helps you, the author, to define your premise, to set forth your basic story question that you’ll be carrying through in all the books in the series. See if you can take those few words that are the distillation of your series idea and brainstorm them—alone or with a writing buddy—until you come up with a strong working title for the series as a whole, one that captures the tone of your stories and gives at least a hint of the overall story question.

Think of some recent titles of bestselling, author-driven in-line series. Kings of California, Desert Rogues, Long, Tall Texas. Note how each one tells us a lot about the series it stands for—tells the reader what she’ll be getting and also suggests inherent conflict and what the tone will be. And yes, a lot of great series are simply titled with the family name of the main characters: Nora’s MacGregors comes immediately to mind. This is perfectly acceptable. And it does tell the reader that these books will be about a certain family. But a family-name title is not terribly evocative in and of itself. And usually, when a series is titled with a family name alone, you’ll find that the author already has a huge readership who will be buying the series because it has her name on it.

Consider the series title Hometown Heartbreakers—I’m sure Susan Mallery won’t mind. This was a successful ongoing series that Susan wrote for SSE back in the day when she was a top author in that line. In those two words, we have it all: “Hometown” says hearth, home and family. “Heartbreakers” says sexy guys who need taming. The tone of this series title is fun, sexy and heartwarming—main elements in the books. Then take Maureen Child’s Kings of California, a series title that’s one of the best evah. Can’t you just smell the money, power and privilege? Not to mention the hot Alpha males. A great continuing-series title is something to conjure with—for the editor first, and then for the reader.

And yes, as I mentioned above, you might think up the perfect title for your series—and then have your publisher decide not to use it, for whatever reason: it’s been used before, it sounds too much like another series, they think other elements of your series should be emphasized. It happens. And then you’ll consult with your editor to come up with a series title that works for everyone.

But in the meantime, you’ll have honed your series idea down to its basic components and you’ll have effectively communicated to your publisher what it is about your series that’s going to hook the reader, keep her turning pages—and longing for the next book to be out now.

Did I just say hook? I confess, I did. And do you need them? Yes, you do. But a hook is not only a marriage of convenience, a cowboy daddy or a secret baby—terrific, bestselling and reader-adored as those hooks happen to be. A hook is so much more. A hook can be anything that’s going to have universal appeal. Remember, one of the key elements to success with a series is its universal appeal. A few years ago author Carolyn Greene compiled a list of romantic fantasies and plots. She came up with hundreds. From Road books to Reversal of Fortune stories, from orphaned siblings separated at birth to the birth of a dynasty to sheiks to the hunky best-friend next-door, hooks have been around since the dawn of time for good reason. They are the stuff of fantasies—your readers’ fantasies. Don’t sell them short.

And with this series you’re creating, chances are the hooks are already there. Root them out and list them for yourself. List what you see as the major ongoing elements that will appeal to readers. Then make certain you mention them in your proposal.

So. Do you have a series in the works? If you did, what kind of series would you be creating? Comments and questions always welcome and appreciated.

This post will continue on Thurs, Dec 10th. Christine will be giving away a signed book from her backlist—winner’s choice, subject to availability—to one person who comments on either Part 1 or Part 2 of this 'Creating an Ongoing Series' post. Please include your email address in your comment.
Christine Rimmer has written seventy contemporary romances for Silhouette Books, Harlequin Books and HQN. A reader favorite, Christine’s stories consistently appear on national bestseller lists, including the Waldenbooks and USA TODAY lists. She has won Romantic Times BOOK review’s Reviewer’s Choice Award for best Silhouette Special Edition. She has been nominated three times for the RITA and four times for Romantic Times Series Storyteller of the Year.

You can find Christine online at:


Susan Mallery said...

Good morning! Great article, Christine. You're right, readers love connected series. I think it helps them to feel that the world in the story is bigger than just one book. The characters become a community, and the reader feels like she's a part of that community. Hero and heroine in one become secondary characters in another, or maybe even just have a walk-on, so that you feel like you've caught a glimpse of someone you know.

I get the same pleasure from writing connecting series, being able to check in on characters after their Happily Ever After ending. It's always fun to see who's pregnant, who's had babies, who changed jobs, and to see how the characters have grown closer and more comfortable with each other as they've settled into their happy marriage.

