photo by Calsidyrose

There is no one way to write a series. There are, however, some practical considerations that will save you time and frustration as you take off on your journey, particularly if you intend to pursue a traditional publisher. Some of these tips I learned from agents and editors; others I learned myself (the hard way) and offer them up to save you some of my own frustration.

Series Potential. Let’s assume you have written a book and now you’re wondering if your book has series potential. One obvious consideration would be if you have a main character who can go on more adventures or solve more mysteries. Or perhaps there are minor characters or story threads left hanging that deserve their own development.

Another clue might be your word count. For example, the average YA novel is about 80k, though the range is probably more like 60-120k, depending on the sub-genre. If you have written a 300,000 word YA novel, you may have really written three books in one. I say may because 300k words is indicative of one of two things: either you have a multi-storied story, or you have a lot of “fat” that needs to get cut. Don’t mistake one for the other. If you do truly have several arcs going on, consider breaking each arc into its own novel.

Staying Consistent. After you finish Book 1, create a series “Bible” (3-Ring Notebook) where you can keep a list of story details for easy reference.

For characters, keep track of their birthdays and ages. Note their speech tics, nervous habits, eye color, and clothing styles. If a character has scars, record where they are located because you don’t want them to move around over the course of the series. Also, write a paragraph on each of their back stories

For each building, draw a floor plan, indicating the decor, flooring, furniture, kitchen, and the location of windows and what direction they face (you want to make sure a character doesn’t watch the sunrise and sunset from the same window). Know if the kitchen counters are marble, tile, etc. If they are tile in Book 1 and marble in Book 2, your readers will notice.

For cities and towns, create a map with distances between places noted in miles/kilometers because you need to know how long it should take a character to get to each place by car and by foot. Again, know where north is so you know where the sun rises and sets.

Time Lines are important too, particularly if the story stretches over many years. You need to track how someone ages through the book, how the seasons are changing, and how long someone’s hair should be in Book 2 if she cuts it two-thirds of the way through Book 1.

Cart Before the Horse. After making Book 1 the very best it can be, write the synopsis for Books 2 and 3, then most agents recommend that you move on to something new and unrelated. In other words, don’t go on immediately to write the subsequent books.

Why? Because if Book 1 is strong enough to support a series, an agent can sell the series based on Book 1 plus the synopses, without you having to write all of them in advance. But . . . if Book 1 is not strong enough to support a series, it doesn’t matter how many books you have written. If an agent can’t sell Book 1, the other books are dead and you’ve wasted years of your life when you could have been pursuing even more amazing projects.

Also, when it comes to querying the agent, pitch only the Book 1 story and identify it as a “[genre] novel with series potential.” Don’t muddy your query with the synopses of Books 2 and 3.

Story Arcs. Finally, I’ve been asked whether, when writing a trilogy, each book should represent one act in the standard three act novel format. While I suppose there are exceptions to every rule, it is better practice to have each book stand alone with its own fully developed story arc.

There are some practical reasons for this rule. The first is that you have to pitch an agent or editor based on Book 1, and you cannot create an engaging pitch based on “world building” or “rising action” alone.

Second, not every reader will read every book in the series. In fact, only a percentage of those who read and loved Book 1 will make it to Book 2, let alone Book 3. Also, some readers read books out of order (I’ll never understand that, but it definitely happens). In other words, each book should have its own conflict and resolution that can stand on its own.

Third, cliff hangers are annoying. Your readers have given you their time. You should give them satisfaction.

In conclusion, if you are embarking on the epic journey that is series writing, I wish you great stamina and creative joy! Completing my trilogy is one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. It is something I will do again, but first . . . a long winter’s nap.

Are you writing a series? What’s been the most exciting part of the experience? The most difficult?

About Anne Greenwood Brown

Anne Greenwood Brown (@AnneGBrown) writes MG and YA fiction. She is represented by Jacquie Flynn of Joelle Delbourgo Associates, and recently sold her debut to Random House/Delacorte Press in a two-book deal.