Today on the EasternPennPoints blog we are pleased to have award-winning author Wendelin Van Draanen. Wendelin has written more than thirty novels for young readers and teens, including three book series: the Sammy Keyes series, the Shredderman books, and the Gecko & Sticky books.
Laura: Hi, Wendelin. We’re so glad to have you here on the EasternPennPoints blog. Today we’re going to talk about writing a book series. You have successfully launched three book series. When you started writing, did you set out with the intention of writing a series, or did your series evolve after you wrote your first book?
Wendelin: For the Sammy Keyes series, it evolved. I was still unpublished, and basically, I wrote the first book, fell in love with Sammy, and found myself wanting to spend more time with her. Also, by the end of that first book I had built her backstory and world and there were things left unresolved (in her life, as opposed to in the story), and I felt the need to deliver her to a better place. So, I started writing the second book almost immediately, and it built from there. With the Shredderman series I had been published for a while and had three books planned, but my editor asked me to expand it to four. So, the general concept for each and the overarching storyline and series ending were all in mind before I began. The Gecko & Sticky series was a spin-off of Shredderman and became four books as well.
Laura: When someone sets out to write a series, is it best to write the first book and query it, mentioning that the book is intended to be the first in a series, or do you have a few books written for the series before querying? Or perhaps one book written and several outlines?
Wendelin: The way I approached it was/is unconventional, and I really wouldn’t recommend it in today’s market. I had the first four Sammy Keyes books written before they found a home. I queried and submitted each one as it was finished, so this submission/rejection process went on for a number of really discouraging years. Staying in the story, though, helped me keep believing in what I was doing. I loved this girl, I just needed to find an editor who loved her too.
What I would recommend is to write smarter than I did. Yes, write the first book. Yes, be able to articulate or outline how a sequel or trilogy would shape up. Yes, set yourself up for a series, but—unless you want to spend time with your main character regardless of outcome—stop there. An interested editor may have things they want changed in Book 1 that might take a lot of work—work that you may have to do before you get a contract, and work that will likely affect the storyline of subsequent books or the series arc. Write the first one. Polish it to a blinding shine. Outline ideas, but don’t hamstring placing your book by insisting it’s a series. Sales of Book 1 will likely be the main factor in the publisher’s decision to move forward with a sequel, trilogy, or series.
Laura: Once you have a publishing contract for a series, how quickly do you need to submit manuscripts for successive books?
Wendelin: In my experience and observations, publishers don’t usually offer contracts for “a series.” Since I had the first four Sammy Keyes books written when they were bought, I did get a contract for all four and they were able to release them in quick succession (every six months). But thereafter, the books were contracted two at a time and the release pacing slowed to about one a year. And whether I got offered a contract for the next two was dependent on how well the previous books sold. Getting to the end of the story arc over eighteen books was unusual then, and would be even more so now. That said, I think the rate of submission depends on your targeted readership. If you’re writing MG, books are usually shorter and can come out more quickly. With YA, it’s usually paced a little more slowly. But once the books are in the hopper, things do tend to move at a stressfully fast rate—especially if you’ve got a real job and children at home! And since stress is a creativity killer, it’s good to have story ideas worked out ahead of time.
Laura: When you write a series, do you follow a formula for the storyline?
Wendelin: It might make my life so much easier if I did, but no! I have a basic structure—with the Sammy Keyes series that has to do with three interwoven plotlines present in each book—but there’s no “formula” and I don’t write to “beats.” I like to keep things feeling fresh to me because that translates to the story feeling fresh to the reader. We’ve all read series where the author starts off with a bang and then a couple of books in, things start feeling very predictable or tired—like the author is under the grind of writing these books to meet deadlines. I never wanted to feel that way about Sammy, and I kept my “relationship” with her fresh by letting her surprise me.
Laura: With eighteen books in your Sammy Keyes series, did you run into any consistency issues the farther along you got? If so, what was the wackiest consistency problem you ran into? What was the most difficult to write around?
Wendelin: Haha, yes! And no, it wasn’t funny! I tell the details of it in Hope in the Mail: Reflections on Writing and Life, but basically (and because of fan mail asking when Sammy’s birthday was), I realized around Book 6 that I had her age wrong. It was a huge mistake, and one that I could not gloss over. I was determined to find a fix for it that was consistent with Sammy World and the characters who inhabited it, and that took some thinking! It is definitely best to have things totally figured out before Book 1 comes out, because after it does, there’s no going back.
Laura: Do you have any more series books in the works, or are you focusing on stand-alone projects these days?
Wendelin: After the final Sammy Keyes book came out a few years ago, I swore off series. Eighteen books was huge, and building that world was amazing . . . and exhausting! To expand on what we talked about earlier, I became obsessive about keeping all of the details straight. Which way does the neighbor’s door swing? In? Out? It has to be the same every single time that door appears in a story. You should see my bible for the series! The spreadsheets, the character descriptions and language, when they appear, all of it for eighteen books that spanned as many years . . . it’s huge. But fans of a series hate it when you make a mistake—Why should they be more invested in the world you’ve created than you are?—and I felt a real responsibility to not let the Sammiacs down! So . . . yeah. I swore off series. Stand-alones are so much more . . . manageable. But during this past year, locked in my house, escaping daily into fictional worlds, well, I had an ideaaaaa . . . It’s on my editor’s desk now, and yeah, I think it may become more than one book. But not eighteen! I swear!
Laura: Ooh, how exciting! And finally, what advice do you have for authors who wish to break into series books?
Wendelin: In addition to everything I said before, I’d say . . . make sure you love your characters. Make sure you want to spend time with them. Make sure they have flaws and room to grow. Make sure they come from your heart, not from a desire to catch some hot trend. And make them feel so real to you that when you type the final line of your eighteenth book you sob your silly eyes out. Because as clever and as interesting as world building can be, in the end, placing your book—series or stand-alone—will come down to other people falling in love with your characters.
Laura: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me on the blog!
Wendelin: Thanks for inviting me! May I add, please, that I wish I’d known about SCBWI when I was first starting out? It sure would have saved me from learning so many things the hard way! It’s a great organization for inspiration, comradery, and connection, and I’m grateful to be part of it now.
Wendelin Van Draanen has made her way from disaster survivor to high school teacher to best-selling, multi-award-winning author of books that are sold internationally and have been produced as films, including the Rob Reiner-directed Warner Brothers feature film Flipped. She now has an in-print catalog of more than thirty YA and MG novels, all published by Knopf/Random House, and her latest book, Hope in the Mail, Reflections on Writing and Life is part memoir, part writing guide, and part publishing insight, suitable for teen and adult readers, especially those who want to write. For more information about Wendelin, visit her website at www.wendelinvand.com.