By Susan E. Farris
If you’ve been floating around in the writing world for any length of time, you’ve likely heard that you need to “niche down” and “write series” if you want to make money. Like most advice, I take these bits with a healthy dose of skepticism (there are plenty of writers who hop genres and write standalones who do perfectly well.)
But writing a series is an undeniable way to build a backlist quickly, especially if you’re trying to have a real go at this author thing. Or you may just like really big storylines—as I do.
Either way you butter your biscuit, there are a few pieces of advice that I’d like to pass along to make your series writing experience less hazardous and even, dare I say it, enjoyable.
On The Writing Side:
1. Tropes. Learn ‘em. Love ‘em. Mix ‘em up and play with ‘em like trail mix. Ok, to not be flippant, but tropes often get a bad rap as being formulaic or cheat codes. But they’re really just touchpoints within the story, not the whole plot.
Learning the tropes of your genre and subgenres is a great creative exercise for you. How can you shake things up? What interesting characters and situations can you throw at these tropes to make them shine? And using tropes is a sure-fire way to attract the right reader to your series. Many series readers are genre loyal, so once they find something they like, they read it voraciously.
2. Character Bible. Write down every character you create and all their pertinent details. Even for walk-on or side characters. Your world is filled with people and those people need to be consistent to feel realistic. This will save your butt.
Once it’s written down in the Character Bible, this info cannot be changed. I guarantee you if someone has blue eyes in one book then hazel eyes in the next, it WILL be noticed. I also have sections in my Character Bible for important places and animals.
3. Series Bible. As you write one book, whether you’re doing a series that’s of loosely connected characters/place/theme or an ongoing plot with cliffhangers, make notes about things that you want to work into the next book(s). If you are working with a plot with complicated timing, this is where you want to track it.
Go ahead and start jotting down ideas for the book outlines as well—this can be a great way to work out your story beats if you’re doing an ongoing plot. Keeping a Series Bible is so much easier than having to go back and read your whole series before you start each book. (Scrivener makes this super easy, but I just have organized folders and files in Word, and it works.)
4. Have an end point in mind. For your sake. For your reader’s sake. For your family and friend’s supporting you through your writing process’ sake.
An end point can also keep you from writing yourself into a corner, if your plot hinges on inventive situations, cliffhangers, or twists. By planning at least these key things in advance, even if you’re a pantser, you’ll have a target or stepping stones to aim at and you’ll know that you won’t have the dreaded “where do I go from here” moment that so often happens. This is called “testing your plot” when it’s explained in the in-depth plotting courses.
On The Marketing Side:
5. Make it easy for your readers to buy your books! The quickest way to do this is your back matter. They need an easy way to follow your newsletter or main social platform in your back matter (so you can tell them when your next masterpiece is coming out.) And then they need to be able to order the next book in the series (or another book from your backlist.)
6. Again, readers need an easy way to find you. Having a website where all your info can live is crucial. I’m not even saying this as an author but as a reader. It’s super frustrating when I try to find more info on an author that I just fell in love with and I have to bounce between five different platforms to see all their books and series and then find their newsletter signup on an outdated Blogspot page. Doesn’t give me a lot of confidence. Just have a website.
7. Covers Matter! Missing the mark on a standalone stings. Not nailing the cover design for a whole series feels like you just broke a leg. Study your genre: see what is selling well, what Bookstagrammers are saying about covers, what current trends are holding steady on Amazon (because by the time your last book comes out you want whatever design you pick to still be selling well.)
And if you’re picking something that is more unique, test it! You can always take several sample cover designs and have your social followers vote to see what resonates with them. Coming up with cover ideas doesn’t have to be a daunting process. I curate ideas anytime I’m online so when it comes time to design I can just hand my designer *cough cough* my husband, my ideas and say “Go for it!” To do this, I have a Saved collection on Instagram where I save posts of book covers I love—because I spend way too much time on social media. You could also create a Pinterest board or even a special “Reading List” in Goodreads of book covers to spark ideas for your series.
I’m a Southern author and poet with a passion for local stories and local voices. You will see many of my favorite places appear in my stories and poems.
When I’m not wrangling words on the page, I love to garden, play board games, or snuggle up with my three cats and two dogs while appreciating my husband’s amazing cooking skills. #cheflevel