Friday, March 21, 2008

How do you write a kick-ass series? by Carrie Vaughn

A note from Divas of the Dark: All this week 3/17 to midnight 3/23, leave a comment in any of the posts and you'll be entered to win a $15 gift cerificate to Amazon.com. Happy commenting! Winner will be announced Monday 3/24!
TODAY ONLY 3/21 until Midnight- Comment and be entered for a chance to win a copy of Carrie's Kitty and the Silver Bullet.

When I realized Kitty was turning into a series, I thought long and hard about this question. I had some examples of good series to study -- and I had some examples of series that had gone horribly, horribly wrong. I also had my own anti-series bias to contend with: I prefer a good stand-alone story to a series pretty much any day.

One exception to this is the Miles Vorkosigan saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, and that's what I've used as my ur-model of series writing. Bujold has written something like a dozen books covering about 15 years of military genius Miles Vorkosigan's life. I've read them all, and I'll follow him anywhere. So how did Bujold hook me in like that? What could I do to hook people in like that and make them follow me anywhere? Here's what I've come up with.

1. Make each book a stand-alone story in its own right. The goal here is to have someone be able to pick up any book in the series and still get hooked. Don't make it harder for readers to get into the series by forcing them to figure out what order it goes in, or confusing them if they get it wrong. The first Miles book I read was Mirror Dance, which is not only in the middle of the series, but in the middle of a three-book story arc. I still loved it enough to rush out and read everything else -- completely out of order. But I never felt lost. (It did result in a lot of "oh, that's why that happened!" moments, but that's okay.)

2. The main character has to grow and change. Writers are taught that a novel should have a character arc, that through the story the main character should learn something, should be changed somehow. That the main character is the one most affected by the story. This shouldn't change just because it's a series and the character continues across many books. The character still needs to be invested in the story, each and every time.

3. There's a corollary to this: The main character needs to be the kind of person that lots of life-changing stuff happens to. Let's face it, for one person to face a dozen life-changing character arcs over the course of a series might be pretty unbelievable. But not if that person is naturally that kind of person. Over the course of his series, Miles flunks out of the military academy physical exam, gets into the academy anyway, graduates, starts a military career, accidentally becomes admiral of a mercenary fleet, becomes a pan-galactic super spy, screws up so badly he destroys his career, has to find a way to pick up the pieces of his life and find a new career, and he does, as an investigator which takes him on all sorts of new adventures, and then he meets the love of his life, and then -- you get the idea. Miles is the kind of person who will never run out of adventures.

So, the short version of this: don't be afraid to have your characters grow up. Don't be afraid to throw vast, life-changing problems at them. That will make the series more interesting, more realistic, more vivid, and will make your reader that much more invested in it.

4. The corollary to that is: Don't write the same book every time. Readers are following the characters, not the story formula. If they love your characters, you can do just about anything -- mystery, horror, romance, thriller, all of the above. Challenge yourself, try new things, don't fall into a rut.

5. Stay true to the characters. Don't bend and twist your character to fit an interesting plot. If you want to try a weird plot, consider: what would the character you've already established do with that kind of plot? Make the stories organic, and know what the character would do in every situation. If you want to do something crazy, think about what it would take to push the character into doing something out of character. But always remember: you'll have to sell it to the reader, make them buy it, and then deal with the consequences realistically.

6. Supporting cast. A good supporting cast can do wonders for a series. Miles wouldn't be Miles without Ivan, Mark, Gregor, Aral and Cordelia, Elli Quinn and the rest. Don't make them stereotypes, make them great in their own rights. Think of it this way: they're your main character's team, and they're all in it together. They're not little satellites there to orbit the main character.

7. Goals, and a series arc. While each book should stand alone, that doesn't mean some part of the story can't continue on from book to book. Give the main character a goal, or a problem that never gets solved, that continually develops complications. This gives the entire series an arc, and will help hold it together as a series. It's part of defining the character: what drives this person to keep going even while all this crazy stuff is happening?

