Monday, July 6, 2020

Keeping Readers Hooked Throughout a Series

Today we're so excited to welcome Mary Kole. I call her Editor Extrordinaire. Welcome, Mary!

Many writers celebrate when they’ve written one novel or book for young readers—it’s a huge achievement, after all, to complete a manuscript! However, there are those writers whose stories span two, three, five, ten, or more books. I spoke with a client a few weeks ago who had a story written at over a million words, spanning nine decades, and more than ten manuscripts! Series writers are a special breed, and that’s why I’m excited to talk about crafting plot and character arcs over the long haul, rather than “just” one project, here.

Character development and plot development take on a somewhat different meaning when we talk about a series. You have some big decisions to make when it comes to both of these crucial elements. Let’s tackle character first. Here are three tips for crafting a great series character arc:

  1. Give your hero enough substance. A hero who goes “from innocence to experience” is fine and good, and a great hook to “hang” a standalone story on. But series characters need compelling wounds and objectives, motivations and needs, and some deep-seated damage or flaw that makes them interesting in the long term. 
  2. Turning points capture readers. As your nuanced character navigates their story, they need to have realizations, make decisions (good or bad), and wade through some ethical and moral gray areas. Series characters should have changes of heart, make mistakes, and be presented with tough choices. You are tracking years or decades of a character’s life, and a lot happens over an extended period of time that tests a character, yes, but could also change a character—for better or for worse. Readers should see the highest highs and the lowest lows of your protagonist before the series is done. It’s okay to not like them for a while or to even fantasize about killing them off, like thriller writer Lee Child’s famously admitted to doing with his Jack Reacher protagonist (featuring in 25 installments as of fall 2020).
  3. Think outside the protagonist. Series often come alive in the supporting characters and antagonists. If Voldemort hadn’t been that compelling, would Harry Potter have sung quite as beautifully over seven (very long) books? A series gives readers an opportunity to really sink into a story, and often that means lending additional development work to supporting characters, foils, and villains in the world.

When it comes to plot, you have one big decision to make right away: Will you be continuing one story or saga in your series, or will each book cover an isolated (but related) event? Series have gone many ways. Most series, like the Hunger Games and Percy Jackson series, follow one POV character through a series of interrelated events set in the same world. But there are options for telling a series story. Interconnected thrillers One of Us Is Lying and One of Us Is Next by Karen M. McManus follow different characters and different events, as do Kristin Cashore’s Graceling-world books. Or you can do a little bit of both—a linear character and story treatment, and then a companion book, like Allie Condie’s Matched series, with the addition of The Final Voyage of Poe Blythe. Or take a different path entirely. For example, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and Ender’s Shadow, tell the same story through different POVs. 

Once you have your overall story scope figured out, here are considerations to keep in mind for a great series plot arc:

  1. A world with enough substance to support the conflict. In order to keep your series plot fires burning hot, you will need enough conflict to make things worse and worse and worse for your characters. We shot down a dragon invasion in the first book. Now the selkies are acting up in the second book. Then the king’s subjects will revolt in the third. World-building is crucial in any story, but if you intend to support a series with yours, is the world broad enough with enough potential hot spots where conflict can arise? But be wary, too, of just tossing random conflict into the ring. They shouldn’t discover a random alien planet that’s about to boil over for the fourth book just because we ran out of conflict on the home plant. Ideally, the conflicts are going to escalate in severity but also importance and potential impact on your characters and the world readers will have come to know.
  2. High stakes—in believable doses. I’ve long maintained that high stakes are actually very tricky to write (link to: because they have to be compelling and believable. A series needs enough stakes and plot tension to support more than one book. However, if there’s an asteroid hurtling for the planet in every installment, followed by a supervolcano, then a zombie invasion, readers may get stakes overload—or think that your story world is the unluckiest place in the galaxy. Ideally, the stakes grow from the primary conflict of your story, one that boils down to an ideological difference between your protagonist and antagonist. All of the events of the conflict should be interconnected, and build one on top of the other. The first Hunger Games book is a story of personal survival for Katniss. By Mockingjay, she’s leading an entire movement in the same story world, for the same main cause. The world is big enough, per the point above, to support many conflicts … but they are offshoots of a main theme, and the stakes grow believably with each book.
  3. A denouement that rewards characters and readers. “Landing” a series is tricky, because readers and characters alike have invested years of their lives, literally, into the story. As a writer, you have more choices to make. What do you resolve? How? Does everything come up roses for the character, or is the series experience the place to play  more in the gray areas—with more victories, yes, but also more defeats? Readers become invested in series, which is exactly the point, but that also means more passion and more expectations. It’s always possible to extend a series, for example, Divergent and Hunger Games, both originally published as trilogies, with a fourth sidecar book issued later. But ideally, you will say what you want to say in a way that captures the nuances of an extended character and world, and also satisfied the bigger investment readers have made. Figure out what your entire series is about, in terms of world-building and theme, and wrap it up in a way that’s loyal to your personal thesis of the work. Every great series has something big to say, at the end of the day.