Your Bravo series is one of my favorites, and Bravo to you for that! (Ouch. That was lame. And yet I'm not deleting. Must be that I haven't had enough coffee yet.) I love CHRISTMAS AT BRAVO RIDGE! Christmas and family themes go hand-in-hand, and this book captures the spirit of home and family beautifully.

Helena said...

What a rich topic, and thank you for treating it in such depth for us. I look forward to part two on Thursday.

I'ved always loved to read a series of books that are linked by place, by theme, or by the recurring characters. There is so much more investment by the reader, and of course, initially by the author. Getting insight into the process is invaluable.

At the Surrey International Writers Conference that a number of Prairie Chicks attended this fall, it was stressed by several authors, editors, and agents that publishers look for series potential in proposals and manuscripts. Thank you for coming here today and talking about how it can be done.

Welcome back to Prairie Chicks, Christine!

Vince said...

Hi Christine:

You’re one of the authors I know I can buy with complete confidence. I’ve read about ten of your books. Four of them are: “Dr. Devastating” (this book has a post-a-note on it reading ‘very creative voice’), “Lori’s Little Secret”, “Scrooge and the Single Girl”, and “The Marriage Conspiracy”. I know I’ve read some of the “Bravo” series but I can’t remember if any of the above books are part of a series. I think the greatest power of a series is within the first hour after one finishes reading the book.

As a reader I enjoy reading series books as well as theme books. For example, I’ve read all of Maureen Child’s Marine series books (about 20 books) and lament that she stopped writing this series years ago. (This series still has her best heroes.)

Also, if I am in a bookstore debating about buying one of two books, I’ll choose the series book in most cases because I know if I like it, there will be more in the series. I’m also more likely to try a new author (new to me) if she is writing a series. Intuitively I just feel a series book must be of a higher standard for the publisher to commit to it. As you would say it needs to be ‘high concept’. (I’m sure this intuition is unjustified in many cases but I can’t help myself.)

I think writing a series may also be the best way to be a prolific author. You can use the same research and same interesting cast of secondary characters over and over. Of course, the payoff here is multiplied if you write research heavy historical novels.

However, do you think there is a risk that a series might typecast an author? One of my favorite authors, who I think has exceptional talent, has been writing about the same very small town for over a decade. I’d just love for her to break out of that small town series and see what she can really do. I feel she is not functioning at her highest potential given her outstanding level of talent. (Perhaps the publisher just wants more books in the series because the series sells well and they are sure things.)

As a reader, I also think there are some drawbacks in writing a series. 1) there can be reader burnout. The reader just tires of the series. 2) if the reader does not like the setting or characters, it could sour the reader on your entire series backlist. 3) A bad book can be more damaging than a bad single title issue. You have more to gain but you have more to lose with a series.

All in all, I think I like trilogies best.


Christine Rimmer said...

Susan, thanks so much for dropping by. And you know I'm pleased you liked Christmas at Bravo Ridge. So well said that the reader feels she's part of a community in a continuing series, the whole sense for the reader that, with each book in the series, she's checking in with someone she knows, catching up on the community.

Christine Rimmer said...

Helena hi! It's great to be back here. Your point about the investment of the reader in a series is excellent. Investment leads to commitment, and when a reader is committed to a set of characters and a series, she will keep coming back for more. And we authors love that!

And yes, editors know this and are actively looking for series potential in all submissions. So there's another reason for us as authors to provide that series potential if at all possible.

Christine Rimmer said...

Vince, what great insights. I think your various listed drawbacks to writing a series are especially excellent. Yes, an author can get locked in and can start writing "tired" books, books that feel like retreads, just because she knows her readers love them--and her publisher is begging for them.

I've written so many Bravos. And I try to fight that "retread" feeling by choosing different branches of the family with different dynamics, coming up with new, fresh settings. And putting some challenging element for me in every one.

In Christmas at Bravo Ridge, it was that they had a child and *didn't* marry the first time around. Now they are best friends, co-parents and the whole romance is over with them. Or so they believe...

To me, it's about coming up constantly with new ways to approach the theme/family/setting of a series I'm known for, striving to keep it fresh.

Karyn Good said...

Hi, Christine and welcome back to the prairies today!

As a reader, I love to read stories that are part of a series or trilogy. I love picking up the first one and then I love picking up the next one and like Susan said finding out what been happening with previous characters.

