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Things I Learned From Writing A Series -- by J.C. Nelson

It's been a busy year. The third book in the Grimm Agency series "Wish Bound" is off getting typeset, which means ARCs will arrive in the near future. The second book, "Armageddon Rules" is launched, the first book, "Free Agent" has been out in the wild for 8 months, and now I’m thinking about what I learned from writing a series.

I learned that writing a series requires more planning than writing a one off. When I started the Grimm Agency series, I kept everything in my head. This didn’t work out well, as my head can be a confusing and crowded place. I eventually produced a world bible, and I’m so happy I did. Keeping track of what happened to everyone, when, and why is too much for my brain, but my world bible is patient.

In the process, I made a shift from pantser to plotter. Plotters know every step of the way before they start. Pantsers write by the seat of their pants – they sit down with an open document and surprise themselves. To this day, I do some portion of all first books this way. But if you’re writing a series, you really need to know where you are going.

I don't claim to have become an outline-aholic, but in my novels, I’m tracking two plots at once now – the series arc, and the book arc. Every book must have its own story to tell, even while it advances the series arc, and an outline helps me keep track of where each thread is worked.  The secret to my outlines, however, is that I treat an outline like a rough guide for a road trip than a turn-by-turn blueprint. I know I want to start in Seattle and end up in Chicago. Along the way I’d like to be nearly eaten by Sue the T-Rex. Other than that, the roads by which I get there are a complete surprise.

I learned there's no right answer to Series Debt. Series Debt is the cost of understanding the latest book in a series. In some series, the first chapter of book two picks up minutes after the last scene of book one, with no introduction of characters. Some, you can pick up book three and have a passing familiarity with all the main characters five chapters in. You may miss some crucial nuances or be left wondering “What’s the significance of this?” but you can read and enjoy the book.

No matter what you do, you will frustrate someone. If you give quick introductions on the fly, you’ll be dinged for rehashing past books. If you don’t, you say to the reader “You must start with Book X.”

I tried to split the difference in Armageddon Rules – those who haven’t read Free Agent will be able to understand it, but not everything will have as high an impact. For Wish Bound, that’s a tall order. Two books worth of previous relationships and actions are hard to sum up in a few chapters. I’m not saying it’s impossible. Just that I start to wonder how much a returning reader wants to go through so that a new reader isn’t totally lost.

I learned that supplemental content is fun, but not neccessarily worth the effort. The Grimm Agency series consist of three books, one novella, and one Christmas short story. The novella, Soul Ink, was a short story that got out of hand. It was a blast to write, but I had to be careful, because to me, novellas are supplemental content. Requiring readers to read novellas to understand the series arc is an act of evil. If you loved Free Agent, Soul Ink is another helping of the same.


If you don’t read Soul Ink, Armageddon Rules isn’t ruined for you. There are three or four lines in it that don’t have the same impact, but I didn’t take anything from you or increase your requirements for enjoying Armageddon Rules.  I also released on my website a christmas short story, Special Delivery, which simply allowed me to have a little holiday fun. I can't say I can correlate an increase in sales to either release. I don't regret them, but I'm not certain they helped either.

Lastly, I learned I can’t keep a straight face about anything, and I don't want to. My witches use crockpots. My fairies are stingy bastards. My Fae don’t like interacting with humans, and my angels are unhelpful when they’re not downright hostile. My werewolves consider themselves just wolves, and my princesses don’t take guff from anyone. And that’s the way I like it.

Will there be a Grimm Agency #4? I can't say. That's up to my publisher, and in that regard, up to readers to decide. In the mean time, I'm writing something new. But not another series.

At least not yet.

Posted by J.C. Nelson 27 Apr 2015 at 00:58
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Responses to this blog

Rhodes 27 Apr 2015 at 14:47  
I found while editing Jasper that I made a few errors in consistency. That was mostly due to me not writing the chapters in order and changing some things halfway through. It's fixed now. But I imagine this is only compounded when you're writing multiple books! Continuity is something I'll have to watch out for when writing Jasper's sequel. Thanks for sharing!
Fritzie 28 Apr 2015 at 03:07  
I'm just starting the sequel to my first novel. I find your blog very helpful. I'm a pantser and keeping everything in the head is driving me nuts. I'm taking your advice.
Oznana 28 Apr 2015 at 07:23  
I've yet to publish my novel but in the meantime have written a great deal of a second novel (same characters) with a vague idea for a third book. The introductory chapters are tricky. How much detail do you give to remind everyone of the first book? You need a certain amount to give the new readers an understanding of how the characters get to this point in time. Do you risk spoiling it for those who haven't read the first book? Do you bore the first book's readers to death with all that catch-up stuff? Whether pantsing or plotting or both, it gets tricky. I've ditched the first few chapters of that second book (again) and am planning another major rewrite.
Lexicon 28 Apr 2015 at 10:20  
I find it fascinating that you've moved from being a pantser to a plotter and now have a world bible. My attempt at one is a mess of timelines, diagrams and index cards for characters and places on my wall, yet I never updated them after my initial bout of enthusiasm. Everything remains in my head. Then again, I'm not working on a series.

Does it take a lot of effort to keep up the planning and the updating? Discipline? There's a nagging voice in the back of my head that tells me I'd be better off writing my novel instead of writing background, and I suspect it's rather misguided.
Lpmasters 15 May 2015 at 16:37  
I'm in the same boat. I used to be a pantser all the way, but after finishing all 3 novels in my trilogy and feeling like it was all over the place, I started working on outlining the 3-act structure of the novels and the trilogy. It's been a really great experience.

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