Thursday, September 19th, 2019

The Series Series, Part 2: Starting a Series

It took us thirteen drafts to figure out the best way to start the Very Fairy Princess series: with a “day in the life of…” establishing story.  Once we had introduced the character and  her world, other story ideas seemed to flow more easily.  The first book in the Dumpy the Dump Truck tells the story of how young Charlie and his grandfather restored the old wreck to a really useful (and possibly magical) truck, after which subsequent stories could focus on their adventures together. The first Little Bo book introduces all the characters, both feline and human, establishes that Bo’s siblings have been scattered (so that she can find them in subsequent stories), and connects her with her beloved sailor, Billy, with whom she later travels the seas.

But starting a series is more than establishing characters and setting.  You are also establishing style, tone, and any other unifying elements that will be present in subsequent books. When Jim and Kate McMullan published I Stink!, the first book in their wonderful anthropomorphic vehicle series, they didn’t realize they were committing to having an internal “game” within every subsequent story. I Stink!  featured a “trash alphabet” in the center of the book, thus necessitating that each subsequent book provide a similar fun element – a maze, a counting game, a “Where’s Waldo?” type puzzle, etc.  Olivia, by Ian Falconer, establishes with the first book that there will be legit art represented at least once or twice in each subsequent book, in full color to contrast with the black, white and red illustrations.

But don’t feel bogged down by the details. There are plenty of examples of series that have changed as they developed. Marc Brown’s Arthur series is a case in point – the scratchy, edgy character drawings evolved over the course of the series to become smoother and more widely appealing than their earlier counterparts.  The point is simply to be aware that whatever simple rules and styles you establish in Book One will, ideally, extend through and define the balance of the series thereafter.

Series NavigationThe Series Series, Part 1: Planning a SeriesThe Series Series, Part 3: What Constitutes a Series?


5 Responses to “The Series Series, Part 2: Starting a Series”
  1. Beth says:

    I am becoming more and more aware of the importance of these “establishing shots” in series writing. It would be easy to become overwhelmed — thank you for adding “don’t get bogged down in the details.”

    Conversely, I would assume that laying too much groundwork in the first book of a series, establishing too much as “given” right off the bat, could leave the writer with no place to go in subsequent books. Is this assumption correct?

  2. Emma says:

    Beth –
    Interesting question. My experience, as I’ll hopefully be exploring in further installments in this series, is that the places once “goes” in subsequent books – at least in picture books – tend to be more about new plot directions, new events in the characters’ lives, new adventures, rather than introducing many new characters or other details. Of course picture books usually have a limited number of characters to begin with – and also have a necessary economy of words that minimizes exposition, so they don’t really lend themselves to laying in a lot of detail in one book. Novels and chapter books are different – but even there, the emphasis with children’s books is always more on action than exposition. It’s a balancing act, of course, like everything else!

  3. Melissa says:

    I’m writing a series of chapter books and am trying to work out the style – in the first one I’m struggling with how much ground work to put in it… and how much to put in so that the books can be stand alone if necessary (like the Zac Power books).

    Any tips on how to work out how much to put in or leave out?

  4. Emma says:

    You are right in working to make each book stand alone. To that end, I would concentrate on putting in only as much as THIS book needs. The trick is not so much to plan ahead in terms of laying in groundwork now as to look back at other books when working on future installments to maintain continuity. Does that make sense?

  5. Melissa says:

    That does make sense 🙂 Thanks Emma.

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