How to craft a successful series - Authors A.I.

Alessandra Torre
May 30, 2024

In a recent Draft Friday, I talked with bestselling military sci-fi thriller author James Rosone about how to create a successful book series. Having written several series in two genres (military technothrillers and science fiction), James discussed key strategies to keep readers engaged and ensure the longevity of a series.

Here are some key takeaways from my conversation with James:

  1. Craft compelling openings and closing scenes: James emphasized the critical role of the series’s first chapters. He aims to create gripping openings that pull readers in and to end each book with a compelling finale that leads them into the next book in the series.
  2. Study craft: The writing challenge intensifies with each book, as authors must consistently surpass previous works to keep readers captivated.
  3. Release schedule: James touched on the challenges of maintaining a regular release schedule, stressing the importance of planning ahead. He outlines books about a year in advance. He has been alternating books between his two current series, but is moving to writing three books in a row for each series. This way readers won’t have to wait so long between books.
  4. Strategic thinking for series success: James discussed the need for strategic thinking. He said it is really important to transition readers from one series to the next. He laments that he didn’t do this at the beginning of his writing career.
  5. Strategic storytelling: Crafting a compelling series involves strategic storytelling. James uses tools like the Marlowe report from Authors A.I. to identify story beats, ensuring consistent levels of action and engagement throughout the series.

It was a great discussion, one you won’t want to miss! Click below to watch our 30-minute recording and hear the questions we answered from the live audience. Keep scrolling if you’d prefer to read the transcript.

More info:

Try out Marlowe, our A.I., for a critique of your novel: authors.ai/marlowe/

Check out James Rosone’s books on BingeBooks.

Enjoy the show? Check out our past First Draft Friday episodes.

TRANSCRIPT:

Alessandra: Welcome everyone to First Draft Friday. I am your host with Authors.AI. My name is Alessandra Torre and I am so excited to be joined today by James Rosone, who’s going to talk to us all about creating series and what you need to keep in mind when you’re writing books in a series. This is not the first time that we’ve had James on, so welcome back and do you want to tell the audience just a little bit about yourself?

James: Good to be back with you guys and talk with you guys further about how to kind of master this craft and get better at what we all do for a living, writing books and telling stories. For those who don’t know, I write in two different genres. I write military technothrillers and then also I write on the science fiction side of the house. I like writing both. I probably should have just stuck with one, but there comes a point in your writing career when you start hitting that 4, 5, 6 year mark, you’re like, I want to try something new or different. And so I did and I discovered I really like the sci-fi, but at the same point, I have a really big audience in the thriller genre I didn’t want to walk away from, and I enjoy it too. So, how do you create a good book and grow both at the same time, or generally speaking, it’s the same concept, whether it’s two genres, three genres. How do you create a good book and a good series and keep the readers coming back, so you can continue doing this thing we love doing for the next 10 years? Because you’ve got to make money at this.

Alessandra: And making money at it. Absolutely. Can you walk us through how many series you have now and how many books are in each series?

James: So we have two active series that we’re writing in right now; one thriller, one sci-fi. We have our Rides to Republic series. We’re set to release book eight at the end of the month. We have two more to go and then we’re done. And then we have our Monroe Doctrine series, the thriller side; that’s six books. The seventh one comes out in a couple of months. Book eight will come out in the summer, and then that will end that series. And so for a short period of time, I’m going to be focused on one series. Which is going to be awesome. And then my hope is that I will largely stay focused, where there’ll be three books at a shot per genre, is what I want to try to do. Because that way I give the readers a little shorter release cycle and more focus on that, and not this constant back and forth with six month delays between each book in each genre like that. It’s hard for them. It’s hard for me as a writer to go from a thriller to a sci-fi, to a thriller, to a sci-fi. It’s quite challenging mindset-wise and staying on track and focused on it.

