Are you ready to write series fiction?

People have been waiting for my expansion of my How to Write A Series class to come back. Until now, it wasn’t back because in its previous version, I went way down the rabbit hole of too much information, and I had to figure out what to keep and what to dump.

I also had to get rid of all the damn video. The lessons this time through will not be me talking. They will be you reading. Writers read. It’s how we got to be writers in the first place.

The objective of a class on how to write a series is, in fact, to get the damn series written and published, on time and on budget.

This morning I dug out all the questions folks asked me about series fiction (that I could find, anyway).

And I laid out my plan for the class. You can see a thumbnail of the diagram below — if you click it, you can see the big version, which is pretty big (if you’re on a cell phone or tablet, it may still be unreadable. If so, I apologize.

How do I come up with series ideas?
How do I pre-plan episodes?
How do I start Episode 1?
What do I have to get right in Episode 1?

What do I keep track of while I’m writing the first episode?
What’s special about a first-episode ending?
What’s the difference between Story Plotting and Series Planning?
How do I maintain series continuity?

What preparation do I do to set up the second episode?
What workflow do I need to produce middle episodes regularly?
How do I add, change, or kill off important characters without breaking the series?
What do I do when the series goes in a direction that I didn’t plan…but I like it?

What do I do when I realize — AFTER an episode is published — that I’ve made a massive mistake?
How do I write the final episode?
SPECIAL PROBLEM: How do I pick up writing a series after a long absence?
SPECIAL PROBLEM: How do I build a series out of a story I’d planned as a stand-alone?

SPECIAL PROBLEM: How do I finish someone else’s series?
SPECIAL PROBLEM: How do I FIX someone else’s series?
SPECIAL PROBLEM: How do I write a series to an exacting word count?
Final lesson will be the one most requested by the current class students

So if you’re interested in writing series fiction, and you have a question that you don’t see answered (or addressed) in my diagram, please ask in the comments below.


And this is why I ask. I’m now in the process of sorting the questions, and figuring out what extra lessons I’ll need to add, and where in the process they’ll fit.

I’ll put up a revised Class Diagram once I have this done. THANK YOU for the wonderful questions!

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103 responses to “Are you ready to write series fiction?”

  1. Claudette Avatar

    For those of us who’ve taken/mostly finished the first Series Class, will we get an upgraded version or have to have to purchase the whole new class?I don’t know how you’re dealing with that issue at the moment.

    I’ve got plenty on my plate right now, but this would be helpful since what I’ve writing now is a novel series of stand-alones.

    I’m gladd to see you back and creating again, Holly. Last year wasn’t friendly for either of us it seems.


  2. Troy Avatar

    Do you recommend any software to help organize and write a series? I’ve been looking at Scrivener. Would something like this be helpful?

  3. Thea van Diepen Avatar

    I recently watched a TV show which had a fascinating set of central questions, and did a good job with reveals for a couple seasons, but then it was like it got stuck on the same question for a few seasons. It would give a reveal of “yo, this is basically the answer to this question” at the end, but then it would go in the next season “haha, that wasn’t actually the answer and I have no idea what the heck that was about, but here’s some new info that might lead us to the actual answer.” Then it would end and do the same thing as the previous season, later, rinse, repeat.

    Which frustrated the heck out of me when the answer was finally revealed in the last season, because it was a cool thing to reveal. And, with how previously revealed info fit into that last season, I could see ways that that show *could* have progressed, other ways that info could have been revealed to support answering this question. Because, instead of being “omg, now we know the answer!” the prevailing feeling I had was “thank goodness we’re finally moving on to something new.” Which made the ending of the show less than satisfying.

    My question is: how do I keep a series-long mystery going until the end without doing that to my readers?

  4. Elle Avatar

    Just thought of a question while I was falling asleep last night πŸ™‚

    How do you suggest handling the release of books in a series if all books are already written? Do you release them all at once (for fast readers), or stagger the publication dates to avoid overwhelming your readers? Have you found an ideal gap between releases?

    With a series that is one long story split into self-contained episodes, do you recommend writing the whole story (or perhaps the *main* story?) in one go so that you can make use of “toys” that appear in the ending and foreshadow in the first book? Or would it be a better approach to write one book, revise, publish, get it out there, then rinse and repeat with the next book?

  5. Angelika Avatar


    1. How do I ensure my end of series book doesn’t end in a clichΓ© fashion?

    2. Can my end of series villain “twist” include a previous villain, not the expected one? Or is that cheating?

    3. How many parts of each previous book, should I keep ‘unresolved’ before the final book? What separates subplots and individual endings from the final book’s subplot and ending? How do I keep track of them? How do I keep them separate from each other?

    4. Often a series of books I read have a pattern. They work as they seem to be selling well, and the author is fairly popular, but sometimes as a reader they become a little repetitive (romantic suspense is one example). Is this something that should be avoided? Or is this something that should be accepted and we should work toward? After all, it works with a few genres – why fix something that’s not broken? As a writer you cannot please everyone and these authors have a lot of fans, but they also have a lot of reviewers who complain about the receptiveness becoming boring. Yes, I know the answer would be to create something “perfect”, so I guess I’m asking, if we find a pattern in our plots how do we keep them fresh, so these patterns are not so obvious? Does this matter if fairly successful authors are knocking out series after series that all run through a similar pattern?

  6. Tannille Avatar

    Holly, thanks for allowing us to have an input :).

    I would love advice on time when doing a series. The project I am working on has a cast of characters to drive several plot lines that connect in places (much like a TV drama). One book for each month but I am finding most of the plot is happening over 4 day periods. Suggestions on how to deal with time between books would be fantastic? How to bridge events that occur outside the 4 day period and maintain story structure? How to speed up time and move the story along? How to make time stretch, especially with a number of storylines?

  7. Sofie Avatar

    Looking forward to this class!

    My question would be what tricks and techniques you recommend to handle a large supporting cast in a series, where supporting characters may have more or less prominence in individual books, and you need to balance making sure the readers remember who they are when they DO show up, vs not clogging up each book with ten “remember this guy” moments.

