Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Doing the continuity series dance

In just over a week, I must submit the complete manuscript for the continuity series book I've been working on. I said some time ago that I would explain the writing process for this kind of book, and since it's difficult to wrap my mind around anything else right now, it looks like today's the day.

In the romance world--and by that I mean the Harlequin world--a continuity series is a set of interrelated books written by different authors. There are generally 6-12 books/authors involved, and the novels are usually released one a month. Readers just eat these things up, and will watch for each book in the series because they're eager to revisit the setting and the characters they've come to care about. They want to know what happens next.

The series I'm involved in, Love Inspired's "Homecoming Heroes," will feature six books, to be released from July through December of next year. I'm writing the third book in the series. As is usual with these novels, each will feature a complete love story, but will contain subplots that will run the length of the series. That means that although you'll get to know my hero and heroine and will see them make a commitment to each other by the end of my book, there will be three subplots that will remain unresolved. You'll have to read books 4, 5, and 6 to find out how those are wrapped up.

To tell you the truth, that's not very attractive to me as a reader. I've never been wild about books that aren't finished by the last page (which is part of the reason I still haven't read a Harry Potter book). But apparently, I'm an odd bird. Romance readers love continuity series books. So when my editor invited me to write the third book of Homecoming Heroes, I decided to give it a try.

Each of the Homecoming Heroes books will feature either a hero or a heroine soldier who has just come home to our fictional Army base in Texas following his or her deployment to the Middle East. The series will have a small town feel, and you'll see most of the characters dance in and out of the other books.

These stories are tricky to coordinate. As is usual, Homecoming Heroes began with a series "bible" which was created by the Love Inspired editors. They dreamed up basic character sketches for the heroes and heroines of each book and provided a simple storyline for the three subplots that run through the series. Next, they discussed which authors they wanted to invite to write each of the books. (The copyrights on these books won't be held by the individual authors but by Harlequin, because the original concept for the series was theirs.)

When all six authors were on board, our editor e-mailed us and suggested that we set up a private e-mail loop. As I recall, that happened around the middle of June, giving us about three months to write our books.

Each of the authors jumped into the project in her own way, but a great deal of research had to be shared via the private loop. There were many details in the bible that just didn't work for our story once we got going, but I understand that's par for the course. What sounds like a good idea in the editor-prepared bible can become problematic when the authors begin researching and putting the stories together. For example, in our series a certain hero was meant to be an Army pilot who flies a foreign national--an orphaned child--to Texas for medical treatment and subsequent adoption. The authors were charmed by that storyline until we learned that Army aviators fly helicopters, not fixed-wing aircraft; hospital planes are flown to the U.S. by the Air Force. Also, while our orphan could get a medical visa to come to the U.S., we learned that such a child couldn't stay here and be adopted. There is no visa for that. So some changes had to be made in the bible.

It was sometimes frustrating but ultimately satisfying to hammer out those and other continuity details. To solve some problems in the bible, we had to invent another secondary character. Then somebody got the idea to kill the guy for dramatic effect. "No, he can't die before Book Three," I whined. "I need him. Kill him in Book Four if you want." (Was that callous of me? I blame the pressures of working under a tight deadline.)

The loop has been fairly quiet in the past couple of weeks. We're all finishing our books. When we turn in the manuscripts, our editors will comb through them carefully, looking for small continuity errors, like a character having blond hair in Book One and red hair in Book Six (without any apparent assist by chemicals), and serious problems, like a guy having a glorious death scene in Book Two and then drinking a cup of coffee in Book Three. We authors have tried hard to stay on the same page: "Does our orphan have a stuffed animal?" I asked a week or two ago. "I just gave him a teddy bear, so if somebody has him cuddling a stuffed rabbit, please speak up." "What's the name of the ice-cream parlor next to the town green?" someone else asked. "We decided to call it The Creamery," another author replied. "Fine," said the first. "What's the interior like? Red vinyl booths?" When I needed to know just how well our foreign-born orphan handled the English language, the author of Book One posted a scene containing dialogue to the e-mail loop.

Romance novelists are often accused of slapping books together without regard for quality, but I can tell you that we're working hard to make Homecoming Heroes as entertaining and as believable as possible. A month or so after we turn in our manuscripts, we'll get revision letters from the editors, who will have carefully read all six of the stories and identified problems in the big picture that we've been unable to see. Then we'll go back to work tightening our own stories and the series as a whole.

That's the process. And now if you'll excuse me, I must get back to it. This puppy goes in the mail next Friday.


Pattie said...

Brenda, as the spouse of a deployed Air Force chaplain, I've found this blog to be extremely helpful.
I wish I'd known you were working on a military story or I'd have told you about this earlier. You can get a LOT of great info from military spouses here, that would have been super background to your series. Maybe you already have this, though. Oh well! I'm sure the series will be great.

Kristin said...

Series seem to be all the rage. I'm always reading about 3 book deals for a continuity-type series. Then, I read online that many readers HATE this. Because they get confused by which order the books go in (if they are late to the party) and then can't find one of the books in the series and refuse to read anymore.

At least with your particular series, it is a very scheduled thing. Those with a 'subscription' to the line will get them all in order.

Sounds like it was quite the challenge!

Shauna said...

Usually I like a story wrapped up in a single book. If I'm reading a series where I have to wait a year for the next one to come out I get frustrated and impatient unless it's an author I adore.

I love the continuity series because I don't have a long wait. I get to know the characters and setting and I love watching the subplots evolve to add characters. This feels like a long visit with friends I've gotten to know...without all the waiting.

Neal said...

This was a fascinating read Brenda: thanks.

Hope Chastain said...

I'm so glad you decided to play when Harlequin asked you to the party! :-) I can't wait! I'm tickled that it has a military theme! I grew up in a military family. It's the next closest "family" to church family!

Oh, would you be interested in being interviewed on my blog & giving away a copy to my readers? Let me know, please, thanks!
hope_chastain [at] (lose the spaces & replace [at] with @). I've already had Margaret Daley, Eva Marie Everson & Linda Evans Shepherd, and Donald James Parker. This week, I'm hoping to have Debby Giusti (if I can get the questions to her in time!), and Camy Tang is going to be on the blog, too. :-) I've been so pleased with the response. I blog in two sites, so that gives twice the opportunity! Thanks!


Bonnie Calhoun said...

This sounds like a lot of fun, and I'm sure having so many authors in the series will help drive sales!


Becky said...

Can't wait to read the series, Brenda. And your next stand-alone. We've got lots of things to look forward to...yay!

Brenda Coulter said...

Pattie, thanks so much for the tip.

Kristin, all I know is that series books are huge sellers. Honestly, I don't see the attraction. But when my editor asked, I agreed to try this once.

Hope and Becky, thanks for your kind words. Yes, Becky, I'm usually up for doing blog interviews. Anybody who's really that interested in me is welcome to contact me:

Shauna, Neal, and Bonnie, it's always good to see you here.