What are real secrets to writing successful series novels? We brought together four bestsellers across a spectrum of genres to find out.
The idea of writing a series is tempting. After all, it seems as though half the bestsellers on today’s bookshelves are new installments in popular series—books that are all but guaranteed a readership before they’re even released. But how do you know whether or not your idea has series potential? Or if the work of sustaining a series is something you would even want to devote your career to?
We brought together Joel Goldman, Heather Graham, Brenda Novak and Ian Rankin—four of today’s most successful series novelists across a variety of genres—to discuss the secrets of writing multi-book characters, the perks and drawbacks of unwinding a story thread over the course of many years, and what they might have done differently if they could go back to Book One.
The full discussion with Goldman, Graham, Novak and Rankin appears in the January 2015 Writer’s Digest feature “Installment Plans.” In these online exclusive outtakes, the group talks about using setting as a starting point for a series and why they chose or created their respective series’ locations.
Why did you select the locations you use for your books?
Rankin: As Rebus gets older he has a different take on life and morality. He can see the end. And at the same time he’s still fascinated by the city as I am, and the politics keep changing, in Scotland and in Edinburgh. You get a financial crash, that’s juice for another story, and Scottish independence is another story, and it’s all filtered through him. He’s very useful to hide behind because he gets to say things I wouldn’t say in public. He gets to be completely politically incorrect. And people love him for it. But when they come to Edinburgh looking for Rebus they’re always disappointed to find me.
Graham: The way you’re talking about Scotland and Edinburgh, how it’s such a part of that. And the way [Joel] and I were talking before about Kansas City, I put an awful lot of stories in New Orleans, which is a favorite place of mine, or in Key West or Salem, where there is a great deal of history that’s dark and fascinating and changing constantly.
Goldman: I’m the same way. All of my books have been set in Kansas City, for many of the same reasons Ian talked about. My roots there run so deep, through four generations, that I really feel like that’s part of my DNA. So I set the books in different parts of the city where there are distinct communities, and then I can put my characters in there.
So each of you in addition to your main characters, you could probably consider your location as a character as well in your series. Is that intentional or an accident of strong world-building?
Novak: For me, it is intentional. Using the location as the peg for a series like I do in [my] Whisky Creek [books] lets me explore many characters from varied and interesting backgrounds without having to devise a new setting or premise each time, by which I mean that this is a place readers have come to know, and these characters exist in that place and readers know the nature of the town, what the people are like, and I can place a whole and interesting character into that setting. But the town itself really does take on a life of its own, you know. It’s a comfortable place and I feel that readers and characters alike can be at home there, and that it’s a place you’d want to live, filled with people you’d want to know. … I don’t do that with every series, but I do think that in a particular kind of series, using setting as that peg that ties the books together is a way to bring readers in and keep it interesting, keep the stories moving, and to leave something open-ended so that I, as the author, can come back and add to it when I have an idea.
Graham: I don’t know if I decided to do it intentionally, but I do know that when I was growing up I read a great number of Gothics. You know the sort—Mary Stuart, Dorothy Eden, Phyllis Whitney. My mom had these books and I read them all, and I loved that I could see it. I could see people riding across the moors and people storming the castles, and to me that was half the pleasure of it. I really felt that I had been transported somewhere. And so I have a tendency to use places I really love a lot and want people to see why they are unique, why they are wonderful. Back to riding across the moors—that sensation of doing something you want to do because it’s so wonderfully alive for you.
Goldman: I started out with Kansas City because I was just a brand-new author. The only fiction I’d written at that point were the bills I sent my clients. And so I was comfortable writing about KC because I knew it, but frankly by the time I’d gotten to this latest Alex Stone book I was growing kind of tired of that. And you know how readers will say, “I’ve got a great idea! Here’s your next book!”? Well, one time I did get a great idea that way. This civil rights attorney reached out to me about Alex Stone and how much he liked the series, and we started emailing back and forth, and he says to me, “You know what you need to do, you need to send Alex to Guantanamo.” And I thought, That is a great idea! And so that’s what I’m doing. I’m doing it that third book, and it’s really sort of liberating to get her out of town. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with that.
Rankin: Scotland is always changing. In the very early books I tried to fictionalize Edinburgh as much as I could. So I had fictional bars, fictional streets, fictional police stations. And then people in Edinburgh would say, “Well, that’s obviously that police station,” and I thought, Why am I making it hard on myself? So then I started to bring in real areas, real places in the city. I burnt down the fictitious police station; I had Rebus reassigned to the real police station. I mentioned the street he lives on, which is real, I mentioned the place he drinks, which is a real bar, and what that means is that when fans come to Edinbugh now they can say, “We’re walking in Rebus’s footsteps.” The problem with that is—well, there are two problems: (1) If you make any mistakes, everyone will notice, and (2) If you use a part of town where bad things are happening, you don’t want to use those real places because you don’t want to diss people who are living there and doing their damndest to make it out or make it better.