    (Example: Stargate Universe creates a kind of “family” feel with its large cast of characters who’re known to the viewer, but most of those characters have very limited screen time.)

  8. Catie Rhodes Avatar

    I’m not sure I actually have a question. But I am interested.

    Within the next 12 months, I’ll end my current urban fantasy series at 11 books. I made a lot of mistakes with these books (though I loved writing them and learned a great deal). For the next series, which stars a spinoff character and is set in the same world, I’d like to learn a manageable method to write better books.

    Most of the stuff I’d ask has already been covered:

    How to on the series arc (balancing the need for a complete story with each episode but still keeping the series arc going without blowing your load on it)
    How to on the worsening villain but not letting him turn into something over the top
    How to keep going when serendipity takes over (this is what happened on the current series)

    Anyway…I guess my point is that I’ll be keeping an eye out for this. Because I need to get started on the next series by the end of this year. πŸ™‚

  9. Mike C Baker Avatar
    Mike C Baker

    The “thing” I seem to be pounding my own head up against is distinguishing between milieu “bible” and the accumulation of multiple story arcs within the hyper-arc of the milieu. (proto-Story introduces concepts that lead to plot-points / sequences / sub-series — but conveniently fails to DEPEND upon any of them being fully developed, at least as far as I can tell to this point in constructing the whole-cloth pieces. SF&F setting, story elements covering two millenia or more in addition to a parallel universe…)

  10. Troy Avatar

    When starting a series should you start with a short opening crawl like in the Star Wars trilogies setting up the series? Or just do a crawl setting up each book in the series?

    How much information should you give setting up a book without boring readers? How do you feather in set up information without overdoing it with too much at once?

    1. Holly Avatar

      I’ll answer this one here. Fiction is not movies, the Star Wars Crawl stopped working for me years ago, and I keep hoping Disney will kill it in the next one.

      If you’re doing a linked sequential series, you may have to include an “In the previous episode” intro for later books, but you start the first book of a series the same place you start a stand-alone novel: Right in the middle of something interesting.

  11. Becky Avatar

    How can I tell if I have a series on my hands or an overly complex novel that needs to be simplified?

  12. Sarah Avatar

    1) This has almost, nearly been asked. But how much trouble am I going to get into going ‘backward into history’ on a series and make sure the necessary cultural changes and ‘understood’ history makes sense.

    2) Related – If I do go back to write that history in real time – how much trouble am I going to have if I have already written scenes that happened in history. (Witnesses via video tapes or other means)

    3) Ways and methods to keep two or more story universes fresh in my mind and writing books in them concurrently (without blending them together). And if this is not possible due to time constraints then how to plunge back into something quickly that you have had to put down for months or years.

  13. Aaren Avatar

    I’m sure you’re covering this, but if characters in the world are still speaking to you, how do you knew whether there’s a solid continuation of the series versus just adding more to add more? And if you ended the primary arc, how do you transition in a way that’s not clunky?

    How do you incorporate other things (novellas, flash fiction on your blog, etc.) into a series without completely overwhelming readers?

    How do you do a spin-off series in a way that’s new and fresh, without it feeling like you’re just rehashing old things?

  14. Carol Flynt Avatar
    Carol Flynt

    I’m not sure if these are covered in your lessons or not. These are a bit specific while your lesson descriptions are necessarily broad. Forgive me if I repeat something you’ve already thought of.

    We’re in the middle of writing several series. One is planned as a trilogy (space opera), one as 5 books (comedy adventure historical) and one potentially open-ended (futuristic mystery.) Do these require different planning? It seems to me that arcs would necessarily differ between open-ended series and finite series.

    2. The historical is a buddy-story with two protagonists traveling together. Can we change the view point character between them in different books in the series? What to watch out for in doing this? How does it affect the story arcs?

    3. Again re: historical–we’re finding the tone change as we continue. It started as a romp, but as the characters grow, so do their problems and their attitudes. Humor is still there, but it’s not the romp of the first one. Is this a problem? How to fix.

    4. Re: the space opera trilogy–As the story develops, new characters are added and each changes the direction of the plot to get to the planned end. How can we do this and still make it a series people can start anywhere? If I were the reader of this series, I would want to start at the beginning!

    1. Holly Avatar

      On switching POV between books, probably not. Switching between sections of the same book works, but if you have folks who prefer one character over the other, they’ll tend to buy the books with the characters they like, and then they get lost.

      Real-world example of this: the Marvel superhero movies. We saw the first bunch, but skipped ones with superheros who weren’t IronMan or Thor — so when we went to the most recent IronMan movie, we had no clue what was going on.

      So we won’t be going to any more of them. We’re not interested in catching up with characters who don’t interest us, and it’s a waste of money to go see a movie when vast parts of it make no sense.

      On the second one, in your revision, you need to go through and bring the tone back to what you started with, while allowing the characters to grow. Tone is one of the specific things for which readers buy series. If you start with a romp, you stay with a romp.

      Not saying it will be easy, but failing on this will cost you a ton of readers.

      On the third — series that you can begin anywhere maintain the same core cast of characters from book to book. There’s no way to get from “changing cast of core characters” to “can start anywhere.”

      Both the Matt Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr series are “start anywhere.” Both have a single protagonist. Matt Scudder does grow and change (going from alcoholic to black-out alcoholic to AA member through the years). He solves crime. He is the ONLY core character.

      Bernie Rhodenbarr and his lesbian bookstore-owner sidekick don’t change. They solve crime.

      The Miles Vorkosigan series is an example of a series that was written to be “start anywhere.” It worked beautifully through every book but the last.

      Miles was a brilliant troublemaker until the very last book, who sorted out the evils of his universe while being a dwarf, a genius, and a well-born embarrassment to his titled family.

      Great series… until the last book, in which he went from being a troublemaker to being a diplomat. The tone of that book was completely off, the characters who mattered in it weren’t the same ones we’d come to love, and the story fell apart. Massive shame, too. I loved Miles. But not as a diplomat.

