Writing a series? 5 things to ponder before you commit

Breath Witch by Thea Atkinson

book 4 is now available

“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

I forget who said that, and I suppose I could look it up if I wasn’t so lazy, but I also know that I’m easily distracted and I’m trying to write a blog post about what I learned during the time I wrote the series “Witches of Etlantium”, and if I take the time to go Google the originator of that quote, I’ll end up spending time checking Facebook, going on Pinterest, checking my sales stats (and exactly why oh why aren’t they moving?), and jumping onto twitter so I can talk to a few people I haven’t been social with for a while.

Now that the series is done, I’m telling myself to sit back and relax, to enjoy the feeling that I actually finished the thing. Time for a celebration. I do have the bottle of Dom Perignon to the ready after all.

You see, writing the Witches of Etlantium was a huge learning curve for me. I’ve spent most of my writing career (erm…wrote my first novel at 15, and middleage shame keeps me from telling you how old I am now) aiming towards the literary fiction market. I wanted to be Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood, maybe even Thomas Raddall (all famous Canadian literary writers.)

It wasn’t until I began self-publishing onto Kindle that I realized litfic was even harder to sell than it was to get traditionally published. And so I sat back and took a good long look at whether I wanted to earn a little money and gain an audience or write a bunch of novels that would mold in the depths of the Amazon jungle for all eternity (already have a bunch of those, actually: Anomaly, Secret Language of Crows, One Insular Tahiti to name a few.)

I’ve never written a series, I’ve never written fantasy, but I had a character that spoke to me from a flash fiction piece and she was “special”. Her story was a long one. I knew it would be a series. Yikes.

Enter my biggest issues: I always tried to let my plotting come from character. I never gave much thought to audience when I wrote; it was about me me me. What did I want? Where did the character want me to take them. What would I learn about the character. Fortunately, all that can still be…and should be…in any genre, in any good story. So I set out blithely ignorant of all sorts of conventions.

And of course I learned a few things…a little late, mind you, but I did learn and since I “can’t” I’ll teach.

  1. You really have to have a good idea of where the story is going. Even as a person who writes by the seat of my pants rather than by outlining, I spent a lot of time lying on the couch with a pillow and a blanket, thinking through all the things I had written and seeing if they would fit where I wanted to go. Sometimes I ended up letting my ‘oopsies’ become plot points later because I couldn’t go back after publishing and just change those things.
  1. Know the audience and genre you’re writing for. I started out not really understanding who I was aiming the novels to. As a literary writer, I assumed a certain audience, but I discovered that those who read series need to become invested even more in the characters and their outcome. So you need to know if you’re actually hitting the diehard fans of your genre. Is it typically romance the readers are looking for? Is it action and adventure? Is it new adult? (This lesson came a little late: I started out believing I was writing young adult and felt very restrained by the boundaries of the genre, and so then adjusted on-the-fly to a new adult age group, then realized that new adults are looking for more sex in their books. sigh)
  1. Know exactly what your characters look like. Keep a character table or a series of photographs that you can refer to later on throughout the series. Print them and tack them onto a board in front f you. You might also want to do the same thing with a scene list. Or specific details. It’s easy to forget after a couple of books the details of what happened to who and when. It’s also easy to change eye color through the middle of the series. Don’t do this. Readers will notice.
  1. Plot, plot, plot. You have to keep the thing moving, after all. And in a literary world, where the character’s evolution can often be the entire plot, it’s not so much with a series. What I ended up doing at the end of each novel was taking each chapter and listing out exactly what happened during the scene. Then I went back and looked over each one and asked myself if what happened was external or internal. I have a tendency towards the internal, and so therefore I discovered a lot of my writing was taking place in the character’s head. My main question: is it truly exciting? If yes, leave it; if no, cut and replace.  Written as just lines f text instead of ‘the writing’ I could be more objective. Just so you know, I had to ruthlessly cut cut cut or throw something in to put my character off footing. I’m still not sure yet if I managed to do all of that successfully, but it is certainly foremost in my mind as I begin my new series.
  1. Create an aggressive writing and publication schedule. If I could have gone back and done this again, I would have two of the books finished before I published the first. With my literary writing, it takes me a year to write, edit, and revise a novel to my standards before I even get someone else to look at it. If I followed the same publication schedule for my series, I would’ve lost readers because they would’ve forgotten all about the book, Forgotten all about the characters, Or lost interest in what happened to them. I ended up releasing each of the four books about six months apart. I’ve discovered this is not an ideal time frame. Readers of series want to move from one book to the next as quickly as they can without waiting. My recommendation is to wait the least amount of time possible in between.
  1. Yes, I know I said 5 things. Consider this a bonus. KNOW what keywords, categories you put into Amazon ahead of time. Seek out the hot new releases in your category (find a novel in the category and look to the left top for releaes 30 days, 60 days, 90 days) try to pick something that has a low number and aim your writing in that direction if you can so when you release, it’ll have a chance of finding some good initial traction.

Most of the other things I learned were more personal and probably not of interest to you. But I can say that as a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, literary, tending-to-dark, character-driven writer, I gave myself a lot of obstacles before I even started the series. It was an incredible challenge for me to write in the genre, add plot, let the writing move itself without agonizing over every word and cliché, understand exactly what the audience might be looking for, and lastly to realize when enough was enough. But the character of Alaysha so intrigued me after that first little flash fiction piece, that exploring her journey and helping her find peace and happiness was well worth the effort.

For those of you who think you might like to give the series a try, it’s available anywhere e-books are sold and by Christmas, the entire series will be available in paperback. In fact, Water Witch is available right now from Amazon

Happy writing and reading!

Note: the witches of Etlantium series is by far my biggest seller and I’m so encouraged with my own learning that I’m now working on a new series, hoping to bring to bear all of my new experience to create an even better second tale.banner for facebook copy

Thea Atkinson is a writer of character driven fiction.

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4 comments on “Writing a series? 5 things to ponder before you commit
  1. Viv says:

    I’m wayyyyy behind on my reading. Read and loved Water Witch, I got the next one (and maybe the one after) and didn’t get round to reading them yet.
    I’d say that folks who write a series often find there is a lag in sales of later ones because of people like me who take a while…
    BTW, I shared this post for a question on Yahoo answers.

    • How kind of you to do so. My undying thanks. Glad you enjoyed book 1, and I appreciate you saying so. One never knows, eh?

      It’s the same for me…I have The Bet and Moth on my kindle (waiting for a read as well.) time to remedy it this winter.

      On Mon, Sep 23, 2013 at 4:16 AM, Thea Atkins

  2. davidprosser says:

    Excellent advice Thea. Since my Canadian Authors Board is a bit thin I wonder if you’d consider adding your books there? If you’re on Pinterest I can send you an invitation so you can add what info you want. http://www.pinterest.com/lorddavid/canadian-authors/
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

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All Thea's novels are available on Kindle, Nook, Sony, and Kobo

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