Thursday, January 6, 2011

Behind the Scenes of Writing a Back-to-Back-to-Back-to-Back Series

By Pamela Callow

As a member of the 2009/10 ITW Debut Author class, I've benefitted from the experience and generosity of the writers who belong to this incredible organization, and am honoured to be writing the first guest post of its re-launch.

I have been asked to share my experiences in writing a back-to-back-to-back series. I am currently under contract to write four books for the Kate Lange legal thriller series for MIRA Books. DAMAGED (June 2010) debuted six months ago, in which struggling lawyer Kate Lange unearths a legal conspiracy that rocks the foundations of medical research - and puts her in the path of a dementing killer.

INDEFENSIBLE (January 2011), book #2 of the Kate Lange series, released last week. In INDEFENSIBLE, the managing partner of Kate's firm is accused of domestic homicide. Held in prison for the murder of his ex-wife, Randall Barrett's defence lies in the hands of the one person who knows too well the taint of criminal scandal: Kate Lange.

My third book, TATTOOED, will be released in January 2012, and a fourth book in the Kate Lange series is also scheduled for release in 2012.

I’ve had the luxury of developing my series with two two-book contracts that were back-to-back. I sold DAMAGED in January 2009, in a two-book contract to write INDEFENSIBLE, the second book in the series. When I submitted INDEFENSIBLE to my editor in December of 2009, I was asked the following week to submit two more story ideas, and was offered a contract immediately after New Year’s in 2010. Having four books under contract has given me the freedom to breathe a little. As I develop the story line for the next two books, I can play with the supporting cast, knowing that I have more books to explore character arcs, bring back favourite characters, and respond to reader feedback. I am experiencing these benefits right now as I write TATTOOED.

However, it was a different story for books #1 and #2. One of the most unnerving elements of writing a multiple-book series back-to-back, is that you can be in the situation of writing the next book in the series without knowing how readers received the previous one. When I wrote INDEFENSIBLE, the second book in the series, DAMAGED had not yet been released. True to the sophomore book syndrome, I stressed – no, agonized -- over whether my audience would enjoy the development of the characters’ story arcs, and whether the shift to a heavier psychological suspense storyline would be received positively. (My husband now admits he wasn’t sure all of me would survive the process of writing that book.) I’m happy to say that it has, and the feedback about INDEFENSIBLE has been wonderful -- but that is the dice you roll when you write a back-to-back-to-back series. It is a bit like jumping off a cliff. Closing your eyes. And hoping for the best. Fortunately, I have a fabulous editor whose excellent judgment and perceptive suggestions have parachuted me thus far to a relatively soft landing.

Another aspect of writing a back-to-back series is that your reader wants to connect with the series’ characters as much as they want the suspense ride. If you disappoint, they may not want to invest their time and money in the next book of the series. Again, you don't know if you've taken a false step in the first release when you are writing the second. However, I try to be as honest and plausible as possible with my characters' reactions. They are flawed. And so far, readers appear to be relating to them.

For example, in DAMAGED, series lead Kate Lange survives an attack of a serial killer. She is just an ordinary single thirty-something woman, with her share of bills to pay and heartbreak. How, I wondered, would she react to the trauma of her experience? In INDEFENSIBLE, which takes place four months later, Kate is privately dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of this experience – and yet to the world, she is a minor celebrity. Being able to explore the fallout of events from previous books is one of the reasons I enjoy writing back-to-back series.

From a craft perspective, I map each character’s journey within the book, and their arc over the course of the series. The timeline in each of my books spans a two week period, but I work out my characters’ entire histories, and know what has gone on in each character’s life between books.

On a final craft note, I do extensive planning before I write each book. Not only do I conduct detailed research, I write deep back story for my characters. Then I begin working in flowcharts, figuring out how events and motivations intersect. During this process, I chart timelines for plot twists and turns. By the time I reach the climax of the book, I often have the timelines plotted to the minute in terms of logistics for the action scenes.

The planning also helps me brainstorm ideas for the next book in the series. I've learned to have a few ideas up my sleeve because you never know when you might need them. For both my contracts, I was asked to provide further book ideas on very short notice. So, my closing words of advice for writing a back-to-back-to-back-to-back series are borrowed from the motto of the Girl Guides of Canada: Always be prepared.

