Tuesday, September 24, 2013

I beg to disagree

writing adviceWriter’s Digest is not my favorite source for writing advice. Actually, the magazine and companion website are not even on my radar. I have found Writer’s Digest articles arcane or commonplace. Sometimes they are downright wrong. Recently they published “5 Mistakes to Avoid When Writing a Fiction Series” by Rachel Randall, the managing editor for Writer’s Digest Books. Since I write a fiction series, I looked up this article. It pulled off the difficult task of simultaneously being arcane, commonplace, and wrong.

The “5 Mistakes” were commonplace, but the advice on how to avoid them was often arcane. Like everything in this magazine, it is writing by formula. It’s all about the mechanics. This may work for their readership, but not for me.

Calling the article wrong is probably an overstatement. The content is correct. The problem is omission. The “5 Mistakes” have nothing to do with why readers adopt a fiction series. Readers pick up the next installment of a fiction series because they want to learn what happened to the characters in the story. Readers must be invested in the characters. In fact, I believe characterization is the sole key to a fiction series.

fiction series
Writers need to know their characters. Thoroughly. If a writer truly understands his or her characters, many of the “5 Mistakes” will be avoided automatically. Characters have a personality, a backstory, and a network of friends and acquaintances. They do not behave inconsistent with these characteristics. Like real people, fictional characters don’t change willy-nillythey constantly change and/or grow, but the reader must witness this challenging process. (Breaking Bad is a good example.)

The “5 Mistakes” article misses the greatest mistake in fiction seriespoor character development. A great deal of series fiction puts too much emphasis on technological wizardry, relentless quests, or slow revelation of a mystery. These authors forget to populate their plots with characters that readers care about. And in the end, that is what matters most.

Honest westerns filled with dishonest characters.


  1. TV viewers generally watch a series from the beginning, so characters develop a history and emotional investment by viewers as they go. There's also an interaction between the actors who play roles and the writers of future episodes. An example of that would be the continuing character of Boyd Crowder in JUSTIFIED. The writer of serial fiction, however, has an added factor--the reader who picks up a novel somewhere in the middle of a series. Starting with THE RETURN, for instance, a reader lacks the build-up to it that the preceding novels give us. How do you deal with that?

  2. Good question. I try to make each book a self-contained story, independent of what has gone before. But I sprinkle back story through each new book to provide some perspective of the common experience of the characters. I also hope that will encourage the reader to go back and read the previous book. It a hard balance. Too much retelling screws up the current story, but my main characters have a history.