Building a series

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I am writing my first series ever right now, with the exception of my part in The Keepers  series, which is not a traditional mystery series but rather a series collaboration between three authors, Heather Graham, Harley Jane Kozak and me: related books set in the same paranormal/urban fantasy world with the same core characters.  That is totally AMAZING fun, btw – sort of like repertory theater, only with authors as director/writers.  Love it!

But I wrote my new crime thriller Huntress Moon  with the absolute intention of making it a mystery/thriller series, and while I do have plans to do sequels to two of my other books (Book of Shadows  and The Space Betweenwhich MUST be a trilogy!), I didn’t write those two thinking of them as series, they just turned out that way in the writing process.

Writing a series deliberately from the get-go – that’s a whole different thing.

The thing is, I don’t read many series.  The ones I do, I’m obsessed with, but have never been one of those who have to read in order. I really expect a book to work completely as a standalone, whether it’s in a series or not, so I’ll pick them up randomly and work my way through them in whatever order I get to them.

I’m not much of a TV series watcher, either.  I watch many more movies than TV series.  Well, not so much lately, since feature films seem to have hit a total low creatively, thanks to the corporate culture in Hollywood, which has driven all the good screenwriters to cable TV and jacked the quality of cable series up to mindblowing proportions.  I think it’s a second Golden Age of Television, honestly, and I often spend days watching an entire cable show on Netflix (Mad Men, The Wire, Deadwood, Wire in the Blood, Luther, The Walking Dead) without moving from my chair for much of anything.)

Hmm, I may be digressing, but it’s true.

But since I am obsessing about the series thing, I wanted to ask you all today to talk about your favorite series. What are they, what draws you to them, what hooks you, what keeps you reading, what’s your burnout point (if any!)?

Here’s my list.  (Yes, the Top Ten List I’m always preaching about!)

– Lee Child’s Reacher series

– Mo Hayder’s Jack Caffery/Flea Marlowe series

– Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series

– Denise Mina’s Paddy Meehan series

– Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli and Isles

– Val McDermid’s Tony Hill/Carole Jordan series

– Karin Slaughter’s Georgia series

– Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor series

– F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack series

– John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series

And, well, I have to add Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, but the rest of the Hannibal series I try very hard to pretend never happened at all.

Now, the first thing I have to say about all of the above authors is that – it’s not the series, it’s the authors.  I would read anything any of the above put to paper, and pretty much have already, repeatedly. And I’m actually often more interested in books OUTSIDE the series than the next one in the series.

Writing a book, any book is an obsessive, encompassing, borderline psychotic thing.  (I threw in that “borderline” just for a laugh, cause, you know…)

Writing a series is all that, exponentially.  You have an ongoing, multidimensional, multi-generational parallel world inside you ALL THE TIME.

Does anyone else feel like that’s just – crazy?

Some worlds crazier than others.

I worry about Michael Connelly a little, or maybe I mean a lot, walking around with Harry Bosch in his head all the time. Because Harry is so fragile, you know.  To be constantly accessing that mindset, to be living in Harry’s skin… wow.  What would that do to you? You just want them both to have a BREAK from that, sometimes, but  – yeah, like that’s going to happen.

I guess I should be worried about Lee Child, too, because Reacher isn’t exactly the pinnacle of mental health. But Reacher has better social skills than Harry.  Even if Reacher never sticks around, he does make strong human connections consistently.  It just seems more balanced, somehow.  There was a point around the book Nothing to Lose, and then again in 61 Hours that I thought Reacher might finally be losing it entirely, but he seems to have pulled it together since then, at least for the moment.  I feel like Reacher can take care of himself because he’s actually aware of the need for help and really expert at recruiting it, while I always feel like someone should be taking care of Harry.

Notice how I’m talking about those characters as if I know them?  Well, don’t we?  That’s kind of the point of a series, right?  There is a lead character, sometimes two or three, that you want to get to know, that you commit to for a long-term relationship.

And for me, those characters are complicated and haunted and flawed.  Which might be putting it mildly – most if not all of the above characters seem to be genetically set on “self-destruct” and half of the suspense of the series is whether or not they’re going to survive the next book at all, or with sanity intact.