Goldman: I haven’t done that. There are very identifiable areas of both Kansas Cities that have a much higher crime rate, and the demographic features you’d associate with that. And I couldn’t put that someplace else—that’s the east side of Kansas City, Missouri, and it wouldn’t work if I put it in another part of town. So I just do that, and there are some of those areas where that sort of tension is going on that enables me to work it into the books.
Graham: I use Miami every once in a while, and I can tell you that there’s a reason Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry are so well loved: They report the truth. It is not a normal place. For example—I always think of this—we have the death penalty in Florida and there was this guy, he was a really bad guy, the kind Dexter would have taken care of if the law had not, you know? He went to the electric chair, and I always assumed you were shaven for the electric chair, but he wasn’t. His hair caught fire. And it turned into a debate about humane punishment, and in their coverage, the Miami Herald had a headline that read “Electric Chair Deemed Dangerous.” The city is just not quite all there. It’s hard not to use some of the real events that happen there.
If you enjoyed these outtakes, be sure to check out the feature-length article “Installment Plans”—full of valuable insights about character creation, engaging readers, building a story arc over many books, and much more—in the January 2015 Writer’s Digest.
Reagan Arthur, the editorial director of Little, Brown’s Reagan Arthur Books imprint, will be the next publisher and senior VP of Little, Brown. She will assume her new role on April 1st as Michael Pietsch becomes the new CEO of Hachette Book Group.
The release included this news: “In stepping into the role of Publisher, Arthur will retire the Reagan Arthur Books imprint she has led for three years.”
Arthur has worked at Little, Brown since 2001, earning her own imprint in 2008. She has edited Tina Fey, Joshua Ferris, Kate Atkinson, George Pelecanos and Ian Rankin.
New Career Opportunities Daily: The best jobs in media.
Writing is normally a solitary occupation and I rather like that about it.
|Tuscany- my shed|
There is that feeling of living with and in your characters' heads, so beautifully expressed in Ellen Renner's ABBA post a couple of days ago Visitors From the World Called Imagination
I like to slope off to Tuscany (my shed), to disappear into another place or time, and live in my head for a while.
I am not sure I know where the ideas and characters come from but I find that nothing will kill off my enthusiasm for a story idea more than plotting it all out before I begin to write.
I prefer to discover the plot alongside my characters and feel all their uncertainty and excitement.
Without this I lose that tingle in my spine and the sense of wonder and endless possibilities that make writing such a delight and pleasure. I have to admit that sometimes it can also become incredibly hard if I lose my way, and I imagine that those who plot carefully before they begin at least have signposts to keep them on track. Unfortunately each time I try to plot a story out chapter by chapter beforehand, it all too soon begins to feel a bit flat.
Some writers have written successful collaborations but I've always wondered how they did it. What was the mechanism? Were they working together bouncing ideas off each other, throwing around phrases or dialogue while one wrote it all down or working separately, each adding different segments of the story?
I once wrote part of a novel with another writer in the form of letters between two characters who knew nothing of each other to start with. Each of us took one character and replied to the previous letter as suited the character and their temperament. It was a lot of fun being really stroppy and fascinating to see how the characters developed and changed as the story progressed and they drew nearer to meeting each other. It was never finished as other writing commitments got in the way, but it might be interesting to come back to it one day.
|from Hamish McHaggis |
Working closely with an illustrator - as I have for some years with Sally J. Collins
on the Hamish McHaggis books - is again a different way of working.
I've been thinking about this a lot recently because some people I respect have contradicted a belief of mine. See, I think - thought - that writers should think of their readers. Of course we need to have confidence and belief in our own writing and to love what we do, feel inspired and fulfilled by it; but, for me, each sentence is there for the enjoyment of readers. Therefore, I'm thinking of them while I'm writing.
I also believe that the main reason I failed to be published for so long was that I was writing purely for myself, with little or no thought for the reader's enjoyment. I was so up myself with the beauteousness of my prose that if I wanted two glorious sentences where one would do, hell, I'd put them both in. After all, they were Good Sentences so the reader could damn well read them and enjoy them as much as I did. I was thinking of myself and my enjoyment way too much. I was being self-indulgent, which is what doing something for yourself is.
So, quite often on my Help! I Need a Publisher! blog I have blogged to aspiring writers about the importance of thinking of readers when we write. I don't mean that we should just give them everything they want, just as parents shouldn't give children everything they want. I mean that for me the desired end of a book is the satisfaction or excitement or inspiration of the reader - or whatever other emotion I happen to wish for in them - and that my own pleasure is only in achieving that. I have quoted Stephen King's thing about his Ideal Reader, the person he has in mind when he writes, the person he imagines looking over his shoulder. He talks about writing the first draft with the "door closed", in other words without too much thinking of readers, but the second and subsequent drafts with the "door open", very much with imagined reactions flooding in and affecting what he writes. And that's in a book on how to write - On Writing - so he is offering it as guidance, even a rule.