Alessandra: So you’re going to write like three books, a three-book sprint, kind of. You’re going to write three books in one series and then you’re going to switch and write three books in the next

James: Probably we’ll wind up doing that going forward, I think, because it’ll keep both genres alive and active and satisfy the readers best. Work life balance on our end. It’ll be a little easier and better, you know, because at the end of the day, the readers are like, “I want the next book.” Because they just finished it and you’re like, I just slaved on this thing for three months and we finished it in a day and a half. And yes, I know you want the next one, but I need a break.

Alessandra: Yeah. I understand that a hundred percent. So with a typical series, how long does it take you to write each book and then what is your normal release schedule? What is your normal release schedule?

James: It’s been a little chaotic this last year. It was kind of an aberration last year, so we’re not planning to do that again. We released six books last year. That was way too much way just too much work. A lot of time you’re always working ahead, so to speak. So we’re basically mid-February 2023, most of what’s coming out this year has already been pre-plotted and planned last year, and so, it’s really about working forward. And by the time we hit the summer months, I’m already working on what’s going to get released in 2024. So, there’s always that forward-looking presence like that. It’s kind of on the pacing what you have going on. We’re at this point trying to close out the series and get things to make sure they close out strong and then they set themselves up for the next series.

Because when you’ve built this massive audience on your romance, thriller, paranormal, whatever it is you’re writing, you want to carry that audience from one genre or for one series’ closure to the start of the new series. You’ve spent a lot of time and effort on growing that series and all those readers; you want to stay connected with those readers and pull them into the next one. At the end of the day, this is a business; we want to keep doing this for 10 more years and not have to quit writing to go do another job, so it means you need to make money at this business to keep it going. So, you have to think strategically, how do I do that? And that comes down to the whole craft of storytelling in doing that. Like we’ve talked about in the past, we use the Marlowe report to help with identifying the writer beats, making sure you stay consistent with that. You know, one of the big pieces on that is how do you lay out the story, how do you lay out not just the series, but each story so they continually draw the reader in? You’ve got to keep pulling the readers in and keeping them excited and wanting to come back for more. It’s that art of storytelling basically.

Alessandra: So let’s talk about that for a minute. So let’s talk about, I’m a new author, well, experienced/new author, whatever. I have a brand new shiny series that I want to launch and we’re going to start with book one. So when you’re thinking about that and you’re creating a new world, a new cast, or maybe you’re not, maybe this is a spinoff series, but what are you thinking about when you are sitting down? And it sounded like you said, I believe that you plot, you are a plotter?

James: Well, I’m a pants/plotter. I mean, I don’t go into a series or a book with just a blank page and nothing. I also don’t start a new book or new series with a 12-page outline either. You know, I usually have an idea of where it starts, I have an idea of of where it’s going to end. I don’t know how we connect though, and that’s the pantser part of me, is the connecting piece. So quasi, I guess.

Alessandra: No, I’m the same way. I get it. So when you are starting then, and you’re talking about beats and that sort of thing, does that come into play as you’re writing and is that just an innate thing that you realize that something should be happening next? Or do you have a normal framework you use?

James: I didn’t originally think like that. That’s not what I was doing. The first three years I was in this business doing that. I discovered when we started using Marlowe reports and first started reading when I first discovered the book “The Bestseller Code” back in 2019 that we were inadvertently already doing some of that. Because when we would write a book, sometimes we would look at the chapters and lay them out and look at it and say, OK, well where is it slow? Where does there need to be more action? And that was really us unwittingly trying to engineer the beats that we needed. Now we’re a little more knowledgeable on understanding the science behind that and know more about what it is we were trying to actually do. I don’t want to use the term like mind hacking, but our brains receive data a certain way, a certain manner, like to say people, some people learn auditory, visually or physically doing things.