This also gives you a way to end the series with a bang, if you decide to end the series. The character accomplishes that big goal, the big problem is finally solved, the ongoing villain is finally overcome. In Miles's case, his ongoing problems were finding a place in his world, reconciling his sense of adventure with his sense of duty, and finding a woman he could settle down with (who would put with him) and start a family. At many points, he despaired that any of this will happen. Then he met Ekaterin. The last Miles book (and I don't know if Bujold has any more planned) ends with the birth of their children. It's a beautiful, perfect ending.

I know what the last Kitty book looks like. I know what happens. I know what her goals and problems are, and I know what we're heading toward. I don't know exactly when that last book is going to happen -- I've got a bunch more ideas up my sleeve before I get to that point. But I love having that structure, that big arc, to work with.

And no, I'm not going to tell you what happens in the last Kitty book.

Carrie Vaughn
Carrie has a blog!

Kitty and the Silver Bullet in 2008
Vampires. Werewolves. Talk Radio.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks so much to Emma and the gang for letting me do today's guest post!


March 21, 2008 at 9:35 AM  
Blogger Emma Petersen said...

You're welcome Carrie! It's an honor and I love your Kitty series. Can't wait for the next book!

March 21, 2008 at 9:46 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Emma, I am glad to know that you write your series books to stand alone. I hate it when they don't. Sometime it is hard to find the full series. I know because I have been waiting 2 years to finish a series that I was reading and still don't have the last book.

March 21, 2008 at 10:59 AM  
Blogger Robin Snodgrass said...

I am thrilled to know there are more Kitty books coming in the future. This is one of my favorite series. The books keep getting better and better.

I'm a big fan of a great series, but I want each book to stand alone within that universe. A series gives me the continuity that I enjoy, while the stand alone qualities wrap up each "episode" in a satisfactory manner. Your books do this extremely well.

Thanks for the insight into how you do your amazing writing!

Keep up the great work!!

March 21, 2008 at 11:37 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

I love the advice you give, and I wish more authors of series would follow at least some of them. :)

March 21, 2008 at 11:47 AM  
Blogger Moira Rogers said...

What a great post! I constantly point to the Kitty books as a perfect example of a series done right. A character who starts off with room to grow, and then does just that.

Can't wait for the next ones! I'm glad to hear you have a few more ideas to go before that big bang at the end. :)

March 21, 2008 at 12:12 PM  
Blogger Jackie Barbosa said...

Great post, Carrie. I really think you've hit the nail on the head in terms of the elements that make a series either succeed or fail.

March 21, 2008 at 1:30 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I got a gift certificate for books and Kitty and the Midnight Hour was one I bought with it - and now I'm hooked!

I do like series. I enjoy ones with stand alone books the best. That way, particularly for a longer series, if I miss one book I don't feel lost and can go back and pick up the missing one later. Of course some details and "color" may be lost and I prefer to read in order but sometimes it's not possible.

Thanks for the contest and the opportunity to learn more about the series and Carrie Vaughn!

March 21, 2008 at 2:20 PM  
Blogger Savanna Kougar said...

Terrific advice. I never thought I'd write series -- but then, they just started writing themselves. So your clear outline of what works really helps me. And Kitty is just a great heroine/character.

March 21, 2008 at 2:54 PM  
Blogger Cathy M said...

I have a lot of great series that I auto-buy for all those reasons that you list. Your Kitty series is one of my favorites.

March 21, 2008 at 3:08 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for all the warm fuzzies!

I'm glad this was useful/interesting.

March 21, 2008 at 3:48 PM  
Blogger Pam P said...

Great post, Carrie. I definitely want to see a character grow and change in a series, makes it so much more interesting.

March 21, 2008 at 3:54 PM  
Blogger kath said...

I like what you said about a series with one character, but I've also enjoyed series which were about a particular family or world or group of people.

My favorite has been Ann McCaffery series. Many times her new books feature a minor character that she introduced in another book. She has even branched out over other generations with the Pern series. It's always fun to see who is going to be featured in her books.

