A relentless series of books

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When I go to a bookstore, if I pick up a book that looks good, it invariably turns out to be the third (or fifth, or seventeenth) in a series, the first of which is no longer available.  If I like the series, the next book won’t come out until next year (or it never comes out). That’s because the imperative of marketing has put a huge pressure on genre authors to deliver a repeated, similar experience to readers.

I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but it’s a reality.

We as readers feed the series machine, but how are we as writers to cope?  How can we stay grounded and creative when we are expected to be a brand and to deliver a repeatable experience?  Many writers these days do think in terms of series writing, but there are pitfalls to avoid.

I can’t go on, I’ll go on

A recent Philcon 2016 session  discussed “Continuing Your Series after the Original Conflict Is Resolved.”  The panelists were writer Jack Hillman,  the audio dramatist Jay Smith, writer Jane Fancher, and writer J. Hunter Cassells.

Hillman wrote his first novel as a standalone book, but to his surprise, sold a trilogy.  He found out in the process, he said, that “There’s always more to tell.”*  Now his agent asks for a synopsis for “this book and for the next six books;” that sounds daunting, but he said can always change what he’s going to write later.  He often builds on (unintentional) Easter Eggs in earlier novels.  “You know it doesn’t work any more when the public stops buying the novels,” he said.

Jay Smith writes what he calls “serialized soap opera,”  and that kind of writing is by definition a series.  Within the current story, he said, he introduces a secondary story that will rise up, and he brings supporting characters to the front.  Character is key.  Many authors believe the gimmicks are what sell, but gimmicks (he used zombies as an example) are boring.

To Jane Fancher, the advantage of a series is that your books already have their world-building, and as Smith said, an interesting character won’t stop being interesting.  The disadvantage of a series is that in a standalone novel you can go back and revise to make the ending inevitable; you can’t do that in a series because your first book is already published.  Look at it in three-book arcs if you are under pressure from publishers, she suggested, or consider writing a prequel, answering the question,  “How did it get there?”   Deliver a pitch to your agent that you’ll give them consistent quality.

Takeaways:  To write a good series, make your characters strong but make them change, not only over the course of the book but over the course of the series. Build on secondary stories, bring minor characters to the forefront, and capitalize on Easter eggs. Don’t rely on gimmicks. Write prequels or parallel stories if you don’t want to prolong the current story past its natural life.  Create strong plots that stand on their own but still leave possibilities for the next book. Be brave. Be original. Bring passion to your work. And be grateful if your most terrible problem is having sold a series.

We all know examples of series that don’t work.  What examples do you have of series that deliver on expectations while still being fresh and original?  Please let me know.  I’m always looking for good models (and new reading).

Next:  The science in science fiction

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*A similar thing happened to me.  When my first book was accepted, the editor gave me a contract for two books, the second to be delivered very soon after the first.  My euphoria at acceptance (I cried and laughed) was matched by my immediate terror.  Though the first book had taken shape over a very long period (and then marinated for a while), the second book had to be written in a prolonged sprint, and I had resolved all the conflicts in the first book.  I got around that by putting the sequel in the same universe, around the same set of events, but with a different protagonist whose story arc intersected with the first novel’s events only at the end.  It made sense to me at the time.
† Yes, that comment struck terror in my soul.  I suppose if you’re an established writer with a publisher that has confidence in you, you can afford to take a series one book too far.  Babylon 5 was actually cancelled a season early and then renewed, but according to its creators it was always intended for a fifth season; I don’t buy it.
‡ A series that didn’t work, he said, was Douglas Adams’s books, and one that did work was the Walking Dead series, in which both characters and threats continued to change.  I take his point.  At one time I could re-read Douglas Adams happily. I realized a few years ago that Adams ran out of ideas and relied on snark and panic for a very long time, not surprising when his most frequently quoted statement is, “‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”   The panelists agreed that the Dragonlance books have no real connective tissues.  However, there are plenty of series books that we hate which seem to sell anyway; as Jane Fancher said, “There is a readership and it’s not you.”§  A series that works is Pratchett’s Discworld books, which take place in his off-kilter universe; there are series within the series, like the Vimes books and the witch books.  I can re-read those books indefinitely.
§ The group agreed that romance is the big exception to everything they said.  In romance, characters don’t repeat, and the plot is always the same.