When you understand how people react to stories, basically creating books, you can create a book and a story and a series that caters to those. That’s why some book series are wildly popular in audio narration because the book is written in a format that’s very conducive for audio, but it is a terrible ebook. It doesn’t read as a good ebook, and the sales, you know, back that up, but the audio is just explosive and it’s wildly popular. And others, using ours an example – our books sell like hotcakes. We’ve sold just hundreds of thousands copies of our e-books, but our audio is not very good. Our audio sales are nowhere near comparison to what our e-book sales are. I don’t know if that’s necessarily because of the style and way we write them – if we’re not writing them to audio. Or perhaps it’s because we’ve largely done a lot of the audio ourselves where we’re partnering with ACX or we don’t have access to a lot of the higher-end name-brand narrators. I just don’t have access to, you know, Mark Boyette, and a bunch of these other big brand, you know, narrators, so that could also be a factor too.

But like you could say, back to your question, when you’re talking about the setup of it, the big thing comes down to saying when you have chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, OK, so chapter one, how many scenes are in this chapter? And of these scenes, is each scene an action scene or a dialogue scene? So I’ll take chapter one, scene whatever it is, and then I write whether it’s dialogue or action and then do that for each scene inside of each chapter. And I will do that for the whole book, more or less. And then from there it’s a matter, OK, is this actually going to work? And then we start filling it in.

Like right now with Monroe Doctrine Book Seven that I’m writing, I have the first two chapters filled in already, but the rest of the chapters, I have it say like chapter X and then one or two scenes and it’s annotated for action or dialogue. But I don’t know what action or dialogue I’m going to put in there just yet. That’s the pantser part of me saying what needs to be told in the story at this precise moment that’s going to fit with the beats and what we know have to be engineered in there for this thing to succeed. Does that kind of make sense?

Alessandra: That makes perfect sense. So two quick definitions for those of you who may be listening and might not know what we’re talking about when we say certain things. So when James is referring to a Marlowe report. A Marlowe report is an artificial intelligence report. Marlowe is a technology that Authors AI, the host of this show, provides. So if you’d like to check out Marlowe, Marlowe is an AI that can read your manuscript and kind of lay out your story and show you where your beats are occurring in your story and where that plotline is. But beats is a concept that a lot of authors don’t really understand, so is that something you can kind of dive into? What do you define as a beat?

James: Sure. And I’ll be honest, I didn’t know that myself for the first three years I was writing this either. OK, so don’t feel bad if you don’t know it. You just don’t know what you don’t know. So beats is basically looking and saying, is it high or low? Is it positive/negative beat so to speak? Are you pulling the readers into the high and low moments because it’s like an EKG. When you go to the doctor and your EKG, your heart, they’re looking at it, you got the beat, up, down, up, down, up, down. And either it’s super fast or it’s kind of slow. Books are like that, too. Books have their own kind of beats to them. And what you want to look at is how are you spacing them? How fast are they? Are they moving too quick, too low? How do you engineer that, so to speak? I guess that’s how I define it. I know others have slightly more technical definitions of it. I am not an English major. I did not go to school for that.

Alessandra: Same here, yeah.

James: They define it the way that works in my brain. So that’s how you have to look at it as an author and when you can … because when you’ve been writing for a while, to get better and hit certain levels, to advance and just progress in your career; you need to start understanding the thing we call the craft, which is storytelling. How do you tell a better story? How do you draw readers in more? How do you keep them engaged and carry them with you from one book or one series to the next? And that’s a learned skill. That’s not typically something you’re always born with, but it is something that you can get substantially better at over time when you start investing in what makes that work. I hope that makes sense.

Alessandra: It does. And we have a question from Facebook. And anyone watching, don’t be shy if you have questions or opinions then just shout out. But from Facebook someone’s asking, how do you define a dialogue and action chapter or scene you talked about?

James: Again, I’m going to revert to just what I write, so that’s different for every person. So in the military technothrillers when I refer to the action stuff is in my world, like right now, we’re deep in our series, OK, we’re book seven, we’re coming up in the culmination of this big world war here, so we have to start wrapping up these final engagements that have to happen. So, I know where geographically some of these final conflicts and battles have to take place. So for me, when it comes to some of the action, it’s like, OK, where are we at in the war? Where do these final battles need to happen? This is where an action’s going to take place. So when I have decided I’m going to write an action scene, I need to figure out, well, what units and group of characters have we been following that we want to insert here?

