On August 19, 2010, Yvonne wrote, Ms. Levine, do you have any advice on writing sequels, prequels, or writing books set in the same world as a previous one? I know you did this with Fairest, and I was wondering how you did it and kept the same characteristics of the kingdom that you had in the first book.
Actually, in Fairest, in one important regard, I failed. In Ella Enchanted, Char describes the people of Ayortha as taciturn. But when I wrote Fairest I couldn’t stay with that. I couldn’t write a semi-serious novel about people who barely speak. If Fairest had been one of my Princess Tales, which were mostly comic, I could have pulled it off. In an early draft of the book, I put in a sentence explaining how Ayorthaians were terse with strangers, but I think even that got cut. A reader once called me on this, and probably many other readers have noticed. It’s a fine example of an imperfection.
Maybe one rule of sequel and prequel writing would be not to put anything in the starter book that you can’t live with in future volumes. But I’m not sure. I don’t want to encourage timid writing, which would be worse than my Fairest mistake.
Seems to me there are two kinds of series. In one kind each book tells a complete story and the end is a full stop. Books can be read out of sequence and it doesn’t matter. In the other kind, the Harry Potter kind, each book has its own conflicts, but they’re part of a larger story that isn’t over until the final page of the last book, and the books should be read in order. I haven’t written this second kind of series, although my Fairy Haven and the Quest for the Wand is easier to get into if you’ve read Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg. I assume that writers who write a continuous series know the entire arc of the plot and where each book fits into it.
At the moment I’m writing a second mystery in the world of my heroine, Elodie. If I can, I’d like to stay with her and her dragon employer, Masteress Meenore, and her friend the ogre Count Jonty Um for a bunch of books. Each novel will be its own separate story (the first sort of series), but some life events for the main characters may evolve over time. Elodie and Jonty Um will get older. One or both of them may find love. There may be loss. Dragons age more slowly, and there’s something immutable about Meenore, so he’s unlikely to change much. Or maybe he will. I don’t know.
Some series have a villain who provides story continuity. I’ve read only the first Harry Potter book, but I figure Voldemort is that villain. In the Sherlock Holmes series Moriarty is the villain, but those books can be read in any order.
I’ve mentioned before that for each novel I keep a document called “Remember.” In it go the details, which vary somewhat from book to book. For the mystery series I’ve continued the same “Remember” from one book to the next. These are some of my categories: geography, monetary system, apprenticeship system, Elodie’s mother’s rules for her, character descriptions, the attributes of an acting troupe, the dragon diet. I could continue, but you get the idea. A “Remember” document will help you be consistent and will save time, because you won’t have to hunt through your earlier books for the particulars you need.
Before I wrote Fairest I reread Ella Enchanted. I’d like to say I took notes, but I don’t remember whether I did or not. I should have. So read and take notes. Originally I’d thought Ella’s best friend Areida could be the heroine of Fairest, but I was reminded that Areida is dark-skinned and the Snow White character, obviously, needed to be pale.
You may want a similar tone from book to book. If you’re writing an adventure series, you probably wouldn’t make one book a brooding character study with little action. My Princess Tales are humorous. Fun is the point. I couldn’t have written a tragic Princess Tale and made it fit. However, you might change point of view from book to book. You could have a series about a group of friends. If a different character told each book, the voice and tone would have to vary or each narrator would seem like the same person. But you still probably wouldn’t want one book to be completely lighthearted when the others were utterly serious.
I tied my Princess Tales loosely together with humor and with features that readers would recognize from one book to the next. All of them take place in the kingdom of Biddle and most in the town of Snettering-on-Snoakes. The king’s name is always Humphrey, and the queen is always Hermione, Humphrey I and Hermione I in the first book, higher numbers in each succeeding volume. The fairies are always seven feet tall with huge, fleshy wings. In this kind of series you may not need much more than a few recognizable features like these and a relatively consistent tone to unify the books.
You probably need to think about whether or not you want character growth from book to book. Since I haven’t read more than one but I don’t live in a cave, I gather that Harry and Hermione and the others change as the series progresses. In contrast, Sherlock Holmes doesn’t evolve. He’s the same brilliant, easily bored, self-destructive fellow all the way through. His failure to grow gives the series poignancy. The reader sympathizes with Holmes and worries about him. Both are valid choices.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you decide whether or not you want to attempt a series:
Do these characters interest you enough to want to be with them for more than one book? There is no dishonor in a no answer. The characters in my Princess Tales, because the stories are so light, are paper thin. They were invented for a single situation, and they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves outside their original tales.
Do you have a big and complicated enough idea to carry a bunch of books? At one point while I was writing Ever I thought I had a series on my hands, but I didn’t. My concept sewed itself together in a single volume.
Do you know what themes you’d like to explore from book to book? I’m optimistic about the mysteries as a series because I plan to rely on fairytales, and it’s always been the mysteries that have fascinated me about them. For example, one of my favorite blog postings along with your responses was about the puzzling “Twelve Dancing Princesses.”
• It’s a cloud, composition unknown, threatening the world of your story. It can begin small or full-blown. Write a paragraph or two about each book in a four-book series that starts with the cloud. The cloud can be the problem for the entire series, or not.
• Describe (in writing) the most fascinating person you know. Now add interesting - not necessarily good - qualities of other people in your life. Imagine this amalgamated being as the main character of a series. What would challenge her? What kinds of conflicts would she get involved in? Write notes about a series with this main character.
• Write a page of back story for your current project. Make up new material for this, not what you already know. Consider whether you have a potential prequel. Write about what it might be.
Have fun and save what you write!