WRITING A SERIES by Sheridan Winn
I am currently writing my seventh Sprite Sister title. Here are some of the things I’ve learned about writing a series for children.
One chance to make a first impression
Your series stands or falls on the strength of your first book. It’s your starting point and everything comes back to that. It defines the characters and their world, and sets up an expectation of what is to come. You have to get it right. If your readers don’t like it, they won’t bother with the second story.
A series relies on the strength of its characters
It’s the characters you come back to. What’s going to happen to them next? They are your friends: enjoy them and listen to them. Their voices become familiar. You know what they will say and how they will react, but, like your friends, your characters are not static. They need to grow through the challenges you have set them – and you need to move with them.
Between 2007-2009, I wrote five Sprite Sister stories in 30 months for Piccadilly Press. On signature of each contract, I had three months writing time. Each book was written in six weeks, and edited in six months, one after the other. It was quite a pace to keep up, but it provided continuity. I enjoyed working fast and it proved financially worthwhile, as Fischer Verlag bought the German rights, pushed the Sprite series and sold over 200,000 books. I’ve lost some continuity with Book 6, which will not be published until 2103 – so a two-year gap. I realise I need to get the Book 7 written as quickly as I can, to make up for lost time and keep my readers with me.
Have a formula
I write each Sprite title to around 55,000 words, with around 24 chapters. I know the shape of the story, where I want the action to arc (at the end of each third of the story), and where to have a ‘beat’. Apart from helping me, having a formula means the reader knows what to expect. For each Piccadilly title, I wrote a synopsis in which the plot was worked out until the last section. The ending came to me as I was ‘in’ the story, fighting the battle. Without the need to provide synopses for Book 6, The Boy With Hawk-like Eyes, and Book 7, Magic at Drysdale’s School (because I am publishing them myself), I’ve worked out the plots as I go. It’s proved a much slower process.
Come to the point: your reader does not want to faff about. My editor allowed description, but not at the expense of pace. My books are aimed at girls aged 7-12 years. Young readers like detail, especially if it’s quirky or funny, but they want the story to move along at a lick. Action sustains interest.
Play to your strengths
I love reading thrillers, but I’m not sure I could write them as they require such detailed plotting. My strength, I believe, is writing family drama. I come from a big family and understand the dynamics of a group of people pushing and pulling against one another. I hear the conversations and arguments in my head, as I write them. It feels natural.
The idea for the Sprite Sisters come to me in a sentence late one night: ‘Four sisters with magic powers, east, south, north, west – fire, water, earth air’. The stories developed as I wrote them, one by one. I didn’t make copious notes on filing cards, as I didn’t feel I had time to stop. Inevitably, I forgot some of the character and location details I had written in earlier books. By the time I got to Book 4, The Ghost in the Tower, the editor and I were tracking back and forth to find what I’d said about this and that. What colour are Quinn’s eyes? Did the girls open the portal in the East or West Tower? If the map is the secret of Sprite Towers, then what is the Crossed Circle? You need to know: readers spot inconsistencies.
Multiple points of view
How do you manage them? You listen. I believe it’s about balance. In my case, I have a good ear. I seem to know which character needs to speak and what they say. My four Sprite Sisters each need a share of the ‘voice’. Inevitably the eldest girl, Flame gets most of it, but I move the story along through the different voices. Each sister has to be a part of the overall voice of the story.
There’s a marked difference between the writing in Book 1, The Circle of Power, and Book 6, The Boy With Hawk-like Eyes. My style has evolved and, I think, improved. It’s leaner, cleaner. There are bits of writing in the first books that now make me wince. Why did I feel the need to describe Ariel’s fluffy blonde hair so many times?
Rhythm and clarity
Stories need rhythm; words need rhythm. If your sentences have cadence and precision, people will enjoy your writing and stay with your series. Similarly, if your plots are clear, you’ll keep your reader with you.
Heed your editor
Over the course of the series, I came to really value my editor’s skill. She stood back: I couldn’t. She helped to shape the structure of each story, ensured it was logical and clear, kept the pace going and smoothed out any repetition, quite apart from correcting the typos. In the case of Sprites, each book had to work as a standalone novel and as one of a series – and that needed my editor’s eagle eyes. Editing is skill in its own right. If you’re self-publishing a series, don’t stint on professional editing: false economy, especially on the first title.
You might know where you characters are and what they are doing but your reader won’t, necessarily. The plot, the location and any jumps in time need to be clear in your mind or your reader will get confused. I got muddled writing Book 4 and so did my editor. Bit of rethink and rewrite there. In a series each story has to tie in with the one you have written before – and the one you wrote before that.
Don’t be precious
I began as freelance journalist, learning on the hoof, so I’m used to having my work edited and chopped about. Instead of feeling my babies were being murdered, I stood back and used the newspaper and magazine editing process as a way to learn to write clear prose and shape features. It’s a useful experience to remember when your book editor disagrees with you – though I think the author is entitled to the odd fit.
Stick to your guns – but choose your battle
Mrs Duggery appeared to me in a flash. I saw the tiny old lady standing in front of me in her lilac knitted hat and her big brown boots. I saw her name flash in neon lights – ‘Mrs Duggery’. I knew she was meant to be part of the Sprite Sister books. The publisher disagreed. We didn’t need any more characters, they said. I had a battle to get Mrs Duggery into Book 2. Thankfully I won, and sure enough the magical old Sprite became one of the best characters in the series.
The pressure changes
In a way, writing a series becomes easier as you know your characters and the scope of their world. On the other hand, there’s pressure to find another new adventure.
The incentive to find that adventure is helped when you think it’s likely you still have readers out there waiting to know what comes next.
The value of re-reading
As soon as I finished writing the first five Sprite titles – in six weeks apiece – my mind washed clear of the stories. By the time the editor came back to me on the first (broad) edit, I’d completely forgotten what I’d written. I got back into the story for a few weeks, then forgot it again once the editing was completed. Recently, I re-edited Sprites for my new e-book and print-on-demand editions. It gave me the opportunity to re–connect with Flame, Marina, Ash and Ariel and their adventures, and provided a stepping-stone to the next story. It allowed me to remember the details: when a child asks a tricky question at an author talk now, I’ll be ready.
Be in charge
Don’t give away all your rights. Have a plan. Writing is the way I earn my bread and butter. Thanks to Fischer Verlag’s success with the Sprite Sisters, I can keep going. I kept the e-book, television and film rights, but recently bought back the book rights to titles 1-5. I was able to sell Sprites 6 to Fischer Verlag, direct. I’ve approached a Japanese agency and a film agent. However, none of this would have happened if Piccadilly Press hadn’t made a leap of faith in the first place.
The power of the title
Your story titles have to work separately, but also as a whole. Your series title is your brand. Don’t groan in creative dismay, for a brand is what you are selling – and the title will be a big part of its success.
Find a strapline
If only I had found it at the beginning! ‘The Sprite Sisters – four sisters, four elements, four powers.’ It’s the ‘elevator pitch’ that sums up the series in a sentence. It came to me recently – five years after I started Sprites. It’s on the jackets of the new print-on-demand paperbacks and the e-books – I put it everywhere I can.
Sheridan Winn is author of the Sprite Sisters series, which has sold over 200,000 copies in Germany.