Where were they at in the previous book or the previous scene? What was going on and where did they leave off? So we can now pick it up and resume it and carry them forward into the next spot. Versus dialogue, the dialogue can also be them in this conflict in this area. It’s just maybe, it’s the staging, the prepping for the battle that’s going to happen as opposed to the actual action of it happening. So that’s how I kind of delineate the two, whether it’s action or dialogue. For me, I like to use a lot of the dialogue to either set up action or to kind of go over what just happened. And that helps me bridge from what happened in this action scene to both recap it, but then lay out the course of what’s going to happen next, and it gives me the next setup for the next action scene. It just rolls really well together like that.

Alessandra: So does dialogue literally mean that this is a lot of conversations or dialogue doesn’t necessarily mean dialogue in terms of conversations between people; it could be narrative?

James: It could be both. Yeah, it could be a narrative. Usually, we’ll mix in some narrative and then some actual physical dialogue conversations between the books. I probably have around 40% dialogue in most of my books. I think that’s probably on the higher side for most authors. And that’s because there’s a lot of interactions and engagements going on between the characters. Most of the dialogues, ironically, are actually in the action scenes. You know, when they’re advancing on enemy position or they’re doing these different fights, well, they’re calling out to each other, they’re shouting this, they’re shouting that, they’re doing this, and that’s dialogue — fast-paced dialogue.

Alessandra: So David from YouTube said, is your war when you mentioned a war, is it a traditional war using armies and commanders?

James: Yes. It’s a good point because sometimes you could be talking about, you know, a literal war you’re talking about in a different context of, you know, here’s our business strategy, how we’re going to take down this company or this business venture. It depends on the story and what genre you write in. So for me it’s just, that’s what I write in, so that’s typically what I tend to be talking about. There’s other people who do the secret squirrel spice type books, and it’s more about going after organizations and entities and rogue agents and people like that, so philosophical type stuff.

Alessandra: Perfect. And when you’re talking about action chapters, is it normally like a physical confrontation between two or an action chapter could be the group is moving from one location to another and there is action occurring that is progressing?

James: Sometimes it’s that, sometimes it’s the action of what’s going to happen in this meeting, too. Say one of the intelligence agencies has uncovered that there’s been – inside the government when there are wars going on, there are always competing interests. You know, there are interest groups for this one and this one, and obviously your foe is also trying to subvert and cause influence of your actions too, so the agencies are always watching that kind of stuff. And it makes for a really good story when you can have a person who has been supporting the war or the action, but they’re doing it for financial gain or for an ulterior motive, not necessarily from the patriotic sense. Or they’re not doing it to subvert to help the enemy; they’re doing it because it hurts their political opponent, it sets them up better for the next election. Kind of like that.

You can have some really cool, clever scenes where it’s going to be, you know, a meeting at the National Security Council where some of this is disclosed and now you’re going to actually go and confront the government official or the general who’s involved in this activity and try to figure out what are you going to do. And it can create those good suspenseful moments where, “Oh, I get it, that’s why the author was going down this particular line with this arc of the story because they just introduced this and it all makes sense now.” It’s unraveling the onion, so to speak. I like to reckon stories are like onions and if you are really good storyteller, you’re going to have a lot of layers to it. But a lot of layers, which makes a great story, also require multiple books in a series or one really, really big monster book. I mean, most of us writers don’t like to write these 300,000-word monster books.

Alessandra: Five books to make more money on. Yeah, and have a break in between. So when you’re looking at a series and you are going from one book to another book, are your books, could they be read as stand-alones? Do you have one or several threads that are going through all of them? And then is there a conclusion? Is there a cliffhanger?

