Six Tips For Writing A Successful Book Series

One result of a lifetime of writing in different genres and media is that you end up with transferable skills and systems. Now, with the third novel in my Finfarrran series about to appear in the bookshops, I can see just how useful that process of transfer can be. Much of what I've learned in my career has been passed on to me by other writers, so here are some hints that I thought I should pass on myself.

#1. I started out as a freelance writer in radio and television, where deadlines are paramount. Whether you're writing scripts for dramas, documentaries or features, the bottom line is that it must be delivered on time. A reputation for reliability is one of your greatest references, and that applies to print publishing as well.

#2. Because novelists work alone at a screen, it's easy to feel that writing your book is a private enterprise. But if you're working on a series commissioned by a publisher, it's not. Just as plays or projects for broadcast media, books - and especially book series - are created by a team. As a writer you may be crafting a fictional world or a community of characters but you can't retreat into a world of your own. Claim the space you need for your own creativity but be aware of the importance of other people's input. The idea for my Finfarran books for example, was conceived as the result of a series of conversations with my agent and, when new books are pitched, my editor comes back with her thoughts on storylines, as well as on how each book will fit into the series as a whole.

#3. Some books can take years to write and require endless re-thinking and redrafting. With books like those, you can often afford to make the work organically, discovering the shape of your story as you write. But with a series, where you'll be contracted for two, three or even more books at a time, each with a specific deadline, being disciplined about structure helps. Different writers have different systems: I find that working backwards from my total word count and laying out the whole book chapter by chapter on a chart is the best way for me. It's a shape rather than a rigid system, and allows for flexibility, but I never begin without it and I always have it hanging by my desk.

#4. Writing for television drama, I got used to the idea of every series having a bible - a document which constantly updated details of each character, from personal history and relationships, to favourite foods and physical appearance, as well as information about every setting. For the Finfarran book series I began by drawing a map of my fictional Irish peninsula, adding more information as the various strands in each book focused on different settings. I also list and update facts - physical, emotional and otherwise - about my characters, avoiding contradictions between one book and the next. 

#5. In a theatre production, the director and designer can use colour, light and costume to indicate turning points in a story, and to mirror or give hints about a character's emotional state. In a book, a writer can do the same, and weather, the landscape and the seasons can provide a sense of both setting and the passage of time. My Finfarran stories are about modern life in a rural Irish community, so each book carries a strong awareness of the season in which its story happens. That, in turn, gives me opportunities for comedy, empathy or drama: - in The Library at The Edge of The World, Conor, Hanna Casey's assistant, is focused on the birth of a bull calf when he ought to be trying to impress Tim, the county librarian; the regeneration of the old herb garden mirrors the emergence of the community's sense of empowerment; and, in Summer at The Garden Café, the second book in the series, the forest with its dark undergrowth and sun-filled clearing is the meeting-place where Jazz may find herself too deeply involved with Gunther, her employer.

#6. Scripting broadcast documentaries and writing non-fiction books, I became used to researching and cross-checking facts. If you want to create a series that will engage a reader you need to give your fictional world internal logic. Currently I'm writing the fourth book in the Finfarran series, and I'm constantly aware of the importance of consistency. I know how long it takes for my characters to travel from Lissbeg, where Hanna's library is, to the nearest town of Carrick, and how levels of traffic on the road will change at different times of the year. I know how the local council works; when the convent school in Lissbeg closed; where the old marketplace used to be; and when and where they built the new mart. And, as in The Mistletoe Matchmaker, for which, among other things, I needed to check timetables for winter flights to Ireland from Canada, I cross-refer that internal logic with facts and figures in the real world, so that readers are willing to suspend disbelief and accept - at least while they're engrossed in reading - that the Finfarran Peninsula really does exist. 



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