Actually, all the series above have some pretty strong things in common, besides the fact that they’re mindblowingly well-written.  They’re very, very dark. No happy endings (HEA) guaranteed here; in fact, you know going into any of those books that you’d better brace yourself for what’s coming.  They deal intensively with real human evil, and often with sexual abuse and child abuse, and they deal with it in a way that only a psychopath could be titillated. The characters fight that evil constantly and the battles are always bittersweet; there is no resolution, the battle may be won but the war rages on.  I think that’s just reality, and I appreciate that those authors don’t sugarcoat it.

There is a sensuality and lyricism to the writing that is hypnotic and addictive. The male/female relationships are twisted but incredibly erotic. The stories often let secondary characters take major roles (a trick I first noticed with Tess Gerritsen, one of the first series writers I got hooked on – I read her series more consistently than I did those of other authors because she would let a secondary character take the lead role in many of the books, which kept the series fresh for me).

All of those things are what I aspire to with Huntress Moon.  There are all kinds of ways that I’m trying to live my series, so I can do it justice. I’m taking kickboxing for the first time to see how my Huntress feels, physically and mentally and emotionally, when she has to fight.  (And I have to say that’s a real trip.  It’s not so different from dancing, really, a handful of basic moves that create a language of fighting, and then infinite variations on those.) I’m doing Lee Lofland’s Writers Police Academy in September to go through the law enforcement training that my FBI agent lead, and many secondary characters, would have had, and of course am addicted to Lee’s blog, and Doug Lyle‘s, for fantastic forensics information.  I am living with my nose buried in atlases and Google maps and taking any number of road trips to be in the places that my characters are traversing, so I get that physical experience right.

But most of all I’m grateful to have such stellar examples as the authors I listed above, and many more that I have missed, to look to for guidance about what I am trying create. It is an amazing thing for us as authors that our favorite authors are also our teachers – for life.  All we need to know about how to do this is right there for us – on the pages of our most beloved books.

So please – readers, talk to me about your favorite series, and writers – give me some tips from your experience writing them!


21 thoughts on “Building a series

  1. David DeLee

    In addition to many you've already listed, others among my favorites are Robert Crais' Elvis Cole & Joe Pike, Robert Parker's Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall series, Jeffery Deaver's Katherine Dance, Lisa Gardner's D. D. Warren, and I adore Zoe' s Charlie Fox.
    For me, I tend toward heroic characters, characters I can relate to, who whether male or female act in a way I hope/ wish I would act given the same circumstances and situations they face, mistakes and faults and baggage included.
    Character is what brings me back to a series, whether in books or on TV. I follow characters who demonstrate integrity and whom I would like to know in real life, if they were real, and reading or watching them I feel like I'm checking in with old friends, to see what they're up to and to sympathize along with them as they face (and hopfully triumph over) their obstacles.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    David, I think you've identified something really key: These are characters who act the way I hope I would act in the same (admittedly extreme!) circumstances. I think there's often that moral component to the series we love. Does that resonate with other people?

  3. Bobby Mangahas

    I'm not that much of a series reader, but here's a list of some I do read:
    Kenzie and Genaro — Dennis Lehane
    Keller — Lawrence Block
    Jack Taylor — Ken Bruen
    Charlie Fox — Zoe Sharp
    Nick Heller — Joseph Finder
    Those are pretty much the top ones that I read, but I do read a few others. Although I've always preferred stand alones.
    And I agree with you about the cable shows, Alex. There are some pretty good ones (currently watching The Killing and Lie to Me)

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Bobby, I love Dennis Lehane, read everything he writes, but I only read the Kenzie/Genaro for Lehane, if that makes any sense. It's not the characters, it's him.

    I've always read mainly standalones, too, which is why these answers are being SO helpful to me, thanks, guys!

  5. Lisa Alber

    Hi Alex,

    Her books get longer and longer, but I still like Elizabeth George's Detective Lynley series. She's also one who lets the subplot characters take on major roles–she uses many POVs. Here's what I've noticed about her series, which makes it fresh: She has four main series characters, and she trades off whose story she's concentrating on. So in one novel it will be Lynley, in the next it will be his partner, Havers, and so on. Also, she's not afaid of killing off a series character, which, at the time, shocked and scandalized her fan base–you'd have thought a real person died. HOWEVER, I thought it was a brilliant move because Lynley's life was getting a little too nice, then it went kerplooey, and then in the next novel he was a wounded hero and way more interesting.

