Top Ten Ways To NOT End a Series: An #RWA15 Workshop

Just came from the panel/class on “How Not to End a [Romance] Series” at RWA 2015 and I am rushing up to my room to see if I can crank out a blog post about it before I go off to a publisher party!
The panelists were Jaci Burton, Marie Force, Jill Shalvis, and Shannon Stacey. All NY Times and USA Today bestselling authors of multiple series. All have sold in the millions.
All of them write series with a central concept of either geography (small town, island, etc) or a brotherhood (firefighters, football or other sports team) that keeps providing them with heroes and characters to be paired up in future books. Each writes the kind of series that has a different romantic pair in each book and since they are character driven, none of them uses large overarching plots to tie things together: they just write whatever character calls to them next.
And each one said, basically, they don’t know how to end a series. All of their series but one are still ongoing (the exception was Shannon Stacy’s Kowalski series, because, as she put it, “I ran out of Kowalskis.”)
They said a lot, all of it excellent advice, but in the interest of time, I’m boiling it down to my top ten takeaways from the panel.
TOP TEN TAKEAWAYS ON HOW TO WRITE AN ONGOING SERIES:
1. Have a series ‘bible’–a spreadsheet of every character and all relevant things about them, their age, description, job, what book they appear in, birthday, anything that is ever mentioned about them. All four of them use this tool, and three of the four mentioned that they hire Lily’s Literary Services to create their series bibles for them. “Don’t wait until you’re on book 6 of your series,” said Jill Shalvis, “or you’ll be miserable.” Shannon Stacey also pointed out, “It’s good to have someone who is not you do your bible because they will catch stuff that you would miss.”
2. Have a timeline. Whether it’s by day, week, month, year, or generations, you have to keep track of what happened when, how many days or months went by, etc. Shannon again, “And I use iCal to keep track within a book not only what’s going on but if any major holidays are coming up. I realized one book was going to cross over Christmas and that’ll have a major effect on a romance.”
3. Have a style guide. Marie Force, “I have some regional things in my books like dialect. In DC the term townhouse is one word, not two. I want it to be one word because that’s how it’s done to be accurate to the region. Every editor wants to change it: now it’s in the style guide so they know not to.” Include anything that is unique to the books, place names, spelling of places, etc.
4. Plant sequel-bait. Jill Shalvis: “My trick for never writing myself into a corner is sequel bait. Always keep some characters mysterious and don’t tell their whole story until it’s their time.” Marie: “Have a lot of good secondary characters. Readers love a sense of community.” Shannon: “You have to resolve the main couple but you seed in other character’s conflicts.”
5. Your setting should be a character. At least if you’re going to write things like Lucky Harbor or the Gansett Island series. (I write mostly big city settings like New York City, London, Boston–for me New York in particular is less of a character than a milieu, almost a genre unto itself…but having heard them say this I am considering how that setting affects my Tor series which is all set in NYC.)
6. Read successful series. Marie: “Read some successful series, and I don’t just mean ours, to see how all these elements are managed, how characters are introduced, etc.”
7. Re-read your own books, obsessively if necessary. Marie: “I always re-read at least the book before the current book before I’ll let it be published and that has saved me a million times. I just re-read books 7 through 12 before writing book 13 of the Gansett Island series because it had been a year since I wrote book 12. I need to know it intimately because your readers will read it ten times!”
8. Subplots, lots of subplots, keep forward momentum for the reader. Jill: “We all have subplots going on. If it’s abut nothing but the hero and heroine, that’s category romance. We want a rich, thick book.” Sometimes subplots don’t get resolved. Marie: “Nine books into one of my series we still don’t know who shot Sam’s dad and it’s a thorn in my heroine’s side. I have no plans to resolve that anytime soon. Likewise there’s an infertility subplot. She won’t be having a baby anytime soon, either!”
9. Be hero-driven and keep those connections and bromances from one hero to the next strong. Shannon: “They don’t have to be brothers, they just have to be bonded. Whether because they’re firefighters or college buddies or what.”
10. Naming your series and the books in it. All three trad-only authors said it was a collaboration between them and the publisher to come up with the titles and the series names. Shannon: “I didn’t know the Kowalskis was going to turn into a series so we didn’t have a catchy series name and by the time we needed one it was just ‘The Kowalski Series’ or ‘A Kowalski Novel.'” Jill: “I make my suggestions on series titles to my publisher. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose.” Marie: “I thought I had a really clever naming convention using the titles of Beatles songs for the titles of the books but then my U.K. publisher told me the rules there are different, so that created some problems with the titles and we had to change them!”
Basically everyone’s advice on the panel was even if you’re only contracting for one book, or for three, act as if the popularity could take off and plan for it to be a series. Don’t wait to start a bible or timeline, plant your sequel fodder, and make sure it’s all in place so if your book does grow into a giant series, you’ll be ready!

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