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[GUEST POST] Sabrina Benulis on The Daunting Task of Writing a Book Series

Sabrina Benulis lives in northeastern Pennsylvania with her husband and a spoiled cockatiel. When she isn’t writing like a madwoman, you can find Sabrina enjoying old school video games, Japanese anime, and of course a good book. Archon, her debut novel, is the first installment in The Books of Raziel series. Her new book, the sequel, is called Covenant.

A Book Series is A Journey

by Sabrina Benulis

There really is an art to writing novels in a fantasy series, and by now I firmly believe that no matter how many books you read, this is a skill that someone can only firmly acquire through experience. Many times when I’m asked how many novels I’ve been contracted for in The Books of Raziel series and I say ‘three,’ people first congratulate my good fortune, and then they look at me flabbergasted. The next question inevitably is, “So how exactly can you write three books that are all connected?” or better still, “How in the world do you keep track of everything?”

The short answer is: it’s complicated.

So very briefly, here in my own humble words is what can be expected in the amazing and terrifying journey from Book One to Book Three, which seems to be the most common book series number encountered, especially in the speculative fiction genre. Hopefully, this will help other aspiring authors out there of all genres–or at least entertain!

Book One

For a fantasy writer like me, this is the most exciting book of all, because it’s chock-full of endless possibilities. At this point, you (the hypothetical spec-fic writer) have at least a beginning and end in mind to your story, the major characters are already dancing around in your head, and best of all, you’ve taken as long as humanly possible to revel in the world you’ve been fermenting in your head for months, or more likely, years. This book is both the most time-consuming to write and the shortest, because you’ve certainly spent an outlandish amount of hours developing your world and ideas. But when you finally set your fingers to your keyboard, hopefully the words flow fast because of that very fact.

Like I said: hopefully. You know these characters like the back of your hand; you know this universe inside out. The hardest part at this stage is simply figuring out how the reader will get to know them too. Time and care must also be taken to establish the overall plot of the story that will connect all three books. Yet in the always uncertain gamble of the publishing world, it’s still so important to have this first novel stand alone.

That means you’re doing triple duty while you’re writing: you’re introducing the major players of the story and establishing the setting, you’re at the very least hinting at the grand overreaching plot to come, and you’re providing some kind of smaller plot to get the momentum of the story going in the first place.

But as I said before–at this stage, everything can feel like magic. Each moment of the novel is new and an author’s morale is at its highest.

Yet the story must go on. That’s when things start to get a little hairy. Meaning–stressful.

Book Two

There’s a reason most authors dread writing book number two in their series. It is often described as little more than a ‘bridge’ between the beginning and the end–a middle zone where the plot can very easily stall to a boring vapid nothingness. Often this is coined as the second book slump. For many writers, it can often feel that no matter what they do, inspiration can be sorely lacking. The latter dilemma is really just an illusion. After the excitement of Book One fades, the dawning reality that one must accomplish Book Two begins to loom large, with all the fear of not meeting expectations behind it.

Besides, you the author have possibly spent years developing the first book. Sometimes, you might never even have dreamt there would be an actual completed novel for people to pick up and read. Suddenly, the pressure is on to continue that story you started.

Worse, you often have to remind people of the characters and events–and for spec-fic writers the world–from the first book so that they’re not totally lost picking up the second. At least a year goes by from one novel to the next in the publishing arena. That’s plenty of time for readers to forget the important stuff you told them in the first round of your story. Weaving that back-story and exposition into the novel again can become a delicate, precarious chore. Too little, and you’ve accomplished nothing. Too much, and you risk boring those already following your book series to tears.

In this instance, I can say that reading other series novels is an absolute necessity in learning how to develop this skill. But it’s also something you must practice and refine with time. That’s where the experience I previously mentioned comes into play. Having beta readers for your initial draft also certainly helps. They’ll definitely let you know when you’ve made them snore.

You can’t afford to let that happen either. Because by all means Book Two has to top Book One. At least half of the overarching grand plot must be resolved; otherwise your readers are going to get antsy. More important, the stakes must be raised even higher. If the climax to your first book seemed overblown, there’s the necessity to top that off with something even more spectacular this time around. And all the while, you must hint, hint, hint at what’s to come at the end.

So after these terrible rounds of anxiety, followed by relief, followed by more anxiety, Book Two is finished. By a sheer miracle, you the writer have made it stand strong and proud. With any luck, readers are hungrily awaiting the end of your book series, and are drooling over even a mention of the grand finale you have up your sleeve.

Book Three

Yet it’s not time to clap yourself on the back just yet. Book Three has so much riding on it, you can’t afford to get that distracted.

The third book (if you are writing a trilogy) now becomes the greatest of all your accomplishments. There is no slump any longer. You are on a sheer steeply pitched slide toward the end of your story, and picking up momentum fast. But, oh, there is so much to yet be done. Characters, sub-characters, and sub-plots must at last find their resolution. There is nothing worse than a book series where a character or characters seemed to have no purpose in the first place. Themes merely hinted at in the first two books must now be fully realized. Settings, especially in fantasy, must be grander and often take the main character far out of the somewhat normal realm they began in. Stakes are even higher than before.

The great difficulty here is meandering a way through all of the plot webs you’ve woven. Not one loose end can or should remain by the time the climax of the novel has been reached.

The third book in almost every fantasy series I pick up and read is the longest, and with good reason. There’s quite a bit for the author to accomplish at this stage, and if it takes six hundred pages for the reader to feel satisfied, then so be it. And remember, you still have to do what you did for Book Two–and that means reminding and introducing readers to the world, the story, the characters one last time and twice over, because you’re not only recapping what happened in Book One but in Book Two as well.

But eventually and at last the words “THE END” are typed, and the overwhelming rush and relief of a job well done sets in. You, the author, have made it from beginning to end while still somehow holding onto your sanity. To your readers, what you have done if you’ve done it reasonably well, looks like nothing more than channeling. Surely the characters and world you’ve created are real. You’ve just been lucky enough to tell the rest of the reading world about them. The tricky part once you finish the first draft of such a hair-raising accomplishment is to go back, to make sure that every last detail fits consistently with that foreshadowing you presented all the way back in Book One.

This makes Book Three often feel a million miles removed from where you first started. You’ve been so immersed in this particular story for so long that you can’t imagine how you even began to type it out.

Yet even after all this excitement fades, something else starts to peek over your creative horizon. That would be the next book series tumbling through your brain, and the beginning and end of an entirely new and exciting universe of possibilities.

Now how in the world can an author jump from one universe to another after so long and do it successfully?

Well, I suppose you might say that’s literally another story.

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