Interview With Author Karen Wiesner on Writing a Series

on October 21, 2013 in Book Writing
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Karen Wiesner isn't just our first featured guest here at All Indie Writers. She is also the author of some of my favorite writing reference books. I was a huge fan of her First Draft in 30 Days in particular -- a book that helped me map out my own customized book planning, outlining, and organization process. So I was thrilled when she contacted me about her latest release, Writing the Fiction Series. She sent me a copy (which I will review on this blog later this week), and took time out of her busy schedule to answer some of my questions about writing a series.

Here is my interview with Karen Wiesner on her experience with writing fiction series and her tips for authors and aspiring authors who would like to do the same.

The Interview: Writing a Series

JM: You're a prolific author who tackles both fiction and nonfiction. How often do you work on series as opposed to one-off titles?

KW: Almost exclusively. It’s a very rare thing for me to write a book that doesn’t have some connection to another book…usually many books. I’m creating a world of my own with every title I write, so I like to think every character I’ve ever created lives in my fiction world and could bump into other characters at any time. To find out more about all the connections between my books, check out the official companion to my fiction: THE WORLD OF AUTHOR KAREN WIESNER: A COMPENDIUM OF FICTION (http://www.angelfire.com/stars4/kswiesner/nonfiction.html). You can also see some of these on my website:

Character Search, Page 1 (A-L):

http://www.angelfire.com/stars4/kswiesner/charactersearch1.html

Character Search, Page 2 (M-Z): http://www.angelfire.com/stars4/kswiesner/charactersearch2.html

Location Search: http://www.angelfire.com/stars4/kswiesner/locationsearch.html

Series Search: http://www.angelfire.com/stars4/kswiesner/searchbyseries.html

JM: What was your first fiction series? Did you always intend for your first book in the series to lead to others? Tell us a bit about your planning process or the series' evolution.

KW: My larger-than-life Wounded Warriors Series (which is being reissued now) was my very first series, though it wasn’t published first. I’d been working on the stories of these particular characters since I was a teenager. I always knew I wanted the main characters in that world to have their own books within the series. My first published series were the Angelfire Trilogy and the Gypsy Road Series (which were being published alternately until all the stories were out). I’m currently working on brand new Angelfire Trilogy stories with Angelfire Trilogy II.

Whether the connecting tie is a recurring character, a central group of characters, a plot or premise, a setting, or a combination of these, I believe that planning a series in advance is critical to its success. Preferably, you want to start this before you’ve written a word of the series in the physical sense.

I love writing series built around a cast of characters, whether they’re family members, co-workers or colleagues, or friends like my Family Heirlooms (and the spin-off of that series, the Friendship Heirlooms) Series, the Falcon’s Bend Series written with Chris Spindler, and my Denim Blues/Red Velvet Mysteries. But I also love a setting series, in which all stories are based around a particular location, as in my evil fairytale town in the long-running Woodcutter’s Grim Series and the upcoming-in-August 2013 Bloodmoon Cove Spirits Series, which is a series of ghost stories set in Bloodmoon Cove. My plot/premise-heavy series include my Incognito (all 12 are available now) and the spin-off Shadow Mission series’ (coming in 2016).

The first thing that inevitably comes to me for any book is characters, and from there, I build the rest of the series. I start by writing a series blurb, which covers the premise of every single story in that series. This is the thing that not only gets readers interested in the first book in a series, but all subsequent books, so it needs to be concise, compelling, and series worthy. Then I try to write individual story blurbs for each title I know will be in the series. These blurbs include the main characters, settings and plots, and make connections to upcoming or previous characters in the series.

I always start by doing these “organized” things before I do anything else with a series—namely, before I write any of the books. It’s a rare thing for me to realize after I’ve completed a book that I want to make a series out of it. I usually know before I write anything that I want it to be a series. However, I have been working on one series and come up with an offshoot of that series. For instance, while I was working on the fifth book in my Incognito Series, I fell in love with the setting (the fictional Fever, Texas) and secondary cast of characters which only fit in the Incognito Series for this one novel. From there, my Cowboy Fever Series was born. In that case, the second series really had nothing to do with the first series. It had its own theme and direction.

Some of my series have an overall series arc but mostly I write series that have a very loose arc. In case that’s confusing, keep in mind that, in its simplest form, the story arc is a continued storyline. In all books in a series, the story arc is introduced, developed and concluded within the individual books. So each book will have its own story arc and all will be short-term—specific to that particular book. Most series will also have an overall series arc. (The only exception is an open-ended series in which all the books are stand-alones and there’s no need for a series arc that resolves in the final book. However, series that aren’t open-ended do need an overall series arc whether clearly defined or done subtly such as “good overcomes evil”.) A series arc is a plot thread that’s introduced in the first book in the series, alluded to in some way in every single subsequent middle book, but is only fully resolved in the final book in the series. A series arc will run beneath the individual story arcs, developing more in each book until finally tying up neatly in the final story. In my own writing, sometimes I have an open-ended series that doesn’t have an overall series arc, but generally I always have either a loose or clearly defined arc—whichever fits the series best.

JM: When going the traditional publishing route, it makes sense to map out series potential upfront to show publishers the increased sales potential. Do you have any tips on doing this?

KW: The secondary benefit of creating series and story blurbs before you start writing is that you can use them in pitching a book and series to an agent or editor. However, you should note that small-press publishers and mass market publishers have slightly different requirements for the submission process. Small presses want to see full blurbs for each book in your submission when you propose a series, while a mass market publisher will want to know you’ve completed the first book, and you should submit the book as a stand-alone novel with series potential. This is because most mass market publishers want to try one book before committing to more. If you’re an established author, you can and should use your series blurbs in your submissions to editors and agents. A series is always intriguing to publishers because they sell better than most stand-alone titles. Nearly always, if a series is selling, the publisher will want more because one book can sell many. New books with favorite characters, familiar settings and premises sell older ones as well.