      1. Reziac Avatar

        Which Miles-the-diplomat book? cuz that kinda depends where you start counting. In any event I don’t think the problem was Miles-the-newly-diplomatic; I think it was that over the course of the last 4 books the whole series gradually shifted gears, and about the time where Miles changed careers, it became a different series entirely:

        I loved them up until they turned into what amounts to romantic comedy, when the butterbugs and Ekaterin arrived in the story. After that, they’re time-passers, but it’s not the same, and there’s no longer a sense of real risk. Cryoburn was weak (almost storyless, with the only power in one of the codas) and I lost interest in the Red Queen early on; I could go with a good tale of interstellar manners, but this wasn’t it. Nor would either of these books have induced me to Own The Whole Set like the early ones did.

        In other words, being a series asks for even more of a reader’s precious time, it generates expectations and makes promises that are even more critical than those in a single book. Blow off and break them at your peril.

        1. Holly Avatar

          When Miles became a diplomat, I quit.

          I don’t like diplomats. Met a number of them and their shitty, spoiled kids in Costa Rica when I was in school, and then in the Instituto de Lengua Espanola.

          Maybe they only sent the slimy ones to Costa Rica, but I kind of doubt that.

          It didn’t ruin the series for me. For me, the series just stopped at the book before.

          1. Dana Avatar

            Hi Holly, I’m sorry you feel that way.

            My husband is a diplomat, and my daughter goes to international schools overseas. Sorry for your experiences, but she is not shitty or spoiled.

            I’m a big fan of your work but not of this comment. A lot of diplomats’ spouses are writers too, because it’s one of the only things we can do while our spouses work at embassies and consulates across the world.

            As a family, we’ve sacrificed a lot living in places where it wasn’t safe to walk a block outside our house, where we heard gunfire in the streets and were involved in a high-speed car chase, or where we had emergency surgery in hospitals without soap, toilet paper, or consulting rooms. There are many different types of people in the foreign service!

            1. Holly Lisle Avatar
              Holly Lisle

              “My husband is a diplomat, and my daughter goes to international schools overseas. Sorry for your experiences, but she is not shitty or spoiled.”

              Nor did I say she was. Or imply it. I have no doubt there are decent folks in the diplomatic corps. I never met any. That is — sadly — not an exaggeration or an overstatement. And I can only write what I saw, experienced, and know from my own life.

              As far as danger and horror go, your experiences match mine living in Costa Rica in 1974-75 and in Guatemala during its civil war in 1975-76 and the massive earthquake in 1976, which we experienced twelve miles from the epicenter.

              I had very bad experiences with both missionaries (among them my parents) and diplomats.

              I would have loved to have met folks like you. I didn’t.

              My experiences were uniformly of spoiled rich kids who treated the nationals like floormats, arrogant adults who thought yelling louder in English would make them understood, and who resented the hell out of having to learn a second language to get work done, and of that horrific subset of folks who were coming to save folks’ souls but didn’t give a shit about the state of their bodies.

              I lived in Chiquimula, Guatemala, where folks with big families of naked children lived in houses made of banana leaves right down the road from gorgeous, rich Catholic and plain Protestant churches whose leaders and parishioners didn’t see the need to clothe or feed those folks. Saving souls was all that mattered.

              If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. I lived in the midst of atrocity from the ages of 13 to 15, and to this day, every fancy church I see makes me think of those naked, potbellied kids who ran through the streets outside the mission compound.

              It is not our country’s goverment’s job or mandate to save them. But the folks who claim to be working for God…? Every “build a bigger church” fundraiser proves the lie of that claim.

              1. Dana Avatar

                Holly, I know this forum is about writing, so I don’t want to take any more space for something off topic, but I just wanted you to know I really appreciate your response to my post! Thank you!

  15. Heather Gale Avatar

    Thanks Holly for this course,
    I see many of my questions already posted so will ask a more business type – how do you manage ( time-wise) to build a mailing list of ‘can’t wait to read your next book,” and finish a series?
    Do you build as you go – or wait to recruit readers when you’re say half -way – or do you write a mini ‘prequel’ to use as your opt-in giveaway and if so, how do you keep them engaged and intrigued for the next year while writing and doing ‘life’ stuff too?

    1. Holly Avatar

      I cover marketing in Title. Cover. Copy. Fiction Marketing Workshop.

      Marketing for series fiction is the same process as marketing for stand-alones, and I don’t want to duplicate my efforts. Way too much updating involved.

  16. Rinna Avatar

    How about the age of the MC? If I am planning a serie they grew older…. but how fast or slow?
    And can I “loose” my character because he is simply getting old and is this ending the series?

  17. Sandra Fikes Avatar

    Lots of great questions here, a lot of which I have as well, particularly Rinna’s question about stand alone books in a series. I want to make a sci fi series of novellas that span the course of a “season”; as if it were a TV series. My intent is to follow a single character and those around him through the series, which brings up a lot of issues that I have never quite managed to figure out the answers to on my own. (Already planning on how to save up for this course πŸ˜‰ ) … so, my questions (apologies if I repeat what others asked.)

    1) How do I grow my character, and those around him, in each story without reaching a point I can not grow him any more before the final story of the series? What is too little growth for a story within a series? Since they are stand alone books I assume I need some character growth in each, but he still has to have room to grow in other books and “seasons”.

    2) Speaking of seasons… is it out of the scope of your plans to show how someone would write multiple connected series? Such as a 12 novella arc ending in a major book season finale… then back to a new start for the next season of 12 novellas leading to a new season finale book.. etc.
    (makes me think of spinoffs as well, like Star Trek to Deep Space 9 and Voyager, etc. Pretty sure spinoffs are out of scope for your plans though. lol) I ask this because, like others, I would like to make a series of books that deal with a major event every few novellas without having something so huge that the characters are expected to be evolving into all powerful gods each time. I want my hero to stay normal average person level of powerful.

    3) How do I give a feeling of something HUGE in the background without the reader wanting to run off and find the answer in that book? I mean to say, I want the series to be going somewhere, to build up to a major thing that the characters will, one day (possibly years from now), deal with it – but… not yet. Is there any advice you could give on how a writer can build reader interest in this Big Bad while keeping the reader (and characters since they have minds of their own), focused on the small bad in the current story?

