Staying fresh while writing more than ten books in a series has been an organic evolution for me. There have been two points when I thought I was done with Lei Crime Series. The first one was right after book 5, Twisted Vine, when I’d wrapped up all the subplots and had my main characters back together. I’d planned to end the series there…but I felt too sad at the thought of leaving them, and knew I wanted to see them grow together as a couple.
So I came up with a new subplot that took another four books to complete.
After Rip Tides, #9, I was once again pretty sure this particular vein of gold was played out. I’d explored the character development arc I’d set out to: the process of healing and overcoming child sexual abuse by one brave woman and the man courageous enough to love her through it. They’d vanquished their enemies and were setting up house and raising a family.
It was getting boring, as a happy, fulfilled life is meant to be. And boring just doesn’t work in the crime genre. Besides, I now had the Lei Crime Kindle World, and lots of writers would be adding stories to the ‘canon’ of main books. One thing I decided long ago was that I wasn’t going to try to milk a series past its expiration date. I had way too many new ideas to explore to fall into that trap.
One morning, though, holding the hand of my husband of almost thirty years, I thought about our story as if I was telling it as a series. It’s been made up of complete life chapters in discrete places, times and stages. Many times, one of us was struggling while the other thrived. I realized I had a new vein of gold: Stevens. His challenges, hurts, issues. If the first half of the books were about Lei’s character development, the second half would be about Stevens and their growth together as a couple.
Once I embraced this new idea, progress was rapid as my passion for my heroic, damaged couple, their life together, and the crimes they needed to solve carried me along. Bone Hook barreled to a close, ending on my first-ever cliffhanger, and I wrote Red Rain, more of an action thriller-plus-mystery with Stevens as main character, in only six weeks. As of now, I’ll stand behind it as my best book in the series so far.
Red Rain goes live December 26, 2015, bringing my book total to five for the year.
Once Red Rain was off to the copyeditor, I worked on my production schedule for the coming year, something I recommend in my blog post How to Write at Least Four Books a Year. But then, when that was done and I’d decided to give Lei Crime a break, I woke up at 3:00 a.m. with a persistent desire to see what Lei and Stevens were up to…and great new idea for a mystery involving the farm-to-table foodie movement happening here on Maui as well as elsewhere around the country. Thus, Bitter Feast began.
Through all of this, I’ve dug up some applicable nuggets for anyone attempting to write a long series and stay fresh doing it.
- Write an archetypal main character, and preferably secondary characters too. Doing this will hook readers and generate lots of great mine-able material. I wrote more about that here.
- Develop a big, strong, overarching character development arc. I had that, and it took the first five books to achieve. After that, I did another, smaller arc. And then another. All of them still fit under the original, main umbrella.
- Just writing plots and recycling the characters will not end up satisfying you. I can’t write something that bores me, and that usually means I need to torture my main characters with some major test: of courage, of loss, of health or mental/emotional wellbeing. Only when my characters are suffering and growing could I keep writing, no matter how good the mystery plot part of the story was.
- And, just recycled plots and characters won’t satisfy readers either. I’ve stopped reading most of my favorite mystery series because the main character stopped growing and changing, and for me, and for many readers, it’s the element of character development that keeps a series interesting.
- Take a break if you need to. After Twisted Vine, # 5, I needed to. I wrote the first draft of my memoir. After those months of personal agony and challenge wrestling with my life story, I got my second wind and returned to Lei Crime with fresh energy—it was easy compared to memoir! After Rip Tides, #9, I took another break. I wrote two romances while ideas for my next “phase” of the series germinated. I’ve now learned to trust that process—if I’m getting bored with something, I should write what I feel like writing. Novelty keeps my creative batteries charged. Write in some different genres, and it may hone your writing when you return to your regular series.
- Travel and write about that. I took a month-long road trip and blogged daily about all I saw, honing my descriptive skills. When I returned home, I was eager to get back to my fiction, and it had benefited from my increased ability to observe and describe.
- Change up POV. I’ve always tried to keep my readers guessing with changes of POV in my books, but recently I found that writing first person in my main character’s head made for a totally different kind of writing and reading experience than the usual third person. Changing up the POV you usually write in can breathe life into a character that’s getting tired, because you see and experience that character differently.
- Take risks. I’ve begun killing off more important characters with much pathos and heartbreak, and pushing my comfort zone with the subjects I’m tackling. I experimented in Red Rain with setting AND POV, even writing about some very difficult subjects set in a different country. I believe it’s resulted in my best writing to date.
- Put topics out to readers. They can’t tell you how to keep the series fresh, but they can tell you what they want more of. My readers have been awesome, contributing mystery topics, character names, what they hope will happen to characters, and more. Share your struggle with your readers. They might just have a key that gets you unstuck and back to the page with renewed vision.
- Never lower your commitment to quality. Every book deserves as much effort as if it is your first—in fact, you have to assume that every single book in your series might be a reader’s first—so it has to both stand alone and hook the reader into wanting to know more about the world you’ve created. Tempting as it might be to cut corners when you have a following eager to read the next in your series, don’t give in. Keep the quality high or go home, because readers will pick up on this and bash you in reviews. If you just can’t do another for a while, follow one of the suggestions above.
Walk around with your dowsing rod until you strike oil, and accept nothing less. Your readers deserve the good stuff, and so do you. I hope you find a few useful ideas in here to keep a long-running series going…and wish me luck as I launch on Lei Crime #12, Bitter Feast.