When I asked publishers what they want to see for a book that’s the first in a series, they all said about the same thing: a full proposal (query, synopsis, and the first 50 pages) along with summaries or back cover blurbs for the rest of the series books you have in mind, which should detail the character and conflict developments in these proposed titles. Remember, agents and editors aren’t interested in vague promises about what you’ll think out later. They want to see you’ve spent a lot of time planning and developing your series in advance of writing the books, and, by submitting a full series proposal, you’re proving upfront you won’t be a one-shot wonder.

JM: What is your biggest tip for authors struggling to keep things consistent and organized when writing a fiction series?

KW: There’s a huge to-do these days about every story standing on its own, whether a series book or a single title. I agree that series books can and should be capable of being read on their own but they’re not quite complete without each other since fans pick up on subtle nuances, insider jokes and situations that one-time readers won’t catch. If you’re writing a series and you don’t build-in that “not quite complete” scenario into it, you’ve failed to capture your audience for the long haul. I can’t imagine anything worse. Your goal for every single series title is to make readers pant for the next book in the series. If a book stands on its own so completely that a reader doesn’t need or want to read the rest of the books in the series, you’re missing the entire purpose of a series.

Beyond that, you should decide from the get-go how you’ll organize the crucial information in your series, such as details of character, plot, and setting. Do this in a binder, notebook, storyboards, index cards, or on your computer. Establishing the basics for each book can give you numerous insights for further-reaching story and series developments. This kind of organization is necessary to know where you’re going but can also give you a definite edge in submitting to an agent or editor.

Additionally, keep in mind that characters can make or break a series. If no one wants to see more of your characters over the long haul, the series is pointless. If your characters become dull to you, scenarios feel forced and everything seems to be a repeat of previous stories, rest assured readers are also losing interest. These are the ingredients that bring readers back for more. Every book in a series should expand the series as a whole, not diminish it, as can happen with a long series. Each offering must be at least as exciting as the one before. Entries need to enrich and enhance the reader’s experience and make him eager for more.

Keeping readers hooked requires a lot of effort. But one thing is absolutely vital to maintaining reader interest: Remain infallibly true to the premise of your series. Always spin established rules on their axis so the reader will have a new and unexpected journey with each additional story. Anticipate your reader’s desires for the series characters so you’re consistently delivering the story she wants—and listen to her feedback, since what readers are clamoring for could give you ideas about where to go with the series in the future.

JM: While we often think of series in writing fiction, and that's the focus of your book, do you see similar benefits in pursuing nonfiction series as well?

KW: Sure. If someone came up with a nonfiction focus that warranted a series, there’s no reason not to go forward with it. The process would be slightly different, but you would start the same way: Finding the series focus, premise, touchstone, whatever, that will cover every title in the series, then mapping out the connections between all of them along with targeting the subject matter the individual books will detail. This is definitely an interesting idea—one I think that would interest publishers.

About Karen Wiesner

Creating realistic, unforgettable characters one story at a time…

Karen Wiesner is an accomplished author with 101 books published in the past 15 years, which have been nominated for and/or won 126 awards, and has 40 more titles under contract. Karen’s books cover such genres as women’s fiction, romance, mystery/police procedural/cozy, suspense, paranormal, futuristic, gothic, inspirational, thriller, horror, chick-lit, and action/adventure.

She also writes children’s books, poetry, and writing reference titles such as her bestseller, First Draft in 30 Days and From First Draft to Finished Novel {A Writer’s Guide to Cohesive Story Building} (now out of print; reissue coming soon in paperback and electronic formats under the title Cohesive Story Building). Her third offering from Writer’s Digest Books is Writing the Fiction Series: The Complete Guide for Novels and Novellas, available now.

Her previous writing reference titles focused on non-subsidy, royalty-paying electronic publishing, author promotion, and setting up a promotional group like her own, the award-winning Jewels of the Quill, which she founded in 2003. For more information about Karen’s fiction and series, consult her official companion guide The World of Author Karen Wiesner: A Compendium of Fiction. For more information about Karen and her work, visit her website at http://www.karenwiesner.com.

If you would like to receive Karen’s free e-mail newsletter, Karen’s Quill, and become eligible to win her monthly book giveaways, send a blank e-mail to KarensQuill-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

KarensQuill-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

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3 Comments

  1. Jessie Haynes December 27, 2013 Reply

    Was reading this interview and much of the other material on AIW about Karen/her work as I used holiday gift cards to buy several of her nf titles. Great interview, can’t wait for the upcoming review.
    Jessie Haynes recently posted…[Guest Post] Holiday Writing Tips for Self-Publishers: 4 Ways to Stay on Track So You Don’t Lose Focus and MoneyMy Profile

  2. Alyne de Winter April 6, 2014 Reply

    Great interview. Karen’s books on outlining have helped me so much!
    Do you have a mailing list? I would like to be on it. I lose track of great websites otherwise.
    This on is great!
    :)
    Alyne
    Alyne de Winter recently posted…Gothic to the Bone: The Long Hair of DeathMy Profile

    • Author
      Jennifer Mattern April 7, 2014 Reply

      I don’t currently offer a newsletter here, although a new email option is coming. In the meantime, you can subscribe to get the latest posts via email using our old Feedburner link:

      http://feeds.feedburner.com/allindiewriters

      Just look at the subscribe box on the right. There’s a link at the bottom to subscribe via email. When I move things over to the new email system, those subscribers will get an opt-in email to decide if they want to stay on the new list before the old one is shut down. So that’s the best option for the time being.

      And thank you. I’m glad you like the site so far. :)

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