Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Series: a balancing act

(Or, Everything I Needed To Know About Series I Learned From Star Wars)

Yesterday marked the release of my second novel, UNDER THE ROSE. It's the second book in a planned four-book series (starting with SECRET SOCIETY GIRL) that chronicles the irreverent and intrigue-filled adventures of one Miss Amy Haskel, a college co-ed who joins her Ivy League school's most powerful secret society, the Order of Rose & Grave.
Working on a series always poses a set of unique challenges and opportunities for a writer, but exactly what proves challenging can change depending on the make up of the series. Not all series are created alike. Some follow many characters in the same "world" (the Ender series or the Narnia series are good examples of this) while some, like mine, concentrate on one main character. Some series are open-ended (like Stephanie Plum), and some have a planned start and finish (Harry Potter). Some series are really more like unconnected adventures which have little bearing on what came before or what comes after (James Bond), while other series have volumes that each build on one another and could not exist without the repercussion of what came before (Uglies). Some series were planned from the start while others arise due to their reception.

The Secret Society Girl series is probably most like Harry Potter or Uglies: each book will build upon the events of the last, it has a planned start and finish, follows the same main character, and was conceived as part of a series from the very beginning. My first contract stipulated a two-book deal for the first and second books in the series. At that point, I hadn't yet sold books three and four, but I had ideas of where I wanted to take the story. Luckily, my publisher agreed, and offered me a contract for the others.

Before writing Under the Rose, I'd never written a sequel. I'd never even had an idea for a sequel. Nevertheless, I am a big fan. One of my favorite films of all time, The Empire Strikes Back, is a sequel. I figured that if George Lucas could do it, so could I. I think that sequels often get a bad rap, perhaps because there are so many sub-par blockbuster sequels released by Hollywood. But for every Stayin' Alive, there is a Speaker for the Dead, so maybe there is something to the idea that good stories can have even better follow-ups, and I kept that advice firmly in mind when I started on the second book.

Still, there are many ways that a sequel can go wrong:
  1. It could merely rehash the same plotlines, characters, and jokes of the first (we'll call this the Meet the Fockers Disorder)
  2. It could do the opposite: go so far afield from the original that it loses sight of what everyone actually liked about the series to start with (Speed 2 Syndrome).
  3. It could be in the unfortunate position of following up on a story whose conclusion makes further drama improbable, if not entirely unfortunate. (The Matrix Effect).
(Of course, I don't think any of those films were originally conceived of as series, whereas my book was.) I knew that to succeed as a sequel, I needed to walk a fine line between giving the readers what they'd loved about book one and just regurgitating it. Characters needed to develop beyond what they'd shown in book one, plotlines needed to expand, relationships needed to change, and new boundaries and alliances needed to form. And I needed to do all that without losing sight of what made the first book so much fun.

When I was writing Secret Society Girl, I knew there were several story arcs that would remain incomplete at the end of the first book, and that I would further develop in book two. In some cases, readers recognized dangling story arcs, but in other cases, they didn't seem important enough to the main narrative -- and won't, until they come back, fully blown, in a later book.

And example of this is the Jabba the Hut plotline in Star Wars. (Please let us not speak of the "new" trilogy.) In the first movie, Jabba is a throw away scene, used mostly to establish Han Solo's character as a morally gray ruffian. He's a smuggler, and he's down on his luck enough (owing Jabba money) to risk the dangerous cargo of Luke and Obi-Wan. But that's all we really hear about Jabba, and we've mostly forgotten him by the end of the film, what with all those adventures on the Death Star and rescuing princesses and using The Force. When the first film ends, the audience isn't going, "what happened with Jabba's money?" They're asking "What happened to Darth Vader?"

And yet, Jabba is an important presence at the end of the second film, when the bounty hunter tracks our heroes down not to help the Empire, but to get the bounty on Han's head, and of course, he's a huge part of the third film. But you might not recognize it on the basis of his role in book one.

