Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Writing a Fiction Series: Ins, Outs, Ups and Downs: Part Two

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Writing a Fiction Series: Ins, Outs, Ups and Downs: Part Two

Read Part One of "Writing a Fiction Series: Ins, Outs, Ups and Downs."

Welcome back! In this month's column, I'm continuing my chat about writing children's book series with authors Caroline Adderson (Jasper John Dooley series), Philippa Dowding (The Lost Gargoyle series), and Moira Young (Dust Lands series). And now, on with the questions!

SUSAN: What is most challenging about writing a series?

CAROLINE: With these books the challenge isn't the series form, but the fact that they're actual novels with rising action and character development - a long literary form written short.  Tricky!

PHILIPPA: Keeping the story fresh, introducing plausible new characters, and not writing the same story again and again. I guess that’s three things! The first book is really quite simple in comparison to the third book, since it only has five characters and a cat, and is set almost entirely in Katherine’s backyard. There are a few new characters added in the second book and more settings, then by book three the cast becomes quite large and spans two continents, which seemed a natural progression but took quite a bit of juggling.

MOIRA: Oh, deadlines, no question. Publishing deadlines for YA and children's books are the stuff of nightmares. Literary fiction writers would have heart attacks if they had to do what we do and my blood pressure invariably soars as deadlines approach and I'm racing flat out. So far, it seems that I'm a slow, instinctive writer and stories get squeezed out of me, really quite painfully. Just to add to the fun, I have a large cast of spiteful and obstructive inner voices that work very hard to sabotage me. I'm hoping that other books might come more easily, but it may be this is just how I am as a writer. And maybe I wouldn't write the particular books I do unless I experienced this particular process.

SUSAN: Caroline, is your series finished or will you be writing one more book in the series, or do you know?

CAROLINE: So far there are six books contracted.  Book 3, Jasper John Dooley, NOT in Love, was just published.

SUSAN: Philippa, what about you? Will you be writing a fourth book, or do you know?

PHILIPPA: I keep tiptoeing up to a fourth book, writing more of an outline, developing new characters, researching a bit, then backing away. I guess there is a story brewing there, but I have no immediate plans to write it down.

SUSAN: And Moira, your third book in the series will be coming out this spring. Will this end the series, or will you be writing a fourth book?

MOIRA: Raging Star will be out on May 13 and it's the third and final book of the Dust Lands trilogy. There won't be a fourth book. The three-act arc that began with the opening page of Blood Red Road is finished.

SUSAN: Caroline, what advice would you give to a writer who is thinking about writing a series?

CAROLINE: Focus on character, not plot.  If you do that, the characters will take you by the hand and lead you through the books.

SUSAN: Philippa?

PHILIPPA: Tell a simple story about a complex character with a deep back story, and the series will have endless possibilities.

SUSAN: And you, Moira? What advice would you give to a YA writer who is thinking about writing a series?

MOIRA: Well, I can only talk about a trilogy and an adventure/fantasy/futuristic western opera trilogy at that. What I did was think of the Dust Lands trilogy as one enormous story divided into (as I said above) three acts. I wanted each book to be able to stand alone to a large extent, but at the same time each one should be dependent upon the others for the fruition of the themes and character journeys.

The main thing is that you need to ensure that you have enough meat in your themes and characters to sustain and develop your story. The main danger will probably be the second act. It's often a problem for writers. This is true of the middle of a book as well as the second book in a trilogy, for example.

A main character who is complex and multi-layered, with internal contradictions, will give you plenty to play with. What is the problem that your protagonist needs to solve? Their object of desire? Their attempts to solve that problem, to gain the object of their desire - their successes and failures - will be what powers them through the book. You will need a different problem for each book, which grows out of the problem in the previous book. You should be able to articulate that problem in one sentence, e.g. Will Saba find her kidnapped brother? And it should be a big enough problem that if the character fails, there will be dire consequences for them and/or the wider world. I also wanted each of my books to have a distinctive mood and feel and function, just as the three acts of a play or opera do.

Every writer is unique. There's no one formula, no right or wrong way to write a book. I'm always looking to plays, movies, opera and music to inform structure and mood and movement and repetition through a story. But these speak to me so strongly and fundamentally because of my own background as a performer.

The last thing I would say is that stories reveal themselves. You can only really learn what your story is about by writing it. The one thing I knew when I began writing the second book, Rebel Heart, is that Saba would experience some fallout from the events of Blood Red Road. I learned what that was over 19 months of writing and rewriting.

Hope you enjoyed this discussion. Please write in with any comments or questions!

Susan Hughes is an award-winning author of children's books — both fiction and non-fiction — including The Island Horse, Off to Class, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed and Earth to Audrey. She is also an editor, journalist and manuscript evaluator. Susan lives in Toronto. Visit her website,


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