    Deborah Crombie is excellent at keeping a series interesting, too. Oh, and Louise Penny. Linda Castillo. Bryan Gruley. Benjamin Black (aka John Banville) though I don't know how many he's got in his series–all I know it that the first few established a great pathologist protagonist.

    For me, the main thing is that all the series characters gotta have some fucked up shit going on in their lives that isn't easily resolved (if at all), such that their personal lives can have their own plot twists over the life of the series…Also, establishing an environment around the protagonists so that their friends and relatives can step center stage too. Like the long-estranged Mom who finds a body and needs her detective son's help–that kind of thing…

    Just like with the epublishing, I'm VERY interesting in reading your tips and tricks for writing a series.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Lisa, you're totally right, I love Elizabeth George and Lynley/Havers! Can't believe I left those off the list!

    And great point about bringing family members in with problems for the leads to solve, that's a good expansive technique. Hmmm….. will have to do some brainstorming.

    It's all about seeing what works in the series you love.

  7. Sarah W

    Looking around the bookcases . . .

    Kerry Greenwood — Both the Phryne Fisher and the Corinna Chapman series. They appear to be polar opposites, but they're both strong, practical women who know what they want. They both stay themselves, pretty much, but their lives develop, if that makes any sense?

    Lawrence Block — Matthew Scudder and Keller (though Bernie Rhodenbarr and Evan Tanner were among my first literary loves). I love how Scudder has changed since his introduction.

    Charlaine Harris — I'm not knocking Sookie, but my favorites are the Aurora Teagarden and the Lily Bard series. I'm hoping Ms. Harris finds more to tell about them someday.

    Zoë Sharp — I'm sensing a strong women theme, here . . .

    Robert B. Parker — All of them. There's minimal (or extremely slow) character development, but they're my comfort reading and always will be.

    Elizabeth George — Lynley and Havers, though to tell you the truth, I wish she would allow one or both of them to be happy in their personal lives for more than half a book.

    I don't know what causes me to stop reading a series . . . Maybe when it becomes obvious that the writer has nothing new to say? Not sure . . .

  8. F.T. Bradley

    I'm a big fan of the Bosch series too. And I like his Lincoln Lawyer one too–had to think of you when I read the first in the series, since it screams movie/high concept.

    Funny thing: I recently read one of Connelly's books where he combined both series, and I didn't like the POV shift at all (the title of this book escapes me at the moment). I guess you can only have one chef in the kitchen 🙂

    I'm writing a series; editing book 2 and outlining book 3. I love going back to those trusted characters, but as a writer, it's a balancing act to keep a good formula going and not feel like you're repeating yourself. I try to have a bigger story arc, to feel like the story moves forward with each book.

  9. Darla

    I love a book series (and TV series), but I absolutely have to read (and watch) them in order. Makes me totally crazy not to because I feel like I might be missing something if I don't. What I love about a series is being able to return to a world I am familiar with; very comforting. I will stop reading a series if the author takes it in a new direction that doesn't appeal (two I recall became quite dark in tone) and/or if the author becomes complacent and the series becomes ho-hum (a cookie-cutter template) … a delicate balance! Oh, and this post made me realize that, while I enjoy stand-alone books with either male or female protagonist, nearly all my series have female leads. 🙂

    I look forward to your follow-up book to Book of Shadows, Alex!

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I'm getting some good reminders and ideas, today, thanks, all!

    I've read a lot of Parker. It's kind of like popcorn, though, never felt like I wanted to reread any of his books.

    Fleur, I wasn't crazy about the book that combined Mickey and Harry, either – I don't know why. I wanted to see them together. But Harry seems to be from a different style of book, I think. They don't seem to belong in the same universe.

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Darla, thanks! I'm looking forward to getting back into that world.

    Most people are like you, wanting the series in the proper order. I don't know what's wrong with me, honestly!

  12. Sheri Hart

    I love series novels. I love discovering new characters to fall in love with that I don't have to let go!