Character development is another important aspect of series writing. Everyone knows that characters must grow and change over the course of the story: it's called a "character arc." But what do you do if you need to write characters that not only grow over the course of one story, but over the course of three or four? Mess this one up and you either have characters spinning their personal-growth wheels, progressing at a snail's pace, or, worst of all, backsliding in an attempt to create drama.

I think series provide writers with an amazing opportunities to create multi-layered, fascinating characters. Given the space you have to work with them, characters can undergo an enormous amount of change over the course of the series. Enemies can become allies, friends can become lovers and back again, and there is plenty of time to see how these relationships develop, deepen, and change. In the first Secret Society Girl book, the main character Amy has an enemy who she learns to respect and even like. Where will their relationship go in the second book, let alone in the third or fourth? People she never knew before are suddenly thrust into a position of personal intimacy, whereas friends she might have known for years are growing away from her. It's a fascinating thing to watch and given the length of the series, I have the opportunity to explore ever aspect of these changes.

In Star Wars, one of the most interesting character changes occurs with ...a-ha! You thought I was going to say Han Solo, didn't you? Yes, he goes from morally gray ruffian to general of the Rebellion Army, but you never really see anything more than posturing resistance out of him. He's always a good guy underneath. That's not quite as interesting to me as the change you see in the character of Lando Calrissian. Lando starts as a man who Han (one of the series' heroes, and thus someone whose opinion we trust) doesn't entirely trust -- and he's right not to, because he has betrayed Han and his friends to Darth Vader. He has noble reasons for doing so -- Vader has threatened to shut down Lando's entire floating city, and also, he promised Lando that if he turned over the fugitives, they wouldn't be hurt. He just wanted them as bait to catch some dude named Luke. But he does betray them, and he pays the price of traitors everywhere when he is double crossed himself. His guilt over what happens at the end of The Empire Strikes Back drives all of his actions for the rest of the series. He helps Chewbacca, Leia, Luke, and the androids escape, then works tirelessly to rescue Han, and, in the end, is the one who explodes the second Death Star. I'd say he redeems himself, but he needs that third movie to do it.

Some authors who write series plan out in advance how their character will grow in each installment. My friend Colleen Gleason, who is currently writing a regency vampire series called The Gardella Vampire Chronicles , recently said this in an interview:

The book is the launch of a series in which the same protagonist, along with a cast of characters, grows and evolves through a complete character and romance arc. I think of the books as if each book equates to a “season” of a television show. There’s a beginning and an end, and a “Big Bad” that must be conquered, but there’s still more to do for the next season or book.

It’s important to note that I have a definite, finite plan in mind for my series. There will be five books about Victoria Grantworth, vampire slayer and Regency miss. So I know who she will end up with, and I am moving toward a particular goal and resolution.

I'm totally on the same page. For me, the entire Secret Society Girl series has a very definitive arc that starts on page one of book one and ends on the last page of the last book. In each individual novel, there are also complete plot and character arcs, as well as a few problems that span book to book.

In Star Wars, these could be seen as the individual "episode" issues of: 1) rescue the princess and destroy the Death Star, 2) escape the pursuit of Darth Vader and rescue the hostages at Cloud City, and 3) rescue Han from Jabba, destroy the Death Star 2.0, and "confront Vader." However, the entire storyline is about a young farm boy who becomes a knight, discovers the truth about his family, and takes down an evil galactic empire.

Not a bad arc. I wonder if there are any evil galactic empires around for Amy to tackle.


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Blogger Bill Clark said...

For me, the entire Secret Society Girl series has a very definitive arc that starts on page one of book one and ends on the last page of the last book.

Very interesting post, Diana. Sounds like it's all over but the writing! ;-)

When all we had in the Peterfreund canon was SSG1, it could (IMO) have held its own as a stand-alone book. Good triumphs, evil flees, and the only open question is who will Amy date next...which at that point isn't really any of our business.

