Wednesday, 18 September 2013

GUEST POST: One in a Million: Writing Series Fiction by author Lil Chase

It’s a daunting task to write a book. So many words. So many plot holes to trip over. Avoiding the danger of boring the reader.

But if an author has faith in their idea, or in their protagonist, they might choose to write a series. Perhaps a trilogy, or quartet. Or, even more impressively, a set of books with the potential to go on forever, like Sweet Valley High or Beast Quest.

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In 2010 Quercus read the manuscript for Boys For Beginners and before signing me they wanted to know if I had anything to follow it up with. I sent them a three page synopsis continuing the story of the main character Gwynnie. I also sent five sentences of an idea called ‘Locker 62’.

They offered me a two book deal. But they wanted Locker 62.

My agent said this was better than a follow up book for Boys For Beginners; "Now you have two cracks of the whip". i.e. if the readers don’t like one Gwynnie book, they are not going to like the sequel… but they might like Secrets, Lies and Locker 62 (as it became). Sad as I was to be saying goodbye to Gwynnie and her friends, this made a lot of sense and it felt very freeing.

So after the liberation of publishing two stand-alone books, why now am I writing a series?

At the end of last year I sent my editor a third stand-alone book called The Queen of Clubs. The pitch was: ‘Two sisters: rival clubs’. She liked the idea, she liked the writing… but did I want to write a series? I said, ‘Heck yeah!’ before I realised what I was taking on.

The elements of the story had to be bigger. The hook had to be hookier. When writing a series there are two concepts to work on: the novel’s concept (which could remain as two sisters with rival clubs). And the series’ concept, which could be:

  • A original premise – for example, each chapter covers the lives of two protagonists on 15 July, for twenty years (One Day)
  • A prevailing conflict – the problems of loving someone who is a vampire (The Vampire Diaries)
  • An intriguing character – Percy Jackson / A Wimpy Kid
  • A vivid setting – a boarding school for training witches and wizards (Hogwarts)

Locker 62 had an original premise – a locker stuffed full of secrets. But once all the secrets had been cleared up I knew there was no more that could be done with it. More secrets? More investigation? The idea would quickly become tired.

I also crossed conflict off the list. Dragging out the issues between the two sisters seemed tough to do book after book after book. (Although it can work very well in comedy like Horrid Henry or My Sister the Vampire.)

My main character – Lara – though complex, fun and funny, is very much an ‘everygirl’. She could easily pull off two books, even three… but a whole series that stretched on forever?

This left the setting. Of course I could make the setting an ‘everyschool’ like Grange Hill. But I wanted my idea to be better than that, hookier: a school with something special about it. I quickly dismissed stage school and boarding school because it’s been done before – rather well – and I haven’t personally experienced either.

Write what you know…

I went to an all-girls school. The local boys’ school started taking in girls, and I was the exact right age to join. I could not think of anything more thrilling than being one of those girls. The novelty of it. The excitement. Being surrounded by boys – a dream! And as it turned out, only about twenty girls enrolled that year. To me they were the luckiest girls in the world.

But when I asked my male friends about them, they weren’t that bothered. The novelty quickly wore off. Suddenly I felt sorry for the girls. Being surrounded by boys – a nightmare! They only had a few girls to talk to, who’s to say they’d find a good friend?

So that was my series idea: ten girls enrolling in an all-boys school. The conflicts in each book could arise from each other or from the boys that surrounded them. A setting rich in possibility. I pitched the idea to Quercus and they went for it.

The Boys’ School Girls is due for release in August 2014.

Top tips for writing series fiction:

  1. Come up with a series concept with the potential to produce lots of stand-alone concepts.
  2. Before writing the first book in the series, know about all the players, even the bit parts. Characters should have three-dimensions in stand-alone books; four, five or more dimensions in series fiction. They will need to have clear personalities, but have the ability to surprise the reader (and sometimes the author!).
  3. No one notices your mistakes like a fan. Write a series bible. Start straight away. Note everything from full names to nick names to haircuts to siblings’ names.
  4. Each book must have a satisfying ending – whether stand-alone or series. The conflict raised in the individual book must be resolved by the end of that same book.
  5. But leave some threads hanging. These threads can be picked up in other books and the loyal reader will feel rewarded by noticing. i.e. Lara’s best friend Abby has a sister who is chronically ill. This is mentioned in passing in book 1, but will a major subplot in book 2.

Lil is the author of two books - Boys For Beginners (2011) and Secrets Lies and Locker 62 (2012) both published by Quercus. You can see Amber's review of Boys For Beginners here.

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