It’s probably time for a disclaimer here. I don’t have the key every editor’s heart. If I did, I doubt that I’d have a chance to write this, because I have many more ideas than willing publishers. What I can tell you is how I presented what became become series.
Series take a commitment from everyone involved: editor, illustrator/cover designer, advertising department, sales representatives, and you the writer. The only one you have any control over is you. To convince the publisher that you have what it takes to sustain a series is your first job. That calls for consistent style, content, and fresh ideas.
For that, you will probably need one completed manuscript, and at least a detailed chapter outline for the second book plus a brief summary of the third idea. I have found that summarizing as many situations as you can think of gives the editor some choices for what she believes are the stronger ideas. More than that, you need to create a series concept or legend. It is not only a selling point but also functions as a guide for consistency throughout the series life. You’d be surprised how many details slip from memory from book to book.
A series concept includes:
• A statement about the series intent, the theme, the intended audience, estimated length and background. You need a short, snappy sales pitch. Think about those paragraph teases on the back cover to peak a reader’s interest in the story. It is a general roundup with the main character, problem, and climax. Notice that I did not say denouement. I made that mistake only once. When I sent the full manuscript, the editor told me the ending was no surprise so that it didn’t work for her. After that, I use a question: Will Makenna win the race against the clock and find the killer before he finds her?
• State whether you see this as a limited series or open-ended. Perhaps you want to cover only the rookie year of a cop, follow an entire career to retirement, or keep going as long as the fans are faithful. Will you start with retirement and look back on a long and productive career or will you present the stories chronologically?• What is the recurring theme?
• Will it be a single viewpoint or will it alternate between characters, and will you use first person or third person?
A legend includes:
• A backstory for your main character with details about how he/she came to be who he/she is: the turning point and major personality-forming events. They aren’t born on page one. You may only vaguely refer to that in the story but knowing this will help you to know how your main character will react in situations. We may moderate our behavior to be acceptable, but people do not change all that much. Series main characters change little, although most readers prefer the essence of a real person with real everyday problems to a super hero that
cannot be challenged emotionally as well as physically. Readers don’t want a character which is shy and cautious in one book and sticking her head in a lion’s mouth in the next. Know your character well before you begin and stick with him or her.
• A directory of recurring characters with their physical descriptions, including tics, chronic gestures, and posture; personality traits; weaknesses, strengths, education background, family, hobbies, skills, and anything that will make your character unique. Once you have your permanent characters, add the other characters that are unique to the first book. You may want to bring them on later for a reason you have yet to consider. As you write subsequent stories, add new ones to the directory and the book in which they appear. You’ll thank me later when you need that chatty waitress from book two to tell your hero entered the diner at closing time in book five
• Location, location, location. It is common for writers to set their stories in real cities. Check out Edie Clare’s Pittsburg in her Leigh Kostow Mysteries or Lisa Scottolini’s ethnic neighborhoods in Philadelphia in her Rosato & DiNunzio mysteries. I most often use imaginary towns since I don’t want to have a murder in a real establishment. I draw a rudimentary map. Characters do not operate in limbo. They have dwellings, cities or villages, places of work, or in the case of children’s stories, schools, playgrounds, and sports fields. You don’t have to be an architect to draw a layout of the neighborhood or town or a floor plan of the house or apartment. When the sun comes up will it shine through his bedroom window? As she walks out the door to go to work or catch the school bus, does she face the sun? What sort of flora and fauna are there? Does fall come early? Do trees shed leaves or are there evergreens? Is it hurricane-prone or drought-prone? Establish these details need to be in your legend. Look around the main character’s home. Is it furnished in contemporary, traditional, garage sale cast-offs? Is it newly built (think fresh paint smells and hollow echoes) or an old fixer upper (creaky floors and settling foundations and tons of old paint to scrape?
