Writing a Fiction Series: Tips for Developing Spin-Offs and Sequels #writing #writetip #selfpub

Writing Novels That Sell with Adrienne deWolfe

Why do publishers consistently single me out to write fictional series rather than single title novels?

Well, according to my Bantam editor (who was weeping when she told me never again to kill off a dog on her watch,) my "fiction folks" touch the hearts of readers.

I’ll never forget the (now ancient) U.S. News and World Report article that quoted American literary agent Ethan Ellenberg. Since I was unpublished at the time, his words of wisdom were fire-etched into my brain: “If you move people emotionally, you sell books.”

However, many factors make a reader rush to her favorite retailer to purchase your spin-off or sequel. Some of these factors (like market trends, cover art, or your book’s position on your publisher’s list) may be completely out of your control.

Let’s look at a few factors that an author can control:

Want to be a Career Author?

As any professional publicist will tell you, Joe Public has a short memory. Readers are easily distracted by the bazillions of titles that retailers throw at them. You’re not going to do your career (or bank account) any favors by waiting more than a year to release your next book.

Sure, some authors’ careers survive lengthy dry spells, but that’s only because those authors had a mega following before they went on hiatus.

My ebook publisher, ePublishing Works, tells me that ebook readers want to download a series of books rather than a single title. I’m acquainted with several rising Indie stars who are writing 200+ page books every two months (despite full-time day jobs and a house full of children.)

So in this age of digital publishing, learn to write short and fast. Otherwise, those precious spots on your publisher’s list will go to the up-and-comers, who are far more prolific than you.

Develop Fascinating Sidekicks

My first writing mentor, now a #1 NYT bestselling Romance novelist, used to counsel us wide-eyed newbies, “Nobody loves a protagonist who is cowardly or stupid. Let your sidekicks and villains fill that role.”

Sidekicks, with their broad range of personalities, are a fertile breeding ground for spin-offs. The caution, here, is that not all sidekicks are hero material. 


Because you have a lot more latitude to create “gray” personalities with sidekicks than protagonists. 

Western Historical Romance Novels
In my case, I didn’t plan on elevating the villain from His Wicked Dream (Book 2, Velvet Lies) to hero status in Seduced By An Angel (Book 3), but I started playing around with the idea of a love triangle. By Chapter 2, my “villain’s” sense of humor had charmed me. Suddenly, I was staring down the barrel of a real dilemma (as we Western writers like to say.)

My brain wouldn’t let me kill Cass. The only solution I could bear was to redeem Cass’s dastardly ways, but that meant stripping him entirely out of Book 2 – without creating a major plot revision.

Moral of this story?

Don’t let secondary characters run your life!

Seriously: a lot of things you wouldn’t dream of doing in paperback are now possible in ebook. However, I wouldn’t recommend your going through my labors to redeem a villain in mid-series. (Too time consuming.) Choose a less dastardly secondary character to elevate to hero status.

If you choose to ignore this sage advice (masochist!), keep in mind that some crimes can’t be forgiven by some readers. In a Romance novel, for instance, rape is taboo. Few Romance readers will buy a spin-off in which the rapist is featured as the “hero.”

Raise the Stakes in Every Novel

Think of Book One as the “egg” from which the rest of the series must logically develop. Your protagonist must show growth over a lot of pages, so it’s wise to make his growth slow.  Keep a few of his key conflicts unresolved so you have a plot thread to start the next book.

In one fantasy series that I was following, I couldn’t help but notice that the characters started to stagnate. The author was rehashing Book One’s conflicts in Book Three. The ending of Book Four had a “race to the finish line” feel, as if the author had shoved a ton of plot resolutions into the last 20 pages.

I learned later that this author’s sales had dropped dramatically (presumably due to the plodding story arc.) Her publisher refused to pick up the last book in the series. As a reader, I could tell something was amiss, but nothing in that series was as disappointing as the “stampede ending,” necessitated by the publisher.

So do yourself a favor: don’t keep throwing the same plot problems – with new names – at your protagonist. Pit your protagonist against increasingly more daunting odds. If you have trouble thinking broadly enough to develop storylines for a multi-book series, recruit other writers (or beta readers) to help you brainstorm.

Avoid Unnecessary Complications

You gave the heroine a five-year-old ward in Book One to demonstrate her protective nature. You’re currently writing Book Three.  What are you going to do with the brat now?Can you really drag him through another 400 pages without inventing some really macabre (and satisfying) way of getting him whacked?

My point is that series writers are stuck with the same fictional folks for a long time -- 10 years is not inconceivable.  During that time, you’re going to grow as a writer and as a human being. Characters that appealed to you during your divorce, might be tough to revisit while you’re deliriously in love. 

My advice? Don’t burden your characters with kids, pets, physical disabilities, or other material complications that you have to account for logistically in scene after scene, unless you have a solid plan for turning that “shackle” into a catalyst in each book.