Friday, 25 July 2014

The Secret to Writing a Series – Part 14 – or the real trick behind avoiding writer’s block by Derek Duggan

These days it is almost inconceivable to write a novel that isn’t going to be part of a series. Readers, apparently, can’t get enough of the same characters doing the same things endlessly. In fact, they cling to contrivances like, say, a magic baddie trying to kill a magic goodie only really while he’s at school and making sure to draw out his attempts to cover an entire school year so that the magic baddie can be defeated in a way that will allow the magic goodie and his friends to get an extra few points to ensure they win the house cup.

First let us take a look at the history of the series. The modern series was invented in 1955 by Ian Fleming when he released the third in the James Bond series of books, Moonraker. There had been many attempts at the series before, but they’d never quite made it past the sequel stage and most of these books disappeared into obscurity almost immediately after they were launched. How many of you have read Oliver UnTwisted1985, or Tolstoy’s massive flop A Bit of Arguing and then Everyone Getting Along?

Tolkien had a shot at this too, but ran out of steam at three, also in 1955, with the release of the ultimate volume of The Lord of the Rings, the prophetically titled Peter Jackson’s Pension. So Fleming was left to develop the format alone. He wrote fourteen books in all, many of them quite good, as nobody had realized at that time that there was no need to keep up any semblance of quality with a series. Since then, of course, there have been about 31 Bond books, including the rather good Young Bond series by Charlie Higson and the shatteringly awful Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks.

Writing a series is not for the faint of heart – Early attempter Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a ton of short stories featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, but when he tried to convert these into novels it sent him so mental in the face that he started trying to talk to ghosts and things until, in the end, the only person he spoke to was Bruce Willis.

Fleming avoided going bananas by being a bit of a subtle misogynist (allegedly).  You have to look in his books carefully to spot this, but if you think about it, calling a character Pussy Galore  (Goldfinger, 1959) could be interpreted as an example of this tendency. However, recently uncovered correspondence between him and his publisher that I’ve just made up shows that he had originally been much more even handed with his choice of character names and the title character of that particular novel, Auric Goldfinger, had originally been called Cock Uptheringpiece, so maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to judge. But finally the pressure of  keeping the quality up got to him and made him die.

So, how could he have avoided this early grave? Well, he could have taken a leaf out of Erle Stanley Gardner’s books about paint drying, or, as they are more commonly known, the Perry Mason series. This began in 1933 when Gardner realized that there was no Bargain Hunt on the telly in the afternoon and pensioners had nothing to do with their time other than smell faintly of wee. There were over eighty novels featuring lovable Perry and his pals and at the time of Gardner’s death there were 135 million copies of the books in print, which is, coincidently, exactly how many words there are in the bit of The Deathly Hallows where they just hang about doing a bit of camping while waiting for the big showdown at the end of the school year. The difference between Gardner and Fleming is that Gardner realized that in order to avoid a relatively hasty descent into madness and/or dying what he needed to do was to just stick to the formula and write each new book as if the previous ones never happened. And this simple system can really play into the hands of the lazy writer – you still have to actually sit down and type out eighty books, but you never have to worry about writer’s block or anything.

Of course, you need to come up with a simple hook. In Gardner’s case it is that someone is accused of a murder and then, despite what seems like overwhelming evidence at the start, it turns out they didn’t do it and after a bit of cross examination by Perry the real murderer fesses up, just like in real life.

A recent series that has taken this approach is Alexander McCall Smith’s The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency in which some people drink bush tea and some don’t and some people talk to their shoes. And some cars get fixed. This may seem pedestrian, but the hook, the clever bit, is that it all happens in Botswana, so people have funny names which is absolutely hilarious.

And that’s it. That’s all you need to write a series. Just pick a random place and have some people with funny names prove that someone didn’t kill someone else and you’re on your way to your first (of many) bestseller. Here’s a title you can have for free – Hamish Mc Floogenhat and his Outer Hebridian Key Cutting Shop. There’s no end to the possibilities with that one.

What are you waiting for?

Glad I could help.


  1. Ah, great. Thanks for the advice! I'm gonna do NaNoWriMo every month and meet a daily word count goal of 15000 per day. I'm sure I can do this while watching TV. No need to pay attention to storytelling. Just make words.

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