So I did. The book I wrote that led to signing a contract with an agency was a standalone. In just a few days of being on sub, an editor asked if I could send along ideas for sequels. I had bupkiss.
The thing is, series are kind of a big deal in the world of middle grade. That first piece of advice is a good one – write a good book, as in one, single good book. But it never hurts to have a few sequel ideas – in fact, it’s probably a good idea to prepare prior to going on sub.
In that first situation, which was for a book that ultimately never sold, I floundered pretty hardcore over the sequel blurbs. Since I’ve started screenwriting, I’ve been using the “sitcom treatment” on my newest book series concept, and it’s really helped me organize my thoughts. In screenwriting, a treatment is basically the proposal submitted to network executives, production companies, or agents for a movie or television show. The idea behind a TV show treatment is to demonstrate that you have a concept that can last for several episodes, or even several seasons. Here’s how you can give your middle grade WIP “the treatment:”
Name and Logline, Please
Many (if not most) children’s book series have both a series title and separate titles for each book. A Series of Unfortunate Events: “The Bad Beginning,” “The Reptile Room,” “The Wide Window”… Right now, just focus on the series title. (Need help? We’ve got three great ways to brainstorm titles.)
Now let’s figure out a logline – aka, a sentence or two that sums up the concept of your series in a catchy way. And by catchy, I mean a way that sells.
“Forced to deal with cruel parents and an even crueler principal, a little girl discovers she has hidden powers – which she uses to handle the bullies in her life.” (Matilda, Roald Dahl)
Granted, Matilda isn’t a series. (Something I cry about on a regular basis.) But it could be, right? It’s easy to imagine what sorts of adventures Matilda could get into after her first story. Try writing a single sentence that describes your book or series. If you’ve never done this before, it’s surprisingly hard – but it can really, really help you figure out what’s at the heart of the tale you’re telling.
Synopses are Inescapable
Sad but true. Write a synopsis – maybe a page or two – describing the first book, including the ending. The key is to show that this is a great story on its own, but it’s also a set-up for more awesome stories to come. A Series of Unfortunate Events once again makes a great example. There’s series set-up – three children unexpectedly find themselves orphans when their parents die under mysterious circumstances. There’s a plot that is resolved within book one – Count Olaf hatches a scheme to steal their inheritance and the children must defeat him. And the resolution clearly leaves things open for more tales – Count Olaf is defeated, but only for now.
Write a list of the major characters, as well as the minor recurring characters. Give each one to three paragraphs of description. Not physical description – I mean, that can be a part of it if it’s important – but a description of what their deal is. You know what I mean. What was Rachel and Ross’s deal in Friends? Starting from the very first episode, we learned a ton about both of them. Rachel was spoiled and rich and had just left her fiancée at the altar, leaving her facing a scary new life trying to work and make ends meet on her own. Ross was recently divorced and had been in love with Rachel since high school. Not hard to see why viewers were hooked on that series from the beginning.
All characters have conflict; that’s what makes reading their story interesting. As you write about each character, think about his/her backstory and what he/she will be dealing with throughout the series. Everybody’s gotta have an arc of some sort.
The Other Stories
When you pitch a television series, you have to come up with several episode ideas in addition to the pilot script and overall concept. Again, it’s all about proving that there’s potential for more – these don’t have to be carved in stone. The first time I had to do this, I found Netflix to be very useful. Let’s take a look at the popular Nickelodeon show iCarly.
Logline: A teenage girl and her best friends create a web show, which goes viral and catapults them into unexpected fame.
Pilot episode: Carly and Sam decide to host their talented classmates on their new web show, iCarly.
Cool – the logline neatly sums up the concept of the show, the pilot clearly sets the concept up. Now, let’s look at the descriptions for future episodes:
1. Carly invites her crush, Jake, to sing on her web show. Unfortunately, she finds out he’s the worst singer in the world.
2. iCarly’s biggest fan, Mandy, is invited onto the show as a one-girl studio guest. Unfortunately, Mandy turns out to be more of a stalker than a fan, and the kids have to get rid of her.
3. Carly learns that because of her web show, she’s been given a full scholarship to an elite private school.
Each of those ideas expands upon the concept of the show, and each one has conflict. Of course, a 20 minute television show is not equal to a full book. But try giving your books two, three, and beyond the old one-sentence summary. Remember – you don’t have to stick with those ideas! You just want to demonstrate the series potential.
What’s your method for coming up with sequel ideas and planning a series? We’d love to hear about it!