There are as many series, series characters, and series events as there are series writers. This list is not meant to be comprehensive or all-inclusive, as there are always exceptions to every single rule. However, I hope to have given you food for thought. 

What are some of your favorite series that have hooked you as a reader? How do they play into these ideas, or disagree with them?

Visit the Good Story Company

Some things about Mary Kole:

Former literary agent Mary Kole founded Mary Kole Editorial in 2013 and provides consulting and developmental editing services to writers of all categories and genres, working on children’s book projects from picture book to young adult, and all kinds of trade market literature, including fantasy, sci-fi, romance and memoir. She founded Good Story Company in 2019 with the aim of providing valuable content—like the Good Story Podcast and Crit Collective writing forum—to writers of all categories and ability levels.

She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and has worked at Chronicle Books, the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and Movable Type Management. She has been blogging at since 2009. Her book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit, a writing reference guide for middle grade and young adult writers, is available from Writer's Digest Books.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Sizzling IWSG First Wednesday in July

Alex J. Cavanaugh, Founder

Is anyone new to this site? Anyone who doesn't know about IWSG? Just in case. Here's what we are and what we do.

This is a place for writers to express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

We post the first Wednesday of every month. This is our official Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. You can also choose to answer the question of the month if you'd like. 

Be sure to visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer - aim for a dozen new people each time - and return comments. This group is all about connecting! Be sure to link to this page and display the badge in your post. And please be sure your avatar links back to your blog! Otherwise, when you leave a comment, people can't find you to comment back.

Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG.

July 1 question (answering is optional)- There have been many industry changes in the last decade, so what are some changes you would like to see happen in the next decade?

The awesome co-hosts for the July 1 posting of the IWSG are Jenni Enzor, Beth Camp, Liesbet, Tyrean Martinson, and Sandra Cox! 

As a hybrid author (one who's traditionally and self-published) I've already seen one change that I wanted. The Indie author has become much more professional and, therefore, much more respected. 

In the future, I'd like to see more combinations of media, and I believe this is already happening. Recently I purchased a picture book that came in print but that was also accompanied by a musical version of the story. This was perfect for the young reader, but I think it also appeals to some older readers. There has always been a fascination about what music suits a story--a lot like what happens in the film industry. 

I'd like to see more Podcasts used in conjunction with published books, too. I think that hearing the stories behind the story enhances the reader's experience and connects authors to their readers. 

How would you answer this month's question?

Check Out The Guidelines & Rules
Don't miss this next opportunity to be included in a IWSG Anthology. This contest is up and running. If you want to submit a story, find all the details about how you do it HERE.

Quick Overview

Word count: 4500-6000
Genre: Science Fiction
Theme: Dark Matter
Submissions accepted: May 6 - September 2, 2020

I'm rambling on about writing and reading over at my BLOG, so stop by if you have time. 

Monday, June 22, 2020

Making A Living At Writing

Hello! My name is Sean McLachlan and the IWSG has been kind enough to invite me to take over the blog today and talk about how to achieve a common dream—making a living from writing.