I'm also working on what I call my Aspen Lake series (unimagative I know)so your post here today is very timely and of great interest to me. I'm going to be going back to your post in the next couple of days and work at playing with titles. The series or trilogy at this point in time is connected by three best friends, Lily, Kate and Grace, and a town but other than that they're pretty much stand alone. Thanks for the insight and tips you've offered here today.

Very much looking forward to next Thursday's post!!

Silver James said...

Hi, Christine! *waves madly from up the highway*

I'll be back after errands to sit down and really read and reply, but wanted to welcome you to the prairie before I skeddle. Later, gator!

Christine Rimmer said...

Karyn, hello again and thanks for the welcome!

In your series, you mention two basic links in the stories: best friends and a certain place. And as of now, you're going with that place, Aspen Lake, as your informal title. That's totally workable as a "handle" for a series. But then again, as you say, you might be able to get a little more specific and a little more high concept if you think for a while on the Girlfriends angle, on what connections these heroines have, their history together, what made them friends and what are conflicts between them in the past and now.

Do they have some kind of club, or did they? Some "sisterhood" kind of bond that you can use as a working title? Not saying you should do what I mention, or anything in particular, just that it never hurts to come at our work from a different slant, see if there's more going on than we at first realized, if there's a richer, more intriguing way to look at a project or projects--which is exactly what you are doing. Kudos!

Christine Rimmer said...

Silver! Hey! Thanks for stopping in. Get those errands run and see you later.

Heather said...

this is a great article and the comments, specially from Vince are very interesting. Thanks so much for sharing this.

heatherdpear at hotmail dot come

Christine Rimmer said...

Heather, hi! Glad you are finding this helpful. More to come on Thursday with the second half of this post.

Jana Richards said...

Welcome back Christine. It's great having you here with us on the Prairies once more.

As a reader, I love series books. As a writer, I've got ideas for series, but so far I haven't managed to write one yet. It's a challenge I really want to take on. I have to agree with Vince that three is my favorite number in a series.

Thanks for all your great advice on constructing a series. I look forward to Part Two on Thursday.


Janet said...

Glad to have you back on The Prairies, Christine! And your thoughts, advice, experience on series is great. Timely, too, as a I set about to write/outline/concoct the next book in my "Unnamed Medieval Romance" trilogy. Like Karyn, I'll have to do some serious thinking on a trilogy name - and perhaps come up with titles for the next two books that work well with the title of the first.

In your first series - did you make that proposal or did your editor request a second book after the sale and publication of the first?

Anita Mae Draper said...

Welcome back Christine. And waving to Susan, Vince, Silver and everyone else.

This is such a valuable post and so timely, too. I attended the American Christian Fiction Writers conference in Denver in Sept and they also mentioned the public appeal toward continuity series.

Personally, I'd rather read a series book than a stand-alone any day and Christine's Bravo series is one of the best. So far, I have 15 of them with Christmas at Bravo Ridge in the mail with my current eharl order. And out of all of them, my very favorite ones are from the first 3 in the Bravo Family Ties mini-series:
- Fifty Ways to Say I'm Pregnant
- Marrying Molly
- Lori's Little Secret

Those 3 pop up whenever I think of this series.

My first series was named after a town.

My current historical wip is Emma's Outlaw. I recently decided that it too would be a series based on Emma's siblings but I haven't begun to think about a name yet. Hopefully this post will spark some ideas for me.

Christine Rimmer said...

Hi, Jana. Love to get to chat with all of you again.

It's always possible to simply write a stand-alone book with great secondaries. Then later, you can consider whether you want tell those other characters' stories or not. Never would I want anyone to think they're locked in as to the way the come at creating a series.

Christine Rimmer said...

Hi Janet! All the best on your "unnamed Medieval" series.

As I noted to Jana, you absolutely can start out with a stand-alone and then develop some of the characters that pop up in that one into a series.

For my first official series, The Jones Gang, that's exactly what happened. I wrote a book about Delilah Jones. She had three wild brothers. And then my editor said, "You really ought to write more stories about the Jones boys." I did. And that time, I proposed three connected books about two of her brothers--and a half-brother no one on the family knew existed.

Really, truly, you can come at your series any way that works for you. :)

Christine Rimmer said...

Anita Mae, I am blushing. Thank you for your lovely words about my books.

Interestingly enough, one of your favorites, Fifty Ways... is a sequel to one of the first three Bravo books. The heroine in Fifty Ways is the daughter of the hero in Practically Married.