    4) A lot of small bads to make a big bad? Let’s say the hero faces a series of foes that lead up to the big battle in the series finale… how do I know how many small baddies are needed to equal a big baddie, or rather, more importantly, how to I make sure that it takes more than 2 or 3… how can I plan for the heroes needing to tackle say 12 (or 24 or however many books in the series) small baddies before they make their move on the final boss?

    Hope those make sense and are of help to you, I’m fighting a cold so am a bit drugged on DayQuil at the moment.

    1. Holly Avatar

      Nice questions. Glad to see I’ve already answered some of them in the class.

      The final one is interesting — answering that one will be a lot of fun. Thank you.

  18. Anne DeMarsay Avatar
    Anne DeMarsay

    Holly, a quick meta-question about pricing. For those who already own HTTS or HTRYN, you have been offering a substantial discount on HTWAS (20%, I think?) Will that discount apply to the initial May-Have-Splinters version?

    1. Holly Avatar


  19. Sherry Rentschler Avatar

    Holly, this program is going to be an answer to a prayer. I’m about to start a series. But my question is about the PREQUEL. I’m using it to introduce some characters and set up the first book since there are some things that need doing before the main books kick off. The prequel’s main character already has a stand alone novella that introduced her, now I’m using her to introduce a whole bunch of others that will be important. Now, my question is how do I figure out what NEEDS to be in this book and how do I separate what SHOULD go in her own first book (which is a book series connected to the main one that follows this prequel)?
    I apologize if that is muddy. Basicially, how do you learn to delineate what goes in a prequel book and what should be saved for the regular series. Thank you!

    1. Holly Lisle Avatar
      Holly Lisle

      I just finished Lesson 3, which covers what needs to be in the first episode (including tie-in prequels). Lesson 4, which I’ll be starting tomorrow, will walk you through making sure everything works the way you intended, and help you set up your first “series bible” continuity.

  20. Nick Avatar

    My question is about cover artwork. Should the covers in a series be thematically related so readers can tell what they have is part of a greater whole?

    1. Holly Avatar


  21. Nashira Lyons Avatar
    Nashira Lyons

    How do I invest the minimal amount of time in a series and get it to market? To clarify, I believe in what you (Holly) have said about writing on a publisher’s dime vs writing on an indie writing dime. What if I spend months building a matrix, bible, etc. and then the series flops? In traditional publishing, I would still have an advance. But as an indie, I take the risk and the reward – how do I minimize risk and write/work smart?

    1. Holly Avatar

      Good question. πŸ˜€ You minimize the risk by writing shorter series fiction first, publishing high-quality work as quickly as you can, and making sure you have a link to your mailing list sign-up form in every story.

  22. Werner Meyer Avatar

    Hi Holly,

    My question are:

    How do you plot for multiple novels in a series?

    How integral is worldbuilding when writing a series, and what to watch out for?

    1. Jackie Avatar

      Hi holly
      This was my question. I’m not sure if this is an English-American thing but when you said writing a series, I thought you meant writing a series of novels, which I’m very interested in. The lesson plan above indicates it’s perhaps more to do with writing for tv.
      How appropriate will this course be for those wanting to write a series of novels?

      1. Holly Lisle Avatar
        Holly Lisle

        I’m a novelist, not a TV writer. So it will be 100% applicable to novel writing.

        Writers for TV will find the story development systems, conceptual framework, and workflows helpful, but TV is not my world, and I wouldn’t dare attempt to guess the minutiae of that world.

  23. p0megran8 Avatar

    Disjointed stories in a single world that don’t all happen in the same time period.

    1. How do you “make history” (bake changes in politics, culture, etc) without writing the equivalent of Bede’s History of the English People first?

    2. How do you handle mistakes, errors, things that don’t work after you’ve already written a few stories?

    3. What do you do with external contacts with other nations without writing their Bede’s histories too?

    1. Holly Avatar

      Cool questions! All three of these are great. The “make history” one is going to be especially fun.

      #2 — Retconning, was already a planned lesson.

  24. Ava Fairhall Avatar
    Ava Fairhall

    I’ve had my eye on this course for a while…

    My question is simple:
    As characters grow and gain more skills, how do you provide suitable challenges and worthy antagonists so you don’t wind up with protagonists preventing the destruction of the world in Book 2 and have nothing more dire that can top that in book 3?

    I’ve seen it a lot in TV shows where one season has a prime antagonist defeated at the end of the first season, leaving a void to fill for season two which is filled by by something bigger and nastier and so on until at one point you’re fighting something that can end planets with a thought and then you’re like, how do you top that for the next season? Or worse, the next villain comes along, but somehow after defeating the planet killer, dealing with a murderous stalker is just as much of a credible challenge.

    Which I suppose leads to a second question: how to avoid having the antagonists getting too large for the world that everything else that comes after seems laughable, while still providing suitable challenges for the protagonist?

    1. Holly Avatar

      πŸ˜€ The answer to this one is an ongoing process, entirely manageable. It starts with lesson one and understanding what you’re developing and why.

  25. Lee-Ann Wallace Avatar

    Hey Holly,

    I’m not sure if mine is so much a question but one of those ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ situations.

    I write romance. I write loosely linked or sequential stand alones, but mostly loosely linked. In some of my series, there isn’t really an overall arc that flows through the series (is this a mistake?), the stories just focus on one couple from a group (eg. a family, or a group of pirates, whatever) and they each have their own conflict to deal with in the book for their relationship and a conflict that is relevant to the main characters.

    I’ve taken all of the various versions of HTWAS since you first offered it, and a lot of the planning material seems to relate to writing closely linked or big book kind of series.
    I guess I do have a question after all. πŸ˜€
    How do we use the material from HTWAS to plan and execute a series of *very* loosely linked stories when the characters are still from the same group?
    You do talk about stories like Terry Pratchet’s but that isn’t really what I’m doing.
    Ugh, I don’t think that was a very good question, but I can’t put what I mean into words very well, because *you don’t know what you don’t know!*
    Did I completely stuff up by not having an overall series arc and I just didn’t know it?


    1. Holly Avatar

      Romance is a genre that allows liking without an overall story arc.

      If you ADD an overall story-arc (not necessarily possible if a lot of the series is already in print) you can get a bigger “come back” from readers who like connections.

