Author Ian Hamilton describes the genesis of his bestselling Ava Lee series, as well as the Lost Decades of Uncle Chow Tung spin-off series.
What is the secret to writing a successful series? That is a question I’ve often been asked, but never attempted to answer until now. So here goes.
When I sat down to write the first Ava Lee — The Water Rat of Wanchai — I did so with the sole intention of proving to myself that I could write one book. I had the name Ava Lee in my head and a bit of an idea for a story. With that, I started writing — which, for someone who had never written a novel, had no formal training in writing, never attended a writing workshop, and lacked an English degree, was rather wistfully presumptuous. But I was determined, and starting at page one I kept writing until I finished. Then, without sharing the work with anyone, I sent it to an agent in a form that displayed my ignorance of the process. Ignorance? The manuscript was single-spaced, had no page numbers, and had no title.
Equally presumptuously, I didn’t wait to hear back from the agent before starting on a second book, The Disciple of Las Vegas. Its plot came to me while I was still working on The Water Rat and without taking a break I plunged right into it. Moreover, while working on The Disciple, the plots for books three and four emerged. By the time an editor had any chance to have input on my work, I had completed all four books.
I wrote in my basement office, an eight-by-eight-foot cubicle that has no door and no windows. Some might find that gloomy. I found it liberating. I was in a bubble with no distractions, my imagination free to roam, and with no one around to hear me voice dialogue out loud. And where my imagination took me was to a story arc that extended to six, eight, ten, to now twelve — and ultimately to God knows how many — books, with Ava’s life evolving and changing along the way.
The idea of changing her life and the lives of those around her came to me early — certainly by book three. It was an almost subconscious decision born from years of reading virtually every well-known writer in the crime/mystery/thriller genre. It used to pain me when, to my mind, some of those authors started writing the same story over and over again. Their characters, initially fresh, never changed and became predictable and boring. So I decided to change an essential part of Ava’s life, and sometimes I did that in a major, almost catastrophic manner.
Ava’s girlfriends came and went. She switched careers. She formed new important friendships and alliances. Major characters died. None of the changes were without risk, and certainly not without reaction, as I discovered when readers came charging into my life.
As I said earlier, I wrote the first four books inside a bubble without any conviction they’d ever be published, let alone widely read. Even when I was lucky enough to be published, the notion that readers would become seriously attached to Ava and the people in her life was more than I could imagine. But from the start they did become attached, and I found myself getting emails and questions at events from people to whom Ava was almost real. This amount of caring, the thoughtfulness that went into their comments and questions, astounded me. It also made me re-think my own relationship with Ava.
In the early books, she was a hard-ass. I won’t get into everything she did to other people, but it culminated in the fourth book — The Red Pole of Macau — when she executed a man with a bullet to his head. That shocked some readers, and I got emails saying she had gone too far for them. One that really struck home simply said that the execution made Ava less likeable. In my head, being likeable was one of Ava’s most important traits and I never wanted her to lose it. I decided at that point to add more nuances to her physical interactions.
Nothing generated more reaction, however, than the death of a major character in the sixth book, The Two Sisters of Borneo. I was inundated with emails, and since then I haven’t done a single event without being asked about the character’s passing. Truthfully, there are times when I wish he hadn’t died, but, as I try to explain, those circumstances were beyond my control; as I was writing book three the reality and inevitability of that death came to me and I couldn’t shake it. In fact, the first clue that it was going to happen was planted in that book, and then expanded in books four and five.
The death was mourned by readers, many of whom said they cried when it transpired. Again, I was struck by how real my characters seemed to readers. It was flattering but also daunting, and I knew I had to re-think how I treated the lives of other characters moving forward.
In the case of the one who died, a couple of positive things came out of that decision. I was asked by a reader how he met Ava in the first place, and that question triggered the novella The Dragon Head of Hong Kong, which details how they originally came together. Later, I was asked about his early life, and retelling that has resulted in a new spinoff series, the first of which — Fate — was published this year.
Which in a very roundabout way brings me to the question of how to write a successful series? These are my personal tips:
Write each book as if it were the first and has to stand on its own merit.
Create characters that you love and/or respect and make them as real and believable as possible.
When you discover a character you like, don’t be afraid to run with them; if you create a character that bores you, don’t be afraid to take him or her right out of the story.
Don’t allow your characters to become static. Keep changing their lives in fiction as those lives would be changing in the real world.
Don’t forget the importance of plot. As attached as readers may become to your characters, they still want and deserve a first-class story.
Avoid serendipity — things need to happen in the plot and to your characters for a valid reason, not because of happenstance.
Respect your readers, but don’t let your characters become a slave to their likes and dislikes.
Shop Ian's latest books, The Mountain Master of Sha Tin (an Ava Lee novel), and Fate (a Lost Decades of Uncle Chow Tung novel), here:
Or browse both series in their entirety here!