Boy, have I been writing for a long time! So long that the hero and heroine's children can grow up and have stories of their own!

And I love the idea of Emma's siblings getting their stories. so many great characters--and each one should get a story.

P.L. Parker said...

I am currently working on a sequel to my second book. Some thins come easily, but others - sheesh. I keep the first book right next to me to make sure I've keeping in context, remembering who died and who didn't, etc. It has been fun to revisit the research, but hard not to deviate from original theme.

Christine Rimmer said...

PL Parker, I feel your pain. In fact, this post was originally going to be about keeping track of your characters in a series. But then I thought we should start with creating the series in the first place.

Try this: As you create, have a file called Misc Bios (miscellaneous biographies). Put the names of the characters in the file, in alpha order, with basic description and character attributes. And then, whenever you do something new with a character--tell more about them, have them give birth or reveal a big secret, or change their hair color, cut and paste that info to the file with a reference to the book that it happened in. I even do a chapter reference so I know where in the book the new element occured. Really helps with keeping track of things.

Mary Ricksen said...

Wonderfully informative. Thank you Christine!

Christine Rimmer said...

Hi Mary! Thanks!

Carla Gade said...

Thanks for the great post. I have a been working on a series and found this very helpful. I also have been trying to decide if another idea constitutes one novel or a series. Recently I read a series that should have been one novel. It was so dragged out and ended the same way a chapter would have ended. It made me think hard about the series concept.

Christine Rimmer said...

Hi Carla. So true. A series works because each book stands alone as complete, as delivering a fully realized novel. Not, as you say, a chapter stuffed with filler. The draw of the series is in the *connection* between the books, the feeling that the reader has of being able to re-enter a favorite, fully realized world for another story. And another. The connection between the books in no way absolves the author from writing the best, most fully textured story she can.

Vince said...

Hi Christine & All:

These have all been very informative and helpful posts.

I have three additional thoughts on series.

1) I don’t like it when an epilogue is used to introduce the next book rather than enhance the HEA of the book I just read. I think doing this steps on the HEA and is in bad taste.

2) I do like it when the first chapter of the next book in the series is placed at the end of the current book. I always read the next chapter even though I know I’m going to kick myself after reading it because I don’t want to wait the six months or more for the next book to come out.

3) I particularly like it when the publisher arranges it so that the series books come out one to two months apart instead of a year or more. If you really like a series, it is hard to wait a full year for the next book.


P.S. Christine: I just noticed that you wrote my favorite Harlequin Mini, “Marriage Overboard”. Did you ever develop this story into a full novel? It is definitely a perfect example of how to write a mini length romance.The Mini format is ideal for studying the basic elements that go into a novel.

Christine Rimmer said...

Vince, hey! I love your point that you don't like having the first chapter of the next book at the end of the current one. I have to confess. I would love if they would do that for my books. But alas. It's always someone else's first chapter at the end of my book.

And I so agree about release timing. I like the books close together time-wise, if possible. Sadly, some of my favorite series are by one book a year writers. Very frustrating. But a faster writer can on occasion get a better release arrangement.

Christine Rimmer said...

Oops. Vince, about Marriage Overboard. So pleased it worked for you. And no plans to expand it into a full-length novel. Mostly because of contract considerations. I sold it as an online story, choosing the hero and heroine because I thought a married couple would be perfect for that format, still in love, but with issues.

Autumn Jordon said...

Hi, Christine. Great article and a lot of great comments. I'm presently working on a second book of a series. I love working with the family. I can't wait to read the second part.

2009 Golden Heart Finalist

Christine Rimmer said...

Autumn, hi. Glad this post is useful. And we have had some great comments. I know what you mean. One of the best paybacks for the author about writing a series is the way you really get to know the characters and their dynamics over the long haul. Very fulfilling.

See you Thursday!

Nina Sipes said...

It isn't that we're late to your party, but that we've been running a writer's blog One of us found your commentary on series and offered the link up as one of the treasures she found. Our Member, Penny, is amazing at ferreting out the best of the 'net' for us. I wanted to thank you for this piece. I've been searching and trying to figure out for YEARS what my series is really about and the reason for writing about it. I know that sounds really lame, but when you are close to the stories it is difficult to put into words when the story is multifaceted. Thank you ever so much for making it so plain that even I can 'get' it.