Pamela Callow is the author of a legal thriller series for MIRA Books. DAMAGED, her debut novel, was a Levy “Need to Read” Pick for June with Top Ten Bestseller display. INDEFENSIBLE, the second book in the series, released on January 1, 2011 to a top rating by RT Book Reviews. She is currently working on the third and fourth book of the series, as well as writing a short story featuring Kate Lange that she was invited to write for ITW’s Thriller 3 Anthology.

Pamela is a member of the Nova Scotia bar and has a Master’s degree in Public Administration. Prior to making writing a career, she worked as a strategy consultant for Accenture Consulting. She has two wonderful kids, one amazing husband, and a mischievous pug. When she isn’t writing, she loves to go for walks (unlike her dog), drink coffee, and fantasize about travelling around the globe.

Hang out with Pam at all the usual internet haunts: her website, Facebook Author Page, and twitter.


Tracey Devlyn said...

Hi Pamela,

Thank you so much for blogging with us today and for helping us relaunch The Thrill Begins blog.

I love your plotting process. Looks like you know an incredible about of detail about your story line and characters before you ever put pen to page.

I tried this approach for my current manuscript. The character profiles and backstory information helped me understand my protagonists more, but I'm having a hard time following the outline of events I established. Plus, I was unable to plot beyond the midpoint. The second half of the book simply eludes me.

What have you found the most challenging part of the process (business-wise) with a back-to-back series?

Thanks again for joining us!


Unknown said...

Enjoyed the behind the scenes look at writing a series. You made it all work because Indefensible is a terrific book and I can't wait for Tattoo.

Carla Buckley said...

Pam, I'm so glad you survived the sophomore writing experience (there should be a self-help group for this!) I'm curious to hear whether the promoting aspect has changed from DAMAGED to INDEFENSIBLE--more, less, the same? And how do you fit in writing while you're on the road (or on the internet highway)?

Unknown said...

Great article! I especially liked this thought:

" Being able to explore the fallout of events from previous books is one of the reasons I enjoy writing back-to-back series."

I discovered how true this is when I wrote my second novel and brought back a couple of characters from the first. I thought it would be more interesting to take a couple of the secondary characters from the first book and give them a major role in the second. I didn’t know them as well as I did the main characters, and I wanted to dig deeper, to figure out what they wanted, what drives them. Boiling Point takes place two years after the first book, and these two characters were deeply affected by Freezing Point’s traumatic events, which added another layer of discovery.

One of the characters I bring back gave into peer pressure from his fellow scientists in the first book and went along with a group decision that ultimately led to a horrendous loss of life. So in Boiling Point, he’s absolutely unyielding; if he believes something is right, he’s going to stick to it no matter what anyone says or does. “To thine own self be true,” right? Then because I write thrillers, and all thriller authors are diabolical at heart, I take that unassailable core belief and put him in a position where he has to choose between his principles, and the person he cares about most. Expanding on that theme, I then did the same with all of the other characters, so Boiling Point ended up being a very tightly interwoven story that pits brother against sister, step-daughter against step-father, and so on.

Thanks so much for a terrific and thought-provoking post!

Pamela Callow said...

Hi Tracey,

Thank you for inviting me to guest blog - this is a terrific spot for authors and readers alike!

It's true - I am a planner by nature and like to have a full grasp of the details before I embark on writing. I find if I am too precipitous, I end up getting stalled while I'm writing. It's usually because I haven't dug deeply enough into my characters' motivations or into the research. What I have learned about getting stalled while writing is that for every step forward you want to take with the actual writing, you need to take two steps back into character backstory. By doing this, I've dug myself out of places where, as you say, the story eludes you. It also helps you stick to your outline, because you have figured out those motivations, interactions and consequences ahead of putting pen to paper. This, of course, does not work for everyone, but if you have the "planner" gene, you might find this helpful!