But I'm aware that this is not the only way to look at things. I recently interviewed Ian Rankin and Joanne Harris and asked each of them where they stood on this question and they were quite clear that they don't particularly think of their readers. Now, considering that they are both phenomenally commercially successful, I find that interesting.
So, have I got it wrong? Or does it just depend how you interpret the question? Are Joanne Harris and Ian Rankin just lucky that they've hit a way to write which indulges both them and their readers, so they don't have to think consciously about the reader? Am I too mired in YA/children's writing, where we have to do a bit of mental gymnastics in order to satisfy a reader who is patently not the same sort of reader as we are ourselves? Or what? To the writers among you: how much do you think of your readers, either as an imaginary generalised bunch or a specific group?
Yes, we write because we want to and because we love doing it, and it's therefore somewhat selfish, but to what extent is your actual choice of ingredients in each book for the sake of your reader more than yourself? What is your relationship with your reader when you're writing?
And take your time: I'm not thinking of readers or
writing at the moment because I've got a building disaster. Six days after my lovely plumbers started what should have been a
posted by Neil
I'll be doing a couple of events in Edinburgh in August for the Book Festival.
There will be an "all ages" event Wednesday the 19th of August from 4:30 PM - 5:30 PM, and a "Teens and Adults" event in conversation with Ian Rankin, on Thursday the 20th from 8:00 PM - 9:00 PM. Details are up at this website
The first event will be more Children's Authory, the second a bit more Graphic Novelly.
Tickets don't actually go on sale for either of the events until Monday the 22nd of June, but the last time I went to Edinburgh Literary Festival, for Coraline
, the events sold out (and the Guardian, who heard that I did the biggest signing of the festival but weren't actually there, wrote a very silly article about the literary Festival being overrun by goths, which it wasn't, of course, and which I wrote about, amused, here on the journal when it happened).
So this is a heads up: Edinburgh isn't Toronto, and there are two events, not one, so I don't expect we're likely to have any of the "event sold out in three minutes" problems the Luminato festival had here. But if you want to get to either or both of those events you still might want to buy your tickets early.
(Booking information is here
Amanda Palmer is playing in Edinburgh on the 22nd in the 2009 Edge Festival, which means I will definitely stick around for a few extra days (Details are at http://amandapalmer.net/tour
) (Or at the HMV site
.) I may sign copies of Who Killed Amanda Palmer
. I will not, I am relieved to say, play tambourine
She's being supported by the Indelicates
, I think mostly because I kept playing them when she was out here. I must use this power only for good.
(This, from their site, is a demo
of the first Indelicates song I heard, and I was hooked in one, as they took apart, with bitter grace, the media /academic obsession with and delight in the downfall of stars and idols.)*but she likes me anyway.
If you follow Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels, you will want to catch Exit Music, where Rebus solves his last case.
Nearing retirement, Detective Inspector John Rebus is savoring his last days and readying himself for the change. Edinburgh may become a different place once he loses the protection of his shield; old enemies and hurts have threatened to resurface. Rebus starts to prepare, ties up loose ends, and plans how to fill his days.
Then ten days until Rebus's retirement, Rebus and Detective Sargent Siobhan Clarke suddenly land a brutal murder case. The victim is a dissident Russian poet. Though it looks like an mugging gone wrong, Rebus suspects that the death is somehow linked to the elite delegation of Russian businessmen that are looking to invest in Scotland. The murder raises questions and as Rebus digs further, he finds links to an old enemy. But there's growing pressure from local power brokers and politicians to solve the case quickly and quietly. How much can Rebus accomplish before his time is up?
Legendary Detective Inspector John Rebus is as difficult, prickly, and engaging as ever. Observant, persistent, and unafraid to overstep, Rebus takes us all over Edinburgh as he uncovers hidden relationships and pieces together the events of that fateful night. Working with the soon-to-be promoted DS Clarke and her new mentee Todd Goodyear, Rebus uses all tools and tricks, calls in favors, and takes us on a thrilling adventure. Engrossing and carefully crafted, Exit Music is a terrific final novel to a legendary series. It's hard to believe that DI John Rebus has retired for good.
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; First US Edition edition (December 2009), 530 pages.
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Thank you so much to Valerie and Hatchette Book Group for this review opportunity!
A Book Blogger's Diary has a giveaway for Exit Music that ends on Jan 31, 2010. Sign up at http://abookbloggersdiary.blogspot.com/search?q=&cx=partner-pub-5808670084455043%3Ac4yrmv2h3ol&ie=ISO-8859-1&q=ian+rankin