Series Trends

on February 21, 2008

Yesterday at the Fog City Divas, I blogged about ideas and posted a question, what would you ask an author? Published author Terry Odell commented that it depended who the author was, but she was interested in whether to write a series or connected books and how that really works. I answered her question, but it interested me enough that I think it deserves a full blog post of the pros and cons and considerations of each.

1) Stand Alone Novel: A novel that is wholly contained with original, non-series characters and a complete story arc. Examples: Michael Connelly’s THE LINCOLN LAWYER; Nora Roberts single title romantic suspense (HIGH NOON, BLUE SMOKE); Stephen King (THE STAND, DUMA KEY, et. al.); Jennifer Crusie romances like WELCOME TO TEMPTATION (still one of my all-time favorite books.)

Many connected series start as a stand alone novel. Some authors are known for their one big book every year. New characters, new story, new setting. The plus is that these stand alone books can be very big. They tend to get reviewed more, they often have fresh and original hooks, and they also give the author an opportunity to try something completely new. Many authors don’t want to revisit their characters. Those characters have one story to tell, not a series of stories. There are really no drawbacks in writing a stand alone novel EXCEPT that as with everything, the industry has trends and right now series is the big trend. This isn’t to say you can’t sell a stand alone. I think publishers are always looking for that strong book. But because the industry is tight, marketing a series is easier (and cheaper) than marketing a stand alone.

I originally wrote THE PREY as a stand alone novel. I was asked by my publisher to connect it to a trilogy. Many loosely connected series (like Suzanne Brockmann, Catherine Coulter and Roxanne St. Claire) can be read as stand alones, so I think it’s important for writers to really understand what their goal is and how to achieve it. I intentionally made the prison break trilogy as three stand alone novels connected primarily by theme (earthquake under San Quentin.) The reason why I talk about further below.

2) Traditional Series: A continuing set of complete stories featuring the same character(s). This is most common in mysteries/thrillers, and the protagonist is usually as well known as the author. (Janet Evanovich/Stephanie Plum; Lee Child/Jack Reacher; Robert Crais/Elvis Cole & Joe Pike; Tess Gerritsen/Maura Isles & Jane Rizzoli.) There are very few continuing series in romance. The best known is JD Robb’s IN DEATH series with Eve and Roarke. Eileen Wilks also has a series with the same hero and heroine in all the books. Both are in the mystery/suspense vein. Straight up mysteries like Natalie’s dance series are common and expected in the genre.

If you can catch on with a series, you will be doing very well. Readers will connect with your characters and when the series takes off, it takes off. You can be writing it forever . . . which can be a drawback if you get tired of your characters. I’ve heard from a variety of mystery authors that book five is the pivotal book–if you don’t take off by book five, you need to create a new series.

A series will always have a complete story, though there may be sub plots that thread through all books. In the IN DEATH series, for example, Eve and Roarke’s past is a continuing thread as they learn more about where they came from and how they got to where they are. Some books it plays a bigger role, especially if someone from the past comes to New York City. Some books it’s downplayed. Characters grow within a series (or should) and when the reader comes into the new book, they should feel like they’re meeting up with old friends. Series are often comfort reads because the characters ARE familiar. But each book should have a complete story (usually a mystery in these type of books) so that when the reader gets to THE END they are satisfied–even if there is a subplot that hasn’t been completely resolved. And, if you’re really hot like Janet Evanovich, you can get away with the occasional cliffhanger like in book seven where Stephanie opens the door and you don’t know if it’s Ranger or Joe, but you KNOW she’s going to sleep with whoever it is.

Now, I called this a traditional series simply because they have the same protagonists. But the truth is, “traditional” doesn’t really mean what it used to. it’s how you spin the series that will give it legs–so Tess Gerritsen having two protagonists and switching back and forth keeps her “series” fresh with the feeling of stand alones, but the comfort of meeting up with old friends. So think about ways you can make a traditional series a little new or different.

So to recap: a series should take off by book five or you should rethink your series; and the biggest drawback to series writing is author fatigue–getting tired of your characters.

3) Connected series: Romance’s answer to the series. A connected series features a separate hero and heroine for each book, but characters return in varying degrees of importance. In a connected series, you essentially have a lot of world-building–all these people exist in your world–and you need to obey the rules of your world. Sherrilyn Kenyon, Catherine Coulter’s FBI series; Suzanne Brockmann; JR Ward; Roxanne St. Claire; and yours truly. Often a connected series will have a common theme, such as Roxanne’s “bulletcatchers” where the hero (usually) is in a protective bodyguard role. Connected series may be loosely connected, such as Roxanne’s and my books, or tightly connected such as JR Ward’s books. But the key to the connected series is that every book will fit into the puzzle that makes up your world. You wouldn’t have a stand alone where there are absolutely no characters that haven’t come from at least one or more books.

I get a lot of questions from unpublished authors who say they have a connected series idea and how should they pitch it. I always say this: Tell the agent that you have a 100,000 word romantic suspense (or whatever genre) that can stand alone or be a part of a connected/continuing series. Why pigeon hole yourself? What if suddenly there is a glut of connected series and the publisher wants you to do something completely different?

Connected series are hot, hot, hot right now. Just go to amazon and you’ll see things like “book five of the XYZ series” or for Kenyon, “A Dark Hunter Novel.” This is branding, and readers know what to expect when they pick up a Dark Hunter novel or a JR Ward Brotherhood novel. Some are loosely connected, some tightly connected, but they all have recurring characters, the same world (whether contemporary, historical, or paranormal), and they all have complete story arcs.

