Thursday, 10 February 2011

Sophia Bennett on writing series

 Today's post is written by the very wonderful Sophia Bennett, whose latest book Sequins, Stars and Spotlights is out this week - eagerly awaited by fans of the trilogy which started with the prize-winning Threads and continued with Beads, Boys and Bangles.
The books don't just give readers funny, heart-warming and believable stories, they also tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the fashion industry -  from child labour to the lives of the supermodels.
Writing a series isn't as easy as it looks. As I embark on my third 'Ty' book I'm concerned about keeping the storyline going, without boring the readers or clogging up the narrative with too much backstory. So I thought I'd ask Sophia for some advice cleverly disguised as being part of her blog tour for Sequins, Stars and Spotlights. And, clever person that she is, she obligingly interviewed herself!  

 Hi Keren. Thanks so much for hosting this stage of the tour, and for suggesting the topic of series fiction. Nobody’s asked me about that before. I imagined this as a Q&A … which may give the impression that I talk to myself a lot. I do, so that’s probably no bad thing.

So, Sophia, what is the secret of a good series, do you think?

Six words: strong characters, strong characters, strong characters. Plots can be tiny or huge. If a reader loves the characters, she’ll follow them through.

What makes writing a series different from a single book?

Books for the age group I write for (tween and teen) have to be quite short, so there simply isn’t time to develop a character in many complex ways. My narrator, Nonie, doesn’t understand what’s going on as well as she thinks she does. Over the three books, she gets the chance to get things wrong about herself and other people, think she’s learned from her mistakes, get them wrong again and finally get them right. She’s a different girl by the end of the series, because her world is changing fast around her and she’s losing her hold on it. I couldn’t have packed all of that into one book, but it was great fun to develop it over time. Poor Nonie. (She’s all right in the end, though.)

Anything to avoid?

When you come up with your sheer genius title for book 1, make sure that you or your publisher will be able to think of associated sheer genius titles for books 2 and 3. We quickly rejected ‘Stitches’ and ‘Ribbons’ and probably spent longer thinking about titles than we did editing the books. I thought I had it cracked with ‘Beads Boys & Bangles’, but that meant I had to think of three more words for book 3. At one stage, it was going to be ‘Frills, Fame and Frappucinos’, I think. Good grief. And book 1 became ‘Sequins, Secrets and Silver Linings’ in America, so I have no idea what book 3 will be over there …

Anything else?

Sophia's suitably stylish...
Making the timescale in each book last up to two years can be a no-no. My timescales were based on Jenny’s acting career and the things I wanted her to achieve in each book. (Which is odd, because she was the last character I created and she was supposed to just fit in around the others and wear nice frocks occasionally, but she wasn’t having any of it …). But the problem is that after a mere three books, the older girls were 18 and leaving school already. How quickly they grow up! I have a successful writing friend who insists each book in her current series should last a maximum of 6 months. Very sensible. I’ll bear that in mind next time …

Another problem you just have to grapple with is the need to keep plot twists original. There were a few times when I thought – I know, that character can solve the problem by doing that. But he or she couldn’t, because they’d done something similar before. Oh, and blatant repetition. I think it’s inevitable. You need a beady-eyed editor to point out that the same girl made the same observation two books earlier.

This might suggest that I don’t enjoy doing it, which isn’t true at all. Because if you’ve created characters you enjoy writing about, there’s nothing nicer than living in their world for a couple of years, and having readers look forward to what they’re going to get up to next, too.

How do you plan your series?

I wrote ‘Threads’ as a one-off book. For nine-tenths of the writing process, I simply couldn’t imagine how anything could possibly follow after the final scene. And then … I knew my characters so well that I realised I did know what they did next. And it was kind of interesting. And there was another save-the-world issue that I really wanted to address: child labour. So by the time I had a contract for ‘Threads’, I’d already written 10,000 words of ‘Beads Boys & Bangles’. Of all the books, that was the easiest to write.

Anyway, by then I thought I had this series thing sorted. I needed another save-the-world issue and more great fashion heights for my girls to scale. Except, that’s not what happened at all. The issue I decided to write about was very local, and very personal. And on the fashion front, I wanted to write more about how you need to pace yourself, gain experience, and not do too much too soon. It took ages to make it all work in a way I was happy with.

So I suppose my answer is, there must be a successful way to plan a series, but I don’t know what it is yet. I suggest reading the Hunger Games trilogy and working it out from that. Or Harry Potter, obviously.

One thing I don’t like are series books that end on an obvious cliff-hanger, so you simply have to read the next book to find out what happened. I think each book should be self-contained. After all, the reader has paid for a complete story, and that’s what she deserves.

Will you always write series books?

I write what comes to me. At the moment, I don’t know if the book I’ve just handed in is part of a series or not. It depends on whether my publisher thinks the characters are strong enough, and whether more of their stories occur to me (mind you, the second book is already bubbling away …).

I do like series books. When I was in my early teens I adored series fiction and would happily read ten books about the same teen detective, ballet dancer or pony fanatic. My son is ten now, and as soon as he’s finished a book he loves, he wants the next one – Artemis Fowl, Skulduggery Pleasant, Percy Jackson ... I know lots of readers feel the same way.

I hope Threads isn’t my only series. Writing the books was a very happy, busy time for me.

 (Keren again) Thanks Sophia! I learned a lot there...and I'm sure Threads will be the first series of many.


  1. This is I think the best and most fun to read guest post Sophia has done so far! And I REALLY hope there will be more books from her (and series!)

  2. Inspiring. Thanks Keren and Sophia.