      But even with books in print, you’d be amazed at what you can find while retconning to create connections that look like you planned them all along.

  26. Dianna Bell Avatar

    Years ago, I asked this question, if worded differently, and at that time you were very enthusiastic about how it would be answered. It seems it could be answered by “What do I do when I realize β€” AFTER an episode is published β€” that I’ve made a massive mistake?”, but I’d like to ask again, just in case.

    What do you do when you come up with something, and it’s something that really should’ve been introduced in a previously published episode–because introducing it now makes you look dumb/forgetful (or it’s a better solution for a prior problem they didn’t use but you’re saying they could have as x was around y episodes back)?

    Thank you for your efforts in helping us become better.

    1. Holly Avatar

      πŸ˜€ STILL enthusiastic.

      This is Retconning (Retroactive Continuity). If you write thin, it’s rough. It you write rich, though, the Retcon World is your oyster.

  27. Claire Wade Avatar
    Claire Wade

    Do I have to know the end of the series when I start the first one?

  28. Robert Doucette Avatar
    Robert Doucette

    Is it possible to turn a successful stand-alone novel into a series? Or do all successful series need to be pre-planned before writing the first book?

    Assuming it is important for a stand alone novel to have a complete ending and show a major character change, are there techniques that would allow me to continue with the main character(s)?

    1. Robert Doucette Avatar
      Robert Doucette

      Sorry, I skipped by month 4.

    2. Holly Avatar

      There’s a difference between preplanning and modular planning.

      I don’t preplan at all. I do plan modularly, though — so while I have no clue what’s going to happen in the next episode in the series, I do have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen in the series overall.

      I teach both methods in the class.

  29. PennyMichelle Avatar

    Holly, does the genre make a difference in how you teach us in writing a series? I’m a sci-fi lover and would love to create a futuristic series but it feels like the genre plays a pivotal part in the series writing. But then I’m a novice so … I’m asking. πŸ™‚ Glad to have this coming back.

    1. Holly Avatar

      You can have any genre in any kind of series. And I teach how to write every type.

      The kind of series you build is not locked to genre. Rather, it’s tied to your characters’ connections to each other, the kind of time that exists within your fiction (linked to stakes your characters face), how you plan for each book to connect to the next, and what kind of world you build for your series to inhabit.

      1. PennyMichelle Avatar

        Which I want to use your create a world against. I’ve had a story I’ve written since I was much younger, but look forward to creating its world utilizing your course. I’m excited!

  30. Paula Avatar

    When you write a longer series with a larger story arc over the life of the series, how do you weave that into each novel’s individual story arc so that some degree of resolution is accomplished for both arcs, but the larger story arc is still ongoing? Mine, I believe, is a loosely linked stand alone series. The larger story has characters that carry from novel to novel, but the real hero and heroine of each novel are different. Or do you not worry about resolving the larger arc but rather let it give the reader the sense of something still coming? I have a mythic story arc for the series, and then the romantic story arc for each novel.

  31. Holly Avatar

    These are all excellent questions. Please keep them coming.

    Some of the things you’ve asked I’ve already answered in the lessons, some I’ve already planned to answer in the upcoming ones… and some are going to be incorporated into a lesson or two or three that I would not have done otherwise.

    So please ask everything that comes to mind. If you don’t ask and I don’t think of it, I can’t incorporate it into the class.

  32. Kari Blackmoore Avatar
    Kari Blackmoore

    I love the overview and can’t wait for it to be offered again.

  33. Jess Avatar

    I have a few questions, since this is where I’m stuck in my writing.

    How do they ‘change’ in one book and then building on that to ‘change’ throughout the series?

    How to recap what’s happened in other books to remind or inform readers without boring them?

    How do you keep track of character nuances or distinguishable things about the setting? For example, since I so excellently butchered that question, a sidekick runs his hand through his hair when he’s lying or the red highback chair a character loves to sit on in the corner. It’s been hard for me to decide on those little things before I write my story, because it seems to develop during the actual writing. But when I sit down with book 2, I can’t remember those things and then give up because I feel like I should have written a wikia for my series before book 1 no matter how well I planned it out.

    How to handle something you realize is a mistake in a previous book? For instance, I plan out my series, I plan out each book, then meticulously plan out book 1. But when things change as they do from rough draft to final, then it goes out to publish, but you realize something doesn’t work with the series later. How would you address it and/or fix it? Does that make sense?

    I’m sure I have more, so may post again.

    1. Holly Avatar

      Tracking is part of what my system does well, but a lot of folks like to also include software like Aeon Timeline.

      I got a copy so I could at least intelligently discuss using this for maintaining series continuity. My time hasn’t been copious lately, though, so I haven’t even opened it yet.

  34. Tuff Gartin Avatar
    Tuff Gartin

    Hi Holly,

    Firstly, I could be implying more than is intended from the chart, but I read it as though this class focuses on trilogies (first episode, second episode and final episode are specifically mentioned, but no additional episodes between second and final). If that is the case, then my question would be: Are there any additional considerations for series larger than a trilogy?

    Secondly, are there any special considerations for a series of short fiction episodes that will complete a “season” when all are completed? E.g. – I would write ten to twelve short stories and publish one a month, with the final show wrapping up the entire season and completing the full story. Extrapolating that further, I may do multiple seasons of this if my readers like it.

    Thanks Holly,

    1. Laura W-A Avatar
      Laura W-A

      Not Holly πŸ™‚ but I’m planning to do the same thing you are! Originally I wanted to do TWO novellas a month, but I now recognize how crazy that is. πŸ™‚

    2. Holly Avatar

      The class covers everything from linked sequential series to loosely-linked series to related stand-alones.

      Because it’s self-paced, if you want to write your opener, ten middle episodes, and your ending episode, you can do that.

      If you want to go through the lessons at about the pace at which they’re presented, I recommend that you write your in-class project as shorter stories — between 10K and maybe 20K each, and only do three.

      But I’ll be covering all eventualities. And there are special considerations for “seasons.”

      I’ll be covering those. Nice questions.