The biggest problem with some connected series, IMHO, is to develop it in such a way that if a reader picks up book 3 they are lost. Connected series (and traditional series) often don’t take off until book 2 or 3, so you want to make sure that new readers aren’t turned off by not knowing what happened in books 1, 2, 3, etc. Janet Evanovich is a master at giving you a quick summary of important plot points from past Plum novels without 1) boring her regular readership and 2) confusing her new readership.

But while connected series are hot now–remember that with everything in publishing there are ebbs and flows. You can’t predict trends, so my advice is always: WRITE WHAT YOU LOVE. If you want to do a traditional series, a connected series, or even a stand-alone–do it. If you sell, you may be wedded to that series or genre for years to come.

4) Trilogies: Three stories connected through characters and theme. Trilogies may or may not have an overarching story (a plot point that begins and book one but isn’t resolved until book three.) Some trilogies are so tightly connected that you have to read them in order to understand the story and the characters (i.s. Tolkein’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy); some are connected that you should read them in order because they have an overarching story (Nora Robert’s Three Sisters and Garden trilogies, for example); some are loosely connected that you really don’t have to read them in order, but you probably would want to because characters will be recurring (my NO EVIL trilogy.)

The hottest thing right now are trilogies. You see the deals all the time on Publishers Marketplace. Publishers love them because marketing is cheaper, and the rewards are potentially greater–think of it this way: you have three books published close together that have the same look and feel (branding) and you can cross-market them in your ads. Each book in a trilogy usually does better than the last, and backlist sales are generally strong when people “discover” you with book 3. It’s easier to get bookstores to keep a trilogy on the shelf, especially when they know books 2 and 3 will be coming in four months or less.

Readers love trilogies. They often don’t want to invest in another series (many avid readers are reading dozens of series) in order to try new authors. They get to have that same comfort feel of recurring characters, while having a full and completely story. I–personally–don’t like trilogies where the PRIMARY story continues through all three books but with different characters in the lead role. I don’t mind a continuing mystery (and Nora is the best at this) as long as I have a complete and fully satisfying story with each book. Roxanne St. Claire’s upcoming trilogy starting with FIRST YOU RUN is in that vein. There is an over-arching mystery related to something that happens in the past, and each book is a key to that puzzle. But each book stands alone with its own bigger mystery, it’s own romance, and they feel like a full story.

I wasn’t the first author who did a back-to-back trilogy. Kay Hooper had her WHISPERS trilogy; Mariah Stewart with her DEAD trilogy; Nora Roberts with her (many) trilogies. I believe I was the first debut author with a back-to-back, which is why I get a lot of questions on this subject.

For me, they worked. My publisher gave the books great packaging and distribution and they did well in the marketplace. But there is a point where you plateau–not everyone reads as much as we all do here. Many people only read a book a month, if that. Back-to-backs (or any tight publication schedule) help from a marketing and sales standpoint, but there comes a time where they stop being a benefit. And we all want to continue to grow readership.

I think back-to-backs are great, but if the first book is a dud it’s really hard to recover from it. There’s not stopping the other two books, which have been printed before the sales figures come back on the first. Back-to-backs are a huge risk for publishers, but at the same time they are really work to launch an author, or to take a solid midlist author to the next level.

There is a trend I’m noticing lately–there are a lot of back-to-backs coming out this year and next. I’m in a wait and see mode right now–at some point, I believe that the consecutive trilogies will lose their benefit. Not that they will be a negative, but that eventually there will be so many that they won’t stand out as new and different. I may be wrong–it’s just something I’m watching.

I like that my publication schedule is every four months. I think 3-4 months is a great window for a trilogy and I can still write three books a year. Even six months works. Trilogies by their nature should be published close together, particularly in commercial fiction. Close meaning no further than six months apart. After six months (and sometimes after four) you risk losing shelf space for your backlist, which does hurt if people can’t find the first book of the trilogy.

And again, just because a trilogy is closely published doesn’t mean it has to be tightly linked. You can connect the trilogy by a variety of means–family, setting, theme, overarching mystery,etc.

Sequels: Some people have called the second and third books of a trilogy “sequels” but I think that is a misnomer. A sequel continues the same story with the same characters and can be distinguished primarily because major plot points were not resolved in the first book. It’s essentially a bigger story that is broken down because few people want to read 1,000 page books. The problem with sequels in romance is that you don’t have a complete romantic story arc in the first book. However, some authors have successfully brought back favorite couples and put them as leads in a different story which *may* be considered a sequel (Linda Howard, Jayne Ann Krentz are the two that come to mind.) Consider this: the first PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN was a fully contained story. We knew it was part of a trilogy, but it stood beautifully alone. The second PIRATES was essentially the beginning of the longer story that also consisted of the third movie. In essence, the second movie ended on a cliffhanger. I would not advise doing this in a book.

Now, one other comment about recurring characters . . . when you introduce someone, be prepared for people to become attached to your characters. When I wrote the NO EVIL series, I only planned on three Kincaid books (Carina, Connor and Dillon.) The big Kincaid family was important in that it helped form their character, and gave me loyal people to help my main characters in the story. Then, in FEAR NO EVIL, I introduced Jack and knew I had to write a book with him. Authors get attached, too 🙂 . . . but I’ll tell you, the one character I have received more reader mail on than any one is Patrick Kincaid. And yes, some day, Patrick will also get his story.

So, this was a longer post than I planned! Sorry it’s up late, this is my veg day. I’m done with my book (YEAH!) and am just planning a day of reading (research for Jack Kincaid’s book.) What are your thoughts on the variety of series, the pros and cons of each from the reader’s point of view?