To answer your question about what is the most challenging part of the business process of writing a back-to-back series, I would have say: time. My previous corporate experience has afforded me good business skills, but I am in the midst of juggling the publishing process of three books: writing TATTOOED, launching INDEFENSIBLE, and promoting DAMAGED. However, I'm not complaining -- one thing I enjoy about having so many books in the pipeline is that I can build momentum with each release.

Pamela Callow said...

Thank you so much, Anne. I've learned a lot from each book I've written. My editor is simply excellent, so I've had the benefit of being coached by her. I'm also excited to be working with Al Zuckerman, who has been refining my outlining technique for TATTOOED.

Pamela Callow said...

Hi Carla,

I agree - I think we need a "I survived my sophomore book" pin for Thrillerfest next year!

You asked about whether there has been a difference in promotion between the two books. I am definitely doing much more internet promotion - I enjoy interacting with my readers on my Facebook Author Page and twitter (see link at bottom of my bio on blog), and have been writing a number of guest blogs. Because INDEFENSIBLE came out just after Christmas, there aren't any conferences to tie into the release and a book tour in January is a bit iffy. Instead, my publisher has retained a p.r. firm to organize a US morning radio tour. They apparently guarantee an audience of at least one million listeners. I'll be doing a number of interviews across the US via phone on January 21st (details will be posted on I love how MIRA thinks out of the box for publicity and marketing!

As I mentioned in my comment to Tracey, the challenging part of the business process is managing time to write, promote, and do all the admin. that is required to run the business of Pamela Callow - Thriller Author. However, I've had the experience of a first release under my belt, so the learning curve for INDEFENSIBLE's release was less.

Brett King said...

Wonderful post, Pam! I resonated to your insight about how "one of the most unnerving elements of writing a multiple-book series back-to-back, is that you can be in the situation of writing the next book in the series without knowing how readers received the previous one." I sent off my second book, THE FALSE DOOR, during the same month as the release of my debut novel, THE RADIX. At times during the creation of the second book, I caught myself playing mind games (something that's dangerous when you're a psychologist) over the same issue. You can see why some writers turn to drink.

I'm curious about the software that you use to write your books. I used Word for my first two then, last year at ThrillerFest, I heard David Hewson rave about Scrivener for Mac OS X. I followed his advice and made the switch, not long after I started writing my third book. I love it! Scrivener 2.0 came out a while back and it's even better. Okay, I'm starting to sound like a commercial now.

As you know, I adored DAMAGED and I'm looking forward to reading INDEFENSIBLE (I'm especially interested to see what you do with the PTSD angle). Congrats on your hard-earned success!

Pamela Callow said...

Thanks, Karen! I can't wait to read Boiling Point! You raise an excellent point (and provide a must-read example) of the importance of creating an ethical or moral dilemma to the characters' conflicts. I strive to do the same thing. I think the best thrillers offer both internal and external suspense!
The most important message I took from mystery author Elizabeth George's book Write Away was that suspense comes from caring about the characters. I've taken that advice to heart. I can't give away the ending to INDFENSIBLE, but Kate is confronted with a life-or-death moral dilemma.

Pamela Callow said...

Hi Brett,

So glad I wasn't the only one playing mind games while writing my second book! Too bad I didn't know you last year or I would have been calling you!

Right now, I use Word to write my books. But I just switched to a Mac (the weekend before DAMAGED released, my old laptop's hard drive began corrupting and I had no email!) and am loving it. Will look into Scrivener! Thanks for the suggestion.

Would love to hear your thoughts on the PTSD angle. Can't wait for the release of The False Door!

Brett King said...

Thanks, Pam. Glad to hear that you're part of the Mac Pack now! That's really awful that your old laptop's hard drive crashed and burned a week before your book release. Yikes! Scrivener really is amazing, especially for organizing research and character development as well as restructuring scenes. Knowing you, I think you would like it. Congrats again on INDFENSIBLE!

Alan Orloff said...

Nice post, Pam! I think we're all going to form a line behind you and follow in your successful footsteps (publishing gods willing, of course!)

Bev Pettersen said...

Thanks for sharing how you write, Pam. It sure worked! I liked Kate in Damaged but empathized with her even more with Indefensible. Great plotting. Congratulations and looking forward to Tattooed.

Rochelle Staab said...