James: I would never encourage reading them like middle series like that because you’re just jumping into the middle of a war and typically, you want to kind of find out, well, how did we get there? I like to know, well, how did we walk into this, into this thing and what’s going on? I’ve had some readers tell me that they jumped in midway and then would go back and reread to get caught up. You can do that. Personally, I don’t write that way though. When I get toward the end of the book, I usually conclude what was going to happen in that particular book, and the last chapter or two, is really the lead-up to pull you into the next book and what’s going to go on next. So because we write these big world war type things, each book usually is covering one kind of geographical area of what’s going on. And as that draws down in conclusion, we roll into the next section where it’s going to go next or the next phase of the conflict, so to speak, as it escalates. And then it goes up, and then it has its natural conclusion. Just like a project, like when you’re in project management, you have your start and then you scale up and then eventually you end because the project ends. Well, what we write, because the conflict is going to come to an end. That’s how it works. You have your scale up, it happens, and then it scales down and it ends.

And so, the trick though is as a writer, and I’ve made this horrible mistake when I was early on is, we had our first series, started out our Red Storm series, Battlefield Ukraine – go figure, that’s five years, six years ago. And so that was a great series. It was a six-book series, and then I really screwed up everything and did not properly set up the next series at the end of that to have the pre-order ready, so when readers who’d been following with the series for 18 months had something to go into next. That was my biggest mistake as a new writer. And because of that, I had this huge audience and they didn’t have a new book or new series to jump into of mine. And it almost caused us to actually have to go back and get real jobs again. And so, we learned from that and we don’t make that mistake again. And as I’m winding down my existing series right now, I’m already thinking, well, what’s next and when will it come out, so I can ensure that I don’t make that same mistake twice. You make mistakes in business and sometimes you learn from them and you grow and you get better because of it. And sometimes you make them again and again until you will learn or you don’t, you go out of business.

Alessandra: Let me give you this next one. Here’s the next question. How do you deal with character arcs? Do you have a small arc within each book for a character that eventually works together as a big arc?

James: I’m kind of a weird author in that I tend to write books or my series tend to be more plot or scenario-driven series in books than they are a specific character. So we have specific characters that you’re going to follow through the series. And then we have a host of smaller supporting characters that are essentially, you follow and see, basically they’re showing you what’s going on in the plot. And so in our Monroe Doctrine series, we have our national security advisor who’s crossing over from one administration into a brand new administration from the opposite party. But the war had started at the end of one administration, so he crossed over to kind of help keep that continuity. So he’s a consistent character that we’re seeing evolve and grow and develop through the series and through just the years of the conflict. So you see him grow as a character, as a person.

And then below that we have a string of characters that we’re following in specific military units or aviation units, and we’re watching and following them through the conflict as it plays out. So in our series, the Monroe Doctrine, it initially starts in the Caribbean and in Central and South America, but that’s not where it ends. It ends further over in Asia because that’s where the conflict was driven from to our shores, and now we’re following it back to their shores. And so what we’re doing is, we’re following the characters inside those units as they go from one battlefield basically onto the next, onto the next, onto the next. So in the HBO series, Band of Brothers, what was really phenomenally well done about Band of Brothers and following Easy company was, you followed this company and these characters through the battles that took place from the Normandy invasion all the way through to the end of the war.

And you got to see how they grew, how they grew as people, rose through the ranks, through attrition, and then the culmination of the conflict. And in contrast, you had the Pacific; same concept and idea they tried to portray and follow in the Pacific War with some of the Marines and a few other characters there. Why that one did not succeed to the level that the Band of Brothers did was, because we weren’t following a specific unit in this case. We followed a couple of characters who were in a unit and then bounced around, you know, Basol and Jim is a great one, right? Great character, but he was in multiple different units during World War II. And so, we didn’t actually follow the same template that was the success of Band of Brothers in the Pacific because we were following characters in the Pacific as opposed to the unit like they did in Band of Brothers, and that was a big compare and contrast. So in our series, we’re following the units and characters with it as opposed to breaking it up. And I think that that’s been a formula that’s proven to be pretty successful thus far. That’s kind of how we address the big arc, the small arcs, characters and how you make sure that they’re all moving along and support each other.

