"Sienna Whitfield never dreamed that using her photography blog for a social experiment would cause so much trouble—or be so painful. She might have a broken rib and a broken camera, but at least her mom is finally letting her date Lee, the guy of her dreams. But Lee's future with basketball seems to be carrying him down a path that she can't follow.Basketball has always been #1 in Lee Franklin’s life. Now that he’s one of the top high school basketball recruits in the country, his dreams seem to be coming true. But his love for Sienna is changing the way he sees the future. As she follows her own dreams, he realizes he may lose her if he can’t find a way to keep her close—especially since she may be in trouble."
-from Focused, by Michelle Pennington
She begins on a mission to change people’s perception of some of the kids in her high school with her photography blog. She helps people to recognize the beauty and good qualities of some and the not so attractive qualities of some of the popular people. To say that she stirs up some trouble is an understatement. The great thing about the series is that over the course of the different books, we get to see different aspects of Sienna emerge as well--things she didn’t even know about herself. She also undergoes a change in how she views herself as she falls for Lee, a gorgeous, popular guy that she thinks is way out of her league. Focused takes this to another level as we get to hear the story from Lee’s point of view as well. We begin to see some of his struggles and passions in ways that aren’t as apparent in Candid. There is also a third book in the series called Sing To Me. It is a novella that runs parallel to the storyline of Focused. It tells the story of Rylie and Colby. While their book is more about music than photography, it too brings out that our perception of people can be really warped when we don’t take the time to get to know them.
Me: What was the hardest part about writing the second book?
Michelle: Surprisingly, to me at least, the hardest part was in focusing on the story (I know, the puns never end with the title of this book). I have so many other shiny new projects that I’ve been dying to get to that sometimes it took incredible will power to knuckle down and finish this one. I was excited about the story and I still loved the characters, but the heavy slogging of the writing process can quickly rub the luster off your enthusiasm. Then, on top of that struggle, my personal life took a lot of unforeseen curves. Our family suffered the loss of two very special people, both of my husband’s parents within the space of 8 months. Many of you will understand what that did to our family. At the same time, I also learned that I was expecting our 4th child. My pregnancy was a very difficult one, and the first year with a baby is not well suited for writing. In fact, as I tell you about this, I’m amazed that I got Focused written at all. But deep down, I believed in this story.
Me: When you began the writing process, did you already know you wanted to make it a series?
Michelle: Not at all. The idea for the first book, Candid, came to me in high school. As I developed the characters, I probably became a little too attached to them, but I didn’t even consider writing a second book about them until Candid was done and I realized that I wanted to know what happened next. In the world of fiction, series are really popular, so it seemed like it would be silly not to give it a go. I wrote Candid in 4 months. I had no idea that Focused was going to take over 2 years to complete.
Me: What questions would you ask yourself, as an author, when considering whether or not you should make your story a series?
Michelle: I’ve read a lot of excellent articles about this by some seasoned authors. I’ve also read many series. Taking all of that together with my own experience, I would say these are the most important things to consider:
Me: What is your favorite part about writing a series? Least favorite?
Michelle: I love hearing from people who loved the first book that are so excited to get more of the story. It really helped motivate me to hear from people who wanted more. My absolute favorite part of writing Focused was writing from Lee’s point of view. I loved getting to show how in love he was with Sienna. Paradoxically, I also hated feeling so much pressure to finish this book. Once I announced that I was going to write it, I felt trapped. All of my other stories are my personal adventures and I’m free to put them down and pick them up at will. With Focused, I lost that freedom.
Me: What advice would you give an author who is preparing the storyline for a series?
Michelle: If you are writing the kind of series that remains focused on the same characters, it’s really important to have a plotline for the entire series and not just for each book. You need to build the structure and foreshadowing into this overarching plot from the beginning. I was fortunate enough that I somehow laid a solid foundation for Focused while writing Candid, though I never expected to. I would never advocate leaving it up to chance.
Me: How do you feel about balancing an arching storyline and individual conflicts within each book?
Michelle: The series storyline has to be bigger than your characters. It has to be something that in the first book, there’s no way they can cope with. Then, through their struggles and growth in each book, they are able to meet the ultimate challenge. As an author, you have to make sure that the conflict in each book is taking them towards the big one, even if it isn’t obvious yet. The best way to do this is to know your character’s weaknesses and figure out what they need to go through to help them overcome them.
Me: Any recommendations on how to get the most bang for your time out of each installment?
Michelle: There’s an easy answer for this, though it’s not easy to do. Keep raising the stakes. If your character doesn’t have more to lose in each book, you’re going to lose your readers.
Me: How long is too long to wait for a sequel?
Michelle: I’ve heard of some authors who will write a whole series before releasing a single book. Then they’ll publish them all within a month or so of each other. The momentum they build by doing this is incredible—and momentum is what you need in a series. If you are a big name, you could probably publish a sequel a decade or more later, but for most of us, the sooner the better. In traditional publishing, getting a sequel out in a year to two years is the norm, but in the indie world, the turn-around can be much faster. I wish that I could have gotten Focused out much more quickly than I did, and if I were to write another series, I would try to release the next book within six months to a year.
Me: And, lastly, who is your favorite author and what would you ask them if you could spend an entire day chatting about writing?
Michelle: My favorite author will ever and always be Georgette Heyer. She introduced me to the bright, glittering universe of superb characterization, setting, and plotting. She was the master. I only hope that she’s still writing in the next life so that I can read more of her work someday. Trying to think about what I would ask her if I could spend a day talking with her has me feeling as tongue-tied as I’m afraid I would be if that really happened.