But now that SSG is a series, I guess we now know that it *is* important to learn who she dates next, as this is part of her growth and maturation. Naturally, most of us are intensely curious to find out who she ends up with, as well as why and how. What a great hook you've baited for us!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007 at 10:19:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diana Peterfreund said...

Haha... yep, all we really want to know is who Amy dates next!

I think that each book does have to stand alone, as well as be part of the whole series. If there was nothing connecting the books but the name of the main character, why bother making it a series, you know?

(Ian Fleming is rolling in his grave.)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007 at 10:26:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Jessica Burkhart said...

This was so, so helpful, Diana. I've been reading every article I can get my hands on about writing a series. Since mine will be four books, I want to make sure I do it "right" and attract new readers while still pleasing the first readers. It's definitely a balancing act, I'd say. :)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007 at 12:10:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not just the name Bond that provides continuity -- we also have the martinis. ;-)

Great post on series, Diana. What are your thoughts on series that span decades in the characters' lives (and sometimes ours), but do have a definite overall arc, like John D. MacDonalds' Travis McGee books, or Robert Parker's Spenser series?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007 at 12:52:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Bill Clark said...

John D. MacDonalds' Travis McGee books, or Robert Parker's Spenser series?

Right on, Phyllis! Not to mention Parker's other series on Sunny Randall and Jesse Stone. Series like these make their characters into almost-real people, whom we would like to have as friends for the rest of our lives. I look forward to each new book - especially in the Sunny/Jesse series (Spenser is getting a little set in his ways, and Travis and Meyer have gone into The Great Blue Beyond) as another leaf of the artichoke to be savored as we peel our way to the core of the characters.

Speaking for myself, I know that four books about Amy will not be enough. She's the kind of character about whom I would like to read a new instalment every year, for ever and ever, Amen. I mean, she *will* have a career when she leaves Eli U, right? How will she make her way, and will her Rose & Grave connections help or hinder (or both) her individual development? Enquiring minds want to know....

P.S. to Deidre Knight: wouldn't it be great to have another John D. MacDonald or Robert B. Parker on your hands? See if you can get Diana to commit to a new Amy Haskell book every year. (Tell her it's OK to write other stuff, too - I mean, Conan Doyle did, and MacDonald wrote tons of other books - but when an author creates a character as successful as Amy, s/he should be under a moral if not a contractual obligation to feed our hunger for more.)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007 at 1:31:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Keri Ford said...

I love series. I love reading them. I love writing them. I have a problem plotting something without thinking of how I could continue the story in a second, third, fourth, and so on until my brainstorm partner has to knock me upside the head and make me focus on book one. I get very close to characters, and always hate coming to that last page in a book because I know I’m done reading about them.

This is fabulous information, Diana. Thanks for sharing.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007 at 1:48:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Certainly, the James Bond *movies* are a loosely connected series of adventures.

But the original Fleming books are a true series, with Bond changing and growing, past events being referenced, old enemies popping up left and right, etc. So is the Gardner book series that followed Fleming's and the other Bond series that followed Gardner's.

Can you tell I'm a total Bond fanatic? :-)

Do we find out what the deal with Poe is in Under the Rose? I thought he was a really interesting character in SSG.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007 at 3:33:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First, remember Diana, that I love Poe. :-) I want a t-shirt that says that. Or Camp Poe. Or something like that.

Secondly...thanks for quoting me!!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007 at 4:46:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

That was a really great post. As a die hard star wars fan, I love it when anyone relates writing to Star Wars, so you get kudos for that.

Nonetheless, you made me think about Star Wars in a way I hadn't considered, and that gets you serious bonus points in my book. :)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007 at 10:58:00 PM EDT  
Blogger writtenwyrdd said...

You just helped me figure out what was wrong with the multi-book arc I've been plotting. Character backsliding!

Thanks for the info. This was a great post.

Sunday, July 1, 2007 at 10:28:00 AM EDT  

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