Alessandra: We only have a few minutes left, so this is your opportunity to shout out.

James: The challenge you as an author, for any of you new authors; when you’re creating your series, your first opening chapter has got to be the grab chapter that pulls them in. And if it’s a weak chapter, it’s going to be hard. You can get away with a weak opening chapter when you’re in book four, five, and six. You can’t do that in the first book. That’s absolutely no, no. So you got to pull them in like that. And then towards the end of each paragraph, like at the end of chapter one, the last couple paragraphs have got to be pretty compelling to both close out that chapter or cause a justification to turn the page to go to the next chapter. And then again, you got to repeat that cycle at the beginning where you pull them in and then at the end of the chapter, drag them into the next one.

And it’s the same thing when the book ends, right? You got to give them a compelling reason to pre-order the next book or to stick with the series. And I’m telling you, the deeper – what you’re going to find is, book one is really easy to write compared to book seven. The deeper the series gets, the harder the book is to write because every book has got to be substantially better than the previous one. I mean, it’s got to be really good because now you’re asking them to follow you into book eight to nine and 10. And depending on your price point and things like that, they have an expectation. If you’re going to, as a self-published writer, brand yourself like a trad-pub writer and charge eight or 10 or $12 a book, you better be delivering that level of quality or greater and storytelling and everything else, or you’re not going to succeed with that; your series is going to fall off.

And you can see that with authors who do that, who lose that interest and whatnot, because you’ll look at the review counts, right? So you’ll see a 12-book series or 15-book series, book one’s got 10,000 reviews and stays really strong buy through to like book five. Something happened in book six and it went from having, you know, seven to 8,000 reviews pretty consistently, down to like a thousand or two. Something majorly happened between the connection between the end of book five and into book six that you lost the audience. And that as a writer is something you should look at and say, what happened? Do I see it? Is this something I can avoid? And am I currently making this mistake?

Alessandra: And we have less than two minutes left, we have two questions.

James: Why cut a series short at book seven or eight? If it’s really good, you want to keep it going? It’s really good in the eyes of the reader, is it really good in the eyes and perception of the author who has to continue it, though? And sometimes financially it’s not. And you just have to make the decision that you have to cut it or honestly you just get tired and you just want to move on to a new series, a new idea that you just want to go on to. One of my good friends Jay Allen who wrote Blood on the Stars, an 18-book series. By the time I hit book 12, I was like wanting to end the series, and it was so wildly popular, he really couldn’t. Craig Alanson had the same problem with X Force. He wanted to end that series like four or five books earlier and Podium was like, oh, we got to keep this thing going, you know, and R.C. Bray got this thing until they dragged the thing out, but he didn’t want to. He wanted to end that way earlier than that. A lot of writers get into that rut where you want to end and you really kind of can’t, but you’ve got to cut it at some point.

Alessandra: And a question from Facebook. With regard to continuity, how do you keep characters straight? I find I need a visual TOE for military organizations.  I bring in unit assignments, promotions, wounds, deaths, call signs, movement, etc.  Plus a timeline as the story progresses.  This is for municipal orgs, neighborhoods, etc.  Am I getting too detailed?

James: At the end of the book you have your appendix. A lot of times readers are lazy. It’s like, dude, I put the appendix there. I mean, maybe I need to hyperlink some of the stuff inside there, but e-book where they can go back and forth and I’m talking about that with my wife. It’s an enormous amount of work to do that. We may have to go and do that. But yeah, you’re right, some of that stuff would be more helpful. Maps are great. Maps are unfortunately hard to do because Amazon charges you on the file size. So what we have been doing is putting the link at the beginning of the start of our new books that takes you off an Amazon site to where you can actually see the battle maps before that book. And we’re going to try and see if we can make that work as a workaround to the file size problem.

Alessandra: All right, well that is a wrap. Thank you so much, James. It was fantastic to have you here. And thank you to everyone for your great questions. You guys are a great audience, and we will see you back in two weeks for another First Draft Friday.

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