Thank you for your informative post, Pam. I'm in the midst of writing the second book in my series - the first, Hollywood Hoodoo, won't be released until November and I wish, wish I had the luxury of feedback as I journey my characters through this adventure. Congratulations on making it through the sophomore jitters.

I'm curious - are you having an easier time writing TATTOOED with the benefit of feedback on DAMAGED?

Wishing you much success on your series!

Al Leverone said...

Hi Pam, I can't imagine a better subject or more thoughtful post for the relaunch of "The Thrill Begins." It's nice to see Tracey's hard work on the site being rewarded with such a strong turnout, too.

My question to you is this: When you wrote the first two books in the Kate Lange series, you had not yet signed your second two-book contract. Did you use the opportunity in the first two books to intentionally insert characters and/or situations that you could then develop further on the chance you were able to continue the series? Or was the challenge of completing the two books daunting enough in itself?

Congratulations and here's to a long and successful career for both Kate Lange and Pamela Callow!

Pamela Callow said...

Thanks, Alan! I'm looking forward to your new series with the stand-up comic!


Pamela Callow said...

Thanks, Bev. It was a wonderful journey for me as a writer to further develop Kate's character, so I'm happy to hear that it resonated with you. Thank you for dropping by!

Pamela Callow said...

Hi Rochelle,

I feel your jitters! The experience of writing the second book "blindly" is not for the faint of heart. It does reinforce the importance of the author/editor relationship. I have great trust in my editor.

With respect to your question of whether I'm finding it easier writing TATTOOED because I have had feedback about DAMAGED, the answer is yes. And no. Yes, because I know some of the hot spots for my readers in terms of Kate's relationships. And I get to hear what elements of the books drew them in. No, because I've had many suggestions of which characters my readers would like to see return, and I can't fit them all into my books! As well, I'm already one book ahead of them when I get the feedback. So I'm not starting from the same end point that they have. I have totally different story lines and character arcs that I'm picking up from INDEFENSIBLE.

In the end, I rely on what I feel would make the story the strongest. And I have a team who helps me: my editor and my agent.

What is nice about having the reader feedback from DAMAGED while I'm writing TATTOOED, is that I know my work has resonated with readers. And that helps those jitters - to some degree! :)

Pamela Callow said...

Hi Al,

That's a good question. When I sold DAMAGED, I pitched the premise for INDEFENSIBLE, which was inspired by wrongful imprisonment cases. The idea for the second book came to me while I was writing DAMAGED (before I had even finished the first draft), because I was drawn to Randall Barrett's character. As a charismatic, uber-smart managing partner of a premier law firm, I wanted to explore the idea of what would happen to his personal identity if everything he had achieved, everything by which he defined himself, was pulled out from under him.

So, to answer your question: I did create the characters with the hope that readers might be invested enough in them that they would want to read further books. But I didn't create either the premise of DAMAGED or INDEFENSIBLE with the idea of setting up future books. Each story stands on its own. In fact, INDEFENSIBLE has a complete set of new secondary characters, as they were germane to the story line. The by-product of this effort, though, is that I do have many characters with stories I'd like to continue to develop.

And I will add that my editor has always shared a similar vision for the series, so she never suggested anything that would tie up the relationships in INDEFENSIBLE.

One final note for any unpublished authors out there: be prepared to pitch a series even if you only have one book written. I pitched DAMAGED to my editor at a conference, and she asked me for a second book idea while we spoke. She needed to know that I could develop the characters' arcs into a series.

Pamela Callow said...

P.S. I wanted to mention that Alan Orloff's new release, Killer Routine (the standup comedian thriller - brilliant premise, don't you think) releases in April 2011!

Tracey Devlyn said...


Thank you for sharing your thoughts on writing back-to-back series.

Thanks to Pamela and everyone for making today's relaunch a success!

Lynn Sheene said...


Thanks so much for your thoughtful post!

I am in the midst of sophmore agony, myself. My first book doesnt come out until May, so I will be mostly done with book two before I hear anything about the first book.

I admire your thorough planning routine. I am a planner too but sometimes worry about the amount of time it takes to plan. I love what you said "for every step forward you want to take with the actual writing, you need to take two steps back into character backstory".