March 21, 2008 at 4:01 PM  
Blogger tetewa said...

Enjoyed the post today and though I've never read the series they sound like my kind of reads!

March 21, 2008 at 5:14 PM  
Blogger ArcLight said...

Great and insightful post.

The Kitty books are my faves right now and the only thing I can think of that's wrong with them is that there's not already many more to read.

Keep up the great work.

March 21, 2008 at 6:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just found this blog while looking for Carrie Vaughns site. I am happy to see that there will be more in the Kitty series. Just recently finished reading the second in the series and am getting ready to read the 3rd.
I love them because of the stand alone quality and that the character is evolving as the series progresses. Keep writing and dont put that End you see in works too soon.

March 21, 2008 at 6:41 PM  
Blogger Kammie said...

I've read numerous books that I found out later were part of a series when I went searching on the net for more information on the author. I doubt I would have enjoyed them so much if I couldn't follow along and felt I was missing something.

March 21, 2008 at 10:08 PM  
Blogger annalisa said...

Love all your Kitty books. I'm so glad that there will be more to come!

I enjoy series books especially the ones that can stand alone. The only thing I don't like about series books is that it is so hard waiting for the next one to be released! :)

March 21, 2008 at 11:15 PM  
Blogger Rebekah E. said...

I love the kitty series and can't wait for the next book.

March 22, 2008 at 7:38 AM  
Blogger Tameka said...

I love the book cover she looks like Laura from Tome Raiders.And good luck on all upcoming books

March 22, 2008 at 9:44 AM  
Blogger Pamk said...

Hi Carrie, great post and I read your first book and it was fantastic.

March 22, 2008 at 7:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, Carrie. I've spent this winter devouring urban fantasy novels, in series and standalones, and Kitty is my favourite character of them all. I remember taking a breath halfway through your first one and thinking, "here's a character with room to grow!" And you certainly haven't disappointed.

March 23, 2008 at 4:54 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

i would really love to win this book, ive been wanting to try her books

March 23, 2008 at 5:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And no, I'm not going to tell you what happens in the last Kitty book.

But, but...You can't say things like that and then not expect questions!

You've made a lot of good points about series writing though, and I think I've finally figured out why I can't write the next book in the series I'm working on: because it's NOT a series. But you've given me some good tips for another story idea I've got that NEEDS to be a series to be written properly, so thanks for that. :)

Looking forward to the next Kitty book.

March 24, 2008 at 11:28 AM  
Blogger Tim Pratt said...

Interesting! I'm just finishing the fourth book in a contemporary fantasy series for Bantam, and I've been wrestling with these same questions -- since I wrote the first book as a standalone, and then the publisher wanted it to become a series. I have my own inherent anti-series bias, and I found a lot of the same solutions you did.

I also looked to mystery series, which often do a good job with standalone novels featuring a continuing character -- the Lord Peter Wimsey novels by Dorothy Sayers, for instance, have become something of a conceptual model for me.

April 7, 2008 at 7:50 AM  
Blogger Elf Sternberg said...

Good tips. I, too, look to the Vorkosigan and Harrington series for the best examples of how that thing is supposed to work.

However, one of the things that neither Bujold or Weber has ever really done is pull the rug out from under the characters. As you said, they have a great supporting cast which has never, ever betrayed them. Both Miles and Honor have familial and political ties that would move Heaven and Earth to get him or her out of a fix they didn't believe was deserved.

I suspect neither Bujold or Weber could bring themselves to write a story where Barryar or Manticore becomes sufficiently convinced of the hero's betrayal that they would turn their backs on Miles or Honor. Watching the character drag himself out of that deep a Bickham-shaped hole would be something to watch.

April 7, 2008 at 9:43 AM  
Blogger alanajoli said...

Excellent post, and advice I'm really taking to heart in my current I-have-too-many-ideas-for-one-book-but-am-not-sure-if-those-ideas-should-be-series-related-or-stand-alone writing project debate. Thanks!

April 9, 2008 at 8:59 AM  

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