First, a bit about me. I started my adult life as an archaeologist and worked in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East for ten years before deciding to switch to writing. Of course, I couldn’t make the transition overnight. It was a slow process of building up my portfolio while keeping my day job. Then I got a degree in journalism and writing became my day job. I worked at various newspaper and editing positions before striking out as a full-time freelancer.

Now, twenty years later, I’ve written or ghostwritten more than 50 books, plus thousands of paid blog posts and articles. While making it as a writer is never easy, a few simple tips will help you on your way.

Start Small and Familiar

When I first got started, I pitched history and archaeology articles, using my professional credentials to get in the door. Many of these markets were on the small side. You won’t hit the big leagues with your first publication. Examine your expertise and background and figure out how to market them.

Write Every Day, And Write A Lot

Freelance writers are paid by the article or word. Thus it stands to reason that the more you write, the more you get paid. If you’re submitting articles and books on spec, the more prolific you are, the better your chances of getting hired.

The best writing advice I ever got came when I was still a complete novice. I went to a writing conference where a successful mystery author shared this gem: “If you write a page a day, by the end of the year you’ll have a book.” My first reaction was, “What if I write two pages a day?”

I got to work. Within a year I had my first two book contracts.

Most financially successful authors (as opposed to literary prizewinners who teach for a living) have one thing in common—they are hardworking and prolific. I studied the careers of a dozen of these writers in my book Writing Secrets of the World’s Most Prolific Authors.

It was an eye-opening project. All these writers had written more than 300 books. The great Isaac Asimov almost didn’t make the cut, being the least productive writer I covered. Besides having a strong work ethic and incredible focus while still making sure to take care of themselves mentally and physically, they also knew contract law and worked in a variety of genres often under a variety of pen names. Plus they wrote in a clear, accessible style that attracted readers.

They also recognized one important fact—writer’s block is a myth. As famous Western writer Chet Cunningham put it, “Ever heard of a carpenter not going to work because he has ‘carpenter’s block’? If a writer can’t write, it’s because he doesn’t really want to, he isn’t ready to get it on paper, or he’s just plain lazy.”

Avoid Amateurism

First off, don’t write for free. If a market offers “exposure” but can’t afford to pay its authors, how much are they going to put into marketing? Beginning writers often lack self-confidence and get taken advantage of. If your work is good enough to be published, it’s good enough to pay for.

Also, don’t spend too much time on writing groups filled with other beginners. While they can be fun and supportive, they can also be filled with petty squabbles and bad information. If you must chat online with a community of writers, seek out a community that is achieving more than you are. That will help you level up.

Go Where the Money Is

Be constantly on the lookout for better and more promising markets. For several years I worked as a travel blogger for They paid me to travel and write. Heaven! I sensed, however, that it was too good to last, so I started doing side gigs on Elance (now Upwork). I began with my original strength—rewriting a client’s archaeology dissertation as a popular level book. Then I got into ghostwriting novels, using my indie published novels as a CV. When the bottom fell out of the blogging market and Gadling folded, I was able to leap into ghostwriting to replace that income. In fact, I ended up earning much more. Sadly, I have to pay for my own plane tickets these days!

The key here is to diversify. Never rely on only one source of income. While Upwork is my biggest moneymaker these days, I work hard to sell my indie titles, and also do magazine articles and history booklets for extra income.

Always Be On the Lookout

The world is full of opportunities, and they go to those bold enough to ask for them.

In her memoir No Lady with a Pen, Ursula Bloom, a bestselling author of the early 20th century, wrote about how one early collaborator gave her a tip that she took to heart. “‘For every editor you meet, you ought to get an introduction to another one. That’s important.’ I followed his advice faithfully. I’ve met too many people who ask for advice and then push it aside because it isn’t the kind they fancy for themselves.”

Be open to good advice, be ready to take on new things, and be willing to work hard. That’s all you need. Good luck!

Want to know more about me and my work? Feel free to check out these links:

Amazon Author Page, The Productive Writer YouTube Channel, Facebook Author Page, The Midlist Writer Blog, and Instagram