Keep in mind that your readers might not read your first story first. Even series books should be stand-alone stories that make sense when you read them out of order. Your characters may be familiar to you, but the third or fourth book may be the first time your readers have met them. Introduce them as if this is their first appearance. You always wrap up the current mystery, and it is a good idea not to refer to other books in the series in the text. The publisher will take care of other titles on a separate page. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have a secondary story that runs through the series. Sebastian’s human John [in the Sebastian (Super Sleuth) series] started out with no girlfriend and worked his way through awkward dates to being engaged by the time the circumstances cancel the series. Poor guy never got to tie the knot before the series ended. Few of us get a warning that our gravy train is pulling into the station for the final time so that we can tie up loose ends in the last. Lin Hill in the Thumbprint series started as a single mother, met the dreamy hunk coroner in the second book, and became engaged in the third one. Alas, no wedding bells for Lin, although I bounce around an idea of a sleuth couple series on occasion.
Another suggestion is to keep the books about the same length. It is a good idea to go back and read your previously published book in the series. That helps you to stay grounded with your sustaining characters. Your personal style changes as you grow as a writer, but you don’t want the shock to be too drastic for your fans.
Most of all, love your character. You’ll hopefully be with him or her a long time. No matter how many other books you want to write, you can’t abandon the deadlines. Nor can you pass off an inferior story because you are bored. Starting a series is like a marriage. Be sure that you are ready to produce a manuscript every year, six months or even two months in some cases.
Get busy with those ideas. To present them, summarize in 100 words or less. Make them snappy. Choose your words wisely as if you are paying a fortune per word. Rewrite until they are the best you can make them, because selling the idea may depend on them. Titles can make or break the chances of being read, so spend some time, think of every alternative you can. A few ideas I have sold based on the title alone: The Purloined Sirloin and The Mysterious Case Case, for instance. Browse the book lists on-line and in-store, and you will see that many are a play on puns.
Part III: Not all series are self-generated, but we’ll leave house-generated series to another time because they have their challenges as well as perks.
Series by Mary Blount Christian
THE DETERMINED DETECTIVES [Dutton; Troll]
MERGER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESSWAY
THE MALTESE FELINE
THE MYSTERIOUS CASE CASE
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERETTA
THUMBPRINT SERIES [Contemporary/McGraw-Hill]
MURDER ON THE MENU
THE UNDERCOVER DETECTIVES [Albert Whitman]
THE GREEN THUMB THIEF
THE MUSEUM MYSTERY
THE TWO-TON THIEF
SEBASTIAN [SUPER SLEUTH] [Macmillan]
SEBASTIAN (SUPER SLEUTH) AND …
THE BAFFLING BIGFOOT
THE BONE TO PICK MYSTERY
THE CLUMSY COWBOY
THE COPY CAT CRIME
THE CRUMMY YUMMIES CAPER
THE FLYING ELEPHANT MYSTERY
THE HAIR OF THE DOG MYSTERY
THE TIME CAPSULE CAPER
THE PURLOINED SIRLOIN
THE SANTA CLAUS CAPER
THE SECRET OF THE SKEWERED SKIER
THE MYSTERY PATIENT
THE EGYPTIAN CONNECTION
THE STARS IN HIS EYES MYSTERY
THE SHERLOCK STREET DETECTIVES [Milliken]
THE NORTH POLE MYSTERY
THE MESSAGE THAT FELL FROM THE SKY
THE MISSING SCARF MYSTERY
THE MYSTERY OF THE FALLEN TREE
THE MYSTERY OF THE MIDNIGHT RAIDER
THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING RED WAGON
THE MYSTERY OF THE POLLUTED STREAM
THE PET DAY MYSTERY
THE UFO MYSTERY
THE VALENTINE MYSTERY
THE GOOSEHILL GANG [Concordia]
THE C.B. CONVOY CAPER
THE CHOCOLATE CAKE CAPER
THE CHRISTMAS SHOE THIEF
THE MAY BASKET MYSTERY
THE POCKET PARK PROBLEM
THE RUNAWAY HOUSE MYSTERY
THE SHADOW ON THE SHADE
THE STITCH IN TIME SOLUTION
THE TEST PAPER THIEF
THE VANISHING SANDWICH
THE GOOSEHILL GANG COOKBOOK
THE GOOSEHILL GANG CRAFTBOOK
PENROD & GRISWOLD [Macmillan]