17 thoughts on “A relentless series of books

    1. DMT says:

      I dunno. I think some of it is over the top, I agree, soulless replication; but it’s not a modern phenomenon and not all of it is bad. I was addicted to the Tarzan books. I’ve re-read the Narnia books many times, and the Lord of the Rings. Many people love The Babysitter Club books. And then there was Nancy Drew, and the Oz books were a series. Lois McMaster Bujold has said, “As a longtime series reader, and now writer, I’m very aware of the pitfalls of what I’ve come to believe is another story form, as distinct from the novel as the novel is from the short story…Each series novel must simultaneously be a complete tale in itself, and uphold its unique place in the growing structure; it must be two books at once.”

  1. Pam McGaffin says:

    Interesting post. My first novel, which I’m now shopping around, is YA. I spent five years writing and editing that damn thing. I’m not sure I could stomach writing a sequel, but I’d probably get over my queasiness if someone were to offer me a contract :-).

    1. DMT says:

      I actually have a series in process, two written, and am putting off editing them . . . an agent at the Writer’s Digest conference said don’t pitch a series, just be ready to say yes once you have an agent and a nibble 🙂 Sounds complicated.

  2. Dianna says:

    I think the importance placed on series is particularly prevalent in science fiction and fantasy, and many of my favourite authors are favourites because they write series, but several are authors like Terry Pratchett–their series are written in the same world and are sometimes connected by characters, but they stand alone. Right now I’m working on a big fantasy series I hope to approach in the same way.

    Part of why I do this is because I usually only read series if they’re a) already finished or b) books that stand on their own. I have so many books to read and I simply can’t guarantee I’ll ever finish the series anyway.

    1. DMT says:

      It’s a detective and thriller phenomenon too. In those cases I don’t mind missing some of the books, because they can stand alone so often. The Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich comes to mind.

      Your series sounds exciting!

  3. Clare Deming says:

    I absolutely love to read super long epic fantasy series, but agree that it’s tough to find a good one that is complete at the time I want to read it. I also really like when an author write a series of books in the same world with the same characters, but each book can be read as an individual episode/story. Lois McMaster Bujold does this a lot and my favorites are the Vorkosigan series (space opera) and some of her fantasy novels – The Curse of Chalion, The Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt (all connected in a way, same world and relevant history, but completely different characters and stories).

  4. L.P. Masters says:

    I really loved the Reckoner Series by Brandon Sanderson. Each book was very definitely related, and I read all 3 in order, but I felt like if you hadn’t read book 1, you’d be fine understanding book 2. My favorite thing about the whole trilogy was after I finished the 3rd book, I suddenly realized there was an overarching theme throughout the whole trilogy, but I didn’t see it until the very last page of book 3. It completely changed the way I saw book 1. Genius.

  5. DMT says:

    The only Brandon Sanderson book I’ve tried to read was the first Mistborn book, and I couldn’t get through it because the world in which it was set was too discouraging for me (I’m working through Fifth Season right now and hoping the same thing doesn’t happen to me!). But people love his books, so I might give the Reckoner Series a try based on your recommendation.

    1. Clare Deming says:

      I’m not a huge fan of Sanderson – I can’t remember if I finished the Mistborn series or not. I may have stopped after book 2. I did read one of his stand alone books (Warbreaker) and thought that was okay. His style just seems too bland to me. I have loved all of N. K. Jemisin’s books so far, although I don’t have The Fifth Season yet. Have you read Tad Williams? His Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series is well-regarded, and I loved it when I was in high school, although I worry that many books I read then may not be the same if I read them now. It is a “classic” epic fantasy trilogy, but with one of the most amazing endings I’ve ever read. It apparently inspired GRRM to write Game of Thrones.

      1. DMT says:

        I used to read every Tad Williams that came out, and I don’t know why I stopped. There was a period in my life when I was either re-reading books, reading short books, or reading nonfiction.

        1. Clare Deming says:

          Me too – but I was waylaid by vet school and never finished his Otherland series. I haven’t read anything of his since then, but just received his latest book from Net Galley, so I will have to read that! And – just got The Fifth Season for Christmas, yay!

  6. L.P. Masters says:

    Well, I got Mistborn for Christmas this year, but I haven’t read it, so the only thing by Sanderson I have to go off of was the Reckoners, and I really did enjoy it. I thought that was great humor, really good tension, fun characters, and I really liked the story arch, not only for each book, but for the whole series especially.

    1. DMT says:

      It’s YA, right? If so, I can probably handle it. I don’t know why Mistborn was so hard for me. I think it was just the relentless ash in the beginning. It wasn’t a place I wanted to be at the time.

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