Tips for Writing a Book in a Long-Running Series
If you stick with the writing game long enough, someone may ask you to take a shot at characters and worlds invented by someone else. It could be a Star Wars story, or the next chapter in a novel some writer friends are passing around for fun. Snatching the proverbial baton from someone else can present some (fun) challenges unique to writing — and it’s potentially overwhelming if you’re not careful.
Last year, I was approached to write the next novella in the long-running “A Grifter’s Song” series for Down & Out Books. Each of the 29 (and counting) “episodes” follows Sam and Rachel, a pair of grifters who drift across the nation in search of lucrative scores. As you might expect from a crime-fiction series, they regularly run into trouble, including marks who’re deadlier than they appear, mobsters determined to take their heads, and garden-variety criminals looking to pull a double cross.
The series, which was created by Frank Zafiro, has attracted a diverse slate of writers over the years, including Hilary Davidson, Paul Garth, S.A. Cosby, Holly West, Eric Beetner, and Eryk Pruitt. Each of these writers brought their unique voice to the endeavor, but every episode also follows a core set of rules set from the very beginning, which leads to the first point: with anything like this, you need a series bible (also known as a story bible).
A series bible is a document (for some projects, it might even be a book) detailing all the relevant characters, story arcs, relationships, and much more. Some may describe what the writer can (and can’t) do with the material; with “A Grifter’s Song,” for instance, we couldn’t kill the leads, and we couldn’t do anything physically radical (like chopping off a hand). Whether you’re starting a series on your own or joining someone else’s long-running project in mid-stream, a series bible is essential. Don’t begin without one.
If you’re writing the next installment in a series or universe, it’s also important to read as many of the previous episodes/entries/books as possible, even if you only have a limited timeframe. Sure, you could get away with just reading the series bible — but you’ll miss all the universe’s nuances…