Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 1, 2020

The Four Principles of Series Writing

The Four Principles of Series Writing by Hillary Homzie

Last year when I started working on the Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House) with Dr. Kate Biberdorf, I was given a great gift. Dr. Biberdorf doesn’t teach chemistry in a ho hum way. She teaches in a jump-up-and-down manner as she demonstrates a phase change with a blow-torch-in-her-hand. This is a woman who literally swallows fire to make a point. Talk about showing versus telling—that’s Kate.

Together, our charge was to create a young middle grade series about a fictionalized version of a younger Kate as she used chemistry to solve everyday problems and mysteries at her school, home and neighborhood.

Due to Dr. Kate’s personality, this series practically wrote itself.

To understand, let’s look at four principles of series writing.

  • Series should have the ability to engage children with characters with whom they care deeply. This means presenting an engaging and unique main character (or characters) with a particular way of seeing the world.

Kate Crawford, the 10-year-old star of the Kate the Chemist series, views the world through the lens of chemistry. This gives her a unique way of seeing things. In the first book, Dragons vs. Unicorns, which came out at the end of March, the titular character declares that “chemistry is way more than a bunch of facts in a book. Chemistry is what you eat, it’s how you sleep, it’s why shampoo stings your eyes in the shower. You can taste science, you can smell it.”

This fifth grader’s passion for science defines who she is and it’s her strength. It also gives her a particularity in terms of her voice. She doesn’t just say that I’m bummed. Instead, she says “regret zipped inside me like hot gas molecules.”

  • Series typically feature an ordinary character in an extraordinary world or an extraordinary character in an ordinary world.

Kate the Chemist’s knowledge about science, chemistry in particular, makes her an extraordinary kid. However, the goal of the series is to ensure that in the future kids like Kate won’t be extraordinary at all, but rather commonplace. An example of ordinary kids in an extraordinary world is seen in the Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull. In these fantasy books, kids discover a secret preserve for magical creatures at their grandparents’ home. A classic example of ordinary characters in an extraordinary world be the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe series by C.S. Lewis.

  • Series should present a fully realized world.

This means that a child will be transported to a particular setting, even if the locale is completely made up. The deal is that this fictional setting should feel so real that you would recognize it if you were transported there. It honestly doesn’t matter whether the series is contemporary realistic fiction or science fantasy. The point is that you should include enough details that the reader will feel as if you’ve created an actual place.

For the Kate books, we created Rosalind Franklin Elementary, a school in Michigan where science is truly honored. After all, this school was named after one of the greatest chemists ever—Rosalind Franklin who helped crack the code of DNA. There’s a science lab, and special lake and an ice cream store nearby. In other words, there is a particularity of place.

  • Secondary characters contrast with the primary character

In the Kate the Chemist books, Birinda a.k.a. “Birdie” Bhatt is Kate’s best friend. Birdie is a talented artist, who takes all the time in the world to eat her lunch, compared to the do-everything quick Kate. Birdie can also get a little jealous when Kate meets new friends. Memito Alvarez, another one of Kate’s buddies, loves to cook and can be a little skeptical, which contrasts with the always positive Kate. Elijah Williams, another friend, is more relaxed than Kate, although he can be annoying in the way he always drums on his desk. Avery Cooper tends to be braggy and theatrical, but also is a great teammate for Kate on her soccer team. All of these kids serve as contrast characters and organically provide conflict and tension as they have clashing needs and wants.

In other words, these characters are friends who also serve as necessary foils. In Dragon Vs. Unicorns (Kate the Chemist, book 1), Avery and Kate both want to be assistant director of the school play which creates a through-line of struggle throughout the book.

I hope this is a helpful peek at writing series fiction. Of course, there’s a lot more to discuss such as the difference between loosely connected titles in a branded imprint and open-ended versus closed series, as well as the essential steps to creating the perfect proposal from writing the plot summaries, to the character breakdowns to the pitch. All of this will be discussed in Middle Grade Mastery, a four-week interactive e-course (with an additional two bonus instant access weeks), and a whole lot more. I’m co-teaching the course with Mira Reisberg (Spork/Clearfork) and Rosie Ahmed (Dial/Penguin Random House).  The Children’s Book Academy course covers both chapter books and middle grade and is truly chock full of information. It includes submission opportunities, worksheets, handouts, live critiques, lessons, webinars with agent and editors, multiple submission opportunities  and lots of other goodies too numerous to list here. To find out about the course, which starts June 15, go here https://www.childrensbookacademy.com/middle-grade-mastery.html.

Hope to see you there!

ABOUT HILLARY:

Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She’s also a contributor to the new Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House 2020). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University and teaches in the summer graduate program in children’s literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


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