Friday, 14 February 2020

Writing a Series by Lynne Benton

As an adult reader, I really enjoy reading series fiction.  There’s something very comfortable about reading about a central character you feel you know and like, and finding out what happened to them next.  And as a child I enjoyed reading series fiction about the same central character too, but now I think about it these were mostly “timeless” stories, ie the central character/s never grew any older while he/she had all these adventures (Just William, Jennings at School, The Lone Pine series etc.)  

There were some in which the main character grew up, such as Anne of Green Gables, What Katy Did, Little Women etc., but on the whole series books for children retained the protagonist/s at the same age throughout the series.

And now I’m a writer too I can appreciate the reason why this is the case.

When writing a book for adults, the adult central character/s can age from, say, 20-50, without the reader finding much discernable difference in their lives, or their ability to do their job, other than maybe the “addition” of marriage and/or children.  They can continue to do their main job, whether as a detective, amateur or otherwise, or as a writer, doctor, archaeologist or whatever.  Over the years they can have various things happen to them, but still they can retain the reader’s interest in their activities.  I’m thinking here of characters like Hamish Macbeth, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Gamache, Maisie Dobbs, etc.

However, it’s not the same when you write for children.  The enormous changes in a child's life between the ages of, say, 9 and 15, mean that their stories will be completely different, and, crucially, will appeal to a completely different readership.

I think it helps if you decide before you start to write the first book what sort of series it is going to be.  Will their adventures continue to appeal to the same age of reader?  (I’m thinking Horrid Henry, Dougal Daley etc, as well as the Famous Five who had umpteen summer holidays while they remained the same age!  The same goes for series such as Skating School, Rainbow Fairies and Magic Ballerina, in which several different characters have adventures at the same time.)


Or will time proceed through the years, so that the children grow older in each successive book?  (Anne of Green Gables, What Katy Did, and of course Harry Potter.)  Sometimes when you've written a book, the editor/publisher wants the story to continue.  And that can make things difficult if you hadn’t actually thought of a sequel to your original story.

When I wrote “The Centurion’s Son” I had no thought of it continuing.  As far as I was concerned it was a one-off, about two children aged 11 and 12.  But by the time I’d finished it I had a few ideas about what might happen to them next, and, as I recall, my agent agreed.  So as I began to plan Book 2 I realised that it would be a sequel rather than another book about the same children set at the same time.  Because of what happened in Book 1 that was impossible anyway.  So Book 2 had to happen one year after the first book.  By then the two protagonists were 12 and 13, which was still okay.  But by the time I realised I wanted to write a sequel to that one the children would be 13 and 14, so I knew I would have to finish the series there.  It would have to be a trilogy rather than a series, or the children would be too old for a children’s book, and their priorities would have changed dramatically once they were both in their teens.  As would their readers’ priorities. So I finished with Book 3, giving it an ending that I hope made it clear there were no more books about those particular characters to come.

When J K Rowling came up with the idea for Harry Potter, she knew right away that the stories would follow him all through his senior school life, so she always knew there would be 7 books in the series, and I gather that from the word go she worked out roughly what would happen in each book.  Which is why they all hang together so well.  

And she reckoned on her readers growing up at the same rate as Harry and his friends, which, of course, they did. (She may not, however, have reckoned on her books being read by such a vast age range that the publishers decided to have different covers for all the adults who wanted to read them but didn’t want to feel embarrassed by being seen reading a children’s book!)  Similarly, once the films came out many children once considered far too young to read the books were keen to do so – which can’t be bad!

So while writing a series can be a really good idea, since it can be a great way to gain and retain a vast collection of enthusiastic readers, it certainly helps if you know from the start what sort of series it will be.


Sheena Wilkinson said...

I love this! Love a series -- have you read Victor Watson's book, Reading Series Fiction? It had great chapters on Antonia Forest's Marlow books as well as Swallows and Amazons and others. In fact your article has put me in the mood to reread it!

Sue Purkiss said...

Interesting piece!