    Some of my favorites old and new:
    Dorothy's Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles (wonderful flawed character)
    Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series
    JD Robb's Roarke/Eve (sigh)
    Timothy Hallinan's Poke Rafferty
    Zoe's Charlie Fox

    I'm really enjoying Huntress Moon and think that could be a new favorite. This book really grabbed me.

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hi Sheri! Lymond Chronicles – I don't know that one at all.

    Loved Outlander, never had any desire to read further than the first, though. Kind of like with Hunger Games – the first was so good I didn't think there was anywhere to go from there. Never made it through the second.

    I'm excited that you're liking Huntress! Hope it delivers…

  14. KDJames

    Most of my favourites have been mentioned. I enjoyed Sue Grafton's series but for some reason, not sure why exactly, I stopped several letters ago. Might have to catch up.

    Back when I was reading paper books, I tended to stop reading when they went from paperback to hardcover, unless I could get them from the library. My budget just couldn't handle it. And some series (not interested in naming them) get a little carried away and just need to stop already.

    I have a friend who refuses to read ANY books in a series until the writer has finished writing ALL of them.

  15. Barbie

    Again, a little late, but a subject I'm passionate about. I'm the total opposite of you. I pretty much only read series. I don't like stand-alones, I follow about 30 tv series, but hardly ever watch movies… The thing is, I get attached to characters easily. I want to see them again. I want to hear from them again. I *need* them again. They become my friends, so, when a book I love ends, it really hurts me. So, I tend to stick to series so I get to be with my "friends" for a longer time and brand new stories. When I write, I write thinking in series.

    My favorite (romantic suspense/thriller) series are Roxanne St. Claire's Guardian Angelinos series, Allison Brennan's Lucy Kincaid's series, Karen Rose's Chicago/Minneapolis series (but whenever she goes away from that, ugh!), Toni McGee Causey's Bobbie Faye trilogy, Tess Gerritsen's Rizzoli & Isles series (though, it's so funny, after the tv show, which I initially rejected, I've had a really hard time reading the books that I've been reading for a long time before the show!).

    I used to LOVE Karin Slaughter's Grant County series, but I think she messed up BAD. Not because *you know what*. But because she merged a really, really great series (Grant) with another one that didn't have characters with as much heart. I HATE what she's done with it, I HATE what she's done with Sara Linton, who's one of my favorite heroines ever, and it makes me literally cry when I think about it. I don't read her books anymore. I HATE Will Grant, I think he's immersed in self-pity, I think he's like Twilight's Bella Swan as in "perfectly flawed", and I really, really hate how Sara ended up in his series. Had she stayed in Grant after everything happened, I'd be just as happy with it. ARGH!


  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Wow, waiting until a series is completely written… how doe your friend even know s/he's going to LIVE that long??

    Although I kind of feel that way about Mad Men, myself – wish I could just go into hibernation until I can watch the whole thing.

  17. KDJames

    I guess she figures there's so much other stuff to read, she can wait. It's the most unusual reader "tic" I've ever encountered. Worse even than people who read the last page first. But she's extremely smart and a very perceptive reader, so I put up with her weirdness. 🙂

  18. Barbie

    Alex, I'm talking about, essentially, the last three, in which she merged the Grant County series with the other one. But the one I really, really hated was BROKEN. I haven't read nor I planned to read her latest one. Just not worth the stress. I read to feel good, not to feel mad and bad.

  19. PD Martin

    I used to read more series crime fiction, but since I got published and became a mother, I find my time is so limited that I like to read a few different authors so I'm getting a broad feel of what's 'out there'. Also, I'm one of those writers who doesn't like to read fiction when I'm writing a first draft (or certainly fiction in the same genre/style). I like to stay in my world, not another writer's.

    Funnily enough, I find the series I have read 3+ books from are outside the crime genre. Like I read about nine in the Laurel K Hamilton Anita Blake series. And five in the Kerri Arthur urban fantasy series.

    I also read about nine of the Janet Evanovich books before I gave up. If someone didn't improve at a dangerous job like bounty hunting, they'd either be dead or quit! And really, I didn't find it plausible that she didn't get better at her job.

    Sarah – love that you've got an Aussie in your list. Go Kerry 🙂


  20. Elaine Sokoloff

    For me, the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, Ramona the Pest series, and Beany Malone series were THE series books.

Comments are closed.