  35. Michael Avatar

    Hi Holly,
    I am very excited that the HTWAS full course is coming back! My questions relate to character development.

    1. Creating and developing the main characters: Many people say that the main character is the thing that really sells the series. Do you agree, and if so how do you go about creating that unforgettable (yet different-from-all-the-others-out-there)main character who will carry the series?

    2. Character Cast: If the series is to be a team of main characters, such as team (or duo) of sleuths, crime fighters, treasure hunters, etc., do you have any advice on the makeup of such ensemble casts? Do you think a team of characters is a good idea?

    3. Character arc. How do you have a main character ‘change’ in a single book, yet not change across the series, since people want to keep meeting the same character in every novel? Here I am contemplating those never-ending type series, not one that is a planned trilogy, or set number of books with a definite ending in mind.

    Thanks and looking forward to the class!

    1. Holly Avatar

      Good questions. Thank you.

  36. Emily S Avatar
    Emily S

    How do you avoid, shall we say, the George RR Martin problem? Where the size of the series becomes larger and larger while staying on theme, all of the subplots enrich the story so it’s not obvious what to cut, etc? This seems common with a lot of series, especially in the fantasy genre.

    1. Holly Lisle Avatar
      Holly Lisle

      LMAO! Yeah. That’s a biggie. Most of it is in setup in the first three lessons, part of it will be in some of the special stuff at the end for folks who already messed up and have to get everything back together. I’m evilly tempted to show how I’d wrap the GRR Martin series in one book and bring all the stories home as the demo.

      1. Mary S. Avatar
        Mary S.

        I would be really interested in that demo! It’s such a good example of a sprawled story that desperately wants for some cohesion, yet has branched out so heavily that it seems like all the disparate pieces have little hope of ever coming back together.

      2. Nashira Lyons Avatar
        Nashira Lyons

        I agree this is a fabulous idea. As you say Holly, writer’s read and many of us have read GOT. I went to school for film and writing, and as you probably know, most filmmaking courses dissect classic or commercially successful films during instruction. I did read Longview during the HTWAS Expansion but it didn’t really help my writing because I didn’t know where it was going and I had to trust that the lessons and the series would take me where I wanted to go as a writer. Then the series and the class ended and I was adrift. I think it is fair game to have a mini course or a full course based on what went wrong and right with GOT or Harry Potter. Martin and Rowling obviously did something right. (I of course have a splendid plot to put the Alien franchise back on track…)

        1. Holly Avatar

          Fixing GRR Martin’s problem wouldn’t take a course, or a mini-course, or even a long weekend.

          With the list of the current state of all the characters (where they are, what they’re doing), I could figure out the way to bring all the characters and plotlines together in one book, wrap up every single story, and figure out the way to give it a good ending.

          One diagram.

          If enough folks are interested in the class, (and would volunteer to put the list together, because dammit, I’m NOT reading all the way through that mess again) I would consider making this the bonus lesson.

      3. Laura W-A Avatar
        Laura W-A

        I would LOVE that demo. Then we’d have some closure in our lifetime even if it wasn’t canon. πŸ˜‰

        1. Thea van Diepen Avatar

          I concur. That would be an amazing demo πŸ˜€

  37. Ewelina Avatar

    I’ve read series in which besides the main characters and the romance/ love interest, everything else changes and books can be nearly considered stand-alones (I find that a lot with detective/PI style books. These writers produce 8-15-30-40… book series). Then, in other series there is an underlying conflict that carries along all books in the series, but each book has it’s own unique major plot whose resolution helps the protagonist in some way deal with The Conflict of the series. I also read series, usually trilogies, where the focus is singular and each book works towards the main conflict resolution. I’d be interested in learning about the different ways series may be written, which you may or may not have already addressed in your class. I currently owe your other two Big courses, I have two drafts in works for two different book ideas. I know both books will be series, so I’ll be purchasing HTWAS as soon as available

  38. Juneta Avatar

    You have a 5 books series, with repeating characters–How do you build a usable and quick find bible for your series? What things will you forget that you have to remember, so best log them?

    I guess looking for tips, software or methods and time savers that work best related to the questions. I find myself ending up with several documents at times or not all the info in one place. Is there a way just start at the beginning that will make the whole tracking thing easier?

    1. Juneta Avatar

      Did not see the question below before posted. Sorry.

  39. Cheryl Sola Avatar
    Cheryl Sola

    Is there a difference between a cartoon series and a novel series?

    1. Holly Avatar

      Lots more words. Other than that, cartoon series have the same basic structures as novel series.

  40. Laura Avatar

    A series arc vs a character arc- how to balance them – which kind of goes along with how much a character can actually grow.

    What happens if your series goes BEYOND the arc you created– which is different from picking it up after a long time– you’ve your finished the arc for the story, but there’s more story to tell- how do you come up with a plausible continuation that doesn’t fall flat– there a specific TV series I’m thinking of that is just limping along… =\

  41. Leslie Randall Avatar
    Leslie Randall

    What exactly goes in the Series Bible? What is the procedure and structure for updating it?

    1. Mary S. Avatar
      Mary S.

      I second this question 100%. My reference documents for anything longer than one book never seem to cut it. I feel like I’m not making note of the right things, or maybe not organizing them correctly?

      I somewhat suspect organizational software like Scrivener might be involved. But what do you do if you don’t have said software, just a word processor and physical notebooks?

      1. Nick Avatar

        Mary, I’d never been a rabid proponent of any software, until I discovered Scrivener. For what it does it really isn’t expensive; It’ll be the best $40 (or $45 if you have a Mac) you’ve ever spent, and nigh on indispensable in writing a series.

        1. Laura W-A Avatar
          Laura W-A

          I ditto Scrivener. My story bible in there is huge. Of course, occasionally I forget how I categorize things… LOL Thankfully it’s searchable!

      2. Holly Avatar

        Got this. πŸ˜€

  42. Brian G Walsh Avatar

    I want to kill off a continuing character, someone working with the protagonist, after having him/her in several books. Should I prepare a replacement a couple of books before this happens? How should I handle killing the character off without hurting the series? I intend to use it to re-dedicate the protagonist, but I don’t want to make a mistake and kill off a character if I shouldn’t.

