So your book is doing great. You wrote it, released it, it looks terrific. You’ve got a few reviews under your belt. And now… it’s time for your next book.
Should you make it a brand-new story? Or should you write a “sequel” – spin off a series that somehow picks up where your last book left off?
Series books are proven winners in lots of ways: 26 of Amazon’s 100 Children’s Books to Read in a Lifetime (that’s over 1/4 of the best kids’ books of all time) are series books. Kids love them, teachers love them, librarians love them. And writers love them, too. Why?
Once kids are hooked on a series, they’ll read them one after the other, devouring them like Cheetos. If my kids are typical, and I think they are, they’ll often go back to the beginning once they’ve read them all. Series books also look great lined up side by side on a bookshelf (or in a bookstore!).
(Once you have a basic cover idea, it’s easy to think up clever variations!)
Will your book make it as a series? Here’s a three-step checklist to help you identify the most crucial elements that you’ll need to help turn it into a franchise instead of just a single standalone book.
1. Distinctive Character
The books that stand out – and the series that succeed – are usually the ones with a very strong lead character. Strong as in unforgettable.
Think about Olivia, from the books of the same name by Ian Falconer. She’s a cute pig, but there are a million cute fictional pigs out there. Actually, Olivia isn’t particularly cute, but the drawings are strong and distinctive, as is her personality. I mean, she loves opera. How cool is that?
Is your character unforgettable? If so, read on…
2. Distinctive Setting
Your character’s world should be compelling enough to make you want to spin more than one story in it.
That doesn’t mean the setting has to be all that fantastical or strange. Judy Blume set her children’s chapter books in a slightly fictionalized New York City of the 1970s. The city is a vibrant, dramatic presence in her characters’ lives. (As it is in Olivia the Pig’s life as well.)
I come from Canada. Do you know what one of Canada’s biggest tourism draws is, especially among Asian tourists? Anne of Green Gables.
Even though she wasn’t real, people come from all over the world to Canada to “visit” Anne. The gift shop at Heritage Park in Calgary, Alberta, nearly 6000km (>3000 miles) to the west of where Anne NEVER LIVED, BECAUSE SHE WASN’T REAL was full of Anne paraphernalia the last time I checked. It must sell like crazy.
People want to immerse themselves in Anne because the setting of her books is so distinctive. Others are doing that just a little south with Laura Ingalls Wilder, trying to find traces of her real life, although many details from the series were fictitious.
It doesn’t matter whether your story is set in a real city or country or somewhere totally fantastical like a spaceship or another planet or a miniature fairy world. Just make it a place kids (and their parents) will want to visit again and again and again, if only in their imagination.
3. Spinning the Theme
Although the first two points here are all about continuity, about keeping readers with your character, in your character’s world, you will have to change things up.
You may have heard of a serial and wonder how that’s different from a series. A serial is like watching an episode of a TV show. The story might not have an ending… instead, it’ll end with a cliffhanger (small or large) and a message like, “To be continued.” The reader groans, but if you’ve done your work right, they’ll buy the next book to find out what happens.
That’s fun, and I think more kids’ authors should explore serials in this digital age, but that’s not a true series.
A true series (as opposed to a serial) offers readers a complete story, wrapped up in a tidy package. A complete plot: beginning, middle and end.
And each book should generally have a different theme. Maybe your series is all about values (in a low-key, enjoyable, non-pedantic way, please!). So in Book #1, Clarissa has trouble making friends and learns that if she smiles and says hi, the other kids are warm and friendly in return.
That’s fine to start the series, but Clarissa can’t have the same problem in Book #2. So that’s okay. What about honesty? That’s another great value. In Book #2, Clarissa tells her teacher a lie and feels terribly guilty until she realizes that she can undo it by approaching the teacher privately.
Book #3? Thrift. Clarissa spends all her money and then her friends are going out for ice cream and she can’t buy any. How will she get out of the pickle this time?
You can see where I’m going with this, I think.
How many ways are there to spin your theme to get a brand-new idea? Infinity. Even the sky isn’t the limit, in this case. If your series is about aliens exploring other planets, just have them visit a new planet each time – making each one exciting in a different way.
Think about the Magic School Bus: anything and everything to do with science is a great destination for that determined little bus: prehistoric times, inside the human body, up in a cloud, in a water filtration plant.
When you’re starting a series, brainstorm a bunch of ideas before you commit yourself to just one. When you’re brainstorming, there are no wrong answers – just write it all down. The Amazon rainforest? Sure! Visiting France? Yay! Adopting a rhinoceros? Why not?
Say yes to them all just to keep the ideas coming. When you’re done, pick your favourite. But save the list, because you can always come back to mine it for ideas later on.
When should your series end?
Once they’ve started a series, lots of writers want to know when to stop. The answer is – you don’t have to! As long as you’re still in love with your character and setting and you have new ideas for original themes, you can keep writing the same series for a lifetime.
That doesn’t mean you won’t write other books. You can always set your series aside and pick up a few other projects in the meantime. Take a break. If you’re writing a picture-book series, maybe use your break to explore nonfiction, or write a longer middle-grades chapter book (here’s how to decide what age group your chapter book is best for), or a guest article about your process for a local writer’s journal or a website you adore.
(Why, yes, I am now accepting ideas for guest posts!)
Of course, if readers are enjoying your series, that’s an even better reason to keep on writing it. But sometimes, having more books to choose from can improve sales of all the books. By putting more books out there in your series, you’re automatically increasing your visibility.
Could your book become a series?
Before you start your next project (or even if you’re already in the middle of your next project), go through this three-point checklist.
Now think about what you enjoyed most about writing that last book. Did the characters and settings stand out for you? Are readers (or their parents) mentioning them in their reviews? Can you think of a way to take the theme and spin it?
If you answered yes, you could have a series on your hands.
I said before that kids, parents, teachers, everybody loves series books. But you know who loves them most of all? Writers.
Writing a series is like having a leisurely visit with old beloved friends. Enjoy every minute of it, and remember that your friends will always be waiting for you, eager to hop into the next story you think up for them.