    1. Holly Avatar

      Killing a recurring character is a dangerous move, way more dangerous than killing a major character that appears in only one story.

      I’ll be covering how to figure out whether it’s doable or not in class.

  43. Ellie Mack Avatar

    Hi HOlly! So glad to hear you are going to revive this!
    1. How much does the overall story arc play a part of each episode? Each episode or book will have it’s own plot about that quest, character, adventure, etc but a series that isn’t like Nancy Drew – each one a separate adventure of the main character, but more like the parts of a larger tale. I’m finding that I waste writing time by second guessing myself about my outlines for overall arc and each story arc.
    2. Both of my series that I have planned began as a stand alone but as I delved into the writing, it was obvious that there was a larger story that could be told in one book. How do you make a series that doesn’t read like the author was trying to milk the idea and stretch it out into four books instead of one? I’ve read some like that.

    1. Holly Avatar

      Good questions. Thank you.

  44. Rinna Avatar

    And another one popped up
    – MC should grow – how much growing is possible for one person??
    I can not give them really hard problems to solve and the chance of character growth in every book ( or can I?)

    And – is there a difference in writing a mystery?
    That would be the one I’m very interested in…

    1. Rebecca Avatar

      I am with Rinna on this one. That is so close to my question. How do I KEEP my character growing through 7 books? And (as a previous HTWAS student that didn’t finish apparently) how to I keep the stakes feeling high with a bullet proof cast?

      1. Mary S. Avatar
        Mary S.

        Same here. I don’t want a bullet proof cast, nor a static one that somehow ends up back at ‘baseline’ at the end of every installment. But I also don’t want to escalate into a drawn-out epic. (The latter exhausts me as a reader; I can only imagine how I’d feel trying to write one.)

        These seem to be the two directions a lot of the long-running stuff I read take. Either things stay at about the same level, tension-wise, but many key elements remain static, OR characters and situations change and grow but it leads to an expansion of scope and scale. I know there’s a happy medium, because I’ve encountered stories that manage it. But I don’t know how to go about striking that balance myself.

    2. Holly Avatar

      “MC should grow” is not an absolute. There’s an entire subset of series fiction devoted entirely to main characters who do NOT grow. πŸ˜€

      And I’ll be covering mysteries, which contain many series with never-changing lead characters.

      And determining how much your character should grow and change per episode if you’re writing that kind of series.

      Thank you.

  45. Rinna Avatar

    Hi Holly, great idea:)
    My question:
    Is it possible to write a series and the reader can start with any book?
    Meaning – every book is part of the serie but also a standalone – I personally hate it when I’m missing important parts in the life of the character which are essential for the story but I only get them by reading a former book….
    I hope this is clear enough πŸ™‚ ( it sounds better in german…)
    greetings from Munich

    1. Holly Lisle Avatar
      Holly Lisle

      Perfect! This is one of the questions I forgot, and it’s a critical skill. The answer is “yes.” The long answer will be a lesson.

  46. Kim Avatar

    Hi Holly,

    Good to see you back.

    In series, how do we make characters matter to readers who start on Not Book 1 … without boring and potentially losing those readers who have read the series from Book 1?

    Also, when you have a fresh story idea in front of you, how do you guesstimate how many books it’s going to take to tell the story well.

    You know how you talk in HTTS about rebalancing story elements to hit genre requirements and increase appeal to markets? Can we recast leggy, long novels as good series, and if so how?

    How do you know when the lighting that just struck you is series lightning rather than standalone lightning?

    What can we do in Book 1 to give maximum writer freedom in Book N? I know about giving the MC no fixed abode or a moving around job, having the story happen outside linear time, and giving the MC commitment phobia. Any more tricks?

  47. Marya Miller Avatar

    Particularly looking forward to building my series matrix and planning the first episode ending.

  48. Anna Payne Avatar

    The questions I ended up with while writing my series:

    1. pre-planning the episodes wasn’t as thorough as I needed it to be. How do we get first time series writers to build everything into series planning that they need?

    2. is there a difference between mystery, romance, fantasy or scifi, or others in what has to be included to make a series work?

    3. Does a series always have to be connected sequential to work?

    Excited to go through this again. Especially with the series I’ve started but let rest for a couple of years.

    1. Holly Avatar

      I’ll cover this in the sections on modular planning.

      And non-sequential series fiction is insanely popular. I’ll be demonstrating the specifics for each type.

  49. Holly D Avatar

    Perhaps you have this included – but a comment about story arcs – how many are sensible for what length of series, how much of each should progress in each subsequent book. Introducing new characters, arcs part way through (success and the series will now be more than three books…). This is obviously beyond that which is stated, developed and resolved in each story

    1. Holly Lisle Avatar
      Holly Lisle

      That’s developed in the lessons already completed and the one I’m finishing up.

  50. Rob Avatar

    Holly, I have a question that’s sort of related to this blog post, but not really. I’m definitely interested in writing series, and I have been working on one for the last few years. My question is about something else though, and it might be a bit personal, but it’s an important question.

    Anyone who’s ever gotten very serious about writing novels probably have done some research about their prospects at being able to do it for a living. And all of us know just how bleak that future looks, and it’s through no fault of our own–it’s just how the market is (assuming we can write at a professional level and tell stories that readers enjoy). So those of us who continue to write do it because it is a part of who we are–we HAVE to write in order to feel fulfilled. But in the back of our minds, we can’t help but ask, “What if I CAN make a decent living at it?” Yes, we all know it has as much to do with luck as it does with talent, skill, self-promotion, marketing, etc. In some ways, it kind of feels like trying to win the lottery.

    My question is about your own writing career. You’re an example of a writer who’s been around for a long time, but isn’t considered a “celebrity author” like some of your peers. Your books on average have high ratings from readers’ reviews, and you’re known for your on-going efforts at teaching other writers. So the question is:

    Are you able to survive solely on your income from the novels you’ve written, and if not, what percentage of your income is made up of your teaching (including storytelling/writing books you’ve written)?

    I’m asking this question because for us aspiring novelists, collecting these real-life examples keeps us grounded in reality, preventing us from our tendency to be blindly optimistic about our chances of making a living as novelists. If a seasoned and prolific author such as yourself has to rely on teaching to make ends meet, then we know what our own chances are. (On a related note, a buddy of mine is friends with Mercedes Lackey, who’s considered a prolific “celebrity author” in the fantasy genre, and even she’s struggling to make ends meet, and that’s very sobering for aspiring writers.)

    1. Holly Avatar

      Here’s the pretty short answer to a very long question:
      I was making a living exclusively off my fiction from 1992-2007. During that time, I was teaching for free.

      At the point where Scholastic owed me a bunch of money on a book that had been approved, and decided to sit on it for six months before paying me because “the check is working its way through accounting,” I asked the folks I’d been teaching for free if they’d be willing to pay for a class on character creation. They were, I wrote it, and we kept a roof over our heads.

      That little bit of fun was the driving force behind my going indie. And at the point where I went indie, I made a tough decision. I could either focus entirely on my fiction, or I could acknowledge that I’d been teaching fiction since I started writing for a living and focus on both. (Writing nonfiction is a somewhat more secure income, but there are things like crashing web sites, having a close brush with cancer, or having a bunch of surgeries in the same year that can make it tough.)

      Trying to do both? Both is brutal. And I understood going in that if I did BOTH, I would not be able to give my fiction the kind of attention it needed to provide me with a full-time living.

      Right before my writer site went tits up a couple years ago, my nonfiction to fiction income was about 60/40. The last couple of years have wreaked havoc on both, but much more on my fiction than my nonfiction. Here’s why:

      To write fiction exclusively and live on it as a midlist writer (which is what I am and have always been), you need to have something new out every month or two, or to be in tight contact with your reader list a couple times a month while you’re working on something bigger. If you’re living exclusively off your fiction, you need to build your backlist, and you need to focus on your backlist.

      Because I had people who were taking classes, I had an obligation to get their classes fixed and get them back in. So I went almost two years between Longview Episode 2 and Longview Episode 3, and haven’t had much time to work on anything else.

      So my fiction in the last couple of years has languished. Nonfiction/fiction income right now is about 80/20, which me doing absolutely nothing to support my backlist — which sucks, but I have limited time.

      So, do I intend to keep it that way? No. But right now, my writing site is still in beta, I still have some classes that are not available, and I have to finish those.

      At the point where I have all the little classes back up, I want to start doing two books a year again, and move my fiction back to half of my income.

      “I’m asking this question because for us aspiring novelists, collecting these real-life examples keeps us grounded in reality, preventing us from our tendency to be blindly optimistic about our chances of making a living as novelists.”

      This is actually looking for a way to rationalize not doing it. I’ll be blunt. Writing fiction full-time is a bitch of a job to succeed at, and if you want to do it, you are going to work harder at it than any day job you ever had. You MUST get new stories out regularly, you must keep up with your reader mailing list, you must improve your work with every story you write.

      And there are no guarantees.

      But there are no guarantees with anything else, either. If you want this, don’t look for reasons to tell yourself it isn’t worth the work. Conversely, if you’re looking for a reason not to do it, the reason is simply that you don’t want to do it enough to fight for it. There’s no guilt in saying this, and no guilt in walking away.

    2. Holly Avatar

      That was a longer answer than anticipated. The really short answer is this. You cannot compare your career to anyone else’s. You cannot duplicate anyone else’s career.

      My choice to pursue BOTH fiction and nonfiction — to continue working for BOTH my groups of readers — makes me an impossible example for anyone hoping to write fiction full-time.

      If you want to write, then do it, get the words done, get the work up, and don’t quit. You can’t make a living at it straight out of the box, but you’ll never make a living at it if you don’t do the work.

      1. Rob Avatar

        Thank you for the reply, Holly.

        I get what you’re saying about finding an excuse to not try, but I think there’s a lot to be said for pragmatism too. When you know what the odds against you are, you are better able to plan your life. For most people, financial responsibility is a burden they cannot ignore. If they understand what their odds are, they can better strategize their income streams, balancing the time they dedicate to their writing against realistic expectations of whether their writing can lead to decent income, and also figure out just how much they have to write/publish/promote or if they could afford to.

        Some writers simply aren’t capable of the kind of neck-breaking pace of output that’s required to generate a decent income. To expect writers to crank out multiple books in a year just to make ends meet is kind of a new phenomenon–it didn’t seem to be like that before (meaning before the age of Internet). So understanding the logistics and having realistic expectations is very important. It has nothing to do with how badly someone wants to be able to make a living as an author–it has more to do with understanding your own limitations, calibrating your expectations, and balancing your writing aspiration with the need for financial security.

        The reality for many aspiring writers is that they will not be able to make a living at it, and writing can only be a passion they pursue in their free time. The fact that an overwhelming percentage of published authors–including those who have at least several, or even dozens of published books, or even bestsellers–have to make ends meet by doing something else, is not a reality you can simply overcome with unwavering optimism, ambition, tenacity, and grit.

        So ultimately, we write because it fulfills us in ways nothing else can, and we publish because we want to share our stories with the world. But to expect to make a decent living at it is not something aspiring writers in this day and age can just automatically assume. We can work towards that goal, but we must understand what kind of stacked odds we’re up against.

        1. Laura W-A Avatar
          Laura W-A

          I’m not Holly, but I read through your reply, and I just want to say that I get where you’re coming from. BUT. You should read through Dean Wesley Smith’s “Killing the Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing” blog posts. There were a lot of points in your reply that you might feel better about by reading them.

        2. Holly Avatar

          “I get what you’re saying about finding an excuse to not try, but I think there’s a lot to be said for pragmatism too. When you know what the odds against you are, you are better able to plan your life. For most people, financial responsibility is a burden they cannot ignore.”

          You don’t start by trying to write full-time. You start by writing regularly until your work is paying enough to cover one bill. Then you keep writing until it’s covering two.

          And then you keep writing until it’s covering them all.

          And then you keep writing until you have money saved.

          And then you keep writing while your backlist is paying all your bills and you could take a year off.

          But then you keep writing until you die. Because there’s always another story.

          And that’s what we do.

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